The psalm deals with the character and conduct of the “practical atheist” and adds to the messages of Psalms 10 and 12. The three psalms present a vivid picture of the ungodly—their proud attitude (10), their deceitful words (12), and now their corrupt deeds (14). All that they are, say, and do comes from their arrogant (and ignorant) belief that “there is no God.” Psalm 14 is duplicated in Psalm 53 with two changes: Psalm 53 uses the name “God” (Elohim) instead of “Jehovah” and replaces 14:6 with an addition to verse 5. David contrasted “the workers of iniquity” in Israel with the godly remnant (“the generation of the righteous” vv. 4–5) that sought God and obeyed the terms of His covenant. During the reign of King Saul, the spiritual level of the nation was very low, and many Jews followed the bad example of Israel’s first king. But even in the worst of times, God has cared for His faithful remnant and has been their refuge in times of trouble. Note the characteristics of the “practical atheists.”
Willful Folly—They Ignore God (vv. 1–3)
Our English word “fool” comes from a Latin word that means “bellows,” suggesting that the fool is a person “full of hot air.” In the Hebrew language, there are three basic words for “fool”: kesyl, the dull, stupid fool; ewiyl, the unreasonable and perverted fool; and nabal, the brutish person who is like a stubborn animal. Nabal is the word used in 14:1, and it was the name of a man who was brutish and refused to help David (1 Sam. 25). People who say “There is no God” are not necessarily lacking normal intelligence; in fact, they may have good minds. However, they lack spiritual wisdom and insight. The nabal fool has a moral problem in the heart, not a mental problem in the head. The American evangelist Billy Sunday used to say that sinners can’t find God for the same reason criminals can’t find policemen—they aren’t looking!
Nabal fools are self-righteous and don’t need or want God. They want to live their own lives the way they please. Their problem is willful ignorance and not lack of normal intelligence (2 Peter 3:5; Rom. 1:18–28). But this decision causes sad consequences in both their character and their conduct. By leaving God out of their lives, they cause their inner person to become more and more corrupt—the heart (v. 1), the mind (vv. 2, 4), and the will (v. 3). The Hebrew word means “rotten, putrid, decayed.” It is used to describe Jeremiah’s useless sash (Jer. 13:7). When God looks down to investigate (Gen. 6:5, 11–12; 11:15; 18:21), He sees people who are filthy (v. 3), a word that describes milk that has become rancid. “Gone aside” means they have turned their backs on God (Jer. 2:21) and refuse to fulfill the purpose for which they were created—to glorify God.
This indictment is universal: all people, individually or all together, cannot do anything at all that is good enough to merit heaven—no one, no, not one. Paul quotes from this passage in Romans 3 as part of his proof that the whole world is guilty before God and can be saved only by the grace of God as revealed in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:9–26). Human depravity doesn’t mean that all persons are as wicked as they can be, or that all are equally bad, or that no man or woman can ever do anything good (Luke 11:13). It simply means that all have a fallen nature they cannot change, and that apart from the grace of God, none can be saved from eternal judgment.
Sudden Fear—They Meet God (vv. 4–6)
Someone asked the agnostic British philosopher Bertrand Russell what he would say if, when he died, he suddenly found himself standing before God. Russell replied, “You did not give us sufficient evidence!” If the heavens above us, the earth beneath our feet, the wonders of nature around us, and the life and conscience within us, don’t convince us of the existence of a wise and powerful Creator, how much more evidence must the Lord give? An atheistic Russian cosmonaut said he’d looked carefully while in space and didn’t see God. Someone commented, “If he’d opened the door of the space capsule, he would have met Him!” The time comes when God and the sinner suddenly meet. See Belshazzar in Daniel 5, the rich farmer in Luke 12:13–21, and the people in Revelation 6:12–17.
Verse 4 gives us two more indictments: these practical atheists take advantage of the weak and the poor, and they will not call upon the Lord. To “eat people like bread” is a biblical metaphor for exploiting the helpless (27:2; 35:25; 53:4; Mic. 3:1–3; Lam. 2:16; and see Isa. 3:12, Jer. 10:25, Amos 2:6–8, and Mic. 2:2 and 7:3). People must never be used as a means to an end or “treated as consumer goods,” as Eugene H. Peterson expresses it.11 Instead of praying to God, the wicked prey on the godly. But then the Lord suddenly appears in judgment, and He identifies Himself with the remnant of faithful believers. We don’t know what event David was referring to, but the parallel passage in 53:5 suggests a great military victory that left all the enemy dead, unburied, and therefore humiliated. Some interpret the scene as a metaphor of a court case and connect it with verse 6, “You evildoers frustrate the plans [counsel] of the poor” (NIV). Imagine God suddenly appearing in court and ousting the crooked judge! Whatever the meaning, this much is clear: God is in the generation of the righteous, God is their refuge when the enemy attacks, and God will protect His own people.
Joyless Future—They Have No God (v. 7)
God has promised that the Redeemer will one day come to Zion and deliver His people in mighty power (Isa. 59:16–21; Jer. 31:33–34), and Paul affirmed this at the close of his great discussion of the future redemption of the Jewish nation (Rom. 11:25–32). The word “captivity” in verse 7 doesn’t refer to the Babylonian captivity, for Jeremiah made it clear that it would end in seventy years (Jer. 25:8–14). The phrase “bring back the captivity” means “to restore the fortunes, to radically change circumstances from bad to very good.” The day will come when Jesus Christ will return, defeat His enemies, cleanse the nation of Israel, and establish His righteous kingdom on this earth (Zech. 10–14). What a time of rejoicing that will be when the prayer “Thy kingdom come” is fulfilled!
But what about the wicked? They have no future with the Lord because they preferred not to know the Lord or live for Him. They lived according to the desires of their own heart, not to please the Lord and glorify Him. Those who reject Jesus Christ will spend eternity apart from the Lord and will honestly be able to say in hell, “There is no God—here!”