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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 14

Verses 1-7

Psalms 14:1-7

THIS psalm springs from the same situation as Psalms 10:1-18; Psalms 12:1-8. It has several points of likeness to both. It resembles the former in its attribution to "the fool" of the heart speech, "There is no God," and the latter in its use of the phrases "sons of men" and "generation" as ethical terms and in its thought of a Divine interference as the source of safety for the righteous. We have thus three psalms closely connected, but separated from each other by Psalms 11:1-7; Psalms 13:1-6. Now it is observable that these three have no personal references, and that the two which part them have. It would appear that the five are arranged on the principle of alternating a general complaint of the evil of the times with a more personal pleading of an individual sufferer. It is also noticeable that these five psalms-a little group of wailing and sighs-are marked off from the cognate Psalms 3:1-8; Psalms 4:1-8; Psalms 5:1-12; Psalms 6:1-10; Psalms 7:1-17; Psalms 16:1-11; Psalms 17:1-15, by two (Psalms 8:1-9; Psalms 15:1-5) in an entirely different tone. A second recast of this psalm appears in the Elohistic Book, {Psalms 53:1-6} the characteristics of which will be dealt with there. This is probably the original.

The structure of the psalm is simple, but is not carried out completely. It should consist of seven verses each having three clauses, and so having stamped on it the sacred Numbers 3:1-51; Numbers 7:1-89, but Psalms 14:5 and Psalms 14:6 each want a clause, and are the more vehement from their brevity.

The heavy fact of widespread corruption presses on the psalmist, and starts a train of thought which begins with a sad picture of the deluge of evil, rises to a vision of God’s judgment of and on it, triumphs in the prospect of the sudden panic which shall shake the souls of the "workers of iniquity" when they see that God is with the righteous, and ends with a sigh for the coming of that time. The staple of the poem is but the familiar contrast of a corrupt world and a righteous God who judges, but it is cast into very dramatic and vivid form here.

We listen first (Psalms 14:1) to the psalmist’s judgment of his generation. Probably it was very unlike the rosy hues in which a heart less in contact with God and the unseen would have painted the condition of things. Eras of great culture and material prosperity may have a very seamy side, which eyes accustomed to the light of God cannot fail to see. The root of the evil lay, as the psalmist believed, in a practical denial of God; and whoever thus denied Him was "a fool." It does not need formulated atheism in order to say in one’s heart, "There is no God." Practical denial or neglect of His working in the world, rather than a creed of negation, is in the psalmist’s mind. In effect, we say that there is no God when we shut Him up in a far-off heaven, and never think of Him as concerned in our affairs. To strip Him of His justice and rob Him of His control is the part of a fool. For the Biblical conception of folly is moral perversity rather than intellectual feebleness, and whoever is morally and religiously wrong cannot be in reality intellectually right.

The practical denial of God lies at the root of two forms of evil. Positively, "they have made their doings corrupt and abominable"-rotten in themselves and sickening and loathsome to pure hearts and to God. Negatively, they do no good things. That is the dreary estimate of his contemporaries forced on this sad-hearted singer, because he himself had so thrillingly felt God’s touch and had therefore been smitten with loathing of men’s low ways and with a passion for goodness. "Sursum corda" is the only consolation for such hearts.

So the next wave of thought (Psalms 14:2) brings into his consciousness the solemn contrast between the godless noise and activity of earth and the silent gaze of God, that marks it all. The strong anthropomorphism of the vivid picture recalls the stories of the Deluge, of Babel, and of Sodom, and casts an emotional hue over the abstract thought of the Divine omniscience and observance. The purpose of the Divine quest is set forth with deep insight, as being the finding of even one good, devout man. It is the anticipation of Christ’s tender word to the Samaritan that "the Father seeketh such to worship Him." God’s heart yearns to find hearts that turn to Him; He seeks those who seek Him; they who seek Him, and only they, are "wise." Other Scriptures present other reasons for that gaze of God from heaven, but this one in the midst of its solemnity is gracious with revelation of Divine desires.

