Jozsef Somogyi’s statue of the Tired Man in Mako, Hungary
To the leader. Of David.
1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.
2 The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.
3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.
4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the LORD?
5 There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
6 You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the LORD is their refuge.
7 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.
In the ancient Middle East the idea of a godless world is unknown. However, in the Psalmist’s time and in every time there are those who functioned as practical atheists, whose spoken beliefs had little or no impact on their decisions throughout their lives. The heart in the Hebrew world view was not the seat of emotion but the seat of decision making and will. The heart is where actions spring from. Note that the Psalm does not say ‘Fools say with their mouths’ but ‘Fools say in their hearts.’ As the Psalm unfolds we see the way that the foolish actions are really actions against the covenant that God has made with the people of Israel. The LORD looks for those who are seeking the will of God. As Psalm 1 can state, “but their (the wise/righteous) delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.” (Psalm 1.2)
The fool is known by what they do and their actions reflect a betrayal of the justice that was considered essential to the covenant. The book of Deuteronomy dwells frequently on the fear that the people in prosperity will “forget the LORD their God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances and his statutes,” (Deuteronomy 8. 11) and the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien will be denied justice. When the acquisition of wealth becomes more important than the neighbor then the people have forgotten the LORD their God. When the people turn away from placing God at the center of their day to day actions and decisions the result is the perversion of the covenant people. They are no longer the salt of the earth but rather they are corrupt and their corruption spreads to everything around them. The actions of the people have consequences for not only themselves, but also for the community and the very land that they live upon.
The language of the Psalm also reaches into the language of the prophetic. The dark line speaking about the wicked “who eat up my people as they eat bread,” reaches a fuller exposition in Micah. In Micah, speaking to the rulers who have turned away from the covenant, the prophet can say:
you who hate good and love evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones, who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron. (Micah 3. 2f.)
And yet these same leaders may use their words to cry upon the LORD, but God will not answer them.
Unlike Psalm 13 which cries out for immediate action, Psalm 14 takes more of a tone of the inevitability of God’s action on behalf of the poor. The hearer is cautioned to take the way of the wise and the side of the poor for that is the side of God. God hears and sees and protects the powerless and the vulnerable. Those wise whose hearts are turned to God know that their actions towards the vulnerable and the powerless are also seen and weighed by God.
A biblical image that comes to mind with this Psalm is the ending of Solomon’s reign and the beginning of his son, Rehoboam’s reign. Solomon is initially lifted up as being wise and following the way of the LORD but in 1 Kings 11 Solomon’s heart is turned away from the LORD. When he dies and his son takes the throne there is already conflict within the nation of Israel, the economic policies of Solomon have placed a heavy burden on the population and the assembly of Israel asks for relief from Rehoboam. Rehoboam refuses to relieve any of the economic burdens on the people and the kingdom is spit in two, never to be united again. (1 Kings 12) The book of Kings looks upon this split as God’s judgment upon the house of David for turning their heart away from the LORD, even though God did not act in supernatural ways but rather simply didn’t sustain the reign of the line of David over the entire house of Israel.
So how do we approach this Psalm in our secular world that is influenced by global economic corporations? For me the Psalm speaks to the faithful as a way of remembering what is it to set one’s heart upon the LORD and how loving the LORD with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength is linked to loving and protecting one’s neighbor. When we forget this connection we too can become corrupt and allow the community and the environment around us to become corrupted by short term economic interests at the expense of our neighbor. Entering into the prophetic worldview of the scriptures forces us to consider the impact of the decisions we make upon the life of my neighbor’s and especially the lives of the vulnerable.