The Wise Lament: Psalm 14 & 53
By Celeste Cranston
Director, Center for Biblical and Theological Education
Read this week’s Scripture: Psalm 14 & 53
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Repeat, repeat, repeat…
Children instinctively know the value of repetition. Have you been within earshot recently of a three-year-old ‘s relentless pleading to get her parents’ attention? Begging, crying, wailing grate on the sensibilities, till the parent’s radar eventually zeroes in on the persistent voice.
Repetition is also a key to the understanding of biblical poetry. Repetition in Scripture is a cue for us to lift our heads, take another look, and tune in. As we finish this summer’s study of the Wisdom Literature (from the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and James) and begin to read through the Psalms this fall, many of the same themes appear in these two sets of Scripture. In fact, many psalms are considered “wisdom psalms,” as they express concern for the proper use of the tongue, describe the righteous who trust in God and care for the poor in contrast to the nature of the foolish, and other similar themes.
Psalm 14 and 53 – Why This Repetition?
As I’ve been studying the Psalms, the repetition that stuns me is that of two fairly obscure psalms: 14 and 53. Even more puzzling than the replication is their sharp-edged, ominous message. When viewed side by side, one can see the two psalms are nearly identical, with only minor variations. Both begin,
“Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no not one.” (14:1-3)
It surprises me that from a collection of 150, the one psalm that appears twice is this one. It would seem to make more sense to repeat the pastoral comfort of Psalm 23. Or the powerful descriptions of God’s voice in Psalm 29, calling us to “Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” Or Psalm 42’s beautiful expression of the heart’s yearning for God. Or perhaps most appropriately the resounding doxology of praise from Psalm 150. Why the specific reiteration of this message? Is this simply a goof or some kind of game on the part of the editors? Though one of these psalms, 53, references God as Elohim and the other, 14, as YHWH (the Hebrew letters used for the distinctive name of Israel’s God), and though there is some variation between verses 14:5-6 and 53:5, the jarring overall message of psalm 14 is a pulpit-pounding repeat word for word in 53. What’s that about?
If we believe, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work,” as 2 Timothy 3:16–17 asserts, then what is the usefulness of this odd, dark text? Why would its specific form of equipping, whatever it means, merit our attention more than once?
We can’t get off the hook by assuming that these psalms constitute a tirade against atheism. Note that the fool says “in his heart” there is no God – this isn’t a public denouncement of God, especially since there were no atheists per se in ancient Israel; the existence of deity was not questioned in the Old Testament. Rather, these are psalms of David, intended for the community of faith, for us. But to what end?
Psalms of Lament
Psalms 14 and 53 are identified not only as wisdom psalms, but, like a significant portion of the Psalter, they are also psalms of lament – poetic prayers that cry out to God about injustice, and insistently call on God to address glaring needs. They give voice to a sense of abandonment and genuine despair in the midst of the mess.
Still, despite the significant number of psalms of lament within the Psalter, rarely does one hear any of them read aloud within worship, nor are they often the topic of sermons or studies. In fact, the Revised Common Lectionary includes fewer than one-fourth of the psalms of lament in its Sunday scriptural diet.
It would also be a highly unusual congregation that would sing, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” from Psalm 13. And not many open their Bibles regularly to Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning,” although this is the most quoted psalm in the New Testament. And how strange to pray the Psalmist’s complaint in Psalm 77, “I think of God, and I moan; I meditate and my spirit faints. You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.”
So what’s the point? Why should we be concerned about the absence of a set of lesser-known, grumbling, sometimes even violent writings in our Sunday worship or personal devotions? In effect, many of us have de-canonized these unhappy, despairing, raw psalms from our personal canons of Scripture. I know that I have avoided them (as a close examination of the underlining in my Bible will attest).
The Function of Lament
But the exclusion comes at a cost. Walter Brueggemann’s Psalms and the Life of Faith recounts the costly loss of lament in the life of a believer and community of faith. He suggests that when lament is not voiced there is a lessening of genuine covenant interaction, since the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless. And the question of theodicy, or how we account for the existence and character of God in light of evil in the world, becomes stifled. “The absence of lament makes a religion of coercive obedience the only possibility … and what is left for the believer then is a false narcissism.” [Author’s Note 1] As Brueggemann asserts, we must recover lament if we care about authenticity and justice.
We ignore lament because it is uncomfortable; it shouts out the harsh realities of life. We ignore lament because it exposes the brokenness of our human existence. We ignore lament because it is easier to gloss over the hidden sorrow with God-talk that allows us to live in denial. But Scripture, especially the Psalms, doesn’t play this game. Lament gives language to real people in real pain crying out to a real God. And when they hear no answer, they cry out again. Remember — in addition to the Psalms, an entire book of the Bible is dedicated to lament. And the book of James oddly admonishes us to, “Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.” (James 4:9)
Both Psalm 14 and Psalm 53 lay out in verse 1 the fool’s secret premise that God is absent, yet in contrast (verse 2) offer a description of the wise who seek God. Wedged in between these two verses is the despairing observation, “there is no one who does good,” and again in verse 3 with added emphasis: “no, not one.” The text further contrasts a picture of God looking down from heaven at humankind to see if there are any who are wise, with the Psalmist who, looking out on humankind, sees the distressing truth that there are none who do good. Is this simply “the glass is half-empty,” Eeyore-like pessimism on the part of the Psalmist?
