Studies in Unfamiliar Psalms No. 2


Psalm 14

Our first unfamiliar psalm was 6 and it was in every way, I think, fairly described as unfamiliar. Not a single sentence in the psalm would have identified it to the ordinary evangelical, even most well-read evangelicals, even evangelicals more familiar with the Psalter than most. Psalm 6 is a typical lament and otherwise undistinguished among the other 149 psalms. In the case of our second psalm, Psalm 14, its opening statement is familiar but few would be able to locate that statement in the Psalter and fewer still would be able to describe the rest of the psalm that begins with the famous words: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” So, if it is not entirely unfamiliar, it is largely so.

I chose this psalm – I might have chosen many others – because it briefly encapsulates a fundamental perspective of Holy Scripture, a perspective I fear is being lost in our day even in evangelical circles.

Text Comment

v.1       One very interesting feature of this psalm is that it appears in nearly identical form as Psalm 53, the difference being that in a number of cases the Hebrew word for God, Elohim, is substituted for the Hebrew personal name for God, Yahweh. So, for example, while both psalms have Elohim, “God,” in v. 1, Psalm 14 has “The Lord looks down from heaven” in v. 2, while Psalm 53 has “God looks down from heaven” in v. 2. That is, in fact, a characteristic difference between Book I of the Psalter (Psalms 1-41) and Book II (42-72). In Book I Yahweh appears 272 times; in Book II only 30; in Book I Elohim appears 15 times, in Book II, 164 times. This is surely evidence of some editorial work on the finished form of the biblical Psalter and evidence that the organization of material in the Psalter was governed by an editor’s principles, though we know very little more about this than that such differences exist between the books. It is interesting, by the way, that you have even nowadays only to listen to Christians’ prayers to know that some – for whatever reason – have a preference for “God” and some for “Lord.” Apparently that spiritual “taste,” or whatever else it is, goes way back.

            On the other hand, in vv. 5 and 6 there is a marked difference between Psalm 14 and Psalm 53, a difference that suggests that Psalm 14, already known and used in Israel’s worship, was, on some later occasion, altered to be used with respect to some crisis in Israel’s history. [Kidner, i, 80]

v.3       The first characteristic of the spirit of godlessness is a flaunting of God’s law. Atheists do not become more moral, more ethically circumspect for their atheism. Rather, as we read in vv. 1 and 3, they become “corrupt,” and their thinking is darkened. There are two Hebrew words for “corrupt” employed in the psalm: one used in v. 1, the other in v. 3. The NEBrenders the second “rotten to the core.” Not everyone is obviously and aggressively a fool; but none of them is wise either. And the lack of wisdom shows up in a person’s way of life, his or her behavior. In the Bible successful, urbane, sophisticated people can be fools in this way and we observe that often enough in life don’t we?

v.4       The opening phrase is one of bewilderment: “Surely they must know…” is the idea. There is enough that ought to give an atheist pause, but they are past reckoning even with the clearest evidence. We see this all the time in our society.  The second characteristic of godlessness is its misuse of others. To “eat up people as they eat bread” means that they oppressed them without compassion.

            Remember, now, this is a psalm of David. David is writing as the King of Israel, as a Christ-figure, indeed. When he speaks of his people, we can hear the echoes of the Lord Jesus himself, especially in the Book of Revelation, as he prepares judgment for those who oppress his people on earth.

v.5       The Psalmist sees into the future and the eventual reckoning. In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis writes: “In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us…, either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised.” [Cited in Kidner, i, 80] Shame, of course, requires that there has been some inexcusable failure to see what should have been seen or to do what should have been done or to think what should have been thought. Shame assumes accountability.

v.7       The people of God wait for their vindication but they wait in sure and certain hope. As so often, it is admitted in the Bible that present circumstances can be no foundation for a Christian’s confidence. It is the Lord’s promise of different things in the future on which we take our stand. The argument of the psalm is the argument of faith.

