Psalm 14 laments a people who have rejected God––fools who say, “There is no God” (v. 1). It laments the way such people have become corrupt (v. 3) and “eat up (God’s) people” (v. 4). It contrasts those evil people with “the poor” who find their refuge in Yahweh (v. 6)––and God’s people (v. 7).
The psalmist deals with the reality of Godly people living in the midst of an ungodly majority. It is an uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous place to live. The ungodly “eat up (God’s) people (v. 4).
This psalm was written when Godly people were experiencing some sort of oppression, but we know neither the kind of oppression nor the identity of the oppressors.
The psalm ends on a note of yearning for salvation––for the day when God will restore the fortunes of his people, and “Israel shall be glad” (v. 7).
The wording of this psalm, with slight variations, appears also in Psalm 53. One of the variations is that Psalm 53 consistently uses elohim for God, while Psalm 14 uses both elohim and Yahweh.
- Elohim means a god or gods (note the small g). When used in in the plural to refer to Yahweh (as it is in both Psalms 14 and 53), it means that Yahweh sums up all that is godly.
- Yahweh is the name that God revealed to Moses, saying, “You shall tell the children of Israel this, ‘Yahweh (YHWH), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is my memorial to all generations” (Exodus 3:15).
For the Chief Musician. By David.
PSALM 14:1. THE FOOL SAYS, “THERE IS NO GOD.”
1The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt.
They have done abominable works.
There is none who does good.
“The fool (Hebrew: nabal) has said in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Hebrew: elohim) (v. 1a). The word nabal (fool) is plural, and there is no article (the). This psalm is not highlighting a foolish person, but is rather dealing with the whole category of foolish people.
The word nabal denotes something more than foolish. The nabal person is perversely foolish––boorishly foolish––wickedly foolish. He is the kind of person whom few would cultivate as a friend––unless the nabal person had accumulated money or power, which some did.
1 Samuel 25 tells the story of a rich man named Nabal, who was noted to be harsh and evil in his dealings with people (1 Samuel 25:3). When David had his men approach Nabal peacefully, asking for provisions, Nabal insulted them. David prepared to go to war with Nabal, but Nabal’s wife interceded, reminding David that her husband’s name was Nabal (fool) and that he lived up to his name. She persuaded David to spare Nabal, but “the Lord struck Nabal, and he died” (v. 38).
The word elohim (God) can mean any god or gods, but the plural (as here) is often used for Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures.
“They are corrupt” (Hebrew: sahat) (v. 1b). Fools are corrupt. Sahat (corrupt) signifies ruin and devastation. It was because the earth was sahat that prompted God to destroy all flesh (Genesis 6:11-13). The word sahat is also used with reference to the destruction (sahat) of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 3:10).
“They have done abominable (Hebrew: ta’ab) works.” (v. 1c). Abominable (ta’ab) works are those that offend God. Idolatry is one example (1 Kings 22:26).
“There is none who does good” (Hebrew: tob) (v. 1d). In the creation account, “God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (tob) (Genesis 1:31). We will not stray far from the mark if we say that “good” (tob) in that account meant pleasing, proper, and as it should be.
But fools do nothing good. Their works are not pleasing and as they should be. These fools and their works have no redeeming social or spiritual value.
PSALM 14:2-3. THEY HAVE BECOME CORRUPT
2Yahweh looked down from heaven on the children of men,
to see if there were any who understood,
who sought after God.
3They have all gone aside.
They have together become corrupt.
There is none who does good, no, not one.
“Yahweh looked down from heaven on the children of men” (Hebrew: bene––plural) (v. 2a). As noted above in the Introduction, Yahweh is the name that God used for himself when speaking to Moses. That name personalizes things. There are many elohim (gods)––at least in the minds of some people––but only one Yahweh.
The word bene (translated children of men here) means children or descendants. In this context, it means the human race––all people. God is looking at everyone.
Yahweh looking down from heaven brings to mind his coming down to see what the people were doing at Babel (Genesis 11:5) and Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:21). Those two occasions serve as a warning. In both cases, God pronounced judgment on the wickedness he discovered.
“to see if there were any who understood” (Hebrew: sakal) (v. 2b). This would better be translated “to see if there were one who was wise,” because sakal is singular.
The word sakal (understanding) carries the sense of prudence and insight. We might call it common sense, although sakal has a more deeply spiritual tone. We might think of it as seeing with spiritual eyes.
The image of God hoping to find one person with understanding brings to mind his choosing Noah and Noah’s family to survive the great flood (Genesis 6)––and agreeing not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if he could find fifty (then forty-five; then thirty; then twenty; then ten) righteous men there (Genesis 18).
