If Psalm 53 sounds familiar, there is a good reason for it. It is practically identical to Psalm 14. Rather than considering such an inclusion redundant and unworthy of study, or perhaps assuming that the second offering means nothing more and teaches nothing more than the first, people often simply skip over the fifty-third psalm since they have studied the fourteenth previously. While repeating so much material might appear odd on the surface, a careful consideration of the differences, along with its placement in the book of Psalms, offers numerous insights worthy of consideration.
First, the inscription of the two psalms differs slightly. Other than a musical notation most likely establishing the tune, the difference lies between the notes calling Psalm 14 “A Psalm of David” and Psalm 53 “A Contemplation of David.” This latter designation is applied with some consistency to particular circumstances that brought the thoughts to mind in a way that events today might draw the mind to certain spiritual lessons. This indicates that Psalm 53 grew out of some event in David’s life. Second, the differences in words chosen provide meaningful clues. In the first verse, Psalm 53 uses the word “iniquity” rather than Psalm 14’s more general “works.” The word translated “iniquity” emphasizes injustice. In verse three in Psalm 53 David uses the singular “Every one of them” rather than the plural “they,” indicated an individual application. Third, four times (53:2, 4-6) in the fifty-third psalm refers to deity as “God” (Elohim) while the fourteenth refers to Him as “Lord” (Yahweh). Thus, Psalm 53 emphasizes the failure to respect God’s authority and will in general. Fourth, the differences between Psalm 53:5 and Psalm 14:5-6, which display the most divergence, reveal that in Psalm 53 the emphasis is on the attitude and end of the fool while Psalm 14 emphasizes the faith and protection of the righteous. Therefore, Psalm 53 was a contemplation of an event in David’s life where injustice had prevailed due to an individual’s behavior because he failed to respect God’s authority and will by the way he conducted himself and was brought to justice by God in the end.
While some have speculated that this psalm fits well with the Israelites view of Babylon when overcome by the Medo-Persians, that would deny David’s authorship of the psalm as a whole, perhaps surmising that Psalm 14 was simply adapted by a later writer and applied to the Babylonians. Such an approach does happen to some degree in later psalms, where borrowing is clear, but the designation here argues against that in addition to one more piece of evidence. The position of Psalm 53 in the book, lying between a Contemplation regarding Doeg (from 1 Samuel 22) and a Contemplation about the Ziphites (from 1 Samuel 26), if we accept a chronological framework within sections as definitely occurs elsewhere, would cause Psalm 53 to align with 1 Samuel 25:2-43 and the account of Nabal, whose attitude, arrogance, and end fit perfectly with the description provided in this psalm, and whose name means, interestingly enough, fool (1 Sam. 25:25).