Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 26, 2015
Psalm 14 Commentary
Psalm 14 paints what Jennifer Green calls a “picture of humanity that could hardly be more dismal.” In fact, while most psalms at least begin by acknowledging God in praise or prayer, the poet begins Psalm 14 with the fool’s claim that “there is no God.” She then goes on three times in just three verses to basically assert that there is “no one who does good.”
However, as James Mays notes, Psalm 14 also encourages worshipers in the face of that near universal rebellion against and denial of God. It insists that things aren’t always as they seem in God’s world. What is, for example, wisdom to wicked people is actually, according to the poet, foolishness. What’s more, the psalmist asserts, the apparent folly of recognizing and depending on Yahweh is the height of wisdom. On top of all that, the poet adds, God sides with wise people who so often seem to be alone.
So Psalm 14 offers those who preach and teach it a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the nature of reality. We live in a culture that’s skeptical about the existence of anything that can’t be somehow seen, heard, touched or at least proven. That means we often assume that only what what’s accessible to our senses, measurement or logic is real. Psalm 14, along with the rest of the Scriptures, asserts a different view of reality, one that is helpful for God’s sons and daughters to explore.
When the psalmist asserts that only “fools” deny God’s existence, she’s not insisting only stupid, silly or thoughtless people deny God’s existence. When the psalmist speaks of foolish people, she’s describing their way of looking at the world and reality that’s out of line with the way God has ordered the world.
Yet the psalmist goes on to add that fools don’t just hold mistaken views of reality. They also act wickedly on the basis of those wrong assumptions. So, in fact, as Mays also points out, such foolishness can even be found within Christ’s Church. After all, Christians too may act foolishly, basically denying God’s existence by refusing to rely on the Lord for everything, including guidance for the decisions we make and actions we take. In that light, verse 6’s reference to “you evildoers” may be a reference to fools within the community of God’s children.
Nabal, whose very name means “fool,” is a classic biblical example of a fool. I Samuel 25 reports “he’s surly and mean in his dealings.” So, for example, he makes wrong assumptions about David. He assumes that Israel’s future king is nothing more than “Jesse’s son.” Nabal acts selfishly and foolishly, refusing to share his food and drink with David and his men.
Yet in other places the Old Testament describes people who act just as foolishly as Nabal. Psalm 74 speaks of fools who mock and insult God’s name. In Psalm 39 the poet describe fools who disparage righteous people. Jeremiah 17 describes fools who gain riches in unjust ways only promptly to lose them. And Tamar calls her brother Ammon a “fool” just before he assaults her.
Psalm 14 conveys a tone of bewilderment at such foolishness. It’s almost as if the poet can scarcely even imagine how people could be so foolish. A great sadness also pervades this psalm. It’s as if the poet looks around and just shakes his head at the universality of foolish rebellion against God and God’s good ways. Yet there’s also a distinct tone of longing in this psalm as the poet expresses his desire for God to once and for all end such destructive foolishness.
Thoughtful Christians may recoil at Psalm 14’s link between foolishness and corrupt behavior. That gives those who preach and teach it an opportunity to reflect on that link. Nearly all Christians know what we sometimes call “noble pagans.” Some of the kindest people we know either deny or question God’s existence. They aren’t any more corrupt than many Christians. They even do “good” in the broadest sense of that word. As leaders guide worshipers through this psalm, they may want to reflect on it as a description not of individuals, but of society in general. Psalm 14 isn’t lambasting agnostic Joe Smith or atheist Sally Jones. It’s grieving a culture that’s in general denial of God’s existence. In fact, countless societies throughout history have acted foolishly by doing things like taking advantage of the powerless.
Of course, even the poet’s contemporaries might have deduced Psalm 14 is just the ranting of a paranoid or pessimistic person. Perhaps that’s why the poet brings God’s perspective into the picture. God himself, he insists, looks down from heaven to see if there are any wise people. This all-seeing God concludes that “all” have turned aside and refused to do any “good.”
The apostle Paul uses this assertion in a perhaps surprising way. He uses it to bolster his argument that because “no one does good,” all desperately need God’s grace. In that sense, he turns that “no one” back on Christians who by nature do no good and so will perish unless God’s grace rescues us.
The psalmist goes on to claim in verses 4-6 that the folly of denying God’s existence and acting in ways consistent with that denial will come back to haunt fools. She warns that fools will come to learn that the God whose very existence they deny is with the righteous whom they oppress. In fact, the poet seems to suggest that fools will somehow meet God in their wicked actions toward the poor whom they “eat up.” Even as foolish people oppress the poor, they discover that God is those needy peoples’ refuge, their source of protection.
So the psalmist insists that foolish people’s oppression of vulnerable people somehow brings them into God’s presence and reveals the foolishness of their assumption that God doesn’t exist. In fact, in their very acts of oppression, fools somehow experience the terror of meeting God. Psalm 14 doesn’t explain how that happens. Scholars speculate that fools meet God in their oppression as they recognize believers’ trust in God even as they’re being victimized. Jesus on the cross and Stephen’s martyrdom offer examples of fools’ encounter with God in their very acts of injustice. Other scholars suggest that fools meet God in their injustice when they see their victims band together in times of trouble, caring for each even as fools beat them down.
The psalmist ends this lament with a prayer that God send salvation in order to restore his beaten peoples’ fortunes. Yet the psalmist may also be praying even for fools who act wickedly on the basis of their denial of God’s existence. He may, in fact, be praying for God’s deliverance of oppressors from their oppressive ways. After all, only when God saves and restores foolish people can they too genuinely rejoice and glad.
It’s in interesting and not a little ironic that one website that offers advice on investing is called “The Motley Fool.” The site claims that it’s “dedicated to building the world’s greatest investment community.” It adds that its company’s name is taken from Shakespeare “whose wise fools both instructed and amused, and could speak to the king – without getting their heads lopped off.”
Yet might financial advice be foolish in a way the company doesn’t intend? After all, it may foster the illusion that if we just make the right investments and financial choices, we’ll be wise (as well as wealthy). It seems to echo our culture’s view of reality that if we invest “wisely,” everything will be okay. And if it’s not, it’s someone else’s fault.
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