            There are a great many perfectly fine arguments against atheism. John Polkinghorne, formerly professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge and an Anglican minister, commenting on the built-in factors within the universe and with particular reference to quantum theory, once said, “There is no free lunch. Somebody has to pay, and only God has the resources to put in what was needed to get what we’ve got.” [Cited in Zacharias, A Shattered Image, 44] But many could agree with that and still be the fools described in Psalm 14. Many have some concept of God that still leaves them free to live in selfishness and pride. The argument against atheism in Psalm 14 is not the impossibility of accounting for the world apart from God, but the coming catastrophe of divine judgment. That argument, that consideration is a dagger pointed directly at our selfishness, our lawlessness, and our pride.

We said last time that psalms were of various types or genres. For example, Psalm 6 was a lament, indeed, more specifically an individual lament. There are a great many lament psalms in the Psalter. But what is Psalm 14? Some say it too is a lament, but most agree that it has the characteristics of several types of psalms. It certainly has similarities to a wisdom psalm, like Psalm 1. Wisdom literature in the Bible, as you know, often contrasts the fool with the wise man or woman and this psalm begins with the description of a fool and contrasts him with the righteous in vv. 5-7. Or Psalm 14 could be classified as a confidence psalm, like Psalm 23. There is grief in it, the psalmist’s grief over the wickedness he observes in the world, and in that it is a lament, but there is much more than the expression of grief. I think, all in all, Psalm 14 is primarily a wisdom psalm, a psalm describing the difference between the lost and the saved, the unrighteous and the righteous. And, as so often in Proverbs, the difference that is identified in this psalm is the fact that the righteous, unlike the foolish, understand that their behavior, their life will be brought into judgment before a holy God. The difference between the two kinds of people in the world – and there are only two kinds, the foolish and the righteous – reduces finally to this. Many believe in a judgment but they don’t reckon with God’s holiness. Many don’t really believe in a judgment at all. But the righteous not only believe in the Judgment but know that it will be executed by a holy God.

We are very likely, nowadays, to think of atheism as a philosophical position: a view of reality that often very clever and sophisticated people defend and Christians offer arguments to rebut. But in the Bible atheism is usually not a philosophical position to be addressed as bad philosophy, but an ethical position to be addressed as immorality. In Scripture the denial of God is not regarded as a sincere but misguided conviction, but as irresponsible defiance. [Kidner, i, 79] There were very few philosophical atheists in the ancient Near Eastern world. But there were many who spoke and behaved as if there were no God, and in particular as if there were no God such as Yahweh, the living and true God, the Holy One, the Judge of all the earth. Such a person is the atheist we are reading about in Psalm 14 and of which we also read in Psalm 10; which is basically a longer version of Psalm 14. This atheist is the man who doesn’t worry about consequences because he doesn’t think God sees what he does, or cares, or will do anything about it. Thoughts of himself and the present crowd out all thoughts of God and the future. He finds it easy to imagine that all will be well because to him the God of judgment and of wrath is so distant from his mind as to be irrelevant to his daily life. This is the man of whom the Scripture says, “There is no fear of God before his eyes.” [Ps. 36:1] There may be a God, but whether or not there is makes no difference to him.

Later, when Paul cites Psalm 14:3 in his chain of citations in Romans 3:10-18 proving that all men are sinners needing forgiveness, he is not describing philosophical atheists, for few men in his day either were atheists of that type; he is describing practical or functional atheists. Men who lived as if the living God did not exist, whether or not he does. And so in Psalm 14: the fools under the psalmist’s view were people who did not reckon with the judgment of God.

You know that the Hebrew word for “fool” is naval or nabal. Remember Nabal, the man David almost destroyed, the man whose wife Abigail saved from execution by David’s men and who died of a heart attack a few days later. Nabal, as his name indicated, was a reckless fool, a man who couldn’t connect his actions to likely consequences; a man who was so self-centered he couldn’t see that his brutish, selfish, and ungrateful behavior was near to destroying him and his household. That is the foolishness the psalmist is talking about: that reckless, moral irresponsibility, that “aggressive perversity” that gets so used to itself it remains unmindful of the train no matter how long it has been walking on the tracks.

