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.

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