“The Fool” of Psalm 14

The themes of Psalm 14, although exegetically difficult, have been popular subjects of theology and philosophy from the time of Paul until today.  Paul loosely quotes verses 1-3 in Rom 3:10-12 to describe the fallen state of godless Jews and Gentiles to a Jewish audience.  Anselm of Canterbery, who developed his logical argument for the ontological existence of God in Proslogium,  cited Psalm 14 as an important building block in his line of reasoning.  He was refuted by Gaunilo of Marmouter in an essay entitled In Behalf of the Fool, who based his criticism on the theology of Psalm 14.
Neo-Calvinistic scholarship of the later reformation era later begin exploring these themes as well with the goal to define a concrete theological doctrine to refute Arminianism.  The tenant of total depravity,  a cornerstone belief in Reformed theology, rests heavily on a universalized interpretation of verses 1-3.  It is likely that the origin of this interpretation came from an understanding based on Paul’s re-contextualization of its verses in Romans, a creative practice he sometimes employed in the formulation of his arguments but obscured their original meaning and context.
The purpose of this research is to conduct a formal study of Psalm 14 from a literary-theological exegetical approach.  Paul’s treatment and usage of this text will not be used for understanding the psalmist’s original meaning in this review, although a study of that subject would be a good compliment to more fully understand the issues they both address.

Historical Background

Critical scholarship dates the writing of this psalm to a post-exilic period in Israelite history due to: (1) the themes of national restoration mentioned in verse 7, and (2) its classification by some as belonging to the wisdom genre, whose appearance is generally dated during this time.  Conservative scholarship would argue that the Psalm’s title is correct and that David was the author.  Verse 7 is argued to be a later addition by post-exilic editors, but Dahood and Kidner render verse 7 to be “restore to well-being” or “restore the fortunes of,” a more general statement that does not require a post-exilic date.  Scholars that believe the psalm to be Davidic have guessed that it might have been written during David’s time running from Saul where governmental corruption and wickedness existed coupled with the continual international threat of Philistine oppression and opposition.  Others guess it was composed based on the events of the Absalom rebellion mentioned in 2 Sam. 15-18.

Psalm 14 is nearly identical to Psalm 53.  Its chief difference is the term used for God’s name.  Psalm 14 uses Yahweh while Psalm 53, which appears in what is considered the later-dated “Elohistic Psalter,” features the more general word for God, elohim.  Because of this, some propose that Psalm 14 is the original composition and 53 was a later editorial adaptation, and more specifically for those who date the psalm later, possibly edited to appeal to a post-exilic audience. Others feel that Psalm 14 is a generalization of Psalm 53, thus classifying 14 as the duplicated and edited version.  The other notable difference between Psalm 14 and 53 is the description of the judgement of the evildoers.  Psalm 53:5 uses wording that appears to some as a judgement on Israel’s international enemies, and thus mistakenly identify the enemies similarly in Psalm 14.

Scholars who believe this psalm was written by an individual based on their personal experience and deny a Davidic authorship are hard pressed to determine the situation that gave rise to its composition.  Two tentative possibilities have been put forth.  The first is that the psalmist and the nation of Israel were experiencing hardship from surrounding hostile nations.  The second is that the ruling class within Israel had become corrupt and were taking advantage of the righteous who were unable to resist them.   Weiser cites Isaiah 5:8 and Jeremiah 5:12 as examples of this kind of activity, although their mention is not a reason to date them to the same time.  The powerful’s unhindered oppression of the righteous is a common theme mentioned elsewhere in the Psalter (e.g. Psalms 10, 12) as well as in other wisdom books.  This issue is a common and legitimate area of confusion for faithful people in Israel under a theocratic system of government.

Overview & Structure

Psalm 14 can be classified as an instructional or “wisdom” psalm.  Its main theme is the wrongness of the powerful in society who unjustly take advantage of the weak, and it is a reminder that God is on the side of the faithful, and will rise up on their behalf and put an end to the plans of their oppressors.

