How Should the Hebrew Word Translated “Fool” in Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1 be Understood?

Psalm 53:1 - The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God,”
They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice;
There is no one who does good.
The Hebrew word translated as fool in Psalm 14:1 and 53:1

There is more than one word translated as fool in the Old Testament. The word used in Proverbs 1:7, for example, is the Hebrew word ‘eviyl (and while I don’t see that it is in the etymology of the English word “evil,” the similarity is appropriate, as we shall see). According to Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon (Gesenius), the Hebrew word ‘eviyl relates to opposition to wisdom and importantly includes the notion of impiety, i.e., lack of reverence; especially for God.

But the word used in Psalm 14:1 and 53:1 is a different word which communicates a lot about what the two Psalms are communicating. The Hebrew word used in these two Psalms is “נָבָל” (nabal). While the primary definition of nabal is “stupid, foolish” according to the Gesenius, the word is more often defined as “impious, abandoned or wicked.” (Note that impiety is part of the definition of both of these first two Hebrew words.) Nabal is derived from the Hebrew word, “נָבֵל” (nabel) which has several definitions that are helpful to understanding nabal. According to Gesenius, nabel means:
(1) to be, or to become withered, faded, used of leaves and flowers falling off from being faded…

(2) Figuratively applied to men, to fall down, to faint, to lose one’s strength…

(3) To be foolish, to act foolishly (withering and decay being applied to folly and impiety, just as on the contrary, strength is applied to virtue and piety *** all of which have the signification of flaccidity and weakness, and thence transferred to stupidity and dullness.)
So, the two connected words nabal and nabel which have been translated as “foolish” do not necessarily bear the same connotation as we read them today, i.e., “silly” or “stupid.” Instead, Gesenius’ definitions make us see that these Hebrew words should still be translated “fool,” but the connotation should carry more of a connotation of acting in a way that is not in one’s own best interest.

The strong-willed leaf and the tree. To understand this better, think about a leaf growing on a tree. The leaf is dependent on the tree from which it sprung for its nutrition. If the leaf were disconnected from the tree, it would become “withered, faded.” Now, as a thought experiment, consider what would happen if that leaf had a will of its own and it decided it no longer needed the tree. It decided to separate itself from the source of its nutrition. Will that leaf be better off? While it may think so, it certainly will not. The disconnected leaf would wither and die because it had become disconnected from the source of its strength.

The idea behind nabel is that the person who does not believe in God is the man or woman who has separated himself/herself from the source of his/her strength. This person would be like that strong-willed leaf that disconnects itself from the tree which gave it life. Slowly, such people will lose their strength and vitality, they will wither and decay, because they have separated themselves from the very thing that is essential to life. That is unwise, i.e., foolish.

The man named Nabal – an example of foolishness The same can be said of the Biblical example of nabal in the person named Nabal. For those unfamiliar with the Biblical passage, Nabal was a man who had a run-in with David in 1 Samuel 25. In those verses, Nabal is living near Carmel on land that had been under the protection of David. As one of Nabal’s own servants said, David and his men “have been very good to us. * * * In fact, day and night they were like a wall of protection to us and the sheep.” David, who was on the run from King Saul, sent men to Nabal asking that he share some of his provisions with David and his men. Nabal refused to give anything to David and screamed insults at his messengers. As the narrative continues, David becomes angry at Nabal, but does not exact revenge for Nabal’s actions only because of the intervention of Nabal’s wife, Abigail. In verse 25, Abigail declares: “Please do not let my lord pay attention to this worthless man, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he. Nabal is his name and folly is with him.”

Nabal is the Biblical example of a fool. He is described as harsh, evil, worthless and engaged in folly (i.e., foolishness). He is ungrateful for what had already been done for him, and openly spurned the requests of the one who had been protecting him. He is like the leaf who has unwisely separated itself from the tree that kept it alive – he was heading for destruction. Shortly thereafter, Nabal does die.

Interestingly, this is the first time that the word nabal is used in the Bible, and I suspect that Nabal’s story is shared with us so that we can gain a better understanding of what the word means because Nabal’s life gives us insight into understanding the Hebrew word nabal.

Looking at nabal in Psalm 14:1 and 53:1

Now, understanding that nabal is derivative of nabel, we can see that nabal incorporates all of the ideas of nabel discussed above. Both of these Psalms says that the person who says in his/her heart that there is no God is nabal. When we are speaking about people who reject God, – the God who actually created them, gave them life, sustains them, and seeks to bring them to fullness -- that person has made the same unwise move as the leaf who separates from the tree. The decision to separate oneself from God, the source of all life, goodness and holiness, sets the person on a course to lose that moral and spiritual nourishment that sustains him or her. Ultimately, he or she will become nabal: impious and wicked.

In other words, we too often turn around the relationship here. Many read this verse and say, “God is saying that only foolish people don’t believe in him.” What the Bible verse is really saying is that people who do not believe in him have made an unwise decision which will lead them to become impious and wicked. The foolishness is not what comes first – it is the end result of the belief system. By calling unbelievers fools in Psalm 14:1 David is saying those who reject God will ultimately become harsh, evil and worthless due to that separation.

Being foolish

In sum, when anyone uses this verse suggesting that the Bible teaches that atheists and others who do not believe in God are stupid, that person lacks understanding of the meaning of the word. They are also disconnected from reality because people who are atheists are quite often very bright. In fact, that’s often the biggest part of their problem: they are bright and they begin to trust their own intelligence too much.

But it certainly is true that if Christianity is true, then the rejection of God’s very existence is setting the non-believer on a road where he or she will make bad judgments about everything that flows from that belief: from science to politics to morals to truth itself. And thus, rejecting God is the most unwise thing of all.


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