Theme: Slightly Different Psalms
In this week’s lessons we look carefully at both what sin is and what it does, and then contrast that with our need for the Savior, who alone can deliver us from our sin.
Scripture: Psalm 53:1-6
For the first time in our study we have come to a psalm that is a very close repetition of one we have already examined. The repeated psalm is Psalm 14, appearing again as Psalm 53, except for a few minor changes and the last three lines of verse 5. This suggests two questions: Why is it repeated? and What can I say about the psalm the second time?
Since God has seen fit to repeat Psalm 14 with only minor changes, I am tempted to follow God’s lead and repeat my earlier lesson. When we studied Psalm 14, I pointed out that, in addition to Psalms 14 and 53 being almost identical, the most important part of these psalms is also repeated in Romans 3 as verses 10-12. I said, “Anything God says once demands attention. Anything he says twice demands our most intent attention. How then if he says something three times, as he does in this case? A case like this demands our keenest concentration, contemplation, assimilation and even memorization. These are words which, to use the often quoted phrase of the collect from the Book of Common Prayer, we are to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.’” That is why I say it might be appropriate if I followed God’s lead and simply taught the earlier lesson again.
Yet somehow I think that would be missing the point. Probably the psalm is repeated because God thinks we have much to learn from it. We have not learned all we could learn in our first study. Therefore, if we turn to the psalm a second time, we will find that it has new lessons for our growth and blessing.
Spurgeon thought that we profit from it more as we grow older. He wrote, “All repetitions are not vain repetitions. We are slow to learn, and need line upon line.” Assuming that Psalm 53 was written by David late in life and that he had written Psalm 14 earlier, Spurgeon said, “David after a long life, found men no better than they were in his youth. Holy Writ never repeats itself needlessly, therefore there is good cause for the second copy of this Psalm.” Making a point by the numbering of the psalms, he noted, “If our age has advanced from fourteen to fifty-three, we shall find the doctrine of this psalm more evident than in our youth.”1
There are a few differences between the psalms, however, so we may start by noting them. Most are slight. In verse 1, the word “deeds” in Psalm 14 is changed to “ways” in Psalm 53. In verse 3, “All have turned aside” is changed to “everyone has turned away.” In verse 4, “the evildoers” replaces “evildoers.” The only apparent effect of these minor changes is to intensify or heighten the sentiments slightly.
A change that is a bit more significant is the replacing of the name Jehovah (“LORD”) with Elohim (“God”) throughout Psalm 53. Each psalm refers to God seven times. However, in Psalm 14 Elohim appears three times and Jehovah four times, while in Psalm 53 the word is Elohim in every instance. If Psalm 14 is the original psalm, as most of the commentators think, it is hard to explain the change of Jehovah to Elohim in Psalm 53, except to say that Jehovah is the word for God that predominates in Book 1 of the Psalter while Elohim predominates in Book 2.
What other psalm is similar to Psalm 53? How does it differ?
What New Testament passage borrows from both psalms? What point is being made by quoting them?
1C.H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 1b, Psalms 27-57 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), p. 433.