An interpretive close reading paper for English 371, Literary Study of the Bible, an upper-level literature course taught by Dr. Christopher Hodgkins, written on 3 June 2008 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
A Literary Analysis of Psalm 14
by Matt Wallace
I have been an open, avowed atheist since soon after my thirteenth birthday in 1974. Quite frequently, Christians have responded to my profession of atheism with an immediate citation of Psalm 14:1: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (KJV). They deployed this verse to imply that I was some sort of idiot, thus any argument I might offer against the existence of God was obviously without merit. Worse was the arrogant “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” attitude exuded by these Christians. From my conversations with other atheists over the years, this experience is nearly universal, at least for American atheists, especially those living in the Bible Belt. The problem is that nothing in the rest of the psalm clearly deals with atheism. Does Psalm 14 repudiate atheists or does it serve another purpose?
Understanding the true purpose of the psalm requires first getting past the prejudicial language of the first verse. A footnote for Psalm 14 in the New International Version (NIV) notes that “[t]he Hebrew words rendered fool in Psalms denote one who is morally deficient.” A “fool” is a wicked or evil person, not a mentally deficient person. Additionally, “heart” is used as a symbol for a person’s innermost self or moral core, so “saying something in the heart” is a metaphor for moral agency. Finally, in the quote “There is no God,” “God” personifies righteousness, so the quote is a metaphor for a lack of righteousness, not a metaphysical statement on the existence of God. Paraphrasing the first sentence yields, “The evil man lives as though righteousness does not exist.” This rendering conforms to the rest of the psalm.
The psalmist, identified as David, begins Psalm 14 with an acknowledgement that evil men exist and that they lead unrighteous lives. Such people are wicked and their actions are immoral; none of them does what is right. The negative tone of the verse and the intensity of its delivery clearly indicate that unrighteousness is not the ideal condition.
In the second verse, God in Heaven looks down upon humanity seeking the righteous, those who are wise and seek Him. The psalmist uses this anthropomorphism to demonstrate the importance of righteousness to God, thus stressing it as an ideal to be striven for by men.
In the third verse, God finds that all men have turned away from Him. Without exception, they are wicked and none of them does what is right. The psalmist suggests that righteousness is to be found only with God.
In the fourth verse, the psalmist asks a rhetorical question which partially identifies his “evildoers” with a striking simile/metaphor compound: “those who devour my people as men eat bread and who do not call on the LORD.” They are those who derive their sustenance, their livelihoods, by abusing the righteous while deliberately living unrighteously.
In the fifth verse, the unrighteous are pointed out as they cower in fear before God as He stands with the righteous. With this second anthropomorphism, the psalmist suggests both the inherent weakness of worldly power versus Godly power and the inferiority of unrighteousness as compared to righteousness.
In the sixth verse, the “evildoers” are addressed directly and condemned for frustrating “the plans of the poor” for whom “the LORD is their refuge.” The “poor” symbolize the abused righteous. Their “plans” are a metonymy for their desire to live righteously. The “evildoers” ultimately fail as the “poor” have a metaphorical refuge in God. The psalmist suggests that the righteous are protected from evil by their righteousness, by their faith in their God.
In the seventh and final verse, a plea for deliverance from oppression is made: “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!” Also, a promise of rescue is given: “When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!” Israel is used emblematically for the Jewish people. Zion is used similarly for the idealized Jewish state which stands righteous before God. Accordingly, the psalmist suggests that the Jews, even while in bondage, can liberate themselves by being faithful to their God. Ultimately, God will reward their faithfulness. Freedom from oppression, by both the wicked and wickedness itself, is achieved by living righteously. Freedom is the ultimate reward of righteousness.
Psalm 14 is primarily a psalm of assurance as its main purpose is to give hope to the Jewish people in their time of trouble; this is most explicit in verses 5 and 6. The psalm achieves its primary goal by incorporating elements of other psalm types as well. The psalm of wisdom is represented by verses 1, 2, and 3 which distinguish righteousness from unrighteousness and make clear God’s preference for righteousness. The psalm of imprecation is represented by verses 4, 5, and 6 which condemn the unrighteous. The psalm of prophesy is represented by verse 7 which offers the hope of salvation. Taking all of the literary elements together, the psalmist’s ultimate purpose is to preserve the unique Jewish spiritual way of life in the face of a credible threat to its survival, assimilation by a seemingly more powerful people.
(Note well: I retrieved the text of both versions online from BibleGateway.com. I formatted the text of the New International Version to replicate the reconstructed poem as rendered in the print version. I formatted the text of the King James Version to preserve the blockiness of the print version's standard columnar style.)
New International Version
1 The fool¹ 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 the sons of men
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
3 All have turned aside,
they have together become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
4 Will evildoers never learn—
those who devour my people as men eat bread
and who do not call on the LORD?
5 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.
7 Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!
1 The Hebrew words rendered fool in Psalms denote
one who is morally deficient.
Publisher's required notice of copyright: "Scripture taken from
the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION.
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society.
Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers."
King James Version
1 The fool hath said in his heart,
There is no God. They are corrupt,
they have done abominable works,
there is none that doeth good.
2 The LORD looked down from
heaven upon the children of men,
to see if there were any that did
understand, and seek God.
3 They are all gone aside, they
are all together become filthy:
there is none that doeth good,
no, not one.
4 Have all the workers of iniquity
no knowledge? who eat up my
people as they eat bread, and
call not upon the LORD.
5 There were they in great fear:
for God is in the generation of
6 Ye have shamed the counsel
of the poor, because the LORD
is his refuge.
7 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.