The fool whose state of mind and whose behavior is highlighted in Psalm 14 is certainly not someone who is mentally incompetent. Very bright people can be foolish in this way. Tiger Woods is a modern parable of this truth. How in the world could he have thought that he would get away with his serial infidelity? He played the fool. A man is a fool who has closed himself off from God and has, consequently, lost touch with reality. And the particular reality that is lost to him is that this world and the human life within in it are subject to judgment because this is God’s world.

And it is with this functional or practical atheist that we have to deal with in our day and with this particular nature of atheism. Most self-styled atheists of the modern type – your Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens types – are really functional atheists; actually  agnostics in the more technical philosophical sense. They have admitted, indeed, that no one can prove that there is no God. But whether or not God exists is a question of little importance to them. God is irrelevant in every practical way. These people live and are perfectly content to live as if there were no God. And it doesn’t bother them that there is no God. They are far from admitting that their atheism is a dreary, depressing thing, or that atheism leaves human life bereft of hope. A serious, philosophical atheist, such as Bertrand Russell considered his atheism the “firm foundation of unshakeable despair.” Without God, of course, he meant that there was no longer a way to find meaning in human life. Without God there can be no continuation of life after death and without the continuation of his life what is man but simply a highly developed animal, living out his brutish life before his inevitable extinction. True atheism of the philosophical type is a gloomy affair. That is why the novels of the mid-20th century existentialists were so depressing. Life without meaning is depressing. A world without absolutes is a cold place. But our modern atheists are of the sunnier sort, quite happy in their unbelief in God, because, for them it amounts to little more than freedom to think and behave as they please. It is not serious because it doesn’t reckon seriously with the consequences of the denial of God.

One of the editors of the New Republic remarked in a recent piece that we live in a day when few of our public intellectuals concern themselves with “big” ideas. [Cited by Ken Myers in Touchstone (Jan/Feb 2010), 8] And that is right. Hardly anyone nowadays carries thoughts through to their great implications. And that is certainly true of the atheists who populate our elite culture. No one discusses seriously the implications of there being no God. They are too busy enjoying a comfortable life to concern themselves with the great questions of existence. And that is true on the level of common people as well. They are so preoccupied with the pleasure and pain of the moment that few people care to consider what any of this might mean in any ultimate sense. They cannot be bothered with the meaning of life; they are too taken up with simply wanting things! Most people have always been like this. And it is in this respect that we find in Psalm 14 an accurate description of the general state of American culture as it was of the culture of David’s day. Most people live as functional atheists and the proof of it is found in their disregard for the law of God, their indifference to that law written on their hearts and published in their conscience.

As we read in vv. 4 and 6, their unconcern for others is an index of their indifference to God. On this Sanctity of Human Life Sunday especially we should point out that abortion is an important moral index of our society. Why do people do this? Why do they defend such an inhuman practice so ardently? Why, when today we know more not less of how human the baby in the womb actually is, are we not as a society more opposed not less opposed to abortion? Why does it not trouble them that they cherish the baby as a human being if they want the baby but kill it if the baby seems too great an inconvenience to them? Because they want what they want and dispose of others because they are unconcerned about the judgment of God. That is why; that is always why! That they so often feel guilty afterwards is the index of something else: of reality, of how things actually are in God’s world and how he judges human behavior; a reality they have denied but have found impossible entirely to escape.

Psalm 14 is profound in this respect; in pointing out that our concern for others is directly related to our sense of the reality of God. Abortion will always flourish when men and women are unsure that God will judge their lives or have become confident that he will not. Peter Berger, the eminent sociologist, speaks of plausibility structures, the social relationships that make it easy for people to believe one thing or another. Well our entire antinomian, relativist, permissive culture is a plausibility structure for most people in our land. It now seems highly unlikely to them – so unlikely that they are never inclined to think seriously about it, so unlikely that the thought is positively offensive – that God should judge them or punish their behavior. And so they act accordingly, like all people do for whom God is practically a non-entity.

