Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 14

Psalm 14

This is another short Psalm focusing on the theme of YHWH acting to bring justice against the wicked (and on behalf of the righteous). Here, however, it consists almost entirely of a description of the wicked; there is an implicit contrast with the righteous (vv. 5ff, cf. also the next study on Psalm 15) at work which is generally characteristic of Wisdom traditions.

The superscription identifies it as another Davidic composition, with no other musical direction. Psalm 14 is very close to Psalm 53, suggesting that both stem from a single original composition; the relationship between the two, and the textual differences, will be addressed in the future study on Ps 53.

The meter of Psalm 14 is mixed, though it tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon format, especially in the first section. Structurally and thematically, the Psalm may be divided into three sections:

    • Verses 1-3: A description of the wicked as those who disregard God
    • Verses 4-6: The actions of the wicked against God’s people (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones)
    • Verse 7: A call for YHWH to act, bringing justice/deliverance for His people

Verses 1-3

“A foolish person says in his heart (that)
‘There is no Mightiest (One)!’
They are decayed (and) show detestable behavior—
there is no (one) doing good!”

Verse 1 consists of a pair of 3+2 couplets, with an interesting sort of parallelism. The first (3-beat) line of each bicolon gives a dramatic and harsh description, both of the inner thoughts (line 1) and outward actions (line 3) of the wicked. The characterization of the wicked as “foolish, senseless” (lb*n`) places this Psalm fully in the ancient Near Eastern (and Israelite) Wisdom tradition. While the inner thoughts (“in his heart”) may be foolish, they result in corruption (vb tj^v*) and detestable acts (vb bu^T*). The noun hl*yl!a& is an abstract (and comprehensive) term referring to a person’s behavior—in particular, how one deals with others—almost always in a profoundly negative sense. Often it connotes mistreatment or exploitation of others. The wicked are referred to here both with the singular and plural, a feature typical of the Psalms.

The second (2-beat) line of each couplet (lines 2, 4) exhibits a formal parallelism, using the negative/privative particle /ya@ (“there is no”). This sharply characterizes the wicked, similarly shifting from the inner thoughts (“there is no Mightiest One [i.e. God]”) to a summary description of behavior (“there is no one doing good”). The statement reflecting the wicked person’s thought does not necessarily mean that the person is an atheist, as modern-day readers might assume. Rather, it indicates that such people behave as if there were no God (<yh!ýa$, “Mightiest One”) to judge or punish their actions.

“YHWH looks out from (the) heavens
(down) upon the sons of man,
to see—Is there any (one who is) discerning,
(any one) seeking the Mightiest?”

Verse 2 has another pair of 3+2 couplets, but exhibiting a more traditional kind of parallelism. The first bicolon presents the picturesque image of YHWH looking out from the window of his heavenly palace down onto the earth below. However, this colorful detail expresses two more serious points: the all-seeing character of YHWH, and the apparent separation between God and humankind. The second couplet, which represents the purpose of YHWH’s looking out from heaven, also answers the 2-beat statements from verse 1 (in the form of a question):

    • “there is no one doing good” (v. 1d)
      • “is there any one who is discerning?” (v. 2c)
      • “(is there any) one seeking the Mightiest?” (v. 2d)
    • “(the fool says…) “there is no Mightiest (One)” (v. 1b)

Verse 3 concludes this section:

“They all have turned aside, corrupted as one—
there is no (one) doing good, there is not even one!”

This verse can either be read as four 2-beat lines (2+2+2+2) or two 4-beat lines (4+4); it is easier to present it visually as the latter. This is a dramatic restatement of the second couplet of verse 1 (lines 3-4, above). Here, in verse 3, each line (or couplet) involves parallel use of dja / djy to make its climactic point. dj*a# literally means “one”, and the related verb dj^y`, to “be one”, or “become one/united”. The first statement (v. 3a) indicates the solidarity and united character of humankind (in its wickedness), “one” meant in a collective sense. The second statement (v. 3b) makes the same point, but focusing on each individual person (“there is no one…not even one”). The apparent absoluteness of this dual-declaration should not be misunderstood. Certainly there are those (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones) who are doing good and seeking God—the Psalms regularly indicate this—however, viewed from a distance, it certainly seems as though all of the population is corrupt. It is something of a rhetorical exaggeration, used to make a point; however, Paul famously takes the idea more literally when he cites verses 1 and 3 together in Romans 3:10-12. His point is that all of humankind has been in bondage under the power of sin. We must be cautious about reading Paul’s use of Psalm 14 back into the original meaning/context of the Hebrew composition.