“There is no one who does good…”
No. “Fools say in their hearts, there is no God” because there is no apparent evidence to the contrary! This isn’t an ontological statement that denies God’s existence, but rather a logical conclusion that since things are so utterly abominable and there is no one who does good (yikes: the truth of total depravity), it follows that God is not present, God isn’t “working” so to speak. The fool sees the corruption of the world, and, out of the truth seen, concludes that there is no God.
I remember a few of my first adolescent brushes with the world’s harsh realities. When I was about eleven my father uncharacteristically brought a hitchhiker to our home for dinner. Within the first few minutes of sitting at the table with us, this vulnerable-looking, slightly strung-out teenager was overcome with anxiety and literally jumped up and fled our table, our house, and our hospitality. It was inconceivable to me that our family could be so frightening to him and that he could feel so desperate, but as I began to ponder what his life must be like, sadness replaced my puzzlement. Soon after, I recall watching “Lawrence of Arabia” on our black-and-white TV and being overcome with grief at images of layer upon layer of desert sand. I wept uncontrollably as this gripping vision of vast cosmic emptiness registered within, not sure what to make of the depth of my emotion nor of this new awareness. And at thirteen I vividly remember being internally paralyzed when I first encountered the painted pain of Vincent Van Gogh’s hollow figures in “The Potato-Eaters.” Each experience cracked open what seemed an enormous cavity as I began to sense, feel, and know something of the world’s sorrow.
The Wise Do Lament
In Psalms 14 and 53, the wise Psalmist sees the same truth the fool sees: there are none who do good. The wise, however do not look only at the grim reality, they seek God in the midst of it. The wise don’t close their eyes to the ways God’s people are “eaten up as bread,” but rather give voice to this injustice. The wise are those who see the truth of the world’s corruption and in response they lament, lament loudly, repeatedly, calling on the name of the Lord. (14:4; 53:4). By crying out, they voice a thread of hope that God can act, that this isn’t “as good as it gets,” and that we can honestly speak our grief aloud to the Almighty and be heard.
Here is an essential element of faith: to believe when there is no evidence. To cry aloud to an unseen God, a God we (like the fool) all-too-easily discount in the light of bitter circumstances that overwhelm us. There may be a God, but too often in my heart-of-hearts, I may doubt that this God is able or cares enough to respond. And the doubt quickly stifles prayer. In the midst of the God-denying truth of this world, it is an act of faith for the Psalmist to dare claim God’s presence and power by yelling at him!
It is even more outrageous that the canonizing community included such challenging questions, these touches of darkness in its holy scriptures, even in its prayer book right at the center. This gutsy inclusion is further intensified by the duplication of Psalms 14 and 53 within the Psalter.
Ancient Israel wrestled with a question relevant for us today: does God make any difference in the human situation? A quick inventory of the chaos and suffering of our world leads to a dismal conclusion. But laments — anguished, obstinate, heart-rendered prayers of lament — as they are voiced, assert that God somehow matters in every dimension of life.
The Wise Seek God
If we are to be wise in the midst of brokenness, our response to the God of creation – the God who calls and loves disobedient Israel, the God who willingly sent his son Jesus into the midst of life’s messiness, the God who saves in triumph over the grave, the God who gives us His Holy Spirit – cannot be to relegate this God to the “wallpaper of our lives.” [Author’s Note 2] Rather we must intentionally will to seek Him, to earnestly seek Him, turn to Him, call out to Him, and trust as we wait:
“O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!” (Psalm 14:7 and Psalm 53:6)
As we in faith pray this lament, may we by God’s grace “attain the highest wisdom of which the human heart is capable: the wisdom that accepts the vanity of life without despair, smiles at human folly without bitterness, endures injury without rage, and accepts the inevitability of death without fear.” [Author’s Note 3] (to quote one of my favorite sages: Dr. Rick Steele). Amen. May it be so.
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Fantastic. Thanks Celeste.
There is a mistake in the section, “The Function Of The Lament”, down near the bottom it says James 4:19 it should be James 4:9.
Fixed! Thanks for the good catch.
My 2 cents: I was thinking, no one ever talks about the Israelites before they became the Israelites. But there had to have been a time when they were a small tribe of nomads wandering around the desert. Among them there were larger tribes and still larger nations who probably attacked them now and again. I’m sure they were pillaged, plundered, slaughtered, raped; all the other things bigger people do to less fortunate people. The world hasn’t changed much. Now they epitomized the word despair and not because they didn’t have two automobiles or own their own home, go on vacations and we complain!! In all this I think someone felt that stamp of the Spirit of God that he left in each and every creature of humanity. This is talked about in Genesis when God breathed into Adam. This wise nomad feeling hopelessness and helplessness, cried out to Elohim, and taking piety on them, He answered. Maybe that is how these people found the real God. The Lament has to be faced and then when you realize that with someone greater than yourself or anyone you know you cry out to be saved. I really believe there is that voice within that tells you right from wrong. It’s not conscience; it is the stamp of our Creator. Everyone has a choice to listen to it; but, the more you ignore it the fainter it becomes—that’s how people become amoral, it leaves. Well, that was more than 2 cents. Maybe someone will read it! Thanks!!