“who sought (Hebrew: daras) after God” (Hebrew: elohim) (v. 2c). The word daras means to seek or examine or study. God is seeking a person who is seeking for him.
“They have all gone aside. (Hebrew: sur or sar) (v. 3a). The sense that we get from sur or sar is that the people God sees have deserted––turned away––quit the field. Godly discipleship often costs, sometimes mildly as when having to endure disdain or greatly as when suffering persecution. We are all tempted to quit when the going gets tough.
In the parable of the sower (Mark 4:13-20), the sower sows seed. Some seed falls on the path, and Satan snatches it away. Some seed falls on rocky ground and grows rapidly, only to wither quickly because there is no depth to the soil. Some falls among thorns, and is choked out. But some falls on good soil, and results in a great harvest.
In the scene that the Psalmist portrays here, God is searching for the seeds that are rooted in rich soil––but is sorely disappointed.
“They have together become corrupt” (‘alah) (v. 3b). The word ‘alah means corrupt in the sense of morally filthy.
“There is none who does good (Hebrew: tob), no, not one” (v. 3c). This repeats the thought of verse 1d above, but adds a sad, “no, not one.” God has looked down from heaven hoping to find one good person, but has found none.
PSALM 14:4-6. THEY EAT UP MY PEOPLE
4Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge,
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and don’t call on Yahweh?
5There they were in great fear,
for God is in the generation of the righteous.
6You frustrate the plan of the poor,
because Yahweh is his refuge.
“Have all the workers of iniquity (Hebrew: ‘awen) no knowledge” (Heb. yada) (v. 4a). The word ‘awen (iniquity) carries the sense of emptiness or nothingness, such as work that produces no positive results. ‘Awen also means evil or wickedness. Iniquity is a good translation here.
In verse 2b, Yahweh was searching “to see if there were any who understood (sakal). Now Yahweh appears to be amazed that the workers of iniquity have no knowledge (yada)––no understanding––no ability to discern good and evil––no ability to find their way out of the unhappy maze in which they live.
“who eat up my people as they eat bread” (v. 4b). These workers of iniquity consume Yahweh’s people as casually as they consume bread.
That brings to mind the prophets, who spoke often about predatory people who took advantage of vulnerable people, such the widows, orphans, and the poor.
The verses that came to mind as I contemplated this verse are from the prophet Amos:
“Listen to this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who tell their husbands, ‘Bring us drinks!'” (Amos 4:1).
“The Lord Yahweh has sworn by his holiness that behold,
‘The days shall come on you that they will take you away with hooks,
and the last of you with fish hooks.
‘You will go out at the breaks in the wall,
everyone straight before her;
and you will cast yourselves into Harmon,’ says Yahweh” (Amos 4:2-3).
Oppression of the poor by the rich is a problem for every age, every nation, and every economic system. That, however, is not an indictment of all wealthy people, because many rich people are considerate of people in need.
Some have advocated socialism or communism as great levelers of society. “From each according to his ability––to each according to his need” sounds wonderfully enlightened, but we have to ask how such systems have worked. The answer is, “Not well!” Why is that so? Two reasons:
(1) By weakening the connection between work and rewards, such systems sabotage productivity, resulting in fewer goods and services to spread around.
(2) But most important is the fact that “workers of iniquity” are always present in every society. They often gravitate to positions of power, and exercise that power to impose their will on those less fortunate. The less democratic the government, the more likely that “workers of iniquity” will run it. Most communist countries are ruled by dictators, many of whom are tyrants. Socialism also concentrates power at the top––a recipe for tyranny.
“and don’t call on Yahweh?” (v. 4c). This is the bottom line. The problems outlined above wouldn’t exist if the “workers of iniquity” had called on Yahweh. Yahweh would have helped them to make enlightened decisions that would have benefited them as well as everyone else.
“There they were in great fear, (Hebrew: pahad) (v. 5a). Where is the “There” that starts this verse? It seems to refer to the time or place when “the children of men” realized that Yahweh was looking down from heaven “to see if there were any who understood, who sought after God” (v. 2).
Feeling the heat of the spotlight, they realized to their dismay that they had “all gone aside”––had “become corrupt”––had failed altogether to do any good (v. 3)––had mistreated God’s people––and had failed to “call on Yahweh” (v. 4). Like Adam and Eve of old, they realized that they were naked (Genesis 3:7)––so they were afraid.
The word pahad (fear) goes a step beyond fear. A better translation would be dread or terror.
