Peter’s talk at today’s Morning Worship
As we go through this sermon series on the Psalms, we will come across many different kinds: some are psalms of pure praise and joy; others start in a dark place but emerge by the end into glorious light; others express their lament at the troubles and sufferings we experience in life. Given the troubles we are all experiencing during this pandemic, it might well be that one of those types of psalms might be what we’d instinctively prefer to be focusing on this week! But instead we are about to read Psalm 14 which focuses—perhaps more clearly than any other psalm—on the sinfulness of all our human hearts.
Not, at first glance, the most encouraging of topics! Yet, if we will tune into its deep words of wisdom, we may be better able to build our lives on reality (not our own wishful thinking), gain a much greater appreciation of what God graciously does for us (despite our sins) and come to see far more clearly the incredible nature of the rescue and salvation which eventually God would bring into the world through sending Jesus. These deeper truths, leading to deeper joy, might actually be precisely what we need—more than we had realised—to steady our hearts through this time of great uncertainty.
So let’s tune in to these wise words of Israel’s King David:
fool says in his heart,
‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.
2 The Lord looks
down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
3 All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
4 Do all these evildoers know nothing
They devour my people as though eating bread;
they never call on the Lord.
5 But there they are, overwhelmed with dread,
for God is present in the company of the righteous.
6 You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.
that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the Lord restores his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!
David is looking around him at the local community, at the society of ancient Israel, and he obverses that something is deeply wrong: even here, amongst the people of Israel (the people called by God to be his own!), there are individuals who privately prefer not to believe in God and whose actions are ‘vile’—a strong word, not a very ‘politically correct’ word, indicating his moral repugnance at what they get up to. And this causes him to come out with the line ‘there is no one who does good’.
That’s a pretty negative statement, quite a jaundiced view of life! Perhaps it even surprised David himself to find himself saying it? Well, it certainly caused him to stop and think, for in verses 2-3 he then presses into this issue more deeply.
In these two verses it’s as though David ‘zooms back’ the camera to a wide-angle shot—looking now not just at a few bad characters in Israel but at humanity as a whole and doing so from God’s perspective: ‘The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind’. But looked at from here, the view is even worse! For in God’s eyes there’s a problem not just with a few people but with ‘all’ of them: ‘All have turned away, all have become corrupt’. So David reaches the same conclusion, but this time it’s even more emphatic: ‘there is no one who does good—not even one.’ Not even David himself! David realises, in a moment of naked honesty that the ugly pattern of thought and behaviour he has seen in others (and rightly denounced) is also in himself.
(We will come back later to look at David’s honesty here, but for now let’s note that this will give David a humility throughout the Psalms: whenever he is speaking out against the ungodly and the unrighteous, he knows that “there, but for the grace of God, go I”).
As David’s reflections continue through verses 4-6 he continues to be given insight as to how these ‘evildoers’ look from God’s perspective. There they are—up to no good, ‘frustrating the plans of the poor’ and taking advantage of others (David uses a vivid metaphor, describing them as like individuals gobbling up mouthfuls of bread). But suddenly ‘there they are, overwhelmed with dread’ because God (the God they prefer not to believe in) is actually alive and active: this God is going to defend his people, he’s going to be their ‘refuge’ of protection and he’s going to manifest his powerful presence ‘in the company of the righteous’. And when they see that, these ungodly people who’ve been ‘playing the fool’, will indeed have their folly exposed. In other words, God’s truth ‘will out’ and, as for the ungodly, they will ‘have their come-uppance’.
We’ll come back to verse 7 at the end, but for now let’s look back over these first six verses and highlight two main points: David’s Honesty and David’s Help.
David’s words in verse 2 and 3 are some of the strongest and clearest statements in the Bible concerning human depravity, the sinfulness of the human heart. They’re on a par with Jeremiah 17:9: ‘the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure’. They may be being echoed later in Isaiah 53:6: ‘We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.’ And Paul will quote them in Romans 3.
David is recognising that within each one of us (and within himself) there is this capacity to do that which is ‘vile’: we’re all potential villains. Not one of us is immune to temptations with regard to money, with regard to sex, with regard to power. We may not think of ourselves as like hungry lions seeking to ‘devour’ other people, but actually in many of our interactions with people we are subtly trying to ‘get the better’ of them, playing ‘one-upmanship’—trying to prove we are more powerful than this particular person, or more competent or more wise. In order to help us feel good about ourselves, we often subtly put others down; to use a different metaphor, we often trample over others so that we may climb a bit higher. “Win a battle here”, “prove a point there!” Human life can so easily become a competition (like the disciples on the road to Jerusalem debating which one of them was the greatest) and, taken to its extremes, life can soon turn into a jungle (as in the book The Lord of the Flies) where only the strongest survive and the weak go to the wall. And, 3000 years since the time of David, the story still continues—with millions of people still in some kind of ‘slavery’ (be it sexual, financial or political), being effectively ‘devoured’ by others, abused and powerless. Human beings—in David’s day, in our day—are, all too evidently, deeply flawed.
