Psalms 14:1 and 53:1 – How Should the word “Fool” be Understood?

Psalm 14:1: The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.
Last time, I wrote about the inappropriate weaponization of the phrase “The fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God.’” This phrase can be found in Psalm 14:1 and again in Psalm 53:1. Too many Christians use the word “fool” as a pejorative consistent with the current dictionary definition which defines “fool” as being “stupid” or “silly,” and apparently non-believers understand it in that context as well.

While the Hebrew words translated as “fool” or “foolish” do not mean “silly” or “stupid,” they are not complimentary. In Old Testament times as today, being foolish is not something to be embraced. That, however, is not the way that the Bible uses the word “fool” in these two Psalms. In this post, I will focus on the broad usage of the term, and in the next I will focus on the Biblical word translated “fool” in both Psalms.

Foolishness as the antonym of wisdom

The first clue to grasping the real meaning of “fool” is to note that “fool”, “foolish” and “folly” are all regularly used in contradistinction to the words “wise” or “wisdom.” They are set up as antonyms – opposites where the negative of one is the definition of the other (like good and bad). In effect, the words “fool” and its derivative “foolish” can most simply be defined as “unwise” or doing an action that is “contrary to wisdom.”

This antonym relationship between the terms can be seen most commonly in Proverbs. Consider Proverbs 10:8 as an example.
The wise of heart will receive commands,
But a babbling fool will be ruined.
Consider also Proverbs 12:15:
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
But a wise man is he who listens to counsel.
The idea here is that Solomon, the writer of Proverbs, focuses on encouraging people to be wise – both in who they are and in their ways. He sets out these examples (as well as several others) where the person who is wise will do one thing (and so we ought to emulate that person) while the person who is not wise will do something different (which we should avoid). But rather than use the word “unwise”, the Biblical word of choice is “fool.” Thus, the person who is denominated a fool is not said to be stupid or silly; in the broadest sense he or she is simply a person who is not acting wisely.

What is Biblical wisdom?

If we are asked to be “wise” in the Biblical understanding of the word, what makes a person wise? Solomon makes it very simple and clear: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 1:8). “Fear of the Lord” does not mean “being afraid of God.” Instead, as pointed out by, fear means “reverential awe of God, a reverence for His power and glory. However, it is also a proper respect for His wrath and anger. In other words, the fear of the Lord is a total acknowledgement of all that God is, which comes through knowing Him and His attributes.” What makes a person wise begins with the knowledge that God exists and that He is God (and I am not).

Thus, “fool,” being the antonym of “wise,” refers at a very basic level to the person who does not fear the Lord. The fool is the person who lacks awe of God, His power and His glory. She lacks respect for God’s wrath and anger. She fails to acknowledge who God is. She does not recognize that God exists and that He is God (and she is not).

In a sense, this is almost a definition. It could be asked, “What do we call a person who says in his heart, ‘there is no God’”? Answer, a fool. But that is a little too simple because the Bible doesn’t stop there. Being a fool isn’t just denying God, but what follows from the failure to acknowledge God as God.

Fool goes beyond being merely an antonym for wise

Notice that Proverbs 1:8 says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Proverbs 9:10 goes further:
Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom.
Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment.
Fearing the Lord does not make the person wise – that’s just the beginning. The wise man recognizes that God is God. Understanding this most basic fact sets the foundation for that person’s life. Putting God in His proper place is not merely an intellectual assent; it is a call for the person to live her life consistent with these facts and grow wise in her ways. That is, it leads to good judgment on everything that follows from that belief.

The person who rejects this most basic fact has taken an action that is foolish and will grow more foolish in his ways. She is not a fool just from the rejection of God (although that is a foolish move); she becomes foolish because of the bad decisions that will necessarily follow. The foolish man, the one who does not believe these basic facts, will view the world wrongly and fall deeper and deeper into error. The answer to the question of whether God exists has ramifications in all areas of life from science to politics to morals to truth itself. To answer the foundational question wrongly will cause a person to pursue positions and beliefs that will seem perfectly fine if there is no God, but which will bring personal destruction if God exists since some of these positions and beliefs defy God.

In effect, the Bible is teaching that if the theological/philosophical foundation is wrong then all of the important decisions that the person makes in their lives that rely on this flawed foundation will necessarily be flawed. This is not an unfamiliar concept. In the field of IT, the same idea is communicated using the acronym GIGO, Garbage In, Garbage Out. GIGO means regardless of how accurate a program's logic is, the results will be incorrect if the input is invalid. This is exactly what the Bible is teaching. The person who rejects the truth of God – the most fundamental truth – will necessarily get bad results no matter how smart or logical the person may be because he is starting with bad data.

The non-believer can be smart, but still head towards destruction.

While I have come to like GPS maps on my phone, living in New Mexico with its vast rural areas and mountain roads, I have come to recognize that I cannot rely solely on my phone to navigate around the state. Many backroads are still misidentified or tell me to turn in places that lead to nowhere (or, at least, to places other than where I am going). The GPS map is actually quite good in certain places, but due to failures in the data input by the programmers or mappers, it can quite literally lead a person in the wrong direction when traveling in unfamiliar terrain.

So it is with non-believers. Non-believers are neither stupid nor wrong about everything. In most areas where recognizing God as God is not essential to the task, the non-believer can certainly be as or even more informed and smarter than believers. For example, I don’t have to believe in God to know how to fix a car, work on a spreadsheet, operate on a patient or program a computer. But when you get deeper into questions like how we should live our lives, how things came to be, and what is humanity, rejecting God can lead you to very flawed conclusions. As stated by,
Some have understood these words to indicate that atheists are unintelligent. Yet many atheists throughout history have had a very high level of intelligence. In addition, the word "fool" used in the Psalms is one that typically refers to someone who lives in ways morally opposed to God's teachings. This saying, therefore, is not related to intelligence, but to morality.
Make no mistake about it, Solomon points out that the way of the fool (the unwise person who has chosen wrongly on the most important question) leads to destruction. For example, a large portion of Proverbs 1 is about people who fail to fear God. They do not choose the way of wisdom. The result of this foolishness, as detailed in Proverbs 1:24-32, is destruction for the unwise.
“Because I [wisdom, i.e., fear of the Lord] called and you refused,
I stretched out my hand and no one paid attention;
And you neglected all my counsel
And did not want my reproof;
I will also laugh at your calamity
; I will mock when your dread comes,
When your dread comes like a storm
And your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
When distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call on me, but I will not answer;
They will seek me diligently but they will not find me,
Because they hated knowledge
And did not choose the fear of the Lord.
They would not accept my counsel,
They spurned all my reproof.
So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way
And be satiated with their own devices.
For the waywardness of the [i]naive will kill them,
And the complacency of fools will destroy them.
Thus, the fool is the person who does not put God in His rightful place. As a result of this initial bad decision, the person makes bad decisions in the areas of knowledge, ethics and other important issues due to the GIGO principle. These bad decisions are what leads to the destruction of the non-believer which is what really makes the person a fool. This understanding will be made even more clear next time when examining the Hebrew word translated as “fool” in these verses.


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