Psalm 14 - The Bitter Present, not the Bitter Truth
1. For the leader. Of David.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They act corruptly and perform loathsome deeds. No one does good.
2 The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to find a wise man, a man who seeks God.
3 Each and every one has turned astray, altogether foul; no one does good, not even one.
4 Do they not understand, all those evildoers, who devour my people [as] they devour bread, and do not invoke the LORD?
5 There they were terribly terrified1, for God is present in the assembly of the righteous.
6 You would confound the plans of the lowly, but the LORD is his refuge.
7 O that the deliverance of Israel might come from Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of His people, Jacob will exult, Israel will rejoice.
1. "Terribly terrified" reflects the Hebrew use of the root "terrified" twice.
If Psalm 13 emerges from pain, then Psalm 14 emerges from observation. Both seem enveloped in sadness.
Psalm 14 paints a bitter, unhappy picture. Although there are some difficulties in translation and understanding, particularly of tenses, there is a fairly well-accepted division and structure: (a) an opening observation by a “fool” of God’s non-presence (verse 1); (b) the LORD’s observation of a total lack of good people (verses 2 and 3); (c) a statement of “their” (these fools’) misunderstanding—that they do not comprehend the truth and that God will protect the righteous (verses 4–6); and (d) an expression of hope (verse 7). This psalm is not quite a request, but rather a survey and a report (according to one commentator, Broyles, unique for its “universal condemnation of humanity”), flavored with a small touch of hope.
As so often in Psalms, repetitions and structure support the content and move it forward. I comment below in the following order: (1) the repeated use of the term “God”; (2) the complex use of “There is no…,” which may reveal a major contention of the speaker; (3) the domination of contrasts; and (4) the final hope. I then append an additional comment.
1. The use of “God” (as opposed to His name, “the LORD”) – “God” is used three times in the psalm: in verse 1 as part of the fool’s statement that there is no God (i.e., he is not active in this world); in verse 2, the LORD searches for anyone who “seeks God” (and finds no one); and in verse 5 the speaker claims that God is with the righteous generation (presumably, as opposed to the present one). The repetition, then, traces the basic contention of the psalm: the fools deny, which is because they do not seek, and they do not comprehend God’s (ultimate) presence.
2. The heart-rending (fourfold) use of “there is no…” is not only moving; it is also particularly sophisticated. In verse 1, it is part of a double entendre (the following translation is fairly literal):
The fool says in his heart
there is no God;
they act corruptly and abominably;
there is no one who does good OR there is no One Who does good.
The first translation of the last phrase implies that there are no good people to be found. In the second translation, “One” refers to God (an approach to the psalm that is found in late homiletic Jewish interpretations). This would read either as a quote from the fool(s) (and therefore parallel to the second phrase, “there is no God”), or as an anonymous challenge to God Himself: if people act corruptly, God must be absent. (The verse at least raises the possibility of both translations.)
In verse 3, there is a second double use of “there is no,” this time clearly referring only to people: “
So read, the poet confirms the observation: there are no good people around, as God himself observes. However, the speaker’s analysis of the situation differs from that of the fools. The latter believe that their observation reflects God’s inherent non-involvement, whereas the speaker contends that the fools’ behavior is the reason for God’s absence.
We have a reflection here, then, of a very basic contention. Seen one way, it is a question of causality: if God is not present, is it God or humankind that is to blame? Presumably, for the speaker, had God’s search in verse 2 been rewarded with the discovery of good people, things would be different. Indeed, the speaker goes on to emphasize that God is with(in) the generation of the righteous (verse 5). God is present if humans let Him in. It is a matter of basic perspective.
This understanding is reinforced by a secondary reading of verse 4, which could be parsed in light of this emphasis as follows: “Do they not know, the workers of iniquity, these devourers of my people who devour them like bread, that they (i.e., my people) have not called upon the LORD?” This reading again blames those suffering for their problem, in that in not calling on the LORD, they have caused His absence.
Brueggemann states this slightly differently—not as a matter of perspective but as a theological preference. He emphasizes verse 6, which “makes an important and unexpected affirmation…. The ultimate mark of God’s rule is not some ontological principle but the social certitude of Y-H’s [the LORD’s] solidarity with the poor” (p. 44). If society is certain of it, God’s presence abides.
These are weighty assertions, stated forcefully. (The poet, after all, puts the counter contention in the mouth of “the fool.”) The reader is left to contemplate his or her own role (or society’s role) in determining God’s presence.
3. The contrasts – The observed sharp difference in perspective further sensitizes us to the tone of the psalm, which is built on such contrast. The first three verses set the two perspectives against one another. Verses 4 through 6, in turn, set the others against “my people,” the righteous, and the poor. The bifurcation of the society, so frequently cited in Psalms, is emphasized again. Subtly, the speaker finds a support group for himself, and he is not alone is his opposition to these fools.
4. The hope – As often throughout Psalms, the final verse comes with a surprising development. (Again, some scholars suggest that the last sentence was added later.) Three aspects of this particular verse offer new food for thought: what it does not contain, a new inclusion and its message, as follows.
To begin with the omission, this is neither a prayer (as are many last-verse “additions”) nor an expression of confidence, but rather something in between. “Would that” (or “O that”) begins the verse. This phrase is an expression of fervent hope in biblical Hebrew, but not a request for a speedier fulfillment of what is sure to happen. (It is even often followed by a wish that the speaker assumes will not come true!) “Hope” is a possible description of such a statement, but more appropriately, “wish,” and even that has a twinge of sadness. It may also reflect the previous tone of challenge to God, that to a degree the problem is due to His chosen absence.
The inclusion is also instructive. It is here that the Land and People of Israel enter the psalm (although there is a hint of their presence in verse 4) and the salvation becomes national, in terms of both its point of origin, Zion, and the object of the act, the people. (An early Midrash caught the tone of the psalm here, including this verse in a list of wonderful things that God promises Israel, all originating from Zion, which is Jerusalem.) It is no surprise, then, that many classical Jewish commentators apply the psalm to the period of the exile (and if they feel it necessary, explain that King David, the author, was looking forward prophetically to that time). Clearly the term “those who devour my people” (verse 4) is easily accounted for in such a reading. For those who read it that way, the dismal description fits the exile, the time away from Israel, and for them the last phrase is not a wish, but a promise.
The message of the last verse is indeed one of longing. It is not an extraneous addition to the psalm, but a coexistent element. Without it, the picture is impossibly incomplete. The assertions that God is with the righteous and the refuge of the poor (verses 5 and 6) demand some reference to time. Even if less than the assurance-of-assertion or the faith-of-prayer, the hope expressed in verse 7 provides a framework within which the speaker can survive in the situation depicted. Otherwise the despair that dominates would be overwhelming.
To quote Martin Cohen on this psalm, “Hope submerged in despair is a subcategory of hope, not of despair.”
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There is no agreement on the identity of the fool who speaks at the beginning. Broadly speaking, some commentators apply it to all or some Jews and others apply it to enemies of the Jews. Supporting the latter view is the distinction in the names of the deity – the international terms "God" is mostly used with the fools, while "the LORD" tends to reflect the Israelite deity and His values. Within both interpretations, there are those who are more specific (down to a single name, such as Nebuchadnezzar, among enemies) and those who interpret it generally. Given that it is ambiguous, I suggest that the poem only suffers from the specific search. The speaker did not specify, and neither should we seek to do so.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.