The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good, not even one.
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the Lord?
There they are in great terror,
for God is with the generation of the righteous.
You would shame the plans of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge.
Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad. (Psalm 14 ESV)
As a child of the 60s who actively followed the Apollo programme, I have a fascination – Star Trek like – for cosmology, astronomy, the universe, and trying to understand writers such as Stephen Hawking and Carlo Rovelli. When I look up at the night sky or go to a planetarium, I can feel a sense of how small we are in the vastness of a still expanding universe. However when the first Earthrise photo appeared from Apollo 8 I recall as a child – and I’ve felt the same when watching the ground beneath me on long haul flights where the landscape is captivating and there are no borders – no dotted lines – to be seen – that we really are all together – bound together – interdependent (even if we think otherwise) on this small blue planet. The top down view helps us see beyond our fences and towns and, I think, rather than making us feel isolated or even insignificant, looking down can help bind us together.
Psalm 14 has that ‘looking down’ perspective and in fact explicitly states that it is the Lord who is looking to see whether any understand reality – life on Earth and life with God. This psalm is a confronting one because it makes the judgement upfront and clear – The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. (Psalm 14:1). God’s perspective claims to see through the clouds, through the houses, through the skin and through the heart and mind. The psalmist says that we are bound together – there is none who does good, not even one.
And we can imagine the scoffers today. We can sense how such words today are rejected. We, who are used to an atheism built on science and the Enlightenment as a foil for religion, can sense how smart it is to cite this psalm at work or at the pub or around Sunday lunch with people who claim to be atheists. This psalm was not posted on chariots and driven around city streets. The psalm was not summarised on the coins of the time – remember that coins functioned also as newspapers of the ancient world. This psalm with its top down – God from heaven – view of humanity was a song sung in worship. The instruction for this psalm is ‘To the choirmaster. Of David.’
This is a song undoubtedly sung by Levitical choirs. It may have been sung as people went up to worship. If it was sung in Solomon’s time then it was when people were going to temple or in the temple. After the Exile as the temple was rebuilt, it would have been sung – and because it is a psalm it is also part of the prayer and song book of the faithful. This psalm is not a psalm about other people – the so called atheists – but it is a psalm about us and for us who are always in danger of ‘practical atheism’ – of living as if God isn’t around – out of sight, out of mind, as if God doesn’t exist.
The psalm is a challenge to the faithful, the believers, the strugglers in their faith, and to those who so compartmentalise their lives that they know the right words to say about God, to say to God, but they live as if those words have no meaning for them personally.
The psalm is a reminder to all people that beneath the surface lurks rebellion towards God, corruption, selfishness, which translates very much in how we treat those around us. Those more powerful than us we placate while those less powerful we devour or use. And this message doesn’t come home to us when we’re in crisis or turmoil – having abused someone or when we are abused or ‘got at’ by others – no, this psalm sets the landscape, the big picture view, the ‘looking down’ view of life and challenges us to view ourselves from God’s perspective.
Whom have we wronged?
Whom have we used?
Who has wronged us?
Who has used us?
I think it very interesting that the psalmist in verse 5 states: There they are in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous.
Where are these people who live as if there is no god? Where is this great terror? I think it must be a reminder of worship and the encounter between sinful people and a holy God. Now this will happen at the end of the age which will be a moment of worship for every knee will bow in heaven, on Earth and under the Earth and, we believe as Christians, that everyone will acknowledge and confess Jesus as Lord. Of course this can also happen at each encounter with God – and we begin the Divine service with confession and absolution precisely because we are sinners – though we are saints – children of God – our sins have tripped us up and hurt those around us, just as we have suffered the sins of others – and we come to receive a new start, a change, and strength to walk differently in the future.
In the psalms the people come to worship a God who is for the orphan, the widow, those who are the fodder for the powerful. God is on the side of the righteous and promises to rescue and help them. God will vindicate the downtrodden who call to him. Such a message is a comfort for those suffering but also a warning for those causing the suffering.
And the reality is that this psalm can speak to us in both ways for we might be behaving badly to someone while at the same time receiving grief from someone else. Part of the scandal of clerical abuse is that people are abused while other people are genuinely helped and never abused. The problem with domestic violence is that the monster at home might be a pillar of good behaviour at work or in the community.
God addresses us completely. For Lutherans this is very clear in the two ways God speaks – Law and Gospel. The Law suggests ‘scary God’ – angry, holy, expecting standards to be met. The Gospel suggests ‘gracious God’ – forgiving, merciful, and expecting love to motivate our behaviour towards him and those around us.
And we have come again – made an effort on a Sunday morning / afternoon – to come to God – the building isn’t important – but the story of the cross is central. This where we stand and look up at the one hanging there who looks down on us. To say that this God doesn’t exist is truly foolish for only this God in the supermarket of religion is different to all the other gods. This God is so not like us – so not a bigger version of us – so not capricious, so not a trickster, so not impersonal – that we can dare hope that sins can be forgiven, shame removed, and compassion and mercy are lifestyles that are actually possible. And the mystery of this Creator God of love is that he has become one of us – truly human – to be the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. If you’re going to reject gods, why reject, push away the one whose message is of love and rescue and living with meaning and purpose?
Jesus, on the cross, looked down and while his focus was no doubt on those before him, in one sense all of humanity was before him and he prayed, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34a). That is the human lot on Planet Earth – we sin and God desires to forgive. We live for the moment and think we can control the consequences but the world in our image is not better after all. When that message of our sin and God’s grace reaches us – grabs us – living, and I’m talking the day-to-day living, the living where we choose what we doing, how we’re behaving, how we are treating others and how we are treated by others becomes infused with Jesus and his commitment to service and sacrifice. The world, in turn, says and mocks. ‘What fools you are who follow this crucified man!’
Paul would write to the Corinthians, ‘For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV).
And that power is for living – a life in all its fullness.
- Psalm 14