“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” – Psalm 14
By: Alistair Brown
I have never understood the logic of people who run Ponzi schemes. A Ponzi scheme is named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant to the United States who became notorious for defrauding vast numbers of people. A Ponzi scheme promises high returns, and rewards its early investors very richly.
But those high dividends are usually being paid from the new capital invested by those who join the scheme later because they also want to get rich quick. As long as more people join, there is money to pay out, but inevitably the number of new investors dries up and the scheme collapses.
So in a couple of ways, I don’t understand the logic of those who run these schemes:
1) I don’t understand how they can be so cruel. They know ordinary people are emptying their bank accounts to invest into their scheme. Those people will lose it all; the investors will be left with nothing. Many who gave their money to Charles Ponzi in 1919 and 1920 had mortgaged their homes and invested their life savings with him. They didn’t take their early dividends. The returns were so high they reinvested their money with him, hence they lost everything. Ponzi, and others like him, are exploiters of the worst kind.
2) I don’t understand how they think they can get away with it. Probably a few schemers flee the country with vast amounts of money just in time, but most are caught and heavily punished. Charles Ponzi raked in $20 million – which would be worth more than ten times that amount today – but kept his scheme going for only just over a year before it all crashed around him. He was arrested, went to jail for years, and was eventually deported from America to Italy because he had never become a citizen. He spent his last years in poverty and failing health, and died in 1949.
Sadly there were many who defrauded the weak before Ponzi and there have been many since. They are cruel and foolish. They have no pity on others, and no thought to the eventual serious consequences for their own lives.
Both those themes – no pity for others, and no thought of consequences – could apply to those described in today’s psalm.
1 The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.
2 The Lord looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
3 All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
4 Do all these evildoers know nothing?
They devour my people as though eating bread;
they never call on the Lord.
5 But there they are, overwhelmed with dread,
for God is present in the company of the righteous.
6 You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.
7 Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the Lord restores his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!
Psalm 14 is almost identical to Psalm 53. The small differences occur because the words of the psalm will have been used in different contexts – like when we use a favorite hymn but add a verse for a special occasion. Both versions of this psalm have ended up in the Bible’s collection.
In each case, the psalm is about the stupidity and wickedness of those who ignore God and exploit people as if there would never be a day of reckoning. But, there is the assurance that God sees what is happening, acts on behalf of those who are hurt, and will one day bring his full salvation to those who trust and obey him.
The dominant theme is the folly of those who live without thought of God.
Psalm 14 may have one of the most dramatic opening verses of all psalms:
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (v.1)
There are two things to note right away.
First, the New International Version has a footnote for this verse, and it tells us that “fool” – which is the Hebrew word nāḇāl – means someone who is morally deficient. He’s not merely stupid, as if he can’t think straight. Rather someone described as nāḇāl is a fool like an adulterer or bank robber or embezzler. He’s not unintelligent, but he is wicked. There’s even a sense of defiance in the meaning, like a child who resents being told to tidy her room so instead switches on the TV or calls her friend, anything other than obey Mom or Dad. The kind of fool described in the psalm may be very clever, but does what is wrong and does it with defiance.
Second, we think of someone who says “there is no God” as an atheist, a person who denies God’s existence. That’s not the meaning here. This fool engages in practical atheism, not actual atheism.
Let me explain. Imagine someone with an exaggerated sense of his own self-importance, maybe the richest and best known businessman in town. He drives off in his car knowing he’s had one or two drinks too many. And he puts the pedal to the metal, driving well beyond the speed limit. His friend is with him. His friend says: “You’d better watch out the police don’t catch you!” “Huh!” says the businessman roughly, “There are no police, at least none who’d dare to give me a ticket.”
Our drunk and reckless businessman is not denying the existence of police, but he is discounting them. He knows the laws, but he’s flaunting them and disregarding those whose job is to enforce them. “They don’t count. They won’t change what I want to do,” he’s saying.
This psalm likewise addresses the dangerous folly of those who deny God, who live as they please, believing neither God nor anyone else will hold them to account. No wonder the psalmist writes: “They are corrupt, their deeds are vile.”
But this psalm does not merely condemn or dismiss those who live like Charles Ponzi. It has a broader cutting edge. The psalm is not only about those who defy God in ways that make media headlines. According to Psalm 14, who is it who ignores God and who is it who lives as if God has no authority? Answer: ‘All of us.’
There is no one who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
This is a serious and severe condemnation, and affects every person on the face of the earth. There is some hyperbole in the words because the writer of the psalm, David, later refers to “the company of the righteous” (v.5). The righteous are not included in the condemnation since they have not turned away from God.
But this is still no small statement. Certainly there are those whose sins are notorious because their evil, their corruption, their exploitation of the innocent is obvious.
But then there are others who think of themselves as believers. If you asked if they are among “the righteous,” they’d insist they are.
- In ancient Israel those people would be regular synagogue or Temple worshipers.
- In New Testament times they would meet with the believers.
- In our day they would be in church, perhaps leaders or even pastors.
But in small ways or big ways they would live very differently from the laws of God.
