Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 29, 2018
Psalm 14 Commentary
Psalm 14 is not my favorite Psalm; I’ve never preached on it. And it is not a Psalm that occurs over and over in the RCL like Psalm 23. It is easy to see why. It is about as politically incorrect as anything in the Bible. It’s not the sweet political incorrectness of the Gospel, with its message that there is only one God and only one Savior, Jesus Christ, in whom all people must believe if they would be saved. This is the sour political incorrectness that labels atheists as fools, asserts that their lack of faith in God leads directly to grossly immoral lives, claims that all the spiritual seekers in the world are headed in the wrong direction, and says to all the do-gooders in the world, “No one does good, not even one.” Is this the way to address all the non-Christians in the world? How would we preach this in the average church?
The paragraph above assumes that Psalm 14 is about avowed atheists out in the world. That might be true, in which case it should be preached to the church as a comforting assurance. In spite of the apparent power of these secular scalawags, God is still in his heaven and still with his people. Yahweh is a refuge for them in a world going to hell, and our Lord will finally save his poor beleaguered people. So, rejoice, anyway.
But what if Psalm 14 is speaking not about professing atheists far from the church, but about practical atheists in the heart of the church? Notice that these fools “say in their heart, ‘There is no God.’” These are not people who speak their non-faith, who make a verbal profession of unbelief. They speak in their heart, in the secret places of their interior lives, from which issue all the actions and words of their exterior lives. They are not theoretical, but practical atheists, people who live as though there were no God, Christians in name, but pagans in practice.
Could that be? John Calvin thought so, directing comments on Psalm 14 to the clergy of his day who did not care properly for their flock. His take on Psalm 14 clearly grew out of the anti-hierarchical Reformation of his day. But Robert Davidson says the same kind of thing in a broader way. He thinks this is directed “against those in Israel who thought they could live as though God were practically irrelevant and who, thus, drew wrong conclusions about the moral fabric of society. Because they are practically godless, they have no moral restraint. With God on the sidelines, they are free to oppress the poor and needy and amass wealth unjustly.” If we adopt that interpretation of Psalm 14, our sermon becomes a warning to the church about its practical atheism with implications about social justice.
To help you decide which tack to take, let’s take a careful look at the Psalm. Many scholars say that the very first line does not give us a definition of a fool; a fool is anyone who denies the existence of God. Rather, a fool is one who is morally deficient, who does not live by the law of God. That raises the question of the relationship between denying God and living immorally. The Psalm seems to say that denying God leads inexorably to immorality; that is certainly the order of the words. And that seems to be the arc of the biblical story; think of Genesis, where wanting to be God is precisely what led to the first actual sin. Deny God, commit sin.
But other readers think that the denial of God has its root in moral corruption. The people who say, “There is no God,” are people who are already corrupt. Indeed, they deny God precisely because they are corrupt. One thinks of the words attributed to one of the French existentialists (I recall that it was Sartre). “I did not believe in God because I wanted to have sex whenever and wherever and with whomever I wanted.” This resonates with John 3:19-20. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”
Whichever way the causation goes, it is clear from Psalm 14 that practical atheism and immoral living go hand in hand. When God is not at the center of life, life goes terribly wrong. Many will deny this, particularly the devotees of today’s militant atheists, who see God as a delusion that leads many astray. Granted, there is plenty of evidence that misguided church people have visited their fair share of suffering on the world. But Psalm 14 insists that those misguided religionists have done so much evil precisely because they were practical atheists who took the law into their own hands. Brueggemann sums up the argument of Psalm 14 in a way that skewers both theoretical and practical atheists. “When the Creator is not honored, creaturely life disintegrates and degenerates. The end result is a life filled with terror. There are no guards, limits, or boundaries, but everything is continually at risk.”
Because of this combination of atheism and immorality, “All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Here one must inquire about the referent of “all.” Is this “all” qualified by the words that come just before? Does it mean that all who deny God and live immorally turn away from God and do no good, ever. And are there others, “the company of the righteous (verse 5b)” who still do good?
Or does “all” mean everyone in the world, no matter who they are? No one, absolutely no one does good, ever. That is how the apostle Paul uses these words of Psalm 14 in his argument in Romans 3. He quotes these opening words as part of his claim that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and thus can be saved only by God’s grace that gives the righteousness of Christ to all who receive it by faith. As Craigie explains, Paul uses Psalm 14 to say, “The fool is not some sub-species within human nature; all human beings are fools apart from the wisdom of God.”