What is to be the issue of the strongly contrasted situation in these two verses: beneath, a world full of godless lawlessness; above, a fixed eye piercing to the discernment of the inmost nature of actions and characters? Psalms 14:3 answers. We may almost venture to say that it shows a disappointed God, so sharply does it put the difference between what He desired to see and what He did see. The psalmist’s sad estimate is repeated as the result of the Divine search. But it is also increased in emphasis and in compass. For "the whole" (race) is the subject. Universality is insisted on in each clause; "all," "together," "not one," and strong metaphors are used to describe the condition of humanity. It is "turned aside," i.e., from the way of Jehovah; it is become putrid, like a rotting carcase, is rank, and smells to heaven. There is a sad cadence in that "no, not one," as of a hope long cherished and reluctantly abandoned, not without some tinge of wonder at the barren results of such a search. This stern indictment is quoted by St. Paul in Romans as confirmation of his thesis of universal sinfulness; and, however the psalmist had the wickedness of Israel in the foreground of his consciousness, his language is studiously wide and meant to include all "the sons of men."

But this baffled quest cannot be the end. If Jehovah seeks in vain for goodness on earth, earth cannot go on forever in godless riot. Therefore, with eloquent abruptness, the voice from heaven crashes in upon the "fools" in the full career of their folly. The thunder rolls from a clear sky. God speaks in Psalms 14:4. The three clauses of the Divine rebuke roughly correspond with those of Psalms 14:1 in so far as the first points to ignorance as the root of wrong doing, the second charges positive sin, and the third refers to negative evil. "Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge?" The question has almost a tone of surprise, as if even Omniscience found matter of wonder in men’s mysterious love of evil. Jesus "marvelled" at some men’s "unbelief"; and certainly sin is the most inexplicable thing in the world, and might almost astonish God as well as heaven and earth. The meaning of the word "know" here is best learned from Psalms 14:1. "Not to know" is the same thing as to be "a fool." That ignorance, which is moral perversity as well as intellectual blindness, needs not to have a special object stated. Its thick veil hides all real knowledge of God, duty, and consequences from men. It makes evil doing possible. If the evildoer could have flashed before him the realities of things, his hand would stay its crime. It is not true that all sin can be resolved into ignorance, but it is true that criminal ignorance is necessary to make sin possible. A bull shuts its eyes when it charges. Men who do wrong are blind in one eye at least, for, if they saw at the moment what they probably know well enough, sin would be impossible.

This explanation of the words seems more congruous with Psalms 14:1 than that of others, "made to know," i.e. by experience to rue.

Psalms 14:4 b is obscure from its compressed brevity. "Eating my people, they eat bread." The A.V and R.V take their introduction of the "as" of comparison from the old translations. The Hebrew has no term of comparison, but it is not unusual to omit the formal term in rapid and emotional speech, and the picture of the appetite with which a hungry man devours his food may well stand for the relish with which the oppressors swallowed up the innocent. There seems no need for the ingenuities which have been applied to the interpretation of the clause, nor for departing, with Cheyne, from the division of the verse according to the accents. The positive sins of the oppressors, of which we have heard so much in the connected psalms, are here concentrated in their cruel plundering of "my people," by which the whole strain of the psalm leads us to understand the devout kernel of Israel, in contrast with the mass of "men of the earth" in the nation, and not the nation as a whole in contrast with heathen enemies.

The Divine indictment is completed by "They call not on Jehovah." Practical atheism is, of course, prayerless. That negation makes a dreary silence in the noisiest life, and is in one aspect the crown, and in another the foundation, of all evil doing.

