In our series on the Psalms, we've arrived at Psalm 53. My title is 'Fallen Humanity'. So my topic is humanity's sinfulness and evil – maybe not one that immediately fills your heart with delight. Perhaps not what you were hoping for as you headed across here this evening. But it's my prayer that this Psalm will lighten our load, warm our hearts and leave us with a spring in our step.
So at the top of that outline, by way of introduction, I've put a question for you: 'How can admitting that we are evil be the way to lasting joy?' Isn't it more likely that accepting ourselves as we are, being aware of our gifts and strengths, and having high self-esteem will lead us to joy? That, at least, is the way of thinking that the world around us is constantly trying to get us to adopt.
So how can it possibly be that admitting that we are evil is the way to lasting joy? The reason I ask is that this is precisely the spiritual journey that this Psalm is calling us to go on. From acknowledging how bad we are, to rejoicing and gladness. That is the wonder of what Jesus does for us.
So look at verse 1, and you'll see the words "corrupt" and "abominable". And that's us – because as the verse goes on to say,
"there is none who does good."
But then look down to the end of the Psalm, to the last line of the final verse, and you'll see the words "rejoice' and 'be glad":
"… let Jacob rejoice, let Israel [in other words God's people] be glad."
That's a big leap. In fact I reckon that this Psalm is one of the Bible's most comprehensive statements of the depth and all-encompassing nature of sin and evil. Sin is radically inclusive. I'm in. You're in. We're all in.
But is that only an Old Testament view? No. Why did the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, have to go to the cross and die for our sins? Was it because we're not always perfect but we're not that bad? No, it was because without him we're evil, and nothing else was enough to redeem us.
Our New Testament reading was from Mark 7.20-23. There, Jesus talks about what he sees when he looks inside us. He says:
"What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
When our baby grandson looks into my eyes I sometimes feel as if he sees right through me. I don't think he does. But Jesus does see right through us. And in Mark 7 he says what he sees: corrupt hearts awash with evils.
How, then, can admitting the truth of this desperately bleak diagnosis be the way to lasting joy? How can we make this journey that we see in Psalm 53? Well, there are four stages on the way, and you can see them there in my four headings on the outline. First, Evil Deeds Flow From A Corrupt Heart. Secondly, Everyone Has A Corrupt Heart. Thirdly, God Has Acted to Renew Our Corrupt Hearts. And fourthly, It's Time to Rejoice and Be Glad. Let me take us through those. So:
First, Evil Deeds Flow From A Corrupt Heart.
The two key verses here are verses 1 and 4. Take a look at verse 1:
"The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; …"
So here's a depiction of their way of life, what they do, how they behave, how they live, how they treat other people. And the lives being described here are abominable to God. That expresses a certain disgust, abhorrence. Do you remember how the risen Jesus says of the lukewarm, "I will spit you out of my mouth." The holy, righteous, living God cannot tolerate these vile ways.
And such behaviour is the consequence of corruption in the heart. There is a deep down rottenness inside. Jesus said, "from within, out of the heart of man" evil comes.
We were walking in Northumberland the other day, and came across a heavily laden Victoria plum tree in someone's garden. Happily, one of the branches, perhaps under the weight of the fruit, had snapped off and fallen over the garden wall onto the lane. Now, I'm rather partial to Victoria plums. So I reckoned they were fair game. But I had to be careful about which ones I helped myself to. Because though some were ripe and firm and ready to eat, others were a rotting, revolting mess. The worms or the wasps had got to them, and they were corrupt to the core. Corruption in the heart ruins lives. So as verse 4 has it:
"Have those who work evil no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon God?"
What a vivid image that is of a ruinous life – of a mouth that eats God's people instead of calling on God. And the root of that ruinous heart-corruption is the rejection of the living God. Verse 1 again:
"The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'."
In our culture, we have some well-known atheists. I get a kind of digest of articles of interest to church leaders, and a recent one drew my attention to a newspaper article about the latest plans of the militant atheist scientist Richard Dawkins. The article said, I quote:
Traditional Christian values have long underpinned popular children's books such as The Chronicles of Narnia. But now Richard Dawkins wants to give youngsters a different perspective with a new book – Atheism for Children. The outspoken scientist, 77, hopes it will stop the 'religious indoctrination of children' by schools and family members. Professor Dawkins, an atheist whose book The God Delusion was a bestseller, said Atheism for Children will 'arm' youngsters in religious debates … "Perhaps I can help parents arm themselves against indoctrination by schools, grandparents and religious books – and against taunting by religious schoolmates" [he said].
By the way, the editor of this news digest commented:
This is not a spoof: in Dawkins' parallel universe, there really is a problem of children with atheist views being persecuted by Christians in British schools.
There is no getting away from the fact that according to the Bible – and this Psalm – Richard Dawkins, for all his intellectual brilliance, is a fool. "The fools says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" The rejection of the living God, the creator and saviour of the world, is the biggest error it is possible to make. It leads to corruption and rottenness of the heart, which in turn leads to ways of behaving that are vile in the sight of God.
But of course it's not just Richard Dawkins and his allies. And there are two ways of being atheist. There is the arguably more honest way of openly denying God's existence. But there is also a more subtle way, which is to say that you believe in God, but in practice to ignore him and to live as if he didn't exist. What we might call practical atheism. Hypocritical atheism.
