Psalm 1 introduced the Book of Psalms by contrasting the wicked with the righteous. Frequently, the psalmists return to the theme of the wicked oppressing and seeking to destroy the righteous. God’s people cry out to Him, plead for deliverance, wait for Him to act, and rejoice when He rescues them. But Psalm 14 shows a different view of the wicked versus the righteous — not the perspective of the sufferers, but the perspective of God.
The psalm says there are none who are righteous in God’s evaluation — no one is characterised by good deeds. But it goes on to speak of the righteous, a seeming contradiction. However, the Bible has already established that a person is made righteous by believing God’s words (Genesis 15:6), rather than by their actions. The psalm then describes the wicked as those who do not seek after God, some of whom completely deny Him in their lives.
The first four verses of Psalm 14 describe the thoughts and actions of the ungodly. The first verse says there are fools who deny there is a God. There were probably very few who were openly atheists in the ancient Near East (ANE), but there were those who, practically, denied the presence of God in their thoughts and lives. They were practical atheists. This resulted in living life without regard for God’s direction in moral, spiritual, or social realms. Consequently, they were corrupt and their actions were not good.
The verb in v.1 for “doing abominable” has a range of meanings, from being inappropriate to being disgusting and hateful (cf. Allen Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms: Vol. 1, Psalms 1–41). But surely people who don’t think about God do some good things for others. The sense here is that their evil hearts corrupt even the good things they do. At the least, their good deeds are not consistent with their attitudes about God and His standards, the milder nuance of “abomination”. At worst, they are mean-spirited, oppressive, unjust, and violent. Unfortunately, there are many such examples in our world.
The sense here is that their evil hearts corrupt even the good things they do. Their good deeds are inconsistent with their attitudes about God and His standards
We cannot point to the practical atheists and isolate them as the only ones who do evil, according to v.2. When God investigates the world of humankind, He does not find anyone who seeks Him or shows an understanding of Him and His ways. The term for “looking down” means to give special attention to something or someone — as if God is investigating, looking for something good, but not finding it. No one is consistently good and, by God’s standards, no one is good in any area of his or her life.
As the Bible presents Him, God does not need to search things out as if He does not already know the facts. A judge was expected to research the facts of a situation before giving a verdict. So, there are times, as in Genesis 18, when the Lord shows Himself as a judge in the ANE context, in order to show to people who did not know much about Him that His verdicts are consistent with the facts.
There probably were very few thorough atheists in the ANE. But there were and still are many people who live their lives with no thought of God. Even those who profess to know Christ are drawn into this way of thinking — we can live much of our day with little or no thought of the Lord’s interest and involvement in our activities, words and thoughts. For the Israelites, God prescribed that they attach tassels to the lower fringes of their garments, so that when they looked at people’s clothing, they would be reminded of God’s involvement in their lives and what he expected of them (Numbers 15:37-41). Believers are not instructed in the New Testament to sew tassels into our clothes, but the Lord should be regularly on our minds.
Believers are not instructed in the New Testament to sew tassels into our clothes, but the Lord should be regularly on our minds
Psalm 14:4 shows how the previous verses relate to the people of God. The ungodly are effectively devouring the Lord’s people. The psalms speak often of the hostility of the ungodly to the believers in Yahweh. That the wicked do not call on God as they consume His followers might sound like they don’t pray before they eat. But the idea of calling on the Lord in the context of vv.1-3 shows that they are not worshippers of God.
The Lord asks the question, “Have they no knowledge, all the evil doers?” Phrasing the sentence as a question highlights the fact that this is incredible. The evildoers have given no thought to what is obvious to God: judgment is coming, and these people have completely disregarded this truth. So, in the following verse, the writer moves on to the effect of judgment.
Verse 5 describes the terror of the evildoers when judgment day arrives for them. There are two common words for fear in the Old Testament. The more common one is yare’/yir’ah, which can indicate being afraid, but also reverence, worship, loyalty, trust, and obedience. This is the common term for “fearing/the fear of the Lord.”
The word used here is the other common one, pahad, which speaks of terror. The root of the word is used twice here. “Great terror” is a good translation. To be woodenly literal, it says, “they will be terrified with terror”. When God judges them for their persecution of His people, they will be overwhelmed with horror. They will have no strength, no ability to think their way out of the catastrophe, no resources, no escape, and no help. To God, this is obvious; but the wicked have not been taking this into account.
The evildoers have given no thought to what is obvious to God: judgment is coming; they have completely disregarded this truth
The reason for the terror overcoming those who are malicious to His people is that God is on the side of the believers. For the Lord, the text uses the word Elohim, which carries the nuance of strength or power. Elohim will come against the ungodly with devastating force. The “generation” of the righteous is not the timeframe in which righteous people live; rather, it is the kind of people who are righteous.
Because God allowed the ungodly to have temporary dominance over the righteous, the latter seemed powerless. They could be abused without difficulty or consequences for the persecutors. Suddenly, things are reversed. The persecutors are astonished and severely punished. 2 Thessalonians describes it as “flaming fire” and “eternal destruction”.
Verse 6 says that God’s people were mocked for trusting in the Lord and counselling (the word translated “plans” is usually “counsel”) each other to depend on Him during persecution. But on judgment day, they will be shown to have been right throughout the time of persecution. The wicked and not the righteous will be put to “shame”.
God clearly sees the day of reckoning coming. The righteous can only trust and wait. In the last verse of the psalm, they finally speak, expressing longing for that time, “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!” When praying for God to act, the Israelites prayed toward Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:30, 35; Psalm 20:2; Daniel 6:10), although they knew that God was not limited to the city (1 Kings 8:27, 30, 34, 36; Psalm 20:6). They hoped expectantly for the Lord to come and rescue them.
God’s people were mocked for counselling each other to depend on Him during persecution, but on judgment day, it is the wicked who will be put to “shame”
The song ends announcing that, when judgment day comes, God’s people will be restored and prosperous. They will rejoice and be happy. Their trust in God will be shown to be the right course of action.
Although Christians living in peaceful and prosperous places may believe it is escapism to hope for the final judgment and destruction of the wicked, believers in many places throughout the world where Christians are persecuted — such as northern Nigeria, China, and North Korea as only three examples — realise that this is their ultimate hope. The Lord sees this day coming and the psalmist looks forward to it — not just as the punishment for the ungodly, but as the day of deliverance, rest, peace and joy.
Although the forcefulness of God’s judgment on the wicked might seem harsh and the Old Testament without grace, people were given the opportunity to repent, judgment shows that there is ultimate justice in the world (Psalm 58:11), and the New Testament confirms that the final judgment will be terrifying for the wicked who oppress God’s people (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).
It is difficult to see the end from the beginning, but it is something that the Lord sees constantly. In the New Testament, we are encouraged to look ahead to what God has promised. This can only be done by faith in His words. The malice and triumph of the wicked tests our faith, but this is an effective way to test it. And the testing of faith purifies and shows the purity of our faith. The result is more valuable than anything we can compare (1 Peter 1:4-7). So, look ahead.
A weekly brief of new resources and Scripture-based insights from our editorial team.