It seems significant that there is no mention of shame here. In that time and place, honor and shame were significant values. People suddenly exposed as sinners could be expected to feel shame as well as terror. But these verses mention only terror––suggesting such complete moral erosion that their only response was fear––selfish concern for their own well-being. Their “honor” and “shame” buttons were frozen in place from disuse.
for God is in the generation (Hebrew: dor) of the righteous” (Hebrew: saddiq) (v. 5b). Yahweh will bless the righteous, but will withhold blessings from the unrighteous.
The “children of men” described in verses 3-4 have been suddenly exposed as unrighteous, so they realize that they can expect no blessing––only punishment.
In one of the Bible’s many Grand Reversals (see also 1 Samuel 17; Matthew 5:1-12; 19:30; 20:8-16; Mark 9:35; 10:31; Luke 1:46-55; 13:30; ), the suffering righteous will be blessed, and the dominant unrighteous will be punished.
The use of the word dor (generation) seems odd here, because generation implies people of similar chronological age. However, the company of the righteous includes people of all ages.
But dor is also used to refer to Noah’s generation (Genesis 7:1)––and “a perverse and crooked generation” (Deuteronomy 32:5). In those verses, dor would refer to old and young alike, so there is less emphasis on chronological age and more emphasis on the total populace alive at that time.
The NRSV translates dor as company, and that captures the meaning of dor in this verse. Cohort (a group of people banded together by some characteristic) might be even more precise, but readers would be more likely to stumble over this less familiar word.
Righteous (saddiq) people are those who live in accord with ethical principles––in accord with God’s law and God’s will.
“You frustrate the plan of the poor, (singular)
because (Hebrew: ki) Yahweh is his (singular) refuge” (v. 6). In this verse, both “the poor” and “his” are singular. The psalmist could be referring to “the poor” as the company of the poor––or he might be equating “the poor” with the nation Israel.
“The workers of iniquity” (v. 4) suddenly realize that they have been guilty of mistreating “the poor,” who are now revealed as being in Yahweh’s favor. A modern day equivalent might be mistreating a young person, only to discover that he is the boss’s son.
The NRSV translates the last half of this verse “BUT the Lord is their refuge” instead of “BECAUSE the Lord is their refuge.” BUT is the better translation. Both are legitimate translations of the particle ki.
PSALM 14:7. OH THAT SALVATION WOULD COME
7Oh that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion!
When Yahweh restores the fortunes of his people,
then Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad.
“Oh that the salvation (Hebrew: yesuah) of Israel would come out of Zion!” (v. 7a). The tone changes in this verse, as the psalmist prays a heartfelt prayer that Yahweh will save his people and restore their fortunes.
The word yesuah (salvation) means salvation or deliverance from some sort of distress or danger.
I am not a Hebrew scholar, so I don’t know if the following has significance––but I was struck by the similarity between yesuah (salvation) and yehosu (Joshua), which means Yahweh saves. Also, the name Jesus is derived from the Hebrew yeshua (to help or to save)––so the Lord told Joseph that Mary would have a son, and “You shall call his name Jesus, for it is he who shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
“out of Zion!” Jerusalem was located on Mount Zion, so the word Zion serves as a synonym for Jerusalem.
The tabernacle was a tent that accompanied the Israelites wherever they went in their forty-year trek in the wilderness. Its’ furnishings included the Mercy Seat, which served as God’s throne––and thus symbolized the presence of God in the midst of his people. When David occupied Jerusalem, he brought the tabernacle there, where it served as God’s dwelling place until Solomon built the temple after David’s death.
A prayer for Israel’s salvation to come out of Zion, then, would be a prayer that Yahweh would come from Jerusalem to effect that salvation.
“When Yahweh restores (Hebrew: sub) the fortunes (Hebrew: sebut) of his people” (v. 7b). Note the wordplay between sub (restores) and sebut (fortunes)––a common poetic wordplay in the Hebrew scriptures (Deuteronomy 30:3; Psalm 85:1; 126:1, 4; Jeremiah 30:3, 18; 32:42; etc.).
“then Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad” (v. 7c). Jacob was the younger son of Isaac and Rebekah (Esau was the elder son). Later God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, meaning that Jacob had fought with God and with men, and had prevailed (Genesis 32:28). Therefore, Jacob and Israel refer to the same man––the father of twelve sons who would be the fathers of the nation Israel.
The two parts of verse 7c are poetic parallelism, and make the same statement––that the people of Israel will rejoice when Yahweh saves them from their oppressors.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2019, Richard Niell Donovan