You can’t get out of this!
“But really! This psalm can’t be about me! I’m a Christian—I do believe in God! I do seek after Him! I do good things!”
I hear you, I hear you, and I am in no position to argue with you. I get defensive when I read this Psalm too! But as much as I wish it did, I don’t think the scriptures allow us to exempt ourselves from the condemnation of this passage. Bear with me as I make the case that we all play the fool–not from my own opinion–but from the passage itself and the apostle Paul’s use of it in the epistle to the Romans.
The Internal Case
Psalm 14 is full of strong statements. Not only is the charge laid out that the practical atheist is a fool, but along with that come moral judgments–and every one of these has a universal application. Twice David says, “There is no one who does good,” and the second time, as if anticipating our objections, he continues emphatically, “not even one.”
But are there no special cases, are all men sinful? ‘Yes,’ says the Psalmist, in a manner not to be mistaken, ‘they are.’ He has put it positively, he repeats it negatively, ‘There is none that doeth good, no, not one.’ The Hebrew phrase is an utter denial concerning any mere man that he of himself doeth good. What can be more sweeping? This is the verdict of the all-seeing Jehovah, who cannot exaggerate or mistake. As if no hope of finding a solitary specimen of a good man among the unrenewed human family might be harboured for an instant. The Holy Spirit is not content with saying all and altogether, but adds the crushing threefold negative, ‘none, no, not one.’
And this judgment is not the opinion of David. As we see in verse two, “The LORD [YHWH] has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men”–it is the result of an investigation conducted by Yahweh, God Himself!
“But what about the fact that the second half of the passage seems to be talking about the victims of the corrupt individuals called out in the first half? Surely there is an ‘us versus them’ scenario in mind there!”
We certainly can’t avoid wrestling with the latter half of Psalm 14, especially the statement that the LORD is the refuge of the afflicted righteous in verses five and six. How do we make sense of this?
In my efforts to exempt the “righteous” (and myself with them) from the sweeping condemnation in verse one, I took a closer look at the investigation performed by God Himself in verses two and three. Remembering that sometimes a biblical phrase is used that implies a certain group distinct from another group (e.g. “nations” in the scriptures always means Gentiles distinct from Jews), I thought to check in on the phrase “sons of men”. Could it be used to designate a certain subset of the human population, while excluding the rest of us who actually do seek after God?
It turns out the phrase “sons of men” is literally “sons of Adam” or “people/descendants of Adam. Think about that for a minute… It would be hard to come up with a more inclusive term for all of humanity.
No, you really can’t get out of this.
The External Case
If you are still inclined to exempt yourself from the condemnation of practical atheism in this psalm, consider the fact that there’s a remix: Psalm 53. This Psalm is only slightly different from Psalm 14. The Hebrew scribes were far too meticulous to have accidentally duplicated the psalm, so the only feasible explanation is that David rewrote the psalm with a few variations because it was such an important message as to deserve restatement.
And, as if that were not enough, the Apostle Paul makes the application abundantly clear in Romans chapter 3. After spending the previous two chapters demonstrating that Gentles are guilty before God because they have violated the laws that He has written in their hearts, and Jews are guilty before God because they have violated the law of Moses, he uses Psalm 14 to tie these arguments together and prove that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Take a look at Romans 3:9-12:
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’
So tell me, do you find yourself anywhere outside of the categories of Jew + Gentile? Are you “better than they”?
No, you really can’t get out of this.
It would seem the fool’s hat fits all of us. But since we’re all equal in this regard, does it really matter? Just how big of a deal is this? Check out Part Three for the answer.