The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. (Psalm 14:2)
[Today’s Thirsty Thursday was written by Matthew Rose, and was originally posted on November 8, 2018]
What was your address growing up? Mine was 1632 Winnick. Then before second grade, we moved to 3799 Navaho. I can almost hear my 8-year-old self still getting it all straight in my head… N-A-V-A-H-O. I don’t know if this is just my experience or if this is universal. I’d like to think that the reason I can so easily bring to mind these addresses is that human beings are hardwired to know where we come from. Dust you are and to dust you will return.
According to Bible geeks, Psalm 14 doesn’t fit neatly into any of the normal categories for a psalm. It seems to offer a little bit of everything. One feature is unmistakable though, and that’s the volume at which Psalm 14 shouts “Don’t forget where you came from!”
And where exactly is that?
It’s no clean, quiet street lined with picket fences and petunias. It seems we all grew up on the corner of Foolish Drive and Corrupt Lane, on the second block east of Apathetic Ave. You might disagree with that assessment of course (we like to think we’re generally “good” people, don’t we?), but then again you’re not the one writing the psalm. Don’t let the boarded-up houses and broken glass scare you away too quickly, though. There’s treasure to be found at the end of this seemingly hopeless road.
In verses 1-3, we find Yahweh peering down from heaven, intently searching the earth to find some good people. Nothing. All he finds is a bunch fools. My guess is you don’t often use this word in everyday conversation. Calling someone a fool sounds old-fashioned or cruel. In the Hebrew Scriptures, this word “fool” (nabal in Hebrew) doesn’t refer to someone who is lacking intelligence but to someone who is lacking God—one who does not trust or fear or even acknowledge Yahweh.
This kind of biblical foolishness is on display in the nameless atheist of verse 1 who says in his heart “there is no god.” Notice where this creed is spoken. In his heart. This is not necessarily the atheism on display your favorite Christian movies (think, God’s Not Dead). It is a practical atheism that lives life as if God doesn’t matter. This kind of biblical foolishness also expresses itself more subtly as a lack of desire to know and enjoy God. No one is “seeking God,” cries the psalmist. Maybe that hits a little closer to home.
And just in case we’re tempted to somehow wriggle out of this assessment, the final verdict thunders down, “there is no one doing good, not even one.” As one author wisely observes, “We like to cherish the thought that we may be exceptions,” but there are no exceptions here.
This is the block we all grew up on. No exceptions. Zip. Zero. Zilch.
I know it’s not a whole lot of fun, but I wonder if it doesn’t do our hearts and our souls some deep good to sit with this verdict. After all it was Paul who was able to say, “I am the worst of sinners.” And he was the greatest church planter the world has ever seen. (No offense dad. You’re a close second in my book!) I don’t think this statement is proof that Paul just had really low self-esteem. This is Paul remembering where he came from.
When religious people forget what street they grew up on, they get proud. And that ain’t pretty.
So, stay here a while. On my own I am not good. I cannot understand. I have no desire to seek God. I am radically and hopelessly lost. We are all radically and hopelessly lost. Do you believe that?
Sitting with the truth about ourselves prepares us in some strange way to see and accept the treasure. Poet Denise Levertov writes that it is, “when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart.” Good news is only good because the bad news is so bad.
Now, if we accept the verdict of the first three verses, we are presented with a problem in the rest of the psalm. We’ve just read that we’re all a bunch of godless fools, but then all of a sudden we start to hear a different set of words. “My people” (v. 4). “Generation of the righteous” (v. 5). The “afflicted” near to the heart of God (v. 6).
See the problem?
If Everyone, with a capital E, is so foolish and corrupt and apathetic and radically and hopelessly lost, then how did God get these people… his people? There’s a huge void between those two realities.
And standing in the void is grace.
The psalm forces us in what it doesn’t say, to be awestruck by the mystery of grace. Grace, cracking the mind’s shell and entering the heart. Grace, taking on flesh and blood and stinky feet in Jesus of Nazareth.
This is the astonishing and reckless grace that Paul—“worst of sinners” Paul—celebrates in
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air… we were by nature deserving of wrath.”
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”
How did God get these people?
Not by barking orders from a distance. “Clean up.” “Get it together.” “Put your boots on and come over here.” No. After all, I’ve never met a dead person who could pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
What did he do? He came to us!
He came and found us sitting on our broken-down porch on Foolish Dr., threw us over his shoulders, and brought us home. In Jesus, God carried our foolishness and corruption and apathy. He took into himself the death that we unleashed in his world and he exhausted its power, raising us to new life. His people.
Psalm 14 is a reminder to never forget where you came from. But it’s also an invitation to dwell on the mystery of grace so that you can live life well in your new home, here and now.