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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Am I the One Saying “No”? - Some Thoughts on Psalm 14

Probably the first thing to note is that Psalm 14 is almost completely, word for word, replicated in Psalm 53.  Lay them side by side; you’ll see it.[i] The endings are different, and Yahweh in 14 is replaced with Elohim in 53.  Some have suggested that the divergences are the result of the different traditions in the Northern (53) and Southern (14) kingdoms.[ii]  Which came first?  Or did they both deviate from another source?  Short of building a time machine, we might never know.

I have heard many preachers, commentators, and Sunday School teachers apply this psalm (“The fool says in his heart, “there is no God”…) to modern day Atheists.  One commentary on my shelves refers to the “they” in these verses as “arrogant materialists” and says “this may well be the twentieth-century man.”[iii]  But I think this might be a mistake.   This is not about atheism – the philosophical position that God (gods) does (do) not exist. 

For one thing the words “there is” in the line “The fool says in his heart there is no god…” are not actually in the Hebrew; they are supplied by the translators.  The literal text says “The fool says in his heart no god.”  [iv]  This can justifiably be read as someone who says “no” to God, one who defies God and his commands.  And this reading fits very well with rest of the psalm.

And even if it were to be applied to those “arrogant materialists” those “atheists” this psalm resists a simple us –vs. - them kind of interpretation.  “They” (whoever “they” are) are corrupt and have done abominable works.  But keep reading, “there is none who does good.”  The apostle Paul quotes from this psalm in his letter to the Romans and makes it even more clear, “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God.  They have all turned aside…[v]

We all, at one point or many points, have been guilty of this stubborn refusal to acknowledge God.  Before we start using this psalm as an aggressive attack on those “foolish” atheists who refuse to accept the existence of God, it would be best to look inward.  Am I the one saying “no” to God?

Dahood, Mitchell Anchor Bible Vol. 16: Psalms 1 – 50,  Doubleday & Company, Inc,
Garden City, NY 1966 – page 81
[iii] Kidner, Derek,  Psalms 1 – 72: An Introduction & Commentary, Intervarsity Press,
Downers Grove, IL 1973. – page 79
[v] Romans 3: 10 - 12

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