There are only a few structural arrangements proposed.  It appears universally accepted that verse 7 is distinct from the previous six.  On the other hand, scholars differ on how to structure verses 1-6.  None see any particular creative arrangement.  Most scholars believe that verses 1-6 can be divided into two parts: verses 1-3 describe the godlessness of a group of people, while 4-6 feature a rebuke of and a divine threat to these godless men oppressing the faithful in Israel, of which the psalmist is a member of.

Some commentators believe that the structure of the original psalm has changed over time.  Specifically, Delitzch feels that the original may have been modified, noting a pattern of three line verse sections that strangely stop at verses 5 and 6, which very likely had three as well.

Verse Commentary

Verses 1-3: A Lament about the Fool

1. “The fool…” The word translated as fool is nābāl, and seems to be best translated as “ignorant.”  Whether it is a chosen ignorance, motivated by laziness or selfishness, or one that is caused externally by one’s environment or a young age appears slightly unclear in this text.  In all the other usages of the word in the Psalms and in other books of the Old Testament, the term describes adults who should know better, namely the people of Israel who in general have less of an excuse to be ignorant of God’s laws and commands for right conduct than the surrounding nations.  The only exception where the word nābāl is not used to describe a post-Sinai Israelite or group of Israelites is found in Job 2:10 where Job tells his wife she is speaking like a nābāl woman.  Despite this occurrence, which could be understood as referring to either intentional or unintentional ignorance, it appears very likely that nābāl in Psalm 14:1 is talking about people who for whatever reason, choose to remain ignorant of the reality of God’s desire for men to live in right ways and his role as acting judge in Israel’s theocratic government to punish men who are wicked.

The next question is, is nābāl referring to sinister or stubborn ignorance? Bennett notes that nābāl actions on behalf of individuals or groups of Israelites can cause serious guilt and consequences to the community.  Furthermore, he sees an etymological link with an earlier meaning of the word that has connotations with intentional sacrilegious activity.
Beside nābāl, the term translated as “fool” or “simple” in English can actually be 1 of 4 (or more) different Hebrew words that have slightly different meanings when found in the Old Testament: kesîl, ewîl, petî, and sākāl  A survey of these similar words further elucidates the meaning of nābāl as used in this context as a more serious or sinister ignorance; one that is chosen and intentional.  According to Bennett: (1) kesîl is the fool who is unwise and unfortunately stubborn and unteachable, but does not appear to be evil or sinister (e.g. Prov 26:1,3-11).  (2) ewîl  is the fool who seems slightly less sinister than the kesîl variety, and is a more simple kind of fool because they cannot control their temper or their mouth, and do not pursue wisdom (e.g. Job 5:2).  (3) petî refers to the simple minded and easily seduced, but seems to be open to instruction, unlike the kesîl or ewîl types (e.g. Prov 9:4).  (4) sākāl is used to describe ignorance as evidenced in action, not in speech like the ewîl type; the adjective “bumbling” might best describe this kind of fool (e.g. Genesis 31:28).

“Says in his heart…” The word translated “heart” here is leb, which is the rational, thinking part of a person.  “says” in just another way of saying “thinks.” This phrase could be better understood as “thinks in his mind…” or more generally “believes.”
“There is no God…”  Nearly all commentators and scholars see this as a statement of practical atheism, not a dogmatic or philosophical atheism.  The practical atheist could easily assume the role of a practicing theist in every external sense as opposed to the atheist who philosophically denies the reality of God but strives to live a strict moral life internally. This kind of person is especially dangerous if put into a position of religious or political power, which would lead to disastrous societal consequences for anyone less powerful than themselves.
It might be of worthy of note that the psalmist describes these men by their internal beliefs rather than their overt appearance or actions, possibly leading the reader to understand them to be superficially ‘wise.’  On the other hand, it is just as likely that the psalmist is saying that they are corrupt down to the center of their being, not just good at heart and following the wrong crowd such as the simpleton petî person.  In either case, the disposition of this type of nābāl person the psalmist introduced at the beginning of this psalm has become more clear with each new phrase as a person who has been corrupted at the center of their being.

