Psalm 14 Fools may say in their hearts, “there is no God,” but the preacher says in her heart, “Thank God for Paul.”
For surely—she says to herself—the only way to read Psalm 14 (and it’s northern near-twin, Psalm 53) is to invoke Paul’s usage: universalizing the plight of the unrighteous to include both Jews and Gentiles in Romans 3 (“there is no one who does good, not even one”). While the Psalmist makes overtures toward universal iniquity in the first three verses, she jukes right in verse 4, and we realize that all along the “fools,” the “perverse,” and the “corrupt” really referred to the enemies of the Lord, not… y’know… everybody everybody. Paul, on the other hand, reliably assures us that indeed, “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law….” (v 20).
But hold up, dear preacher! Before you reach for your New Testament monocle, this Psalm is worth reading on its own terms. Let Paul cool his heels a moment; he can have it back when we’re done.
Psalm 14, read as a proposition regarding the moral state of every human being on earth, doesn’t make sense. When God looks upon humankind, are there really no righteous to be found? Then where do the righteous come from that keep God’s company in verse 5? Are the poor counted among the “all” who have gone astray or are they, in verse 6, somehow exempt as victims of the evil(er?)doers? The numbers aren’t adding up: this Psalmist doesn’t sustain modern scrutiny. Unless, of course, we’ve simply forgotten that we must read her work less like a creed and more like a song.
This Psalmist is lamenting the ubiquity of an atheism that is functional, not analytical. The fools who say “there is no God” are not fools for having calculated an error in fact. The problem here is not that they failed to pass the divine multiple choice quiz. The problem is that they have looked at the world and concluded, “God has nothing to do with this,” and then acted accordingly.
What might you do if you were to conclude that God doesn’t care what happens in the world?
You might eat people up for breakfast, like bread (toast, presumably, not being an option in verse 4). You might do abominable things, like living a life of comfort at the expense of the poor who are trying to survive. If you were to conclude that God doesn’t care what happens here, then God would not factor into your plans. You would need to live as if God is not your refuge. Your refuge would consist in the labor of your hands in a zero-sum game in which the victor takes all the spoils. You could not afford to live otherwise. The foolishness of the atheist isn’t to be found in a scientific miscalculation; the foolishness is to be found in the reasonable assumption that we need a back-up plan in case this God thing does not work out.
This is why the Psalmist finds the unrighteous everywhere she looks. She’s being hyperbolic, sure, but also existential: to believe that God is our refuge in the land of plucky cannibals who are just being reasonable (“It’s not personal, it’s business!”) requires a superhuman faith. To find the impossible wisdom to seek God in such a world—to make God our “plan”—is nothing short of miraculous. That the Psalmist has the insolence to call the reasonable foolish and the foolish wise is a precursor to the reversal of expectations that will later come to characterize Jesus’ teaching.
Oh look… we’ve found our way back to the New Testament after all! Perhaps Paul finds Psalm 14 to be the perfect illustration for the impossibility of righteousness because Psalm 14 is already a plea for nothing less than the foolishness of faith, revealed to be the very wisdom of God.