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"The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God" ( Psa 14:1 ).
The word "fool" has been traced to a term which signifies the act of withering. The sense would be represented by the expression the withered heart hath said there is no God. Though in the Scriptures the term "heart" is often employed as signifying the mind or judgment, yet in this case, judging by the consequences which are detailed, the reference is evidently to the moral nature. A distinction is indeed made in the Old Testament between "mind" and "heart"; as in the instance of the first and greatest commandment. The point to be observed then is that the "heart" or moral nature has in this instance "withered"; affection is blighted, moral instinct is perverted, the natural and noblest aspirations of life are utterly extinct. A difference is to be marked between a purely intellectual scepticism and a corrupt moral aversion. There are speculative agnostics, whose outward life may be unquestionable as to honour and faithfulness; but there are also deniers of the existence of God whose object is to get rid of responsibility and judgment. Every man will know for himself whether he belongs to the one class or to the other. Christian observers should carefully note the existence of the two classes, and never lose influence by confounding them. To charge a speculative agnostic with immorality is to destroy every possible line of approach to his attention and confidence, and to regard a corrupt and godless man simply as an intellectual unbeliever is to aggravate his wickedness through the medium of his vanity. It is not transgressing the line of fact and observation to say that it is the "heart" which first and most truly believes in God. Where the "heart" or moral purpose is simple and constant, intellectual aberrations will certainly be rectified or rendered spiritually harmless. Everything of a religious nature depends upon the purpose and faithfulness of the moral nature. The heart feels after God. The heart is first conscious of the divine absence. The heart soon becomes a medium of accusation through which the whole nature is assailed with just and destructive reproach.
The idea of "God" having been given up by the heart, certain practical consequences are inevitable.
"They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good" ( Psa 14:1 ).
These are the consequences to which we have referred as shewing that it was the moral nature and not only the intellectual that had been perverted. A criminal life is the necessary counterpart of an absurd creed. Here again it must be noticed that the absurdity is distinctively moral. A creed may be intellectually absurd, and yet the moral purpose may overrule the mental peculiarity; but again and again it must be observed that where the heart has been withered the life falls into decay, putridity, and noisomeness. From this point the reasoning may be carried backwards, and in that case the reasoner would assert that because the men are corrupt and their works abominable, therefore the heart is withered. "By their fruits ye shall know them." We need not enquire what a man "says" when we have an opportunity of observing what he does. A man who says there is a God and yet whose ways are corrupt is to be regarded as a hypocrite: a man whose ways are honourable, unimpeachable, and benevolent, may really be under the influence of the Spirit of God when he occupies a heterodox intellectual standpoint. Not they who say, "Lord, Lord," are good, but they who do that which is right in the sight of Heaven. This rule of judgment will often save the cause of charity from cruel perversion. A narrow and sectarian orthodoxy will determine everything by what is said or written; but the true judgment will look to the life, study the spirit, and often find how true it is that a man may be better than his creed.
The psalm now enters upon a new phase by presenting a graphic image of the Lord, looking down as from a window in heaven to observe the children of men. Note that the divine observer is not looking upon particular districts, or upon particular sections of the human family; it is a "look" upon the entire human race, "the children of men." Thus even in the Old Testament we catch glimpses of the universal Fatherhood, and the purpose of God to include all men in a common redemption. The look was not only universal, it was religious. The Lord did not look down to see who were learned, rich, influential, prosperous: the one object of the divine observation was to see if" there were any that did understand and seek God." With reverence it might be said, this is all the Lord is really concerned about. Nor is this concern exclusive; it is in reality, and in the profoundest sense, inclusive. Evidently so, because it is an impossibility to have an intelligent and reverent interest in divine things without shewing vital solicitude about all affairs of consequence to beings made in the image and likeness of God. Beautiful is the expression "Seek God." It opens up the way to many glorious possibilities; it was enough as a beginning that the face should be turned in the right direction, though the speed of movement was slow, and the intellectual vision was dim. It is possible to conceive of a true God looking with almost complacent pity upon men in the lowest state of idolatry. God knows the meaning of every wistful look towards even an idol made with hands, and it is not in his heart to hold in contempt the eyes that are opening upon great spiritual distances and new spiritual hopes. Where the idolater is content with his idolatry and never allows it to interfere with his depravity, God can look but with detestation and anger. Where any man is honestly and reverently seeking God, and sustaining his whole conduct by the spirit of that elevated quest, God is full of compassion and lovingkindness towards him, as a parent might pity and love an infant who has not yet awakened to self-realisation, or become possessed of the power of expressing his necessity and desire.
