Sermon for July 24th, 2022
To the leader. Of David. 1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt; they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. 2 The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. 3 They have all gone astray; they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one. 4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the Lord? 5 There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous. 6 You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge. 7 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.
Psummer of Psalms V - Psalm 14
To a modern reader, Psalm 14, which opens with the line "Fools say in their hearts there is no God" would seem to be addressed to atheists, those who don't believe in the existence of any divine being. I'm going to make the case today that this is an incorrect reading of Psalm 14--a classic intrusion of a very modern idea into a very ancient text. But of course, that still won't stop me from sharing with you one of my favorite atheist jokes...
An atheist was going for a walk in the woods, when suddenly he happened across a huge grizzly bear. The bear, clearly angry, began to chase him through the woods, and was just about to catch him when, in desperation, the man cried out to God for help. Suddenly, everything froze, and a voice boomed from the heavens saying "You say you don't believe in me, but now you're asking for my help?" The atheist said to God, "Okay, okay, but I believe in you now! If I become a Christian, will you save me from the bear?" God thought about it and said, "I'm sorry but I have a policy of not accepting conversions made under duress. If you like, however, I can at least make the bear a Christian." With no other options available, the atheist agreed, everything unfroze, the bear knelt down, put its paws together in prayer and said, "Lord, for this food which we are about to receive, we give you thanks."
Psalm 14 begins with a familiar inscription: "To the leader. (A Psalm) of David." We've seen this inscription before in other psalms. Whether it means that David wrote this psalm or simply that it was written "in the style of" David, we have no way of knowing for sure. Either way, however, it's a reminder of the strong association between David and the Psalms. In our very next sermon series, starting in August, we're going to take a closer look at young David on his way to becoming a king. You might think of it as a sort of a VH1 "Behind the Music" special: You know the familiar Psalms... you sing them ever Sunday... Now at last hear the origin story of the greatest singer-psalmwriter of all time, David before he was king. End shameless plug here.
Psalm 14 is also fascinating because it has a twin. Keep your finger in your Bible to hold your place at Psalm 14, but while doing that, I want you to flip several pages until you come to Psalm 53. Compare the two psalms. They are almost identical, no? Almost. There are some minor differences in verses 4 and 5 between the two psalms, and one major difference that is almost invisible to readers of the two Psalms when translated in English. Almost.
Look at verse two in Psalm 14, then look at the same verse in Psalm 53. In particular, look at the first word, or two words in those verses. Psalm 14 has "The LORD" looks down from heaven (and notice that LORD is capitalized), while Psalm 53 says "God" looks down from heaven. There are four total places in psalm 14 that refer to God as "The LORD" (capitalized) while those same four places in Psalm 53 simply say "God."
And that's a huge difference, if you know what it means. Allow me to clue you in. Anytime you see the words "The LORD" (capitalized) in an English translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the capital letters are NOT, as is commonly assumed, for the purpose of showing reverence, respect, or emphasis for the name of the LORD. If that were true, we'd capitalize all the letters of GOD, or JESUS, too. The capital letters or a clue that the word you're seeing isn't really that word. It's a substitute word, a stand-in for the Hebrew name Yahweh, the personal name of God in Judaism. You see, in Jewish tradition, it's considered inappropriate to say aloud the proper name of God, so when a Jewish reader comes across that name in the Jewish text, he or she substitutes the Jewish word "Adonai" which means...Lord.
In most English translations of the Bible, that convention is formalized and the translators simply translate Yahweh as "The LORD" (capital letters). And we're so used to that, that when our eyes see "The LORD" we simply think of it as being the same thing, and interchangeable with the word, "God."
But it's not. Because the word "God" is a translation of a different Hebrew word, the word "Elohim" which contains another personal name for God, "El" plus the plural ending "im" so it can be translated as God, gods, or the God of gods." Why are there two different names for God in the Bible? Because originally there were two different gods, corresponding to two different groups of people that eventually came together to form the nation of Israel.
The people of the North, the Canaanites, were henotheistic -- meaning they believed in lots of gods, but that one was the chief or foremost among them. El, or Elohim, the God of gods.
The people of the South, the Judahites, were polytheistic -- they also believed in lots of gods, but all more or less equal to each other. One of those gods was Yahweh, the thunder God (kind of like Thor). Eventually, however, they rejected all of their gods except Yahweh, and became an early adopter of monotheism--the belief that there is only one God. They kept all the other heavenly beings around though, they just demoted them to the lesser status of angels and demons, not gods, properly speaking.
In time, the two peoples (North and South) merged to become Israel, and the Southern concept of monotheism prevailed. To avoid excessive confusion and disagreement, they decided that their chief gods, Elohim and Yahweh, must actually be the same God, just using different names. They also brought with them their own separate worship books -- their separate collections of Psalms -- and spliced them all together into one book.
Because the two peoples shared a common language and common culture with lots of overlap and interchange between them, it is not surprising that there was also overlap among their favorite songs, and that a few of them--Psalm 14 and 53 for example--survived the splicing of traditions independently, and exist today to remind us that all things--our songs, our cultures, our languages, and even our beliefs about God, evolve, grow as we do, and change through time and human interactions.
