This psalm is a variation of the fourteenth psalm, and makes a point important enough to be repeated. And that point is that this psalm applies to the whole human race, and not just to the tiny minority willing to claim their atheism openly. This is a psalm, not about atheism proper, but about the true nature of sin.
To the chief Musician upon Mahalath, Maschil, A Psalm of David.
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: There is none that doeth good. God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, To see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God. Every one of them is gone back, they are altogether become filthy; There is none that doeth good, no, not one. Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge? Who eat up my people as they eat bread: They have not called upon God. There were they in great fear, where no fear was: For God hath scattered the bones of him that encampeth against thee: Thou hast put them to shame, because God hath despised them. O that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! When God bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad (Ps. 53:1-6).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT:
Like Ps. 14, the ascription is given to David. The psalms are almost identical, and the chief thing that appears to separate them is the context. The name of God is used seven times in each, but in Ps. 14, it is three times Elohim and four times Yahweh. In the psalm before us it is seven times Elohim, the Creator God. The Nabal, the blockhead, has said in his heart that there is no God (v. 1). They are corrupt, all of them, and pursue iniquity. Omniscience can’t know certain things, and one of them is where a righteous man might live (vv. 2-3). All are filthy; all are rancid (v. 3). Hatred of God translates to hatred of God’s people, and these corruptions eat the saints like they were a morsel of bread. As Thomas Watson put it, this is a Christ-hating and saint-eating world. They have not called upon God (v. 4). But judgment approaches, and those who had no fear of God will suddenly find themselves seized by fear. God scatters their bones (v. 5), and puts them to shame. The psalm concludes with a longing cry: O that the salvation of the Lord would appear out of Zion, and that the captivity of the Lord’s people would end (v. 6).
The apostle Paul quotes this passage in his indictment of the whole human race. Before he quotes it in Romans 3:10-12, he introduces the citation with his application. What does he say? “What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; as it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one . . .” What does this mean? Paul is saying that the indictment applies to all men, Gentiles and Jews both, and this makes it plain that we are talking about archbishops, seminary profs, and faith-based soup kitchen volunteers as much as about the chairmen of atheist leagues, and the writers of best-selling screeds against God. No one is righteous. Apart from the grace of God, no one does what is right—not the village atheist and not the village priest.
At the same time, God does reserve a people for Himself. They are seen in this psalm — God says the corrupt devour “my people” as though they were bread. God has a people. But He does not have them because of any righteousness they came up with on their own. Atheists devour only those who used to be atheists. No, the gospel indictment is universal, including every last man, woman, and child, Christ only excepted.
What is sin? It is, in the moment, an action that rests upon the idea that God does not see. But of course, God, if He exists, does see. This means that every deliberate sin presupposes a functional atheism. One of the reasons so many professed believers are rattled and upset by open atheism is that they are envious of the man who dares to say openly what so many nourish in their hearts. Our text says, “the fool says in his heart,” not “the fool says in his book . . .” Regardless of what intellectual workarounds may be in place, the result is a functional atheism. “He hath said in his heart, God hath forgotten: he hideth his face; he will never see it” (Ps. 10:11). “Yet they say, The LORD shall not see, neither shall the God of Jacob regard it” (Ps. 94:7).
SIN IS NEVER SOLITARY:
But there is more. It gets worse. Sinners, when they sin, must do so in the presence of God. This is why the unconverted heart hates God, and would kill Him if that were possible. The fourteenth psalm has them turning aside, while here they are described as turning back, running in the opposite direction. But when they do, God is there, and this is obviously intolerable. What David found, to his comfort, was that God was everywhere (Ps. 139:8), and the sinner finds this to be a standing insult. If there were a blow that he could strike that would kill God, he would do so. And the only deliverance from this settled disposition is when God in His mercy strikes the blow that slays the dragon in every heart. That is what we call being crucified with Christ, and when that happens, we are born again.
If you doubt this, consider what happened when it became possible to kill God, when God took on human flesh as Immanuel, as God with us? He was crucified, not by pirates, but by the leading theologians of His day. You will never understand grace until you understand the nature of this pervasive atheism.
The one who did not fear God, fears Him now (v. 5). The one who flees from God successfully must be the one who does it by fleeing to God, in Christ. And when he does this, perfect love casts out fear.