[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given to the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, February 11, 2023.]
There are times where what appears at first to be mere trivia has a deeper degree of significance than is often seen to be the case. For example, there are two psalms in the Bible that are nearly identical, both short and written by King David, which were either quoted or referenced by the Apostle Paul in two key passages of his epistle to the Romans. Do you know which psalms they are? [Wait for audience.] Today we are going to talk about these psalms, Psalms 14 and 53, and the use that is made of these psalms by the apostle Paul. In so doing, we will demonstrate how it is that two psalms that seem at first as if they have little to tell us instead have a lot to tell about a far wider group of people than first appears to be the case.
Let us begin by quoting Psalms 14 and 53 in their entirety. Fortunately, together they take up only thirteen verses of scripture, and largely repeat the message of the other. Psalm 14 reads, in its entirety: “The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have done abominable works,
There is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one. Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call on the Lord? There they are in great fear, for God is with the generation of the righteous. You shame the counsel of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge. Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord brings back the captivity of His people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad.”
Let us now turn over to Psalm 53, and read it, in its entirety. Psalm 53 reads: “The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and have done abominable iniquity; there is none who does good. God looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. Every one of them has turned aside; they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one. Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon God? There they are in great fear where no fear was, for God has scattered the bones of him who encamps against you; you have put them to shame, because God has despised them. Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion! When God brings back the captivity of His people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad.”
We might think, initially, upon reading these psalms that they have very little to say to us personally. While we would all celebrate God bringing back the captivity of His people–especially looking at the dark times of the Great Tribulation–and while we would also celebrate God putting to shame and humiliating His enemies, we would not think that these psalms speak to us personally, and certainly not as fools. We would, on the other hand, nod our heads in agreement with David’s judgment that those who deny the existence of God or of the continued relevance of His laws and ways are corrupt fools in whom there is no goodness, but only abominable deeds.
It is thus interesting to note that in two key passages of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the apostle makes use of these psalms in a way that expands their relevance beyond what we would expect. Let us first turn to see how Paul uses a quotation from these psalms in Romans 3:9-20. This quotation forms part of a long discussion of the reality that all mankind has sinned, all have committed unrighteousness, and no one, not ourselves nor anyone else, can justify ourselves as righteous through perfect obedience to God. As it is written in Romans 3:9-20: “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.” “Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit”; “The poison of asps is under their lips”; “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
Paul is not saying these lovely things about atheists or those we would consider to be wicked evildoers in the world around us, but about all humanity, himself included and ourselves included. We are not exempt from the statements as to the wickedness of our nature apart from God’s mercy and forgiveness and God dwelling in us by His Spirit, allowing us to live according to His righteousness and not according to our own corrupt human nature. None of us, apart from God, can ultimately do good. None of us, without God’s help, can be profitable to Him, none of us, apart from the peace we find from God, and the peace we practice with God’s help, can ultimately know peace or dwell at peace with God or each other. Apart from the knowledge and wisdom that God gives us, we are all corrupt fools.
Paul makes one more use of these psalms, doing so at the beginning of his letter to the Romans. Let us pick up this thought in Romans 1:18-25, a passage as relevant in our own evil times as much as it was in Paul’s own day. Romans 1:18-25 reads: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”
We do not have the time to continue reading, and explaining, the rest of Romans 1, which I encourage you all to study yourselves to see the sorts of evils that Paul condemned in his time that remain condemnations of our own society, which God has also given up to uncleanness and the lusts of our hearts, since we too, just like the heathen Greco-Roman society of that age, have exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and suffered the consequences of doing so.
Fortunately, though, while the statements that Paul makes in using Psalms 14 and 53 are serious and harsh and condemn all of mankind as sharing in rebelliousness against God’s ways by nature, for those of us who have repented of our sins and sought to be reconciled to God through obedience to His ways, there remains an obvious way to ensure that the harsh message of Psalms 14 and 53 does not apply to us here in the present or in the future, however much it might apply to our past that is hopefully dead and gone. Paul gives us these tips as the reverse of what mankind has done: to glorify and praise God for His greatness rather than seek our own personal glory, to be grateful for the knowledge that God has done, rather than arrogant, to be cleansed from our wickedness as we were at baptism and as we are every Passover through the examination we conduct of our lives and the washing of the feet we both give and receive, as well as in the way that we serve God and each other. Let us hope, therefore, that we may walk according to God’s ways, and avoid the condemnation that comes on the earth for the folly of mankind and for the rebelliousness that mankind has shown to God’s laws and ways from the beginning, and especially in this present evil age.