“They are corrupt, their deeds are vile.” This statement further clarifies that these men, in their pursuit of intentional ignorance of God’s ways have become corrupt in their minds.  This has led them to commit acts that are vile.  The world translated as vile, ta’ab is found in other instances to mean disgusting and repulsive on a moral and emotional level.  This is not a word describing a person breaking ceremonial regulations.  It is possible that David had Doeg the Edomite in mind and his slaughter of the priests of Nob and their families as mentioned in 1 Sam 22:18-19, but it could just as easily be any in Saul’s cabinet of corrupt officials.  However, other commentators feel that this and the following phrase is the psalmist recalling past widespread wickedness on a large scale, such as the state of humanity before and directly after the flood.  This is rather unlikely because it is not following the line of thought that the psalmist is continuing, which is an increasingly detailed description of the fool that he has in mind.

“There is no one who does good.” This phrase is confusing to the exegete who seeks to understand this psalm from a literary perspective.  It is not immediately clear who the subject of this indictment is.  All humanity?  The nation of Israel as a whole?  All Israel’s enemies? All the nābāl types of people described in the previous sentences?  Anderson takes the approach that the psalmist is talking about the widespread corruption of the nation of Israel. Elsewhere in the Old Testament writers do refer to the inherit sinfulness of men (1 Kgs 8:46, Ps 143:2, Prov 20:9) but they are all saying something slightly different in these verses – that there are none who are sinless, not none who do good.
The most likely group that is referred to is the fools talked about in the preceding phrases.  This makes the most logical sense considering the subject of the previous sentences and the author’s direction of thought.  This is the final thought in a series of increasingly worse descriptions of the nābāl type of person introduced at the beginning:  (1) they are intentionally ignorant; (2) They have made a decisive internal decision that God doesn’t matter; (3) They have become corrupt and do morally repulsive deeds, and (4) they are so depraved and selfish they are incapable of doing any good at all.  A more natural translation would be “There is not one [of them] who does good.”  It is possible that the psalmist is using hyperbolic language to describe this group.

v.2 “The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men…” In verse two, the psalmist contrasts the picture of willfully ignorant men who do not acknowledge God with a scene were God himself examines at the “sons of men” to see if there are any who are not like the nābāl types – who do seek God and who intentionally choose to act wisely.  The term “looks down from heaven” could be a reference to the tower of Babel where God “came down” to see what the men where building.  However, the same confusion returns in this verse as in the last one.  Who are “the sons of men” in this sentence?  All mankind?  All of Israel?  All of the nābāl, types mentioned up to this point?
Briggs argues that it must be understood in context– this is still referring to the nābāl type of men referred to up until this point.  However, Anderson argues that the psalmist has opened up the scope of men being scrutinized to the nation of Israel as a whole.  As before, this seems unlikely but for a different reason: it would mean the psalmist has now included himself with the group of people that cannot do any good.  How can the psalmist place himself in such a category when his simple heartfelt discouragement and a desire to improve or at least an acknowledgement of his own sin is in itself good?  If this statement is to be taken universally, it would be self-contradicting according to God’s perspective of a contrite heart (Psalm 51:7) or of one who humbly acknowledges what is true.
If it is true that verses 2 and 3 are still referring to the fool, then the question arises as to why God searches the motivations of men to find if anyone is good.  It may be likely that the psalmist is using hyperbole to describe the level of depravity of these men in this way.  A more likely explanation of the repeated indictment is that the psalmist is further illustrating the evil of the men he is describing by moving on from just his own observations from his limited vantage point in v.1 to further squash all doubt by describing the same group from God’s omniscient perspective (v.2), one that reaches the same conclusion of their internal makeup as the psalmist’s while at the same time employing hyperbolic and anthropomorphic language.

v.3  “All have turned away, all have become corrupt…” A repetition of the final analysis of verse 1, that these body of men that the psalmist is describing are completely corrupt in the eyes of God.  Again, commentators see this language as similar to the extreme situation found before the flood.