Which brings me back to atheism--the conviction that god or the gods do not exist. This, too, is an evolution in human belief, and a relatively recent one at that. The word "Atheist" doesn't show up in the English language until the 16th century. It comes from an older Greek word, ἄθεος, but in Ancient Greece and Rome, that word didn't refer to those who denied the existence of any gods -- it actually referred to people who rejected the officially sanctioned gods of the Empire. People like Jews and the earliest Christians, who were, ironically, tried and sentenced to death for the crime of... Atheism.
In Ancient Israel, in the age of the Psalms, the idea of someone denying the existence of God or gods would have been completely unthinkable. It just didn't exist. Which makes most English translations of Psalm 53:1 problematic.
Let's look a little more closely. Verse 1: Fools say in their hearts, "There is no God."
Except... the words "There is" are not really in the Hebrew text. They are perhaps implied. But in Hebrew, the fools say in their hearts, אֵ֣ין (eh'yin) אֱלֹהִ֑ים (elohim), or "No gods." Is that "no gods" or more like, "no, gods" with the idea that the fool is someone who, in his heart, says no to god? Let's look more closely at that word אֵ֣ין (eh'yin) or "no."
The NAS Exhaustive concordance of Hebrew, which looks at every instance in which a word is used in the Bible and complies them all together, says that this word sometimes means (among other things)...
almost, bereft, beyond, cease, countless, else, endless, fails, found, gone, had, has, has no, has nothing, have, helpless, incurable, infinite, infrequent, innumerable, inscrutable, lack, neither, never, no, no longer, no more, none, none other, nothing, one, or, powerless, senseless, undesirable, unfathomable, unless, unsearchable, waterless, without.
Uh oh. I've always said that it's pretty dangerous to hinge an entire theological argument (or translation) on the meaning of one small two letter word. This is clearly one of those cases.
My own suspicion, given the context of this Psalm and others like it, is that the Psalmist is really trying to say that those who don't share his particular notions of who God is and how God's people should act, are foolish, corrupt, and despicable. And that's probably because the people he refers to are, in the words of verse 4, "eating up my people as they eat bread." If someone were attacking your people, devouring them, so to speak, I suppose you would be inclined to call them fools, evildoers, or worse.
But just in case you are still tempted to read this Psalm as an attack on godless atheists--look closely at verses 2 and 3:
"The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind (meaning everyone) to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. (What does he find?) They have ALL fallen away, they are ALL alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
In other words, we are all counted among the godless. Actually, I find it interesting that, according to the Psalmist, the criteria God is looking for is not "belief in him" but rather "wisdom" and those who "seek after God."
I would like to suggest that in our culture today, the thing that separates most atheists from most Christians is this: Every atheist, by definition, has sought after God, or at least given some amount of time and thought to determining whether or not a supreme being exists, in order to come to the conclusion that one does not.
On the other hand, I know far too many Christians who have given no such thought to the matter, and simply accept on faith, without careful examination, what others have told them, or what they were taught as children.
Perhaps it may be said that the atheists are the most faithful among us to God's (or at least the Psalmist's) criteria for wisdom.
In verse 5, the Psalmist tells us what he thinks should happen to those who are "devouring his people like bread." He says that "they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous." Of course, if we define righteousness as "doing good" we should also remember what the Psalmist has previously said--that no one makes the cut. We're all in the same boat, we should all be very afraid, regardless of which side we're on.
Except for one group of people, highlighted in verse 6: "You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge." I think the Psalmist is trying to say that if you want to know whose side God is on, it's no so much about what you believe, and more about how you treat others, or how you've been treated. Let me put that a different way: You can believe in God with all your heart, you can read the bible, go to church, pay your taxes and drive the speed limit... but if you confound the plans of he poor, if you mistreat others for your own advantage, God is not on your side, and you're certainly not on his side.
On the other hand, if you've been abused, mistreated, neglected, rejected, or taken advantage of, God wants to be your refuge. God is on your side, not because of anything you do or don't believe, but because you have need of him. Let him be your refuge and your safe haven.
Psalm 14 ends with the Psalmist's prayer:
"O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad."
What I like about this prayer is that it's still hopeful. All this after the Psalmist, a few lines earlier, said there isn't a single wise person on the face of the earth. The psalmist also wants deliverance for his people to come from Zion--which is the name of the mountain upon which the city of Jerusalem is built. It's another way of saying, God, please let deliverance for my people come from MY city, MY hometown, MY mountain, from us. Give us the chance to work to make this right. We'll give the credit to you (when God restores the fortunes of his people) but please let us participate in the hard work, in the process, in the evolution and the growth.
Whether you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, a doubter...or a Christian, a true believer, a person of faith in God and/or humanity, I hope we can all agree on this one simple thing, and make it our prayer, our hope, our dream:
That our deliverance, our salvation, the solution to all of our problems IS possible, whether by the grace of God, or through work of our own hands. I believe those two things are inseparable, but either way you look at it, it begins here and now. In each one of us.