Psalm 53

The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity;
there is none who does good.

–Psalm 53:1 (ESV)

We pause from our series on Synod 2012 for a brief look at this familiar passage of Scripture.  Psalm 53 is unique to the Psalter because it is, to some extent, a duplicate—a near-identical twin of Psalm 14.  Just as you might sing multiple versions of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” or the Gloria Patri, it seems that these two psalms are simply variants of the same song, both of which were eventually included in the Psalter.  Another notable aspect of Psalm 14/53 is its citation in a powerful passage from Romans 3, along with snippets of Psalms 5, 10, 36, and 140.  There the apostle Paul uses these Old Testament truths to reinforce his argument for total depravity: “What then?  Are we Jews any better off?  No, not at all.  For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…” (Romans 3:9).  Today we’ll consider the Psalter Hymnal’s single setting of Psalm 53.

98, “Fools in Their Heart Have Said”

The text of number 98 exhibits all the qualities of a good selection from the 1912 Psalter: simple lyrics, accurate versifications, and helpful interpretation of difficult passages.  Stanzas 5-8 are slightly expanded from the original psalm (vv. 5 and 6), but this proves to be a helpful modification as it explores the full meaning of every Scriptural phrase.  My only quibble is that the meter of this versification unfortunately prevents the use of the explicit term “salvation,” which I prefer to the word “help” in clarifying the messianic significance of this psalm.

There’s only one significant flaw with the version of Psalm 53 in the Psalter Hymnal: its tune.  All I needed to hear was a recording of the men in Dordt College’s concert choir belting out in hearty chorus, “Corrupt are they and base their deeds,/In evil they delight.”  At that moment I knew that Psalm 53 needs a tune change.  Badly.

What’s wrong with BADEA, this simple German melody?  I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but the tune carries an air of triumph that seems much better suited for Psalm 47 (number 87) or Psalm 93 (number 181).  The bright key of F, the rousing 4/4 meter, and the combination of intervals in thirds and contrary motion all contribute to make BADEA sadly unsuitable for the lament of Psalm 53.

The good news is that the Psalter Hymnal contains a number of other short-meter ( tunes that fit this text like a glove.  Consider the mood set by minor tunes like SOUTHWELL (5) or OWEN (50).  Even GORTON (152), a tune in a major key, carries the lamentation of this psalm beautifully.  But my own surpassing favorite is the familiar tune TRENTHAM (276).  This melody is meditative enough for Psalm 53, easy enough for any musician, and extremely familiar as the tune of “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.”  The congregation here at West Sayville excelled at singing the unfamiliar words of number 98 for the first time, and I can’t help but attribute this success to the pastor’s choice of a better tune.

Why should such a “depressing” psalm be a part of the Christian’s repertoire?  We cannot be fully grateful for Christ’s death on our behalf unless we comprehend the depth of our sinful plight.  But when viewed from the proper perspective, it becomes evident that Psalm 53 is not a depressing psalm; it concludes not in despair, but in hope!  In a moment of Spirit-inspired clarity, the psalmist calls to mind the finished work of Jesus Christ as he exclaims:

Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.

–Psalm 53:6

Thanks be to God that salvation has indeed come for his people.  Amen, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad!



2 Responses to “Psalm 53”

  1. 1 Joshua June 5, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    We sang this song in our concert last year. (Psalter 146 in the 1912 Psalter) I spent a bit of time trying to set this up to work with the words. The simple solution actually worked very well, by singing this song in minor key we were able to deliver an arrangement that met the attitude of the Psalm. We did, of course, flip to major at the verse “When God from distant lands…”

    I was very happy with the result of these modifications.

    That said, I’m not sure if it is reasonable to expect congregations to sing songs in minor keys. I would welcome a your thoughts on this subject. To me it seems like something that should be considered simply because the range of attitude and emotion within the Psalms are so great, they almost require minor key at times.

    • 2 Michael Kearney June 5, 2012 at 8:47 pm

      I’ve seen minor keys both overused and underused in various hymnals. The 1912 Psalter (and by extension the Psalter Hymnal) doesn’t seem to utilize minor keys as much as it could. However, on the other end of the spectrum, the 1987 CRC Psalter Hymnal tends to go overboard with minor keys, even for such triumphant psalms as 62, 65, and 107. Also, it may just be my own taste, but it seems that many of the minor psalm and hymn tunes are sub-standard with regard to melody and composition. This surprises me because so many major tunes, as you’ve mentioned, can be converted to minor keys quite easily.

      From my very limited experience, it seems like minor keys for choirs and minor keys for congregations should be treated differently. Last year, for the choir of my home church, we created an arrangement that chronicled the salvation story of Martin Luther. We started with v. 2 of Psalter 83 (Psalm 32) and changed the key to f minor, then sang v. 1 in F Major. The choir received this change really enthusiastically and sang it beautifully. It sounds like you did a similar thing with Psalm 53. I think key changes like this, when well-planned, can have a great effect and (most importantly) stimulate the singers and listeners to pay attention to the words.

      On the other hand, changing a tune to a minor key for congregational singing would be very difficult without adequate preparation. I agree that it’s something that should be considered, and depending on the musical ability of the congregation it might go very well. For us in the URC, the ideal scenario for psalm setting alterations would be a change in the Psalter Hymnal itself, which would eventually replicate to all the churches and save individual musicians time and effort. When approached the right way, though, I’m sure it’s possible to accomplish such a change successfully and beautifully, even in a small church.

      Thanks so much for your thoughts!


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