None Righteous

Written on: April 1, 2024

Article by: Thayer Salisbury

Psalm 14

First person singular pronouns are to be avoided when writing. I understand the reason for the rule and try to follow it. But there are exceptions. This article will have such exceptions.

A little personal history will serve as the introduction to this lesson. I was a late early bloomer. Although I could not write my own name in grade four, I graduated high school at 16. At 18 I was married and was asked to teach a teen Bible class. I objected that I was too young to teach teenagers. The preacher asked my age. When I told him that I was 18, he replied, “But you are so fuddy-duddy.” There was only one student who attended that Wednesday night class faithfully.

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I had grown up with an optimistic view of human nature. I believed in the UN, in education, in the ability of mankind to improve this world. I just thought that the wrong people were in charge at the UN and in the other centres of power. I thought that was the cause of the world’s problems.

Today I have a realistic view of human nature (a view most people would call pessimistic). I do not believe that it matters all that much who is in charge of earthly governments. All humans are sinful and will mess up. But overall, I have a more optimistic view of everything else. My reason for optimism may not be what most would call optimism. I am not a “person who thinks things are going to go well,” but a person who thinks that those ‘things’ do not matter all that much. I had an optimistic view of human nature because my teachers were all modernists. We found ways to defend our view from scripture. For example, we would take Romans 2:13-16 out of context. But does Paul really mean that anyone will be judged righteous on his own actions? No, he makes that clear in Romans 3:9; 3:20; 3:23 and just about everywhere in his writings.

With that admittedly strange and unscholarly introduction, let us now turn to the psalm for the week.

“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. 2 The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. 3 They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. 4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the Lord? 5 There they are in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous. 6 You would shame the plans of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge. 7 Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.”

This psalm, and its virtual repeat at 53, have a confusing textual history, and a lot of questions that we cannot answer. But clearly the psalm is describing the problem of human sinfulness. That is the problem we will focus on in this lesson.

Original Context

In its original context, the depravity described in this passage may have a narrow application. Perhaps the second half of verse one was only meant to apply to those mentioned in the first half of the verse. Looked at that way, it should keep us from expecting Christian behaviour of non-Christians.

We of the Western world, have lived in a dream world. We have grown up and grown old in a world that has clung to basic morality while denying the foundation of that morality. We have lived on the spiritual capital built up by our forefathers. We have yet to see what our world will be when it exhausts the spiritual capital that our forefathers left to us. But, judging from the frequency with which we see wrong being called right and right being called wrong, we may be nearing the end of that capital and the end of Western civilization. We can no longer expect decent behaviour of our non-Christian neighbours. Their idea of right is so often very wrong.

But what is far worse is the fact that we see corruption and abominations in our fellow Christians and even in our own hearts.

Depravity is Universal

Other scriptures make it clear that the depravity of man is more universal than we might imagine. The New Testament insists that this passage applies to Jews as well as Greeks and to believers as well as to unbelievers (Rom 3:9-20). Paul goes on to insist that all of us are condemned sinners (3:23). In other passages he paints a very dim view of human nature. In 1 Corinthians 2:14 he says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

In other psalms we will meet similar statements of the universality of sin. Psalm 143:2 will tell us, “Enter not into judgement with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” So, I have abandoned my early optimistic view of human nature. I have come to accept that we must not trust in the basic goodness of human nature. “The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9).

So, when I listen to the news, it still saddens me; but it does not surprise me anymore.

When we were waiting at the bank to buy our first house, my wife read in the newspaper that one of my high school classmates had been murdered, by her husband – who was one of my few high school friends. He is still in prison. His son, who was crippled for life during the murder, opposes any pardon or parole.

On another occasion I read about a young man who threw a rock off of an overpass onto the interstate below. The rock killed a young mother who was travelling on the highway below. The man who threw that rock was the one faithful attendee in that Wednesday night teen class I taught when I was eighteen.

The preacher who called me a fuddy-duddy died of AIDS (and no, he did not get it from a blood transfusion).

The conclusion

We are all sinners. We are all in danger of terrible thoughts and actions.

But God is still God, and salvation can still come — not from Ottawa or Washington, or the UN, or from you or me, but from the Lord. And so, this psalm, that begins telling how wicked we all are, ends with an appeal for his unmerited salvation. It is an appeal we must echo.

Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.”