The Fool: “Convicted of Madness:” John Calvin on Psalm 1

Ps. 14:1. The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God; they have corrupted; They have done abominable work; there is none that doeth good.

Many of the Jews are of opinion that in this psalm there is given forth a prediction concerning the future oppression of their nation: as if David, by the revelation of the Holy Spirit, bewailed the afflicted condition of the Church of God under the tyranny of the Gentiles. They therefore refer what is here spoken to the dispersed condition in which we see them at the present day, as if they were that precious heritage of God which the wild beasts devour. But it is very apparent, that in wishing to cover the disgrace of their nation, they wrest and apply to the Gentiles, without any just ground, what is said concerning the perverse children of Abraham. We cannot certainly find a better qualified interpreter than the Apostle Paul, and he applies this psalm expressly to the people who lived under the law, (Romans 3:19.) Besides, although we had not the testimony of this Apostle, the structure of the psalm very clearly shows that David means rather the domestic tyrants and enemies of the faithful than foreign ones; a point which it is very necessary for us to understand. We know that it is a temptation which pains us exceedingly, to see wickedness breaking forth and prevailing in the midst of the Church, the good and the simple unrighteously afflicted, while the wicked cruelly domineer according to their pleasure. This sad spectacle almost completely disheartens us; and, therefore, we have much need to be fortified from the example which David here sets before us: so that, in the midst of the greatest desolations which we behold in the Church, we may comfort ourselves with this assurance, that God will finally deliver her from them. I have no doubt that there is here described the disordered and desolate state of Judea which Saul introduced when he began to rage openly. Then, as if the remembrance of God had been extinguished from the minds of men, all piety had vanished, and with respect to integrity or uprightness among men, there was just as little of it as of godliness.

The fool hath said. As the Hebrew word ‫נבל, nabal, signifies not only a fool, but also a perverse, vile, and contemptible person, it would not have been unsuitable to have translated it so in this place; yet I am content to follow the more generally received interpretation, which is, that all profane persons, who have cast off all fear of God and abandoned themselves to iniquity, are convicted of madness. David does not bring against his enemies the charge of common foolishness, but rather inveighs against the folly and insane hardihood of those whom the world accounts eminent for their wisdom. We commonly see that those who, in the estimation both of themselves and of others, highly excel in sagacity and wisdom, employ their cunning in laying snares, and exercise the ingenuity of their minds in despising and mocking God. It is therefore important for us, in the first place, to know, that however much the world applaud these crafty and scoffing characters, who allow themselves to indulge to any extent in wickedness, yet the Holy Spirit condemns them as being fools; for there is no stupidity more brutish than forgetfulness of God. We ought, however, at the same time, carefully to mark the evidence on which the Psalmist comes to the conclusion that they have cast off all sense of religion, and it is this: that they have overthrown all order, so that they no longer make any distinction between right and wrong, and have no regard for honesty, nor love of humanity. David, therefore, does not speak of the hidden affection of the heart of the wicked, except in so far as they discover themselves by their external actions. The import of his language is, How does it come to pass, that these men indulge themselves in their lusts so boldly and so outrageously, that they pay no regard to righteousness or equity; in short, that they madly rush into every kind of wickedness, if it is not because they have shaken off all sense of religion, and extinguished, as far as they can, all remembrance of God from their minds? When persons retain in their heart any sense of religion, they must necessarily have some modesty, and be in some measure restrained and prevented from entirely disregarding the dictates of their conscience. From this it follows, that when the ungodly allow themselves to follow their own inclinations, so obstinately and audaciously as they are here represented as doing, without any sense of shame, it is an evidence that they have cast off all fear of God.

The Psalmist says that they speak in their heart. They may not utter this detestable blasphemy, There is no God, with their mouths; but the unbridled licentiousness of their life loudly and distinctly declares that in their hearts, which are destitute of all godliness, they soothingly sing to themselves this song. Not that they maintain, by drawn out arguments or formal syllogisms, as they term them, that there is no God, (for to render them so much the more inexcusable, God from time to time causes even the most wicked of men to feel secret pangs of conscience, that they may be compelled to acknowledge his majesty and sovereign power;) but whatever right knowledge God instills into them they partly stifle it by their malice against him, and partly corrupt it, until religion in them becomes torpid, and at last dead. They may not plainly deny the existence of a God, but they imagine him to be shut up in heaven, and divested of his righteousness and power; and this is just to fashion an idol in the room of God. As if the time would never come when they will have to appear before him in judgment, they endeavor, in all the transactions and concerns of their life, to remove him to the greatest distance, and to efface from their minds all apprehension of his majesty. And when God is dragged from his throne, and divested of his character as judge, impiety has come to its utmost height; and, therefore, we must conclude that David has most certainly spoken according to truth, in declaring that those who give themselves liberty to commit all manner of wickedness, in the flattering hope of escaping with impunity, deny in their heart that there is a God. As the fifty-third psalm, with the exception of a few words which are altered in it, is just a repetition of this psalm, I will show in the proper places, as we proceed, the difference which there is between the two psalms. David here complains that they have done abominable work; but for the word work, the term there employed is iniquity. It should be observed that David does not speak of one work or of two; but as he had said, that they have perverted or corrupted all lawful order, so now he adds, that they have so polluted their whole life, as to make it abominable, and the proof of this which he adduces is, that they have no regard to uprightness in their dealings with one another, but have forgotten all humanity, and all beneficence towards their fellow-creatures.

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