Verses 4-6

The text of verses 4-6 is a bit more difficult, both in terms of structure and its wording/phrasing. Verse 4 is the most problematic in terms of meter. I am inclined to view it fundamentally as another 3+2 bicolon that has been expanded, with a parenthetical statement, into a tricolon:

“Do they not know, all (those) making trouble—
(the one)s eating up His people (as) they eat bread—
(is it) not YHWH they confront?”

The intermediate line creates tension within the couplet that is artistically meaningful, a discordant note which reveals the nature of the wicked person’s action—that is, it is aimed against the people of God (i.e. the righteous, faithful ones). The image is one of harsh and violent action, “eating” or consuming the righteous, as one devours bread (<j#l#). I think it likely here that yM!u^ preserves an older 3rd-person singular suffix y– (i.e. “his people”), which otherwise coincides with the regular 1st person suffix (“my people”). In NW Semitic, the y– 3rd-person singular suffix is best known from the Phoenician evidence; cf. Dahood (pp. 10-11) for other possible examples of its preservation in Hebrew.

I read the closing verb form War*q* as deriving from the root ar*q* II (“meet, encounter”), rather than ar*q* I (“call”). This root ar*q* II can be used of meeting someone in a hostile sense (or with hostile intent), i.e. as confronting an enemy in battle, etc. This seems to fit better the overall context here. The typical reading of the line (assuming ar*q* I) would be “they (who) do not call on YHWH”. While this perhaps better matches the use/position of the negative particle (), it is hard to square with the rhetorical question raised in line 1. Admitting certain syntactical difficulties, I would understand the sense of the verse to be: Do they not know that in attacking His people they are actually confronting YHWH Himself?

“There—(see now) the fear (that) they should fear ,
for the Mightiest (is) in the circle of the just;
(and so) the council of the oppressed will bring him [i.e. the wicked] to shame,
for YHWH (is) his [i.e. the righteous’] place of shelter.

Verses 5-6 actually represent a relatively straightforward bicolon pair (again following the 3+2 pattern). However, the wording/phrasing used makes a precise interpretation difficult. There is ambiguity or confusion in the person/number agreement; however, this is not all that uncommon in Hebrew poetry. In particular, when dealing with the wicked (and also the righteous), one can alternate between referring to them in the singular and plural (cf. on verse 1 above). Conceptually, the thought expressed in these lines is also complicated by the interlocking parallelism, which overlaps between the cola (i.e. across the poetic rhythm of the lines).

To begin with, the first line of each couplet (lines 1 and 3) expresses the fate of the wicked, which, for them, will be rather unexpected. Line 1 introduces this abruptly with the particle <v* (“there”), followed by a cognate verb + noun coupling which functions as an intensive (“they feared a fear”, “the fear the feared”, i.e. how greatly they [should] fear!). That is to say, the wicked are quite unaware of just how much they should fear the judgment of YHWH. In line 3, the idea is that the wicked will be unexpectedly humiliated by the very people whom they have been oppressing. I am inclined to point wvybt as a form with the 3rd person suffix, since the 2nd person form of the MT (Wvyb!t*) is rather out of place here (cf. Dahood, p. 82).

There is also an inner parallel between lines 2 and 3, with the expressions “circle of the just” and “council of the oppressed”. The noun roD is often translated “generation”, but more properly refers to a “circle” or “cycle”; I here render it in this more literal sense of a collection of people, i.e. gathered in a circle. This forms a clear parallel with hx*u@ (here “council”), that is, a group of people gathered together for a specific purpose (cp. its use in Psalm 1:1). The substantive adjectives qyD!x* (“just, right[eous]”) and yn]u* (“beaten/pressed down, oppressed, afflicted”) also form a precise parallel.