Men and women who have a clear sense of God realize instinctively that they are accountable to God for their treatment of others and that the humanity that they share with others, because it comes from God and reflects his nature, is a sacred calling to fulfill. There can be no “ought” in human life without God, there cannot be what Immanuel Kant called the “categorical imperative,” a moral standard to which all human beings are subject. And if there is no “ought” then we are free to do whatever makes us happy, whatever makes our lives easier, and abortion definitely makes life easier. All of that makes sense because and only because no one reckons with the holiness of the Judge of all the earth.

Philosophical atheists are more likely to admit this, however much they will betray that conclusion in their own behavior. The late Richard Rorty, for example, admitted that philosophically he could not condemn Hitler’s ethics and justify his own. Without God, without God’s judgment, morality reduces simply to taste, or to biology, or to social environment, or to the will of the powerful. But that didn’t prevent Rorty from bitterly criticizing evangelical Christians for their sexual ethics. As Georges Santayana put it, “You have to dream with one eye open.” That is, as a human being you have to pretend that there are ideals. Or as Albert Einstein put it, there may be no actual moral difference between you and the murderer, but you have to act like there is. And, of course, everyone does. That is serious, philosophical atheism: a gloomy admission that our most precious convictions are really illusions. There is no evil and there is no good. There is simply what there is. And one grand argument against this position will always be that it is so utterly impossible to live with that no one ever does. That is why there are few philosophical atheists. But, again, this is not the atheism of Psalm 14.

Practical atheists, by far the largest type of atheist, rarely think this far. They want what they want and they simply ignore the question of God lest he stand in the way of their desires. The atheist of Psalm 14 is the fellow or the gal you are rubbing shoulders with every day at work. His or her atheism is of the cheap variety. This is the atheism that in fact is often held in a mildly religious form. This atheism is the opium of the people. Distant views of God, which are in effect no views of God at all, liberate people to act as they please with little or no concern that their actions might be brought into judgment. No wonder it is the most popular form of human conviction. Much of the religious life of mankind serves this practical atheism. It serves to provide a way of escape from the living and true God; or to keep him at a comfortable distance. In all of these religious ideas somehow the person ends up no longer personally accountable to the living God in any serious way.

This is the great moral fact of our time. God has become such a vague and amorphous concept to most people that they have lost any sense of serious accountability for their own lives or the lives of others. Only the presence of the living God can produce that sense of accountability and he is too far away. And that has produced, as we read here in Psalm 14, not a more enlightened society or a more compassionate one – though our society certainly thinks of itself as enlightened and compassionate – but one that has made life more unhappy for immensely large numbers of human beings. Has the sexual revolution been good for people? Has it made our relationships healthier and more secure? Has the technological revolution ennobled human life? Has our great wealth made us either a happier or a more faithful people? Has our approach to marriage been good for women or for children? Is American manhood the better for the changes of the last generation? Not by any measureable standard. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Nonsense draws evil after it.” [The Four Loves, 48] Functional atheism is always a terrible blight on human life, a blight that inevitably worsens with time.

The lack of a living sense of God releases people to do what comes naturally and what comes naturally, alas, is selfishness and indifference to others. People will compensate because they are made in God’s image and cannot help themselves. They will not easily admit their moral failings. They will talk at length about morality and find ways to justify their behavior, but in the end the facts will speak for themselves. Abortion is one of those brute facts; a promiscuous, unfaithful sexual lifestyle is another; infidelity in marriage is another; selfish and reckless business ethics are another; selfish politics another. But there is a judgment coming and it is that judgment, that reckoning that makes so much of modern human life so utterly foolish. When a person acts as if God doesn’t care when God does; when a person behaves as if God doesn’t see when God does; when someone lives as if there will never be a reckoning when there will be; that is the definition of foolishness.

