February 12, 2012 Psalm 14: What Fools These Mortals Be
2 Kings 5:1-14 Psalm 14 1 Cor. 1:18-25 Mark 1:4-45
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Puck, Midsummer’s Night Dream, Act. III, Sc. II
What fools indeed! We think ourselves wise, when we are not. We think we don’t need God, that there is no God, that God is the invention of feeble minds.
Fool, according to Webster, as a noun is a person who lacks sense or judgment; jester; dupe; idiot. As a verb it is to spend time idly or aimlessly, to meddle or tamper thoughtlessly or ignorantly, joke, deceive, fritter (as in fritter away time).
Our psalm for today says, “Fools say there is no God.” Psalm 14 and 53 are virtually the same psalm with small differences. Originally they were in two independent collections of psalms, which were combined. Basically the psalm is about a person who sees God as being absent and therefore may be disregarded. It’s a form of practical atheism, most likely written during a time when irreligiousness was becoming more common in Old Testament literature, probably post-exilic time when Greek influence had been growing and weakening the faith of many. The psalm follows a downward development. You start by saying there is no God, then out of that lack of belief comes all kinds of evil, their deeds are loathsome and corrupt, they even go so far as to “devour my people like bread.” (vs. 4) The implication is that once you stop believing in God, you have lost the normal safeguards against evil. As one commentator states, “It is a straight path from practical atheism to gas chambers.” (Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4, p. 76)
Amidst this, God looks down and wonders if any are wise and finds none. This is reminiscent of God looking for ten just men in Sodom and Gomorrah. Certainly most Jews would be familiar with this story and would take note; God could destroy them for their evil deeds just as he smote that city. The psalmist asks: “Have they no knowledge?” (vs. 4) Don’t they realize, God could do to them what he did to Sodom and Gomorrah? Psalm 53 states: “For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them.” (vs. 5a) The psalm ends with the psalmist crying for deliverance and for God to restore the fortunes of his people. Perhaps the deliverance he desired was a restoration of faith to Israel.
One of the greatest theological minds of the twentieth century was an atheist at first, C.S. Lewis. They say there are no atheists in foxholes during times of war, yet C.S. Lewis came home from WWI still a confirmed atheist. His autobiography, Surprised by Joy, is the story of his conversion. Being a philosopher and learned man, it was through philosophy and his studies that God finally broke down the barriers between Lewis and himself. Lewis was led into atheism through his studies and the influence of teachers and in the same way was led out of atheism. He found that the writers who most inspired him had this one problem, being Christian, whereas, “those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete – Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire – all seemed a little thin.” (P.118, Surprised by Joy, as found in The Beloved Works of C.S. Lewis) The writers he was most drawn towards were in spite of their Christianity, Johnson, Spencer, Milton, Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil. “Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink.”
Another remarkable event happened in 1926 when “the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.” (pp. 122-123)
All of his life Lewis had searched for what he termed “joy” – a certain sense of “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” (p. 11) It was this desire that ultimately led him to God. “A desire is turned not to itself but to its object. Not only that, but it owed all its character to its object . . . Inexorably Joy proclaimed, ‘You want—I myself am your want of—something other, outside, not you nor any state of you.” (p. 121) He finally realized that that which he sought, was seeking for him, had been seeking him all along: “if Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Hamlet could initiate nothing.” (p. 124) So finally in 1929, he wrote, “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? . . The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.” (p. 125)
Lewis fought God, in his pride he did not want to appear naïve or foolish. He wanted to be “intellectual” and count himself among the learned. Yet this learning was ultimate foolishness, wisdom could do no less than fall in faith before God.
Our God will use whatever means available to reach his people. He spoke to Lewis using the words of great writers, for others he uses other means. Some find God in nature and the wonders of the universe; others find God through relationships with others. God works quietly and yet profoundly to get our attention. In Kings, Naaman expects great signs and wonders from the prophet. When Elishah instructs him to simply wash in the river Jordan he almost refuses. He is healed of his leprosy and proclaims his belief in God. In our Gospel, Jesus heals the leper and instructs him to remain quiet. Jesus did not want to draw attention to himself; he wanted to quietly go about his work. God doesn’t always draw attention to himself, he leaves hints everywhere for those with eyes to see, but doesn’t force his presence upon those unwilling.
Paul reminds us in Corinthians that the wisdom of the world is foolishness – that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Jews seek signs and wonders, Greeks seek wisdom, but we proclaim a Christ crucified.
Psalm 14 and 53 are not treatises on atheism. They are a treatise on a certain kind of atheism, practical atheism which rejects God and belief in practice, if not in theory, that is an excuse to be unkind, to be evil. Outright disbelief in God was not common at all during this time, but there were those who lived their lives as if God did not exist. They don’t address a form of atheism that questions the existence of God, yet lives Godly, Christian lives, behaving more Christian in their unbelief than some Christians in their belief. They don’t deal with those who question the existence of God because of all of the evil they see in the world.
God is consistent in Scripture about protecting the poor and vulnerable and our duty to do the same. We see in Psalm 14 that God hears the cries of the poor and responds. This God will deal with justice to those who are kind in their treatment of others regardless of their belief. He will also treat with justice those who treat the poor, widows and orphans, cruelly, regardless of their professed belief.
Our God loves us and seeks us out with love, but he will not coerce or force belief on anyone. Still we resist God’s love; we look for proof of God’s existence rather than taking that ultimate leap of faith. As C.S. Lewis states in “Dogma and the Universe,”: “Really, we are hard to please. We treat God as the police treat a man when he is arrested; whatever he does will be used in evidence against Him.” (p. 314) Foolishness, pure foolishness.
A fool, as stated at the beginning, is a person who lacks sense or judgment, a jester, dupe, idiot; it is to spend time idly or aimlessly, to meddle or tamper thoughtlessly or ignorantly, joke, deceive, fritter away time. What fools we mortals be. We fritter away our time about that which does not save, about things of this world which will fade away, which leave us with no joy, rather than spending our time on the things of God, that will save us. We think ourselves wise when we are not. The things of God may appear foolishness to the practical atheists who think only of themselves and their personal gain, rather than being kind, helping others, putting other’s needs before our own. But they are the fools, for in gaining the world, they lose their soul. So let us be fools for Christ, bearing our own crosses with love for He loved us first. Then we shall see in the end who is the true fool.
Robertson, copyright Feb. 2012