Finally, we have the parallelism of the second lines in each couplet (lines 2 and 4), which emphasize YHWH’s protective presence with the righteous:

    • “the Mightiest [i.e. God, <yh!ýa$] is in the circle of the just”
    • “YHWH is his [i.e. the oppressed person’s] place of shelter [hs#j=m^]”

Verse 7

“Who will give salvation (to) Yisra’el from (out of) ‚iyyôn?
(It is) in YHWH’s turning back the turning back of His people
(that) Ya’aqob will (dance) around (and) Yisra’el will find joy.”

The final verse is best read as a 4-beat tricolon, which stands as a final declaration of hope and promise for God’s people. It is expressed in specific religious-cultural language that contrasts with the more general Wisdom language in the rest of the Psalm. The idea of God’s people (the righteous) is now localized in terms of Israel and Zion (i.e. Jerusalem). It is is the central line that explains the verse, with its description of YHWH’s action in answer to the question “who will give salvation to Israel…?” (line 1). We have an intensive cognate verb + noun coupling, as in verse 5 (cf. above). The particular verb here is bWv, with the basic meaning “turn (back), return”. Often this is used in the sense of people repenting and “turning back” to God; here, however, it is better understood in terms of YHWH restoring the fortunes of His people; the intensive construction would mean something like “YHWH turning back (things for) his people completely“. The faithful ones who have been oppressed by the wicked, will now be given justice by God, and will no longer be mistreated. In this sense “salvation” means deliverance from the hands of the wicked. Originally, this language would have derived from within a royal/national context—i.e. the covenant between YHWH and His people (and their king), which includes promises of protection from enemies, etc. However, in the Psalm as we have it, the scope has widened to embrace a more universal aspect (the righteous vs. the wicked) typical of Wisdom literature and the religious-ethical messages of the Prophets. This blending of royal/national and Wisdom elements is actually a common feature of the Psalms.

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

This week, in our series of studies on the Johannine Letters, we will be examining 1 John 4:1-6. The stated purpose of these Saturday Studies is to introduce readers to the principles and methods of a critical study of the Scriptures (i.e. Biblical Criticism), and how these may apply in practice. In looking at 1 John 4:1-6, we will be focusing primarily on historical criticism—that is, on establishing the historical background and context of the passage. However, on at least one point of interpretation, a major text-critical issue will have to be addressed. Also, in considering the place of 4:1-6 in the structure of the work, we will be touching on aspects of literary criticism as well.

1 John 4:1-6

When considering the structure of First John, from a conceptual standpoint, we may note the way that certain themes alternate throughout as a point of emphasis. The main thrust of the letter involves sin (hamartía) and the “commands” (entolaí) of God. This was the focus of 2:28-3:10, which we examined closely in the previous two studies (last week and the week prior). The entolaí of God are actually reduceable to a single two-fold command, defined in 3:23-24: (1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers according to Jesus’ own teaching and example. Each of these two components of the command for believers is given particular emphasis in different parts of the letter.

As far as the letter itself is concerned, we may fairly divide the body of it into two main divisions, each of which begins with the declaration “this is the message which (we heard)…” (haút¢ estin h¢ angelía h¢n…):

    • Part 1: “this is the message which have heard from (the beginning)” (1:5-3:10) – Main theme: Light vs. Darkness
    • Part 2: “this is the message which we heard from the beginning” (3:11-5:12) – Main theme: Love as the great Command

Part 1 is framed by a discussion of sin and the believer, sin in relation to the “commands” of God:

    • 1:6-2:2: Sin and the identity of the Believer: Jesus’ work cleanses us from sin
    • 2:3-11: The Believer’s identity in terms of the “commands” of God, with special emphasis on love
    • 2:12-17: “Children [teknía]…”: Exhortation for Believers to live/act according to their identity, and not like the world (which is in darkness)
    • 2:18-27: “Children [paidía]…”: Warning of “antichrist”- Identity of Believers is marked by true belief/trust in Jesus
    • 2:28-3:10: “Children [teknía]…”: Sin and the identity of the Believer – restated in a dual instruction.

