Just as covenant keeping begins in the heart, so does covenant breaking. Christians are far too often exercised over displays of overt atheism, when we ought to be more concerned over the existence of practical atheism in the hearts of covenant members. The fool says in his heart that there is no God. With his mouth he may say other things, many of them quite orthodox. “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt . . .” (Ps. 14:1-7).
David begins with a statement about practical atheism. The fool speaking to himself, says that there is no God (v. 1). Everyone in this condition is corrupt, does abominable works, and fails to do good works. We know this on the authority of the omniscient God, who has looked down from heaven and has seen that no one seeks Him (v. 2). His grim assessment is found in v. 3—no one does good, not even one. These workers of iniquity have no knowledge—they eat up the saints of God, and they do not pray (v. 4). But when they come to devour the saints, they are startled into fear because the indigestable God is in our midst (v. 5). The wicked have sought to take from the poor his one consolation—the Lord his refuge (v. 6). The psalm ends with a glorious prayer of faith (v. 7). O that salvation would come out of Zion! When this happens Jacob shall rejoice and all Israel will be glad.
David appears to be talking about widespread corruption within Israel, and points to that wickedness which hates God and consequently hates God’s people. They have all done wickedly, and one of the wicked things they do is devour God’s people (v. 4). These people are described by David as being righteous (v. 5). The poor take refuge in God (v. 6). And while God’s people are in captivity, they are His people (v.7).
Nevertheless, these words at the beginning of the psalm are taken by St. Paul and very clearly applied to all men, whether Jew or Gentile, in their natural condition. “What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous . . .” (Rom. 3:9-12).
For St. Paul, just as for David, a company of the righteous exists. Paul points to those who “by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life” (Rom. 2:7). But Paul makes it clear that the righteous were not born this way. Our salvation is an unmerited gift of God, lest any should boast (Eph. 2:8-10). All of us are taken out the same lump (Rom. 9:21). By nature we were children of wrath; sin is the universal problem (Eph. 2:3). But yet, for both Paul and David, grace is operative in the world, and when the righteous are created, the unrighteous hate them.
We therefore return to the psalm. The fool has said these things in his heart, but the omniscient God knows what is in his heart. This is not the open, defiant atheist, but rather the functional atheist. This man can be quite a religious man, putting on quite an outward show. But God reckons His judgments according to the heart. This is why the plowing of the wicked is sin (Prov. 21:4), even though plowing is a good thing. This is why this man’s sacrifices were an abomination (Prov. 15:8), even though sacrifices were commanded. This is why the solemn assembly of such men is something God cannot endure (Is. 1:13).
The character of the practical atheist is most evident in this psalm. What is he like?
He is a fool. Proud men would rather be called wicked than to be called a fool, and so the Word of God calls them fools (v. 1).
He is morally putrid. He is corrupt. His deeds are abominable. He has become filthy (vv. 1,3).
He is guilty of sins of omission. He does not do good (vv. 1,3). He refuses to do what God sets before us all.
He is ignorant. He does not understand God, and does not seek to understand God (vv. 2,4).
He is cruel. He devours the people of God (v. 4). Thomas Watson said that this is a Christ-hating and saint-eating world. Herodias preferred the blood of John the Baptist to half the kingdom.
He is prayerless. He does not call upon God (v. 4).
He is a very great coward. When God reveals Himself in our midst, the practical atheist falls to trembling (v. 5).
He is a mocker. When the poor take refuge in God their only refuge, he seeks to shame them (v. 6).
And last, gloriously, he is a loser. Salvation does come to Israel out of Zion (v. 7). The captives are released. The people of God do celebrate and rejoice. As this makes plain, while the gospel has come to earth in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and is presented as the offer of salvation to any man, this offer of salvation to every man refuses to flatter any man.
And this leads to a prayer for reformation, for there are many within the Church today who fit this description. The first six verses of this psalm present a very dark picture. The first three chapters of Romans paint the same picture. God has shut up all men under sin—but has done so in order to have mercy upon them all. The glory that is coming is a glory that is mercy, not justice.
We do not know with any certainty that reformation in our day will begin a week from now, or twenty years from now. But we do know with certainty that it will come. We know this because this is God’s pattern. This is how God operates in the world. Death, then resurrection. Defeat, then, inexplicably, victory. Terrible darkness, and then eucatastrophe. Cross, agonizing death, and then life from the dead. This is God’s way in our world—formation, deformation, and then reformation.
Salvation does come from Zion, and it always looks to the eye of unbelief (ten minutes before it happens) that it was entirely impossible. The guards outside the tomb of Christ were probably leaning against the wall with their arms crossed.
It is therefore most necessary for us to remember three things.
Victory in Christ is secured and is ours. Joy in Israel is the necessary end of this psalm and of all human history.
Second, that victory is not based in any way on our natural condition. We are all as grotesque (in our own nature) as the worst atheist. It is really true that “there but for the grace of God go I.” The meek inherit the earth, not the proud.
The declaration of this truth about Christ’s victory is in no way helped or advanced through flattery. The gospel conquers the world, and it is not pleasant lies that conquer the world. And this gospel includes the hard, cold truth about human nature.