Psalm 14 is an individual song of lament. It is repeated almost verbatim in Psalm 53 (Psalm 53:1-6) and Paul quotes the Psalm prominently in Romans (Romans 3:13-18). The song encourages the righteous in the face of prevalent wickedness. It famously begins by empathizing with God over humanity’s corruption:
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. (Psalm 14:1 NASB)The two words “there is” are supplied by translators and are not in the Hebrew text. The verse literally reads “The fool has said in his heart, ‘No God.’”
The psalmist asserts that the atheist is a fool, (Hebrew: nabal). James Luther Mays (b. 1921) explains, “In the society that this psalm describes...nabal does not mean things like dumb, inept, silly, clown, buffoon. Rather the term designates a person who decides and acts on the basis of the wrong assumption (Mays, Psalms (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) , 81).” Psalms is part of the wisdom literature and to a book espousing wisdom there is little worse one could be than a “fool”.
In contrast, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). Wisdom begins and ends with a belief in God. The Bible does not set out to prove God’s existence, it operates under the assumption of it. When the Bible begins, God exists (Genesis 1:1).
Despite being deemed foolish by the Bible, atheism occurs. A 2009 study by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that 1.6% of Americans self identify as atheist. Many atheists are far from whom the world would deem foolish. In the last century, A.J. Ayer (1910–1989), Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), Albert Camus (1913–1960), Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), Michel Foucault (1926–1984), Ayn Rand (1905–1982), Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) are just a few of the renowned philosophers who were also avowed atheists. By the Bible’s standards, these people were fools.
In your opinion, what is the most foolish thing a person can believe? Why? Is God’s existence self evident? If so, why are there so many atheists?
While the psalmist would no doubt object to the intellectual atheist, that is not what is referenced in this hymn. The song references those who make a claim in their hearts, not with their minds or lips. It is about those who profess to be believers, but whose actions (an extension of true belief) show otherwise. The song refers not to the intellectual atheist who denies the existence of God, but to the practical atheist who lives as if there were no God. Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) writes, “In its main theme the psalm is a statement about ‘practical atheism.’ It reflects on one whose conduct is disordered and without focus, because it is not referred to God (Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, 44).”
“Fool” describes everyone who has no place for God. It is not that the fool does not believe in God but rather that for the fool, God is unnecessary. John H. Eaton (b. 1927) expounds, “The ‘fool’ is everywhere – prominent persons, of hard and ruthless disposition, who act continually as though they were their own sufficient god; that they ‘say in their heart...’ means that in practice this is how they behave, irrespective of what they profess (Eaton, Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary with an Introduction and New Translation, 93).”
The Psalmist is not lamenting the intellectual atheist but the practical one. The song mourns not for the intellectuals but for the common people. People like us.
Do you profess a belief in God? Do your attitudes reflect that belief? Is God the reference point in your life? Which is preferable, being an avowed atheist or a professing believer who behaves as if God did not exist?
“The Bible says radical things about the stream of consciousness that talks inside us: ‘Every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the days’ (Genesis 6:5); ‘All his thoughts are, ‘There is no God’ (Psalm 10:4). This does not only refer to vile lifestyles. It includes the everyday ways our minds operate without reference to God. Functional atheism is our most natural state of mind.” - David Powlison (b. 1950), Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community, 17-18