Part 2 essentially functions as an exposition of the “commands”, i.e. the two-fold command:

    • 3:12-24: Love characterizes the believer (vs. those who “hate”)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 18-22
      • Declaration on the “commands”, vv. 23-24
    • 4:1-6: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer (vs. those who have false trust/belief)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 4-6
    • 4:7-5:4: Love characterizes the believer – restatement in a dual instruction
      • Exhortation & Declaration on the “commands”, 5:1-4
    • 5:5-12: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer – restatement in a two-part instruction

Thus the teaching in 4:1-6 ( on trust/belief in Jesus) runs parallel to that on love in 3:12-24, with a doctrinal/theological statement or argument (vv. 1-3) followed by an exhortation (vv. 4-6). We will examine the doctrinal argument first.

1 John 4:1

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit, but you must (instead) consider the spirits (closely)—if (one) is out of [i.e. from] God (or not)—(in) that [i.e. because] many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

The first occurrence of the noun pneúma (“spirit”) was at the conclusion of the previous verse (3:24), making explicit what had otherwise been implied in the letter: that the abiding presence of Jesus (and God the Father) in and among believers is through the Spirit. Now the author contrasts the Spirit of God (and Christ) with other “spirits” (pl. pneúmata). This underscores an aspect of early Christian thought that is rather foreign to us today. It was believed that people (especially gifted persons and leaders, etc) spoke and acted more or less under the guidance and influence of a “spirit”. For Christian ministers, and believers in general, they were guided by the Holy Spirit; and, by the same token, if it was not the Holy Spirit at work, then it must be another (that is, an evil, false or deceiving) spirit. In this regard, the first-century Christian congregations were largely charismatic in orientation, with ministers, leaders, speakers operating under the direct inspiration of the Spirit. Paul’s letters (especially 1 Corinthians) offer a fairly detailed portrait of how such early congregations would have functioned.

An obvious question is exactly how one could determine and be sure that a minister or speaker was genuinely operating under the guidance of the Spirit. How was this to be tested? Here the author of 1 John provides instruction similar in some ways to that offered by Paul in 1 Cor 12:3. It has to do with a true confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

You may recall in an earlier study (on 2:18-27), we established that, in large part, the letter appears to have been written to warn the congregations against certain persons who had separated from the wider Community (“they went out of us”, v. 19a). These same persons are surely in view here as well, characterized as “false prophets” (pseudoproph¢¡tai). I normally translate the noun proph¢¡t¢s as “foreteller”, rather than using the English transliteration “prophet”. However, it is important to understand the term in its early Christian context, based on its fundamental meaning, as someone who “says/shows (something) before [pró]”, either in the sense of saying something beforehand (i.e. before it happens), or in front of (i.e. in the presence of) others. The latter meaning more properly corresponds to both the Hebrew word n¹»î°, and to the general Christian usage. The proph¢¡t¢s serves as God’s spokesperson, declaring and making known the word and will of God to others. As such it was one of the highest gifts that could be given (by the Spirit), available to all believers, but especially to chosen ministers (Acts 2:16-18; 1 Cor 12:28; 14:1ff; Rom 12:6; Eph 2:20). This may indicate that those who separated from the Community (some of them, at any rate) were ministers or other prominent figures who functioned as “prophets”. That they are “false” means that, according to the author, they do not speak under the guidance of the Spirit, but of another “spirit” —i.e., an evil spirit.

There are likely two levels of meaning to the statement that these “false prophets” have gone “out into the world”. First, “into the world” is essentially the same as “out of us” in 2:19, since the “world” (kósmos) in Johannine usage tends to signify the realm of evil and darkness that is opposed to the realm of light (God, Christ, and true believers). These persons have departed from the Community of true believers, showing themselves to be false and not genuine believers at all. Secondly, going out “into the world” could suggest that they are functioning as itinerant, traveling ministers. It is hard for readers today to appreciate how prevalent, and potentially problematic, this dynamic was for Christians in the first two centuries. In an age of slow communication, and without an established collection of authoritative Christian writings, authority in the 1st-century Church largely depended on two factors: (1) the personal pedigree of ministers, and (2) manifestation of Spirit-inspired gifts and abilities. Determining the reliability of traveling ministers could be difficult on both counts. We will discuss this point further when we come to the study of 2 and 3 John.