The thunder peal of the Divine voice strikes a sudden panic into the hosts of evil. "There they feared a fear." The psalmist conceives the scene and its locality. He does not say, "there" when he means "then," but he pictures the terror seizing the oppressors where they stood when the Divine thunder rolled above their heads; and with him, as with us, "on the spot" implies "at the moment." The epoch of such panic is left vague. Whensoever in any man’s experience that solemn voice sounds, conscience wakes fear. The revelation by any means of a God who sees evil and judges it makes cowards of us all. Probably the psalmist thought of some speedily impending act of judgment; but his juxtaposition of the two facts, the audible voice of God and the swift terror that shakes the heart, contains an eternal truth, which men who whisper in their hearts, "There is no God," need to ponder.

This verse (Psalms 14:5) is the first of the two shorter verses of our psalm, containing only two clauses instead of the regular three; but it does not therefore follow that anything has dropped out. Rather the framework is sufficiently elastic to allow of such variation according to the contents, and the shorter verse is not without a certain increase of vigour, derived from the sharp opposition of its two clauses. On the one hand is the terror of the sinner occasioned by and contrasted with the discovery which stands on the other that God is in the righteous generation. The psalmist sets before himself and us the two camps: the panic stricken and confused mass of enemies ready to break into flight and the little flock of the "righteous generation" at peace in the midst of trouble and foes because God is in the midst of them. No added clause could heighten the effect of that contrast, which is like that of a host of Israel walking in light and safety on one side of the fiery pillar and the army of Pharaoh groping in darkness and dread on the other. The permanent relations of God to the two sorts of men who are found in every generation and community are set forth in that strongly marked contrast.

In Psalms 14:6 the psalmist himself addresses the oppressors, with triumphant confidence born of his previous contemplations. The first clause might be a question, but is more probably a taunting affirmation: "You would frustrate the plans of the afflicted"-and you could not-"for Jehovah is his refuge." Here again the briefer sentence brings out the eloquent contrast. The malicious foe seeking to thwart the poor man’s plans is thwarted. His desire is unaccomplished; and there is but one explanation of the impotence of the mighty and the powerfulness of the weak, namely that Jehovah is the stronghold of His saints. Not by reason of his own wit or power does the afflicted baffle the oppressor, but by reason of the strength and inaccessibleness of his hiding place. "The conies are a feeble folk, but they make their houses in the rocks," where nothing that has wings can get at them.

So, finally, the whole course of thought gathers itself up in the prayer that the salvation of Israel-the true Israel apparently-were come out of Zion, God’s dwelling, from which He comes forth in His delivering power. The salvation longed for is that just described. The voice of the oppressed handful of good men in an evil generation is heard in this closing prayer. It is encouraged by the visions which have passed before the psalmist. The assurance that God will intervene is the very life breath of the cry to Him that he would. Because we know that He will deliver, therefore we find it in our hearts to pray that He would deliver. The revelation of His gracious purposes animates the longings for their realisation. Such a sigh of desire has no sadness in its longing and no doubt in its expectation. It basks in the light of an unrisen sun, and feels beforehand the gladness of the future joys "when the Lord shall bring again the captivity of His people."

This last verse is by some regarded as a liturgical addition to the psalm; but Psalms 14:6 cannot be the original close, and it is scarcely probable that some other ending has been put aside to make room for this. Besides, the prayer of Psalms 14:7 coheres very naturally with the rest of the psalm, if only we take that phrase "turns the captivity" in the sense which it admittedly bears in Job 42:10 and Ezekiel 16:53, namely that of deliverance from misfortune. Thus almost all modern interpreters understand the words, and even those who most strongly hold the late date of the psalm do not find here any reference to the historical bondage. The devout kernel of the nation is suffering from oppressors, and that may well be called a captivity. For a good man the present condition of society is bondage, as many a devout soul has felt since the psalmist did. But there is a dawning hope of a better day of freedom, the liberty of the glory of the children of God; and the gladness of the ransomed captives may be in some degree anticipated even now. The psalmist was thinking only of some intervention oil the field of history, and we are not to read loftier hopes into his song. But it is as impossible for Christians not to entertain, as it was for him to grasp firmly, the last, mightiest hope of a last, utter deliverance from all evil and of an eternal and perfect joy.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 14". "Expositor's Bible Commentary".