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21 October 2016

Psalm 14: Fools

This is another chapter that it took some time before it really spoke to me. Doing a series on every single Psalm is interesting, in part because of the way that it makes me really focus deeply on the message of each chapter; if I'm going to blog about each one, I've got to have something worthwhile to say. That isn't something that I can always do immediately, in fact it's frequently challenging, and I feel like spending the time necessary with each chapter to get to know it well enough to comment on it is turning out to be far more difficult than I'd anticipated -- and it's changing the way that I see the whole Bible, and deepening my relationship with God. I wasn't really thinking of that kind of change when I started this; I just felt I needed know the Bible better, and this seemed like a likely way to get there. But changing the way we see scripture, and the way we relate to our Heavenly Father is one of the fundamental purposes of scripture study of any sort: it's supposed to be transformative. I realize that; I'm not sure why it caught me off guard.

So. This was another chapter that I had to read and re-read, trying to get it to speak to me. After a while, I started to write it out, thinking that might help me to slow down enough. It worked; I only made it through the first verse that day, and was totally captured by the first line of the Psalm:

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.
-Psalm 14:1

One of the things that has been a consistent challenge for me in reading and blogging about the Psalms is that there are significant portions of them that feel... negative. This passage, for example, is one of several that was off-putting at first: it feels like name-calling, like an insult, and isn't that supposed to be one of those bad things we don't do? It's hard to reconcile that being in scripture. It's uncomfortable. Discomfort is good; we're not looking for smooth, easy words. But. My tendency is still to gloss over this sort of thing, and to instead linger over passages that are more pleasant to read. Things like Psalm 23, which I'm really looking forward to studying when I eventually get there. There's so much joy and hope and happiness in the scriptures, it's not hard at all to focus on those instead instead of looking closely at sections that are challenging. We had a Relief Society teacher tell us a while back that, when she finds a fault in herself, she studies it in the scriptures. I so admire that; it's not easy to deliberately delve into the uncomfortable parts of the Gospel. But this project, writing about every single one, doesn't let me stay with the familiar, pleasant parts. It's hard, but it's deepening my understanding of the scriptures; the gospel has some difficult aspects, and they are also important.

So, I wondered about this word, fool. We don't use it a whole lot anymore. The 1828 Webster's entry for fool has a number of interesting things to think about. I've bolded my favorite parts:

1. One who is destitute of reason, or the common powers of understanding; an idiot. Some persons are born fools, and are called natural fools; others may become fools by some injury done to the brain.

2. In common language, a person who is somewhat deficient in intellect, but not an idiot; or a person who acts absurdly; one who does not exercise his reason; one who pursues a course contrary to the dictates of wisdom. ...

3. In scripture, fool is often used for a wicked or depraved person; one who acts contrary to sound wisdom in his moral deportment; one who follows his own inclinations, who prefers trifling and temporary pleasures to the service of God and eternal happiness. ...
4. A weak christian; a godly person who has much remaining sin and unbelief.
O fools, and slow of heart to believe all the prophets have written. Luke 24. ...

1. To play the fool, to act the buffoon; to jest; to make sport.
2. To act like one void of understanding. To put the fool on, to impose on; to delude.
To make a fool of, to frustrate; to defeat; to disappoint.  To trifle; to toy; to spend time in idleness, sport or mirth. Is this a time for fooling?

1. To treat with contempt; to disappoint; to defeat; to frustrate; to deceive; to impose on.

There's a richness of meaning, when you look at the verse with all these different nuances: The fool, either unable or unwilling to reason -the effect is the same- says there is no God. He acts contrary to sound wisdom in this denial, preferring trifling pleasures to the service of God, whom he treats with contempt.

It is interesting, too, that Webster includes the weak Christian in his definition, and the passage he cites is fascinating, as well as unsettling, in its implications: he points to where Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus see Christ, but don't know Him, and are rebuked -called fools by the Lord- when they still do not understand the events they are experiencing. Always before, I've thought more on what a privilege it was for these two men to walk with and be taught by Christ, Himself, even if they did not realize it at first, they would look back, knowing it was Him. And their response, once they do understand is admirable: they book it back to Jerusalem immediately and find Peter and the others. I'd never focused on the one sentence that is recorded of Christ's actual words to them; just wished that I could have been walking there with them, to learn from the Master. But that's a pretty stinging rebuke. Joseph F. Smith talked about this episode, and pointed out how the disciples, even Peter, at this point had not received the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and what a profound difference that makes for them as they try to work through these events that must have been so confusing and troubling. That makes me think, again, of Webster's definitions - without reason, or unwilling to reason. Being without the Holy Ghost, or unwilling to live so that we can have his assistance, the effect is nearly the same, and any of us can fall into that trap if we are not consistently vigilant. Rather than seeing in this verse only a rebuke to nonbelievers, I started to see in it a caution to complacent Christians, along the lines of the conversations about the differences between believing in Christ and believing Christ that you sometimes see.