And note where David locates the root of the problem: not in our outwards actions, but in our inner attitudes, which then drive our behaviour. We do not ‘do good’, because our natures have become ‘corrupted’ (a word repeated in verses 1 and 3). And our natures are ‘corrupt’ because, even further back, we have made a choice: we had an option—to ‘seek God’ (v. 2)—but instead we ‘turned away’ (v. 3). In modern society so many people are trying to absolve themselves of their responsibilities by saying they had no choice—“its’ just in my genes”; “I was on the receiving end of bullying at school or abusive parents”; “I’m the victim here, don’t blame me!” But the biblical witness (of which Psalm 14 is a key part) is clear. Human beings do have choices; we exercise our own wills; and we are held responsible to God for what we choose to do—both for our own sinful actions as well as for our responses to the sinful actions of others.
In such a dire situation the Good News about Jesus, as revealed in the New Testament, has a lot to say, and we will get on to that at the end. However, let’s notice there is also some Good News here in Psalm 14: because David does not only describe fallen humanity, he also describes Israel’s God—painting a brief but powerful picture of the way God chooses, despite our sinfulness, to work graciously for those who choose to seek after him and seek to do his will. There are such people: they are called ‘my people’ in v. 4, the ‘righteous’ in v. 5 and in v. 6 as the ‘poor’ or those taken advantage of by others.
And for such people, God works in various ways:
- he comes to dwell in their gatherings, in their times of worship and coming together (he’s ‘present in their company’: v. 5)
- and he protects them from the evildoers, providing them with a ‘refuge’ (v. 6)
As an old saying puts it, God is both “the well within and the wall without”. That’s a great picture of the biblical God—seen back in Exodus (with God’s presence in the midst of the Israelites’ camp) through these days of David (as God’s presence comes to reside in Jerusalem’s temple) and on into the days of days of the New Covenant (when Jesus is now present by his Spirit whenever “two or three gather” in his name: Matt. 18:20).
The Good News that David has sensed here is that his God does not abandon us because of our sins (wiping his hands of us!), but instead responds graciously and actually wants to come very close to us—indeed right into our midst. In other words, although the biblical God is a God of judgement, he is, above all, a God of relationship and thus he longs to overcome any obstacles we place in his way in order to come close.
That’s Good News. Psalm 14 reveals the nature of humans to be sinful, but the nature of God to be gracious.
So, finally we come to David’s hope. And here we move on to the Psalm’s final verse (v. 7) where David after six verses of making observations, turns all this into a prayer.
- He’s aware of this contrast between human sinfulness and divine grace, but cannot fully understand how these two things can come together.
- He’s also aware that Israel as the people of God is itself deeply flawed, full of disbelief and sin, and knows God will have to do something about this, but as yet see he cannot what that would look like.
And so he prays: ‘Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!’
David is praying that God will do something new in Jerusalem, in Zion, and that this will be something which brings ‘salvation’ to Israel, rescuing her from her difficulties—not merely her political difficulties, but this deep, inner malaise of sin and unbelief.
And the New Testament affirms that his prayers were answered—perhaps even beyond his wildest dreams!
- Into this depressing and dark situation (of Israel’s sin and indeed the sinfulness of all humanity) there came a person who did indeed ‘do good’, who was fully obedient to God in his will, who was truly ‘righteous’, who was the true Messiah (or King) worthy to sit on David’s throne.
- And then he went up to Jerusalem and performed an extraordinary and unexpected act of rescue, receiving the worst of man’s inhumanity to man, giving his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world and rising to new life—able now to place a new spirit, indeed a new heart, into sinful human beings who turn back to God, thus enabling them now to ‘do good’ and be ‘righteous in God’s sight.
What an amazing answer to prayer! David’s prayer is answered by God himself coming in the person of his Son to redeem fallen humanity, bringing forgiveness for their sins and causing his Holy Spirit to dwell within each one of us.
No wonder, then, that Saint Paul quotes Psalm 14 (vv.2-3), in his Letter to the Romans (ch. 3) when he’s presenting the case that all people, both Jews and Gentiles, are under the power of sin and just a few verses before he then describes Jesus’ work of salvation on the cross:
All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’ (Rom 3:11-12, quoting Psalm 14). And, a few verses later: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’ (3:23-24).
If David had lived to read those words of Paul, I’m convinced he would have come out with some repeated cries of “Hallelujah!” (Hebrew for ‘praise the Lord’); “Hallelujah!” “I couldn’t work out how, but I knew my God would sort it all out eventually!”
And Paul has the joy of writing Romans (at the ‘other end’, as it were, of David’s prayer), able to affirm that in Jesus God has indeed brought ‘salvation to Israel’ and thereby to the world. Indeed one might even dare to suggest that Paul’s whole letter to the Romans was an extended explanation of how David’s prayer in Psalm 14 had at last been answered (even though some in the nation of Israel had seemingly turned away from receiving this offered ‘salvation’).
So perhaps there was more to Psalm 14 than first we thought! It turns out to be a major foundation in the preparation for the New Testament gospel and offers us a key for unlocking a deeper understanding of what God has done for us all in Jesus.
As we come to receive Holy Communion now,
- let’s be grateful for David’s honesty, pinpointing the Problem of our sinful human natures which ‘turn away’ from God;
- let’s take note of David’s help in his own day, when he knew deep down the reality of God’s Provision for his people (his presence and his protection);
- and let’s, above all, rejoice that David’s hope was indeed answered, when Jesus came to give his life to save us from our sins, thus bringing us Pardon but also bringing us God’s Presence as we are enabled to enjoy his Spirit, the presence of God in our lives and, yes, in the ‘company of the righteous’.