Verses 4-6: God’s rebuke and judgement of the fools.

v.4 “Will evildoers never learn…” Some conservative commentators feel that the evildoers mentioned in this verse have nothing to do with the nābāl type of men referred to up until this point, but this seems unlikely since he just left off talking about them in the previous verse.  Without a definitive shift in the subject, it is only natural to assume that the psalmist is picking up where he left off with the same group of people he has been describing before since they are similarly addressed. Anderson sees this group as being evil men in power within Israel because it is not likely that the heathen nations should be expected to learn from or seek God or at least be criticized for not doing so. Bratcher believes this statement reveals God’s amazement at the ignorance of people who aught to know better.  Cragie, along with other commentators, sees God speaking in verse 4 after he has surveyed the motivations and hearts of the “sons of men.”
Recent research has shed more light on this confusing phrase.  When a question starts with hala meaning “whether/does not?”  it often functions as a rhetorical question that invites a positive answer.   The word niph which has been traditionally translated in this passage “learn” can also mean to “consider, think, or reason.” (e.g. 2 Sam. 24:13) It is likely that this phrase has an object rather than being a complete thought by itself as the traditional NIV translation suggests, and would better be rendered as “Do they not realize…?” with a description of what is not realized revealed in the proceeding phrase.

“Those who devour my people as men eat bread.” This adjective clause has puzzled scholars.  Its verbal portion is found in the Hebrew literally translated as “eating my people they eat bread…”  Most commentators have come to a unified conclusion that this phrase means that these men think no more of their acts of oppression than they do of eating bread, describing the careless and casual attitude they have towards taking advantage of others.  It could also be understood in a similar sense that they oppress others with the same frequency as they eat bread, implying that they do so all the time. Either interpretation communicates the carelessness of these men.

This statement introduces a new group of people in contrast to the powerful foolish that have been the subject of this psalm up to this point– the people of God– who are suffering under the yoke of the wicked.  This same group is later referred to as “the righteous” in verse 5, “the poor” in verse 6, and specifically the “Lord’s people” in verse 7.  This places those who hold a universal understanding of verse 3 in a logically difficult position.  In order to keep verse 3 as a universal description of fallen man,  Alexander concludes that “my people” mentioned here is part of the group criticized earlier in verse 2 who never do good.  Thus, he is forced to deal with the logical complications of a universal perspective found there at odds with the people of God mentioned here.  This can only make sense if it is assumed that the people of God can do no good, which seems highly unlikely.  God’s people are the ones who obey and fear him (e.g. Ps 103:17-18.)  How can they obey him if they cannot do good?  Alexander answers this by saying that “All men are alike ‘children of wrath’,  but some are elected to be ‘vessels of mercy…’” thus reasoning that God picks men out of that group that can do no right, and makes them to be His people.  This is none other than a short defense and description of a highly controversial doctrine introduced by a Theordor Beza, a student of Calvin who revised Anselm’s theories on the penal substitutionary death of Christ to be an act available to a only a limited number of people rather than for just anyone, a doctrine otherwise known as “limited atonement,” closely coupled with the complementary doctrine of “irresistible grace.”

Regardless, if one insists on interpreting the difficulties of these two groups with a reformed theological approach, logical problems still abound.  The “my people” of verse 4 are still included in the group of fools who can do no good in verse 3 regardless of God having elected them as ‘his people.’ According to timeless and universal interpretation of verse 3, they were and still are unable to be God’s people, due to the fact that they do not do what is right because as stated earlier, God’s people are ones that fear and obey him (e.g. Psalm 103:17-18).  So eisegeting this passage with Reformed doctrines in mind cannot logically bring us to the conclusion that the fools of verse 3 represent all of humanity if  “my people” refers to God’s people without disregarding what other scripture clearly says.
The only logical recourse left to the Reformed scholar would be to interpret “my people” as the psalmist’s people or nation rather than as the people of God.  But this again has problems.  Most scholars believe the wrongdoers mentioned in 4 are referring to men who are Israelites,  although some do mention the theory with less certainty.  If this were the case, this would make the wrongdoers also “David’s people,”  which would make little sense if used this way.  It would be unlikely and impossible to prove that David meant “his people” to represent the faithful subset of Israel which he was a part of as opposed to the nation as a whole.

