Tag Archives: Psalm 14

Psalm 53 Reflecting Again on the Unjust

Herny Ossawa Tanner, Sodom and Gomorrah (1920)

Psalm 53

To the leader: according to Mahalath. A Maskil of David.
1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts; there is no one who does good.
2 God looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
3 They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
4 Have they no knowledge[1], those evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon God?
5 There they shall be in great terror, in terror such as has not been. For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them.
6 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When God restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

When I was putting together my first collection of poems to publish, Creative Words, I almost included the same poem twice. It made it through several edits by me and two editors who looked at the work. In one of my final times working through edits I discovered the duplication. I share this story because Psalm 53 is a close twin of Psalm 14, which may seem incredible when one considers that these ancient texts had to be hand copied, but in a large collection it is easy to forget what one has previously included in the collection. There are some differences, Psalm 53 indicates that it is ‘according to the Mahalath’ which probably indicates the tune or melody for the Psalm and this Psalm, unlike its twin, uses the generic ‘Elohim’ (God) throughout instead of the name of God (often indicated as LORD in English translations). Even though the poem mainly follows its twin there are some additional subtle changes that make it worth treating independently and its placement within this portion of the Psalter helps give some additional insights into reading the Psalm.

In the worldview of the ancient Middle East there is no concept of a world without God or gods but here we encounter one who functions as a practical atheist. In Hebrew, the heart is the seat of will and decision making, and so the one who says in their heart ‘There is no God’ chooses to live in a way that assumes that God or gods will not intervene in their life. The fool here is not unintelligent but instead acts in a way that does damage to the community. The lack of wisdom here is acting in a way that neglects the commitments to the community as described in the law, and instead choosing a way of life that views people as a consumable commodity that can be consumed as easily as bread. These foolish and perverse ones may be within the people of God, or they may be from other nations who are imposing their practices upon the chosen people, but the damage done by this godless lifestyle calls out for judgment.

This foolish humanity which the Psalmist finds themselves surrounded by creates an inhospitable world. The image of God looking down from heaven seeking the wise ones who live according to justice and finding only fallen, perverse evildoers who practice this metaphorically cannibalistic injustice echoes the story of the LORD’s journey to Sodom and Gomorrah. The LORD encounters hospitality from Abraham but goes to investigate the outcry of inhospitality and injustice from these towns which become synonymous with the judgment of God upon these unethical fools. The story of Sodom (Genesis 18: 16-19:29) is frequently misunderstood as being about God’s judgment on homosexuality, but what the story reflects is a society that does not practice hospitality to strangers and sees those strangers, and even residents, as resources to be exploited. The LORD was willing to accede to Abraham’s request not to destroy the city if ten righteous are found within this community, but the divine figures in the story[2] only find Lot who is willing to practice hospitality in this inhospitable place. Many modern people are uncomfortable with these stories of God judging these communities, but the faith of the Psalmist relies upon a God who does judge and does not allow for injustice to continue forever.

The Psalmist trusts that those who live this foolish life will eventually be shamed, rejected, and experience the terror that they have inflicted on others. Unlike the wise who are buried when they die, these foolish ones have their bones scattered and they lie forgotten in the earth. Perhaps the Psalmist envisions a judgment of those who have ‘eaten the people like they eat bread’ like the one associated with Sodom. Regardless of what form the judgement takes, they believe in a God who is an executor of justice and a protector of the community from these godless ones who corrupt the earth. The times of misfortune for the wise ones who live according to the covenant are temporary. The righteous can commit the judgment of the foolish injustice which dominates their world to their God who will bring about deliverance.

[1] The knowledge here is probably closer to the French word connaître, which refers to the knowing of a person rather than the knowing of a fact. As Beth Tanner notes the word is an active verb and the activity of ‘not knowing’ is active rather than passive. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 465) This would be more active than the NRSV’s ‘Have they no knowledge.’ These evildoers actively choose not to enter into the relational knowing of God.

[2] The actors change between men at the beginning of Genesis 18, to the LORD who speaks to Abraham and finally to angels who arrive in Sodom.

Psalm 14- The Wisdom of Holding to the Covenant

Jozsef Somogyi's statue of the Tired Man in Mako, Hungary

Jozsef Somogyi’s statue of the Tired Man in Mako, Hungary

Psalm 14

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.