Saturday, 2 April 2022

Praying with the Psalms in Lent:
2 April 2022 (Psalm 53)

Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’ (Psalm 53: 1) … ‘The Ship of Fools,’ by Hieronymus Bosch (ca 1450–1516)

Patrick Comerford

Two weeks after my minor stroke, I left John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford yesterday, and had my first dinner out in a fortnight last night in Ask in George Street last night. I am on my way to Stony Stratford in Milton Keynes later this morning. But, before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning (2 April 2022) for prayer, reflection and reading.

During Lent this year, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 53:

Psalm 53, in the view of most modern interpreters, is a lament.

This psalm is one of the Elohistic Psalms (Psalm 42-83). It is the Elohistic Psalter’s version of Psalm 14, and is almost identical to it. The mediaeval rabbinical scholar known as Rashi understood Psalm 14 referred to the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE), and that Psalm 53 referred to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE).

There are two differences between Psalm 14 and Psalm 53. The first difference is the name of God used in these psalms. Psalm 14 uses the covenant name of God, YHWH, typical of the Psalms in Book 1 (Psalm 1 to Psalm 41). Psalm 53, on the other hand, uses Elohim, typical of the Psalms in Book 2 (Psalm 42 to Psalm 72). The second difference is the reference to ‘a refuge for the poor’ in Psalm 14: 6 that is missing from Psalm 53.

Both Psalm 14: 1 and Psalm 53: 1 say, Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ Some take these verses to mean that atheists are stupid or lacking intelligence. However, this is not the only meaning of the Hebrew word translated ‘fool.’

In Psalm 53, the Hebrew word is nabal, which often refers to an impious person who has no perception of ethical or religious truth. The meaning of the text is not ‘unintelligent people do not believe in God.’ Rather, the meaning of the text is ‘sinful people do not believe in God.’

In other words, it is a wicked thing to deny God, and a denial of God is often accompanied by a wicked lifestyle. The verse goes on to list some other characteristics of the irreligious: ‘They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts; there is no one who does good’ (Psalm 53: 1).

Many atheists are very intelligent. It is not intelligence, or a lack of intelligence, that leads someone to reject belief in God. Some are shocked by the apparent moral contradictions in the lifestyle of people who claim to be religious. Ohers do not object to the idea of a Creator, but want a Creator does not in the affairs of the creation. Others, in their struggle against a guilty conscience, come to reject the idea of God altogether, and this is the sort of person described in Psalm 53: 1 as a fool.

Aldous Huxley, in Ends and Means, admitted that a desire to avoid moral restraints was a motivation for disbelief, offering a ‘liberation from a certain system of morality.’

Belief in a divine being is accompanied by a sense of accountability to that being. So, to escape the condemnation of conscience, created by God, some simply deny the existence of God. But we can never claim that science either proves or disproves the existence of God.

Some of the ambiguity found in the Psalms is created by the lack of capital pronouns in Hebrew. A great example is found in Psalm 53: 4: ‘Have they no knowledge, those evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon God?’

Translations differ as to whether this is God talking or the psalmist. If it is God, then the Psalmist is engaging in biblio-drama.

Psalm 53: 1-3 is quoted by Saint Paul in Romans 3: 10-12, where he argues that Jews and Gentiles are equally in need of God's grace. However, since Psalm 53 and Psalm 14 are almost identical, it is difficult to tell which one is quoted.

‘ Have they no knowledge, those evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon God?’ (Psalm 53: 4) … bread in a shop window in St Ives in Cornwall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 53 (NRSVA):

To the leader: according to Mahalath. A Maskil of David.

1 Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts;
there is no one who does good.

2 God looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

3 They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

4 Have they no knowledge, those evildoers,
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon God?

5 There they shall be in great terror,
in terror such as has not been.
For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly;
they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them.

6 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Today’s Prayer:

The USPG Prayer Diary this week, under the heading ‘Let my people go,’ focuses on the approximately 230 million Dalits living in India. Considered outcasts, these communities suffer systematic exclusion and discrimination under the caste system, a system of social stratification. This theme in the USPG Prayer Diary concludes this morning (2 April 2022), inviting us to pray:

We pray for the Church of South India and the role they play in making Indian society a fairer place.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame’ (Psalm 53: 5) … a sand sculpture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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