Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
There is a remarkable resemblance between this psalm and Psa 14:1-7. Both are ascribed to the same author, David; and each pursues the same line of thought - the folly and wickedness of Atheism. They both show that the belief that there is no God is not a harmless idea, or a mere speculation, but that it has important consequences on the life, and is naturally connected with a wicked life, Psa 53:3-4.
The difference in the two compositions is (a) in the title; and (b) in the psalm itself.
(a) In the title. Both psalms are ascribed to David, and both are dedicated to the "Chief Musician." But in the title to the psalm before us, there is this addition: "Upon Mahalath, Maschil." On the meaning of the term Maschil, see Introduction to Psa 32:1-11. The term here would seem to imply that the psalm was designed to give instruction on an important subject, but why it is prefixed to this psalm, and not to the others, we have no means of determining. The word, rendered "Mahalath" - מחלת machălath - occurs only here and in the title to Ps. 88. It is supposed by Gesenius to denote a stringed instrument, as a lute or guitar, that was designed to be accompanied with the voice. DeWette renders it "flute." Luther renders it "for a choir, to be sung by one another;" that is, a responsive choir. The Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate retain the original word with no attempt to translate it. Prof. Alexander renders it disease, because a form of the word "almost identical" occurs Exo 15:26; Pro 18:14; Ch2 21:15 meaning "disease," and he supposes reference is to "the spiritual malady with which all mankind are infected, and which is really the theme or subject of the composition." It is true that there is a word - מחלה machăleh - similar to this, meaning "disease," but it is also true that the word used here is never employed in that sense, and equally true that such a construction here is forced and unnatural. The obvious supposition is that it refers to an instrument of music.
(b) The difference in the psalms themselves is mainly that in Psa 53:1-6 Psa 14:6 is omitted, and that in the other parts of the psalm there are enlargements designed to illustrate or to explain more fully the course of thought in the psalm. It is not known by whom these changes were made. They are, as DeWette remarks, such as could not have occurred by an error in transcribing, and they must have been made by design. Whether the changes were made by the author, or by someone who collected and arranged the psalms, and who, adopting the main thoughts of Psa 14:1-7, inserted additions conveying new phases of thought, though without intending to supersede the use of the original composition, it is not possible now to determine. It is by no means an improbable supposition that the author of the psalm - David - may have revised it himself, and made these changes as expressing more fully his idea, while, as embodying valuable thoughts, it was deemed not undesirable to retain the original psalm in the collection as proper to be used in the service of God. Similar changes occur in Ps. 18, as compared with 2 Sam. 22, where that psalm occurs in the original form of composition. There is no evidence that the alteration was made by a later writer; we may doubt whether a later writer would alter a composition of David, and publish it under his name.
For an analysis of the psalm, see Introduction to Psa 14:1-7.
The fool hath said in his heart ... - For the meaning of this verse, see the notes at Psa 14:1. The only change in this verse - a change which does not affect the sense - is the substitution of the word "iniquity," in Psa 53:1-6, for "works," in Psa 14:1-7.
God looked down from heaven ... - See the notes at Psa 14:2. The only change which occurs in this verse is the substitution of the word אלהים 'Elohiym, rendered "God," for "Yahweh," rendered Lord, in Psa 14:2. The same change occurs also in Psa 14:4, Psa 14:6. It is to be observed, also, that the word "Yahweh" does not occur in this psalm, but that the term used is uniformly. אלהים 'Elohiym, God. In Psa 14:1-7 both terms are found - the word אלהים 'Elohiym three times Psa 14:1-2, Psa 14:5, and the word יהוה Yahweh four times, Psa 14:2, Psa 14:4,Psa 14:6-7. It is impossible to account for this change. There is nothing in it, however, to indicate anything in regard to the authorship of the psalm or to the time when it was written, for both these words are frequently used by David elsewhere.
Every one of them is gone back - See the notes at Psa 14:3. The only variation here in the two psalms is in the substitution of the word - סג sâg, for סור sûr - words almost identical in form and in sense. The only difference in meaning is, that the former word - the word used here - means "to draw back," or "to go back;" the other, the word used in Psa 14:1-7, means "to go off, to turn aside." Each of them indicates a departure from God; a departure equally fatal and equally guilty, whether people turn "back" from following him, or turn "aside" to something else. Both of these forms of apostasy occur with lamentable frequency.
Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge? - See the notes at Psa 14:4. The only change in this verse is in the omission of the word "all." This word, as it occurs in Psa 14:1-7 ("all the workers of iniquity"), makes the sentence stronger and more emphatic. It is designed to affirm in the most absolute and unqualified manner that none of these workers of iniquity had any true knowledge of God. This has been noticed by critics as the only instance in which the expression in Psa 14:1-7 is stronger than in the revised form of the psalm before us.
There were they in great fear ... - Margin, as in Hebrew, "they feared a fear." For the general meaning of the verse, see the notes at Psa 14:5. There is, however, an important change introduced here - the most important in the psalm. The general sentiment of two verses Psa 14:5-6 in Psa 14:1-7 is here compressed into one, and yet with such an important change as to show that it was by design, and apparently to adapt it to some new circumstance. The solution of this would seem to be that the original form Psa 14:1-7 was suited to some occasion then present to the mind of the writer, and that some new event occurred to which the general sentiment in the psalm might be easily applied (or which would express that as well as could be done by an entirely new composition), but that, in order to adapt it to this new purpose, it would be proper to insert some expression more particularly referring to the event.
The principal of these additions is found in the verse before us. In Psa 14:5-6, the language is, "There were they in great fear, for God is in the generation of the righteous; ye have shamed the counsel of the poor, because the Lord is his refuge." In the psalm before us, the language is, "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." "Where no fear was." The reference here, as in Psa 14:5, is to the fear or consternation of the people of God on account of the designs and efforts of the wicked. They were apprehensive of being overthrown by the wicked. The design of the psalmist in both cases is to show that there was no occasion for that fear. In Psa 14:5, he shows it by saying that "God is in the congregation of the righteous." In the psalm before us fie says expressly that there was no ground for that fear - "where no fear was," - and he adds, as a reason, that God had "scattered the bones" of them "that encamped against" them. That is, though there seemed to be occasion for fear - though those enemies were formidable in numbers and in power - yet God was their friend, and he had now showed them that they had no real occasion for alarm by dispersing those foes.
For God hath scattered the bones of him that encampeth against thee - Of the besieger. This, as already intimated, would seem to have been introduced in order to adapt the psalm to the particular circumstances of the occasion when it was revised. From this clause, as well as others, it appears probable that the particular occasion contemplated in the revision of the psalm was an attack on Jerusalem, or a siege of the city - an attack which had been repelled, or a siege which the enemy had been compelled to raise. That is, they had been overthrown, and their bones had been scattered, unburied, on the ground. The whole language of Psa 14:1-7, thus modified, would be well suited to such an occurrence. The general description of atheism and wickedness in Psa 14:1-7 would be appropriate in reference to such an attempt on the city - for those who made the attack might well be represented as practically saying that there was no God; as being corrupt and abominable; as bent on iniquity; as polluted and defiled; and as attempting to eat up the people of God as they eat bread; and as those who did not call upon God. The verse before us would describe them as discomfited, and as being scattered in slaughtered heaps upon the earth.
Thou hast put them to shame - That is, they had been put to shame by being overthrown; by being unsuccessful in their attempt. The word "thou" here must be understood as referring to God.
Because God hath despised them - He has wholly disapproved their character, and he has "despised "their attempts; that is, he has shown that they were not formidable or to be feared. They were efforts which might be looked on with contempt, and he had evinced this by showing how easily they could be overthrown.
Oh that the salvation of Israel ... - The only change here from Psa 14:7 is that the word אלהים 'Elohiym, God, is substituted for "Jehovah," Lord, and that the word rendered "salvation" is here in the plural. On the supposition that the psalm was adapted to a state of things when the city had been besieged, and the enemy discomfited, this language would express the deep and earnest desire of the people that the Lord would grant deliverance. Perhaps it may be supposed, also, that at the time of such a siege, and while the Lord interposed to save them from the siege, it was also true that there was some general danger hanging over the people; that even the nation might be described as in some sense "captive;" or that some portions of the land were subject to a foreign power. The desire expressed is, that the deliverance might be complete, and that the whole land might be brought to the possession of liberty, and be rescued from all foreign domination. That time, when it should arrive, would be the occasion of universal rejoicing.