Whether Psalm 14 is referring to the mass of humanity who can do no good because they have turned away from God or to the crypto-atheists in the community of the righteous, the Psalmist is sure that they won’t get away with it. They might have dismissed God and decided to live as though there is no God, but God is very much involved with his people.
“The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of man to see….” This is the first use of God’s covenantal name in Psalm 14, and it must be intentional. The atheists may dismiss a generic God from their lives, but the God who has reached down to take a whole people into his care is still watching. What he sees is not pretty. Verses 3-5a may be read as God’s verdict on the foolish wicked. Two phrases in particular stand out.
“Will evil doers never learn?” The implied answer is, “No,” because they are unteachable. They are willfully ignorant, determined in their rejection of God’s will, committed to pushing God to margins of life so that they can be at the center. If left to themselves, they will never learn. Thankfully, God does not leave fools alone, but pursues them in his sovereign love.
The second phrase that begs for attention is in verse 5. God looks down on humanity and says, “There they are, overwhelmed with dread.” The twin of Psalm 14, Psalm 53, adds a fascinating condition to that dread; “where there is nothing to dread (verse 5).” As Brueggemann said above, “When God is not honored, creaturely life disintegrates and degenerates. The end result is a life filled with terror.” Of course! Where there are “no guards, no limits or boundaries…, everything is continually at risk.” So, there is a kind of sub-dermal, unspoken, often unacknowledged dread that permeates the soul of humanity that says, “There is no God.”
Interestingly, the Psalmist in verse 5b says that it is the presence of God, not his absence, that produces this dread; “for God is present in the company of the righteous.” Is the idea here that God’s continued presence with his poor persecuted people strikes terror into the hearts of the wicked who devour the poor like bread? In spite of all the centuries of opposition to the company of the righteous, they still stand and even flourish, as a testimony to the presence of God with them. And that fills their persecutors with an unnamed dread of the God they have dismissed.
However we understand that dread, the Psalmist is very clear that he expects God to finally save his people. Already now, Yahweh is their refuge. As we wait for the Lord to appear and make all things new, we have a hiding place in the Rock of Ages. And he will come out of Zion, which meant the earthly Jerusalem for the Jews who read this first and it means the heavenly Jerusalem for Christians who read it today. While Psalm 14 may be a sharp rebuke to believers who are practical atheists as evidenced by their lives, it is also a warm encouragement to those believers who are still focused on the God who comes. Verse 7 is the heartfelt prayer of all who center on God. “Oh, that salvation… would come… When God restores the fortunes of his people, all will rejoice.”
Salvation will come, when Christ comes. Indeed, he already has. And Psalm 14 offers us two ways to preach Christ to a world and a church that looks like Psalm 14. First, we can pick up on Paul’s use of this Psalm and preach the Good News of justification by faith alone. Whether we focus on the whole world in which no one does good or on those practical atheists in the church, we can say, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are freely justified by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:22-24).”
Or we can preach about the coming kingdom of God in which God will make all things right. Psalm 14 is an indictment of the age old human effort to manage the world in ways we think are better than the ways of Yahweh. By pushing God to the margins and making man the measure of things, the world will be a better place. That was the first lie, the greatest temptation, the energizing dream of a rebellious humanity. But it has always led to a fall, and brokenness, and terror, and death. There is only one way that life works, and that is with the King on the throne.
So, Psalm 14 leads us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And it calls us to organize our lives in a kingdom way. Psalm 14 is not simply an argument that fools can’t overthrow God’s governance, but also an assurance that God governs for “his people,” “the poor” and “the righteous.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.”
One way to connect Psalm 14 with the moral and spiritual climate of our culture is to tap into the blazing debate about morality and theology. On the one side, traditional theists have always claimed that humans can’t be good without God. “If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” said Dostoevsky. “Nonsense,” thunder Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. God is the problem. In God’s name, intolerance and persecution and violence have spread over the earth. Adding to the debate is a book by the Harvard humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein. Good Without God argues that classical humanism is perfectly capable producing goodness in humanity without reference to God.
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