Last Monday night I was sitting at a red light in Astoria, Queens, New York City with my son-in-law, John Wykoff. We were on our way to the grocery store. Suddenly, unexpectedly we heard the sound of a car accident, that awful crunching sound. I didn’t see it myself but in a moment John cried out and pointed to a body lying face down in the middle of the busy street we were waiting to cross. The man, a pedestrian, we later learned, perhaps attempting to beat the don’t walk light, had run right in front of an oncoming car and had been hit and then thrown through the air some distance before landing beyond us. We jumped out of the car and John put himself between the man and the oncoming traffic to stop it and I called 911 on my cell-phone. The man was not moving and blood was beginning to pool under his head. The emergency equipment arrived in a few minutes and he was duly placed in an ambulance and taken away. I don’t know whether he survived or died, though hit as hard as he was, thrown as far as he was, and bleeding from his head as he was, it is hard to believe that he was not, at the very least, seriously injured. [I have learned subsequently that the man was killed.]

It is in such a moment, in the face of such an experience, that the meaning of life is compressed or distilled. What does that man’s life mean? What was its worth, its value? What is its issue? People are living and dying every day, of course, but the common round is so infrequently interrupted that we hardly give it a thought. One day follows another. But when a body comes flying through the air to land unconscious on the pavement, the questions comes thick and fast. Who was this man? What was he like? Did he have loved ones? Where was he going? What will be the consequence for others if he never reaches home? And, much more, is that the end of his existence? Was he merely an animal who lived until he was struck by a car, much as a cat or dog or deer who is struck by a car? Was his life nothing more than the round of days and nights until it came suddenly and unexpectedly to its end?

Compared to these questions, the questions most people ask day by day are of little importance. But do these questions have answers? It is the entire interest of Holy Scripture to answer just those questions and to answer them definitively and decisively and once-for-all.

The man, whatever his name, because he was a human being created in the image of God, was going from this world to the next. If he arrived in the next world last Monday night, he just got there sooner than we might have expected him to. The significance of his death, if he died Monday night, or if he is not to die for many years yet, is that it will lead to a reckoning of his life, a reckoning that will determine what sort of existence will be his in the next world. It is reckoning before God himself, with God himself as his judge. That reckoning will concern whether or not he feared and loved God, sought to do God’s will, and to treat others with love and generosity. It is the prospect of this dread or terror, of which David speaks in verse 5, the terror he imagines the foolish finally facing in God’s judgment, that changes everything. It is the prospect of good fortune and gladness for others in that same judgment that changes everything.

Take note of this fundamental perspective, found in this psalm and everywhere else in Holy Scripture. It is given to men once to die and after that the Judgment! It is the same as the fundamental perspective of our Savior’s Sermon on the Mount, of the Epistles of Paul, and of the Book of Revelation. The entire story of that man’s life, of any man or woman’s life is finally a moral story, an ethical story, an account of whether or not he obeyed and served the living God. Everything else in the story of a human life is detail. It is ultimately the record of good and bad that matters for eternity, when all the rest will have been forgotten. This is the great burden of this Psalm. Human life, any human life, is measured by what is done in it in comparison with what God requires to be done. That is all! That is what that man’s life, what any man’s life means. That is why a man is a fool who does not live in the active awareness of God and God’s holy judgment. He will inevitably, as a result, fail to live as he should. There are, as always in the Bible, only two kinds of people: the foolish who forget the judgment of God, and the righteous who remember it.

In our day of moral relativism and of moral superficiality, we must never forget this. The will of God – a man or woman’s obedience to it or disobedience – is the measure of his life. A man or woman is a fool who does not live accordingly. And what the living awareness of the one true God does is force upon us this conviction: our accountability to God and the eternal significance of that accountability. That is why the Bible speaks as it does. That is why the Gospel is so crucial. To a man who knows he must face the judgment of a holy God and knows he cannot stand in that judgment, the grace of God comes as the only possible solution to his one absolutely crucial problem.