After surveying the number of difficulties in viewing verse 3 as a universal picture of the depravity of mankind due to the presence of this second group of righteous people, we are left to interpret verse 3 as referring to the foolish men introduced at the beginning of the psalm.

“And who do not call on the LORD.” Some see this phrase as a descriptive synonym of the practical atheist, one who does not acknowledge the Lord, and thus does not pray to Him.  Others see this in terms of the wicked oppressors of God’s people eating the bread made by none other than God himself, but not praying to Him in thanks for it. A more likely possibility is a consideration of alternative meanings of the word qārā that has been translated here as “call.”  This word can also be translated as “meet, encounter, or confront” (e.g. Amos 4:12) which makes more sense in this context.  It would seem odd that the psalmist would state the obvious that evildoers do not pray to God.  A better translation for the entire verse would be “Do they not realize, the evildoers who devour my people like bread, that they will not encounter God,” or even better “Do these evildoers who devour my people like bread not realize that they will encounter God?”

v.5.  “There they are, overwhelmed with dread, for God is present in the company of the righteous.” The presence of the word “there” has puzzled scholarship, but they have surmised the meaning to be a point in time when the wicked were suddenly overcome with calamity, which can be the only explanation of what caused them to be overwhelmed with dread, and probably not as Briggs suggests that they were suddenly overcome with fear without reason. The details of their reason for dread is not mentioned, but one can see that God will engineer the calamity that will cause this because he is present to help the righteous.

v.6. “You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the LORD is their refuge.” This appears to be a reiteration of the themes in verses 4 and 5.  The word “refuge” means “to seek protection with.”  This translation is not universally accepted by scholars.  Weiser sees the plans that are frustrated as belonging to the evildoers, not the poor.  He translates this verse “Your plan against the poor will be confounded, for the Lord is his refuge.”  Other scholars agree with this translation, and believe that this verse may have become corrupted over time.  Many translations use the word “afflicted” instead of “poor” which makes more sense in this context.

v.7. “When the LORD restores His captive people…” Anderson supports a more generic translation of  “When the Lord restores the fortunate of his people, but admits it is disputed. Leupold and Kidner also gravitate towards this interpretation. This rendition would make more sense if the psalm were written during David’s lifetime and the last verse was not a later addition by the post-exilic community.  Leupold sees the mention of Zion being the hill in Jerusalem where David pitched the tent for the Ark of the Covenant, so it would be sensible to poetically say in his time that salvation would come from Zion, God’s earthly abode at the time.

Theological Insights

Although confusing and heavily debated, there are certain insights that can be taken from Psalm 14:

  • God allows the wicked to prosper and to oppress His people.
  • God is always in the presence of his people during these times of oppression.
  • God does not immediately remove evil men from power right away.
  • In times of oppression, God is available for his people to turn to.
  • God sees into the hearts of all men and sees their true intentions and motivations.
  • A life lived without acknowledging God’s moral statues appears to lead men towards a corrupted selfish nature.

Practical Application

It is good to know as Wilson states, “where God’s sympathies lie.”   It is hard for me to imagine a state of society being this bad after living in America in relative peace for all of my life.  These words must have been great comfort to the early Church, as well as the church today that faces intense persecution in other countries hostile towards Christianity.  But even if the Christian is not facing intense oppression and unfair treatment by others, it is good to know that God is right by their side during the hard seasons of life, no matter how painful.

Although it does not seem that verse 3 in this psalm represents a picture of mankind’s complete depravity, one can looks at the psalmist’s building description of the “fool” who does not acknowledge God’s rules for moral conduct and reflect inward on their own disposition towards God.  As a Christian, it is a reminder to not drift too far away from God, who is not only the instructor of what is morally right, but is also the one who inspires and strengthens His people to uphold what is right.   Practical atheism cuts a person off from their source of moral inspiration and strength.  Although a Christian cannot unintentionally be cut-off, they can definitely stray away from God and loose their strong connection to this strength and guidance.  These thoughts bring to mind Jesus’ prayer when his disciples asked him how to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

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