The judgment that is pronounced as the result of this observation is profoundly solemn:
'They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one" ( Psa 14:3 ).
This judgment is wrought out in detail in the subsequent verses. The mind and heart having gone astray having been turned astray like a deceitful bow nothing became easier than to sink into ever-deepening abysses of iniquity: the case is put also negatively so as to fill up the measure of the great accusation: "there is none that doeth good, no, not one." Man cannot stop in a morally negative condition. Again and again this solemn lesson has been forced upon us by the whole current of history, and yet an insidious temptation assails the heart with the thought that it is still possible to forsake religious convictions and professions, and yet to preserve a pure and noble life. A distinction must be drawn here between those who have known God and departed from him, and those who have never known him experimentally and have been intellectually inquiring for him. The backslider and the truth-seeker must never be regarded as one and the same person. God having been surrendered as the supreme thought of the mind and the supreme rule of conduct, a scene of infinite confusion presented itself: workers of iniquity carried on their evil service as if in darkness; their mouths were opened in cruelty upon any who feared and worshipped God; the counsel of the poor was treated with contempt, and the poor themselves were devoured rapaciously. What is this but saying what we ourselves have known to be the case, that where reverence has been abandoned it has been impossible to sustain true and self-sacrificing philanthropy? Observe again that the case is one in which reverence has been formally given up, and so a great act of moral spoliation has been accomplished; it is not the case of one who is diligently studying the universe or perusing human history with a view of discovering the throne of power or the centre of energy. Such a man may have actually begun his religion at the point of assisting human necessity. Such assistance may be the initial form of "seeking God."
The psalm ends with a pious aspiration:
'Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! When the Lord bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad" ( Psa 14:7 ).
Sometimes amid the weltering confusions of life the good man's only resource is in the utterance of pious desires. He feels that the time of argument has passed, and that even the most poignant reproaches are thrown away when there is no responsive feeling on the part of those to whom they are addressed, and it would almost seem as if punishment itself had lost its power to turn men to religious considerateness: under these circumstances the good man can but turn his face towards heaven and pray for the dawn of the better time. He sees plainly that men will never convert themselves: they have no power to climb out of the abysses into which they have plunged: even if they had the desire they are lacking in the ability, inasmuch as they have disabled themselves from coping successfully with the very laws which they have impiously defied: their hearts are withered, their will is paralysed, their very conscience is depraved; moral distinctions are blurred in most horrible confusion, and if so holy a thing as a prayer could for a moment escape their lips it would but add to the agony which it cannot alleviate. What then is to be done? The Lord himself must take the case into his own hands. He must arise out of Zion and work out the mystery of salvation. That he has had no encouragement, so to say, to do this, is the blackest fact in human life. His Spirit has been resisted, his mercies have been trampled under foot, his very existence has been disputed and even denied, and men have turned away from his throne to work all manner of evil with both hands. But the answer is still in God. Recovery must appear in the form of a miracle which it is impossible for reason to understand. Here the little faculty of explanation ceases in its toiling endeavour to make the midnight luminous as midday; there are times in history when even the preacher must be silent and the suppliant feel his inability to complete his pleading, and the whole Church stand still that the salvation of God without man's assistance may be seen and magnified. The "fool" of the first verse will never bring in the gladness of the last. It is never within his power nor within his desire to turn the captivity of the world or enlarge its freedom. We must turn away in hopeless disgust from the "fool" who has denied God, and look up with trembling and expectant reverence to the God whom he has denied.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 14". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany