This is a prophetic Psalm that has some connections theologically to the themes in Romans 3.
Verse 1a: This Psalm begins with a very common maxim found throughout the Wisdom literature that the fool is one who says there is no god. The Scriptures never attempt to prove that God exists. From Genesis 1 “In the beginning God,” to the end of Revelation the Scriptures simply assume that God is. This assumption does not prove that God exists in the scientific or mathematic understanding of proof. The Scriptures simply assume that God is and to believe in God is a matter of faith. Regardless of this faith as the foundation of one’s belief in God, the Scriptures are clear that only the fool does not believe in God. This verse (and others like it) should not be used to throw in the face of an atheist or thoughtful agnostic, even as the Scriptures suggest that to not believe in god is foolish. This foolishness is more moral than cognitive. This foolish is not simply about a lack of knowledge but a failure to acknowledge and trust God. When God is not trusted or acknowledged persons will tend to rely upon themselves and make themselves or some other creation god. This is simply a verse about those who do not want to be accountable.
1b: This verse seems to indicate that those who do not believe in god are corrupt, vile and no one does good. What is not entirely clear is if this statement is for the fools that do not believe in God or all persons in the spirit of Romans 3:23. It appears probable that this declaration seems focused on all humanity.
Verse 2: notes that the Lord is watching to see if there are persons seeking after God. While God cannot be proven, Christians affirm that God has and is revealing Godself to those who seek God. While even these revelations do not qualify as proof they are the foundation of one’s faith. The foolish=wicked fail to affirm God’s sovereignty over humanity. The wise seek those who honor, trust, and follow God. To seek after God is also connected with recognizing and submitting to God’s rule.
Verse 3: If it was not clear in verse 1 if all or a select few were not good, verse three seems to offer a large net that all have been corrupt and no one is doing good. Theologically the notion of original sin does seem to be at work. Original Sin’s importance is not to offer a blame game upon Adam and Eve, but recognizes that since all are sinful, no person is good on their own. All persons are in need of God’s healing and transformation. Paul draws upon Psalm 14: 1 and 3 in Romans 3 as a connection to the need of forgiveness for all persons.
Verse 4 then shifts to two categories of those who do evil as those who are devouring “my people.”
Verses 5-6 are God’s announcement of judgment upon the evildoers who are against God’s people and the poor.
Verse 5 Those who are devouring God’s people are also drowning in dread because God is present with God’s people who they are devouring. In this way the evil doers are devouring the holy of God.
Verse 6: The main subject continues to be these evildoers but the one they are hurting have transitioned from God’s people to the poor. As the evildoers hurt and frustrate the poor, the Lord is the refuge of these poor.
Verse 7: Some find this verse as likely added in a post-exilic setting. This speaks of the salvation of the all Israel where the Lord will help restore the blessing and fortune of God’s people. Because of this Israel and Jacob should not be discouraged at the devastation of the foolish evildoers. God is the one who will bring hope and restore Israel.
Preaching this Text
This Psalm offers a prophetic challenge in a couple of directions. Vv. 1-3 affirms that all persons have done evil and are thus in need of God’s forgiveness and help. While this is not great news, it also solidifies that all persons are in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. While the reality of our sin is not a blessing, it is even more dangerous to assume one does not struggle with sin and thus feels that their present situation is normal and not a problem. The reality is that most people I interact with know full well their shortcomings. So the invitation is not despair, but to celebrate that even as people have sin God desires to heal and forgive. These verse remind persons that any attempt to navigate life without God will prove to be a missing out of God’s desire and hope for them.
In this way, wickedness according to Scripture is an attempt to be self-secure, autonomous and focused on the self. Ironically, this is often praised in the culture. Moreover, what does practical atheism really look like, even for Christians? What does it mean to rely upon God, to seek and be transformed by what God hopes for us, not just simply asking God to endorse our plans. At a deep level, it is a question of trust.
Vv-4-6 suggest that sin does not have the last word. God can gather these sinners into the company of the righteous, the people of Israel, and the church. God does not leave humanity simply stuck in sin, but seeks to redeem them, but notice this redemption happens in the community of faith. Even though humans cannot do good on their own, by God’s grace, healing and resurrection life.
In the end, this is a prophetic psalm offering a path to life. It will not be in self-sufficiency and hurting others, but in trusting in God. Our need for God and others is part of the means towards the life God created us for. While no one can do God on their own, with God new life and grace is possible.
This psalm then ends with a call for justice and advocacy for the poor. In a culture of sin, there are often those who do the evil and those who experience the brunt of that evil. While the powerful must confess their sin, great care should be given to those who are on the margins of life.
Finally, the psalm offers a prophetic hope that God is at work redeeming the world. The invitation is to participate in what God is already doing.