1 John 4:2

“In this you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit that gives account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in flesh is out of [i.e. from] God;”

Here the word “spirit” (pneúma) is used two different, but interconnected, ways: the spirit of the person speaking, and the Spirit which guides/inspires the speech. To say that there are many different “spirits” means that there are many distinct people who may speak and act. However, for the author, it is probably better to think of just two Spirits—the Spirit of Truth (which is the Holy Spirit of God) and the Spirit of Falsehood/Deceit. This is fully in accord with the dualism of the Johannine Writings (both Gospel and Letters), and the same sort of dualism is also found in other Jewish writings of the period (such as the Qumran texts, see especially the Community Rule [1QS 3:17-21, etc]). The Spirit of Falsehood is also that of the Evil One (or Satan) who is the effective Ruler of the dark realm of the “world”. What distinguishes the True from the False is ultimately centered on the truth of Jesus—who he is and what he has done. This Christological framework of of truth vs. falsehood, is, from the standpoint of the Johannine writings, also the same as the fundamental definition of sin (on this point, see the previous studies on 2:28-3:10).

In 2:18ff, the false view of Jesus was simply described as failing/refusing to affirm (vb arnéomai) that Jesus is the Anointed One (Christós), characterizing it fundamentally as antíchristos (“against the Anointed”), vv. 22-23. In the context of the Johannine congregations, this wording seems peculiar, since, presumably, all believers (and supposed believers) would have affirmed that Jesus was both the Anointed One and the Son of God. But what is precisely meant by such an affirmation? Here, in 4:2-3, we have clearer sense of what the issue was for the author of 1 John. It involves giving a “common account” (vb. homologéœ) of, i.e. acknowledging together with all other true believers, Jesus Christ having coming in the flesh (en sarkí el¢lýthota). Some commentators would identify this ‘false’ view of Jesus as docetic. Docetism (from Greek dokéœ) is a rather obscure term that refers to the idea that Jesus as the Son of God only appeared or seemed to be a flesh-and-blood human being. It is usually associated with certain so-called “Gnostic” groups and writings of the second and third centuries. Unfortunately, based on this statement alone, it is impossible to determine the exact nature of the Christology that is opposed by the author of 1 John. It requires a careful study of the remainder of the letter, which we are doing here inductively, assembling the available information piece by piece.

1 John 4:3

“and every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God—and this is the (spirit) th(at is) against the Anointed [antíchristos], of which you have heard that it comes, and is now already in the world.”

The declaration in v. 3b confirms that we are dealing with the same situation as earlier in 2:18-27. The false view of Jesus, held and proclaimed (apparently) by those who separated from the Community, is called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Both here and in 2:18, the author appears to be drawing upon an early version of the Antichrist tradition, derived from earlier Jewish sources (the book of Daniel, and other writings), but given a special significance within Christian eschatology. Even so, we do not know precisely what is in mind, other than that “antichrist” is something (or someone) who will appear in the last days prior to the end. Clearly the author believes he and his readers are living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18). This eschatological tradition is being re-interpreted and applied by the author to the specific situation facing the Johannine congregations at the time of his writing. These “false prophets” who separated from the Community are inspired by the Spirit of “Antichrist”, and are a functioning embodiment of that evil power. The presence of false prophets and false/deceiving spirits were thought to be a distinctive marker of the last days (1 Tim 4:1; Mark 13:5ff, 21-22 par; 2 Thess 2:9-11; Revelation 2:20; 13:11ff; 16:13-14; 19:20).

And what is it about their view of Jesus that marks these people as “antichrist”? Unfortunately, the matter is not so clear at this point, since there are two forms of the text of v. 3a—one which uses the verb homologéœ (as in v. 2), and one which instead has the verb lýœ (“loose[n]”, i.e. “dissolve”). Here are the two forms:

    • “every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó m¢ homologeí ton I¢soún)
    • “every spirit that looses [i.e. dissolves] Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún)

I would ask you to give consideration as to what the second version (with the verb lýœ) might mean here in the context of 1 John. In our next study, we will continue the discussion of this passage, looking at the text-critical question in v. 3 in more detail, as well as examining the remaining verses (vv. 4-6). In addition, we will explore briefly how the instruction in both 3:11-24 and 4:1-6 is expounded in the following sections of the letter (4:7-5:12).