I have known church leaders who sexually abused their own children for many years; church leaders who stole money given for the church’s work; church leaders who took bribes from building firms who wanted a contract for church work; and, I have known a vast number more who day by day ignored the commands of God because they were inconvenient, they would stop them doing what they wanted to do.
Jesus had tough words for people like that:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt. 7:21-23)
Paul uses words from this psalm in his letter to the Romans, and sums up the key message very succinctly: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
And the “fools” are those who think none of this matters. They live as they please. They indulge themselves. They ignore God’s laws. And because they do they are guilty of the ultimate folly.
For one thing, because God sees what they do. In verse 2 of this psalm David writes: “The LORD looks down from heaven on all mankind.”
No-one can hide from God and nothing, not even our most private thoughts, are a secret to him. The prophet Samuel was told by God:
The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart. (1 Sam. 16: 7)
God knows. Fools may treat God as absent or impotent. But he is neither and there will be a day of reckoning. Deut. 32: 35 says:
It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
In due time their foot will slip;
their day of disaster is near
and their doom rushes upon them.
And there is another reason why defying God is stupendous folly: because people persist even against the voice of conscience or in denial of a deep dread in their heart. They know that what they do, how they live, is wrong. They know there will be consequences. But still they continue. A paraphrase of verses 4 and 5 of this psalm might be: They go on and on exploiting the weak and ignoring God even when they sense God among his people.
I was driving home late one wild, stormy night. I was out in open countryside, the lights on my car barely able to pick out the road through the driving rain. I came down a steep hill, rounded a bend and thought: “The road ahead is black – black?” Instantly I slammed on the brakes. The blackness was not the road but deep floodwater. The car plowed into the water, I threw the car into reverse and, thankfully, it responded and I got out of the water before damage was done.
But what if I’d kept going? What if I’d been arrogant and stupid, put my foot down and tried to beat the flood by racing through it? I would never have made it. I could have drowned. My car would certainly have been drowned.
And I know people who would have done that. They’d have silenced the voice of sense and silenced the voice of fear, and plunged on in. Only too late would they have found they could not defy that flood.
There is a voice of warning deep inside the worst sinner. Often it’s a voice of fear that life cannot and must not be lived like that. It’s not that the foolish don’t hear that voice. Their folly is that they defy it. They turn away from God, believing they can conquer anything. They are wrong. One day their practical atheism will cost them dearly.
Psalm 14 ends with hope, with the promise of God’s rescue for those who look to him.
Psalm 14 has a severe warning for those who turn from God, but – happily – closes with great hope for those who turn to God.
Verse 5 promises God’s presence for those who live by his law.
Verse 6 assures those who suffer at the hands of the wrongdoers that God is their refuge.
Verse 7 is a cry of confidence that the Lord will restore his people.
So, from this psalm comes both a warning and an assurance.
The warning is against what we have called practical atheism – no matter what you believe in your head, you deny God in your heart. Denying God in your heart will mean half-hearted discipleship and half-agenda obedience. And that’s not Christianity.
Alison and I remember a friend called John turning up at our home unexpectedly. Would you like coffee? Yes, John would. Would you like a cookie with that coffee? Yes, he would. So the coffee was put before him and so was the cookie jar.
John’s hand went into the jar, came out with a cookie. He took one bite before deciding he didn’t really like that cookie, and it was laid down on the table. In John’s hand went again, out came another cookie, and again one bite and he laid that one down as well. I can’t remember if he struck gold with the cookies on the third, fourth or fifth attempt, but there was plenty cookie debris on our table by the time John left. John wasn’t going to take what he didn’t like, and being polite clearly didn’t motivate him. So he searched out what suited him and left the rest.
Some seem to think they can search out what suits them from Christianity – certainly they want forgiveness, hopefully some joy and peace, and of course a promise of eternal life – but they won’t take sacrifice, or suffering, or commitment, or service.
Christianity is not a cookie jar from which you can take what you like and leave what you don’t. To be surrendered to God through Christ is to lay down your life every day:
Every moral standard.
His – all his – and always his. No backing away when it’s tough. No vacations from the faith when we feel like living differently.
The psalmist said the Lord looks down to see if there are any who understand and seek God. The warning is to be sure we are those who understand and we are those who seek God.
The assurance in Psalm 14 is that there is a God, and he is a mighty God. He is never absent, never powerless, never neglectful, and he is always seeing, always with his people, always our refuge, always ready to save.
He is so ready to save that he sent his Son into the world. Yes, all have sinned and come short of God’s standard, but we have a Savior, Jesus Christ. Yes, we fail, yes we sin, yes our promises are too often not kept. But Jesus died for these sins and all sins, and as people with a new life and God’s Spirit our hearts are turned God-ward. No matter how often we fail, we get up and we seek God again and reorient our life again to his will and his purposes.
We are saved. We are being saved. And we will be saved. We are a work in progress, and just as David of old longed for the complete restoring of his people, so we long for the complete gathering of all whose lives are Christ’s. That will be in glory, but it will come.
David finished the psalm by looking forward to Jacob rejoicing and Israel being glad, so we too anticipate celebrating God’s goodness because he has redeemed and restored his people and they will spend eternity with him. Praise God.