So I started looking for other passages that talk about fools. And I was stunned by how many there are. Over 60 in Proverbs alone! You could spend a very long time studying what it means, scripturally, to be a fool, what their actions are, what the consequences are. And, it looks like, at least in Proverbs, these things are often taught by contrasting them with wisdom, so you'd learn a lot about wisdom in the process. I started looking through a few of the references to fools to see what I could learn, what I ought to avoid doing.

•Fools indulge in prattle -empty, excessive babble. (Proverbs 10:8)

•Fools hide hatred with lies and speak slander. (Proverbs 10:18)

•Fools enjoy -find sport in- causing trouble for others. (Proverbs 10:23)

•Fools rage... wait. What does that mean? 

A wise man feareth, and departeth from evil:
but the fool rageth, and is confident.

The comparison in this verse appealed to me right away, but I wondered what, exactly, is it to "rage"? So I looked it up in Strong's Concordance; pretty interesting stuff. The Hebrew verb here, âbar, usually is rendered something along the lines of "to cross over" or "to pass over". Jacob crosses over the Euphrates to escape Laban (Gen. 31:21). God made the wind pass over the flood waters (Gen 8:1). Between those two phrases there's close to 300 times this verb is used... and I was really scratching my head, trying to understand what on earth is going on here in Proverbs after looking at several examples like this. 

But Âbar also sometimes is used in the sense of "passing over" a law or covenant as if it's not binding (see Num. 14:41). According to Strong's, certain forms of the verb are only used in reference to sin: the offender "passes beyond" the limits set by God's law and falls into transgression. In this sense, it made much more sense to me, and called to mind the awful gulf that separates the wicked from the Tree of Life in Nephi's vision (1 Nephi 15:28). And, at this point, this seems to apply most to the overconfident believer: 

A wise man feareth, and departeth from evil: 
but the fool [crosses into temptation], and is confident.

This brings to mind the contrast between Joseph in his dealings with Potipher's wife, and the overly rosy assessment of the Jews by Laman and Lemuel. We read that, when faced with insistent temptation, Joseph "fled and got him out" - exactly what Proverbs recommends. Laman and Lemuel, on the other hand, in spite of the testimony of many prophets to the contrary, are quite confident that "the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people" and they wish they had not listened to their father, and remained at Jerusalem.

I've been intrigued by Laman and Lemuel and other scripture villains for a while now. A significant number of these villains are members of the Lord's church, and in several cases they are leaders who, it would seem, have crossed into temptation and fallen out of step with the Gospel, but they don't always leave the church. Once I started to see them, I discovered that there are a sobering number of stories and passages that in various ways warn of the dangers of being at ease in Zion. The often-repeated admonition to endure to the end is no idle warning, and the effects of failure to adequately guard ourselves, of slipping into overconfidence, are amply illustrated in the Standard Works.

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.
-Psalm 14:1

That got me thinking, since so many of these verses seem to be directed at believers at least as much as nonbelievers, how we might act as if there is no God? Certainly, atheism and agnosticism qualify. But do believers do this? If I'm really honest with myself, I think I may see myself in these words occasionally. Don't we sometimes behave as if God is more of an abstract, impersonal thing, rather than a beloved Parent who is intimately familiar with and concerned about everything to do with us? Laman and Lemuel did not ask God about their father's vision, instead looking to Nephi for explanation. Isn't not asking questions, not requesting blessings, not seeking Gifts of the Spirit, saying something along the lines of, "There is no God, not for me." Because we believe ourselves to be too broken, too insignificant, too worthless, too whatever, to be worthy of His attention. It's not true. But I know I've done it. And I've seen it in people, good people, around me. The world is very good at teaching lies about our value. Our value to God is intrinsic. It's not in our grades, our goodness, our talents. It's not in our accomplishments or our trophies. Not even in our service and sacrifice. Our full value is in ourselves. In our nature. In our being. But we can be fooled into believing otherwise. 

Lots to think about. Lots to discover. I want to remember this stuff, and to be reminded when I come across these passages, so I built a scripture chain to bring me back to these thoughts, to help me remember. The first two passages kind of anchor the whole thing, because of the notes I made in the margins this time, from Webster's and Strong's.

Psalm 14:1
Proverbs 14:16
Genesis 39:12
1 Nephi 17:22 
1 Nephi 15:28
Luke 24:25
2 Nephi 28:24-25

It's really pretty remarkable, how no matter how much I have learned from the scriptures, I constantly feel like I've barely scratched the surface.


Anne Chovies said...

A very interesting beginning. So, now that you've delved into and throughly explored Psalm 14:1, are you going to tackle the other six verses? I usually begin reading these posts by reading the chapter they're on and i was really looking forward to your comments on some of the other verses.

Ritsumei said...

That's the plan: there's a whole rest of the chapter, plus there's a JST of the entire chapter, and Paul referenced it in Romans 3, so the odds of another post (or two) for this chapter are very high, though I haven't started any yet. Was there a specific verse that caught your attention?


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