David A. Davis
October 18, 2020
“Fools say in their hearts, ‘there is no God.’” “Fools say in their hearts”. “Fools”. It is easier to distance yourself from someone when you call them a fool. It is a pretty easy way to turn people into “a them and not an us”. You call them fools. In the language of today, we might say that labeling someone a fool is means of “othering” them. You are not someone with a name and face, you are just a fool. Perhaps more than keeping them at arm’s length, calling someone a fool is a means to minimize their thought, their position, their politics, their actions, their destructiveness. Only a fool would say there is no God. That’s ridiculous. I would never say that. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). And I certainly thank you Lord that I am not like the fool who says there is no God.
Our small groups studying the Psalms this season are reading Pat Miller’s book The Lord of the Psalms. The book is the print edition of Dr. Miller’s Stone Lectures which he delivered at Princeton Seminary in 2010. Early in the book Miller points out that when the psalmist includes a quote attributed to someone else, as in the case of the fools in Psalm 14, that often such quotes of the wicked or the foolish are a way of “indirectly expressing the conclusions of the psalmist”. Its sort of like asking a question and saying “I’m just asking for a friend” when you are really asking for yourself.
From that perspective, then, the psalmist isn’t trying to distance from the fool at all. Quite the opposite of the Pharisee’s approach in Luke that I just quoted, the psalmist is actually sharing the fool’s perspective or echoing the fool’s conclusion. The fool and the psalmist looking at the corruption, the abominable deeds, the devouring of God’s people, the humiliation of and the preying on the poor and saying in the heart, “there is no God.” Looking around at the state of the world, the chaos and reality of humanity’s sin and wondering where the dickens God really is. The fool and the psalmist are in good company when it comes to the assessment of all the corruption and destructive behavior. As the psalmist writes, “The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God…no one does good, no, not one.” The fool, the psalmist, and God all agreeing on the absolute mess of humankind: the corruption, the abominable deeds, the devouring of God’s people, the humiliation of and the preying on the poor.
“Fools say in their hearts. ‘there is no God.’” “Fools say in their hearts.” “Say in their hearts”. Saying something in the heart seems to be a bit of an odd expression. You say something your head maybe and you feel something in your heart. I remember hearing one of my preaching mentors, Peter Gomes, use the expression “thinking hearts and loving minds” on more than one occasion. Intentionally switching the pairings of loving hearts and thinking minds to make a point mostly to graduating college students. Head out into the world with a compassionate mind and a discerning heart. “Fools say in their hearts”. That sounds like the psalmist making a similar kind of switch to make a point. The distinction here is that the fool is not making an argument for the mind. It is not an intellectual, philosophical shot across the bow in a debate about the existence of God. No. To say there is no God in your heart is more of a gut level, soul crying lament about the absence of God when surrounded by human suffering. The imagined setting for Psalm 14 is not a classroom or late night dorm room existential debate. It would be more like a waiting room, or a massively overcrowded prison, or an ICU with no beds left. Where are you God, really? God, where?!
The psalmist on the absence of God rather than the existence of God. The psalmist, through the voice of the fool, questioning the absence of God. The absence of God rather than the existence of God brings Psalm 14 closer to home. It brings biblical lament closer to home. Over the years pastors like me, we have our share of conversations about the existence of God; usually after Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens published a new book. And yes, there are those occasions outside of church life where another guest at a dinner party tries to play “let’s bait the religious professional into an argument about God.” Yes those conversations happen once in a while. But I long ago lost count, there is no way I could have counted, I can’t begin to describe to you how many conversations I have had with individuals who, in a particular season of life, were asking somewhere way deep down inside about the absence of God. The psalmist, the fool, you and me. Are you here God? God, can you hear me? Because sometimes, at some point, every now and then, maybe right, now in our hearts, we’re not so sure.
Hope for the psalmist here in Psalm 14 comes in the promise that God will restore the fortunes of God’s people, that deliverance will come. God’s people will rejoice and God’s people will be glad. As God heard the people’s cry, as God delivered God’s people before, as God liberated God’s people at the Exodus, God will surely hear, deliver, save God’s people again. The psalmist view of salvation is collective one, a corporate one. It is a promise about life together itself. That when it comes to the absolute mess of humankind: the corruption, the abominable deeds, the devouring of God’s people, the humiliation of and the preying on the poor. God is going to do something about all of it. The psalm starts with the fool and ends with a nod to Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom. The psalm begins with the abundance of human suffering and ends with joy and gladness in the land. The psalm begins with lament and ends with “a kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” kind of proclamation.
But before that last verse of Psalm 14, before the last line of the song, there is a response to the perceived absence of God that ought not be missed. “God is with the company of the righteous. You would confound, step on, shame the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.” God is with those who crave righteousness, work for justice, love kindness. God is with them. And as for the poor God is their refuge. Their shelter. Their dwelling place. The psalm begins with fool and the absence of God but makes a not so subtle turn toward an affirmation of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, “as much as you have done it to least of these, you have done it to me.” If you want to find God, if you want to see God? According to the psalmist you have to look to those who are beat down and kept down by corrupt systems of abusive power. You have to see the faces of those on the wrong side of the abominable deeds of the high and mighty. You have to ponder God’s people being devoured in the feast of selfishness, greed, and violence. The Lord our God, our Emmanuel is with….them. God is…there. “Fools say in their hearts ‘there is no God’”. But may it’s just that over and over and over again, so many who have so much, so many who seem to sure, so many people of faith, so many who want to follow Jesus, they (we) forget where to look.
And yes the promise and presence of God with us, the hope of the psalmist, is not just for the suffering of others. The promise and presence we have in Jesus Christ, our balm of Gilead, is not simply to sooth the pain and hurt of others. The promise and presence of God that we know in Jesus Christ is not limited to comfort amid any perceived absence of God amid the chaos of the land, The very promise and presence of God in Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, is for you amid those seasons of pondering, wondering, asking, shouting, experiencing the very absence of God.
When the congregation celebrated my 20th anniversary as your pastor last month so very many people contributed to the memory book that was presented to me in worship that day. Thank you so very much for that gift. I have looked at it a lot. I’ve thought about it even more. Over and over again people wrote about things like “you were there when…”. Weddings, baptisms, mission trips, and yes, a lot of grief and loss. For you and for me. The pages of the memory book gave me was gift of an exclamation point on God’s call in my life to pastoral ministry. Then what hit me like a done of bricks, was how much of that “you were there when” part of church life we have not been able to do together the last now almost 8 months. Even more, when I reflect back on those conversations I mentioned earlier, a multitude of conversations that no one can number wondering about, asking about, experiencing the absence of God in hard seasons of life and of death, I realize now in looking back on those holy conversations and times of prayer about the absence of God, the silence of God, the unanswered prayer, that when huddled together in the face of the very real felt absence God, there was there is this palpable, powerful, very real sense, feeling, of the presence of God.
It wasn’t just a memory book. It was a gift of God with the affirmation that the Lord is still our and shall forever be our refuge. Fools, you and me, and the refuge of God.