This is why the gospel and why Jesus Christ are so desperately important for every human being. Only through him can our unrighteousness be removed and only through him can our lives be renewed in righteousness. It is the latter, of course, that is the great and final object of the gospel of Christ: the moral transformation of human life. It is why in the Bible the grace of God is never permitted to become an excuse for sin. It is why so much of the Bible addresses believers concerning their living, their behavior, their obedience to God’s commandments, their love of him and others. That is why the judgment scenes in the Bible all pay attention to what a person did, Christian or no; and how a person lived. Even for us who believe in Christ, the greatest consequence of our faith in Christ, his greatest gift to us is not our forgiveness but a righteous life that is and will be pleasing to God. Remember, in Romans as in the rest of the Bible our justification – our forgiveness – is the beginning of the Gospel, it is not the end. It is the means to the greater thing, which is the renewal of our lives in righteousness, which is our conformity to Jesus Christ.

When in v. 5 we read that God is present in the company of the righteous, we are very clearly to understand that David means that God is present in the company of those who live righteously, that is, who are not corrupt and whose deeds are not vile. When we read of the righteous here in v. 5, we are not to think simply of the forgiven, of those who are righteous by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. We are righteous in that way, of course and gloriously so. But that is assumed here. Usually in the psalms and in the Bible as a whole, the righteous are people who live righteously. But no one can live righteously without the transformation that Christ alone can produce in human life by his Holy Spirit; that is why the righteous are those, as we read in v. 2, who “seek God.” But we must never forget that it is that righteous life that God is after and that righteous life that will be the vindicated in the Last Judgment.

The problem with the fool is that he is corrupt and his deeds are vile. There is no salvation for anyone who is corrupt and whose deeds are vile. God’s salvation is designed precisely to put an end to our corruption and to purify our deeds. What is so important about this Psalm is the way in which it exposes the foundation of all of Holy Scripture’s thinking about human life as heading toward the judgment of God.

When we come to Christ we ask not only for the forgiveness of our sins; we ask him to make us good, to give us the spiritual means to live a righteous life, to obey his commandments, and to love him and others. We ask for this every day if we are Christians in truth. That is why the Gospel so often in the New Testament is reduced to simply the confession of Jesus as Lord! A Lord is someone to obey and to serve! Christians are people who obey and serve the Lord. That is why the Bible never allows us to rest content with anything less than perfection. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “Walk before me and be perfect.” Because a God-like life is what God and Christ are after in us!

The proof of the difference between us and the functional atheist, between us and the fool, is that we live in the active realization of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the Judge of all men. The righteous are those for whom the Lord is a refuge and those are the men and women who, by the grace of God, live as fools do not. They are those who know full well there is a reckoning and know precisely what sort of life will stand in that final judgment day. That is why Christ is so crucial to us: because he and he alone can give us a righteous life and make us want to live that life more than we want anything else in the world. Read Psalm 14 as a Christian and renew your determination not to play the fool, but to live as one who knows very well there is a God who condemns the wicked and rewards the righteous.

The whole tragedy of the Fall was that man, created to live in fellowship with a righteous God, became unrighteous in his life and so alienated from God. Man was made to be like God and he became very unlike God. The law of God is simply instruction in how to be like God, that is why unbelievers disobey God’s law—they don’t want to be like God—but that is also why Christians love the law of God. They want to be like God. The law shows them what every Christian should aspire to be in thought, word, and deed and with all his or her heart. The glory of the gospel is that by it man is remade to be like God and so fit for fellowship with God. And the man or woman who most faithfully embraces the gospel is the man or woman who is the most eager to practice that righteousness and enjoy that fellowship with God, the God who, we read here in Psalm 14, always loves to be present with the generation of the righteous.