They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good, no, not one.”
I remember when I first resolved to read through the whole Bible. I was in high school and it seemed like the godly thing to do. But, as I began making my way through Scripture, I kept stumbling upon verses that were unsettling to me. Sometimes what a verse described seemed abhorrent to me (Should I be happy when babies have their heads dashed on the rocks?). Other verses just seemed wrong (Should I always give to those who ask?). I believed that the Bible was God’s Word and was always true. But what was I to do with verses that seemed to be, well, false?
Psalm 14:3 was such a verse. I encountered this verse as it was quoted in Romans 3:12, where it says, “All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.” As I read this, I thought to myself: “Wait! How is this possible? Some people actually do good. I have seen people be generous to the poor. I have watched people love sacrificially. And even I have done a few truly good things in my life. So how can the Bible say that no one does good, not a single one?”
Some readers, when they come to verses like Psalm 14:3, quickly conclude that the Bible is simply wrong. But they are not reading Scripture with the kind of attentiveness that all serious literature deserves. All responsible reading pays attention to the genre of the material and its context. So, when we approach the Psalms, we must remember that this book is filled with poetry. Psalm 14:3 isn’t a piece of prosaic legal material. Rather, it is a poetic, indeed, hyperbolic expression of the pervasive sinfulness of humanity. Poetry says, “No one does good, no, not one.” Philosophical or legal writing might say, “All people do what’s wrong, but some people do what’s right at least some of the time.” The first option will grab your attention and get you thinking. The second option will lead you to nod slightly a move on to something more compelling.
Psalm 14:3 appears in a poem that laments the sinfulness of all human beings. In the end, the good that we do cannot erase our sinful behavior. Thus, Psalm 14 concludes by asking a paramount question: “Who will come from Mount Zion to rescue us?” (14:7). Who is able to save us? Only the Lord (14:7). He alone is able to restore his people and ultimately the whole world.
In Romans 3, Paul quotes Psalm 14:3 in order to set up the need for a savior. Yes, no one does good. Both Jews and Gentiles fall short of God’s righteousness: “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). This is the bad news that prepares the way for the good news: “[T]hey are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24). Truly, everyone does what is wrong. No one does good and good alone . . . except for Jesus Christ, our Savior, through whose goodness we are righteous in God’s sight.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
When you read a verse like Psalm 14:3, a verse that somehow seems wrong to you, what do you do?
Do you ever believe that you can be good enough to earn God’s favor?
How does the reality of your sinfulness impact your relationship with God?
O Lord, as you know, there are many passages of Scripture that are disconcerting to us, things we don’t understand or things we understand but don’t like. At times your Word is crystal clear and compelling. But then there are other times . . .
Help us, Lord, to understand your Word correctly. By your Spirit, may we pay close attention to the text and its context. Help us to be accurate readers.
And when we come upon things that we don’t like, help us not to reject your Word as something less than true. Rather, teach us to dig deeper, to think, to pray, to converse with others, to wrestle with Scripture so that we might be changed by it.
Finally, gracious God, thank you for your salvation, for reaching out to us even when we were sinners. Thank you for your grace poured out through Jesus Christ. Amen.