So, the first stage in our journey to lasting joy is to recognise that evil deeds flow from a corrupt heart – a heart that in one way or another says that there is no God – a foolish heart. Then my next point – or rather the next point of this Psalm – is this:
Secondly, Everyone Has A Corrupt Heart.
That sounds like a depressing and bleak statement, doesn't it. But in fact getting to grips with this is a massive step forward on the journey to permanent joy.
It's relatively easy for us to agree, I imagine, that some people have corrupt hearts. What comes into your mind if I ask you, 'Who do you know who's corrupt to the core?' Maybe some famously evil person comes to mind. Or perhaps you're having a lot of trouble with someone at the moment, and in your worse moments you'd be happy to describe them as 'corrupt at heart'. Maybe you've already called them worse things to their face in the heat of the moment. But probably not many of us would respond to that question, 'Who do you know who's corrupt to the core?' by saying, 'I am – that sounds just like me.' And not many of us would respond by saying, 'I don't know anyone who isn't corrupt to the core.'
But that is the shocking truth that this Psalm in particular, and the Bible in general, teaches with great, unambiguous clarity. So we looked at verses 1 and 4. Now take a look at what comes in the middle of that sandwich – from the end of verse 1 through to verse 3:
"… there is none who does good.
God looks down from heaven
on the children of man
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
They have all fallen away;
together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one."
This problem of folly; and atheism, whether theoretical or practical; and corruption; and vileness; and evil-doing; and harming others rather than calling on God is not a problem just for some. It's not even a problem for a lot of people, or for most of us. It's all of us. There is not one single person who left to themselves would seek out the living God and live according to his ways and in obedience to his will. No one. Not me. Not you. Our minds are corrupt – there is no one who understands. Our wills are corrupt – there is no one who seeks God, instead, we turn away from him. We have all strayed like lost sheep. And our deeds are corrupt – there is not one who does good. That's not to say that everything we do is evil in itself. Far from it. But even the good we do is tainted by bad motives and the by the Godless pull of our lives.
You can find another of the key Bible passages which is a comprehensive statement of the depth and all-encompassing nature of sin and evil in the apostle Paul's great explanation of the good news of Jesus in his Letter to the Romans. He quotes a series of Old Testament scriptures – including this very Psalm, Psalm 53. This is what he says in Romans 3.9-19:
"What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
'None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.'
'Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.'
'The venom of asps is under their lips.'
'Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.'
'Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.'
'There is no fear of God before their eyes.'
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God."
To go back to my plums illustration, in which plums stand for people: it's not just some of the plums that are a rotting, revolting mess, riddled with worms and eaten into by wasps until they are corrupt to the core. It's every single one.
Point one: a corrupt heart leads to evil deeds. Point two: everyone has a corrupt heart. Those two stages alone seem to take us not so much towards joy as towards despair. But there is a necessary truth and realism about them. When we look inside ourselves with honesty and with our eyes open, that is what we see. But thankfully that's not the end of the journey. So what's next? Well:
Thirdly, God Has Acted to Renew Our Corrupt Hearts.
We need the New Testament to see this is in all its wonderful glory. But there's more than a hint of this towards the end of our Psalm. Verse 5 could be read in different ways. But I'll tell you what I think it means. Take a look:
"There they are, in great terror,
where there is no terror!"
Who's "they"? I don't think it's the enemies of God's people, because they precisely don't dread anything, in their pride, when in fact they should fear God. I think this is an expression of the despair that strikes those in whom the Holy Spirit is working when they realise that unless God steps in they're going to be swallowed up by evil. They get overwhelmed with dread. But they shouldn't be. Why not? Look how the verse goes on:
"For God scatters the bones of him who encamps against you;
you put them to shame, for God has rejected them."
In other words, God gives his people victory over their enemies. And our biggest enemies are sin, Satan and death. So dread and despair are not where it all ends. God is going to give the victory.
And then there's this cry at the start of verse 6:
"Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!"
That is the Old Testament cry, waiting for the salvation of God. But we know that salvation for God's people has come out of Zion – out of Jerusalem – through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died and rose precisely because we are all so corrupt inside that there is nothing at all that we can do to save ourselves. But God has acted to renew our corrupt hearts. He sent his Son. He dealt with sin. He poured out his Spirit. Salvation has come. So:
Fourthly and finally, It's Time to Rejoice and Be Glad
Look at the end of the Psalm:
"When God restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad!"
King David is clear-sighted about the seriousness and the universality of sin. But he also knows that the day will come when God will act to restore his people. And he says, when that day comes, it'll be time to start rejoicing. It'll be a glad day. And then the joy will never stop.
That day has come. We're still waiting for Jesus to return and wrap things up and destroy evil and death for ever. But the joy and gladness has started. And we just can't see it unless we've got to grips with stages one to three on the journey to lasting joy that this powerful Psalm takes us on.
That is my own testimony – if I can end with a personal word. I came to a living faith as a teenager. But my encounter with the word of God first of all lead me close to despair. Why? Because it made me look inside my heart, and I could see that when God told me that I was corrupt to the core, that was exactly right.
But praise God he didn't leave me there in that dark pit. Full of grace and mercy, he took my hand, as it were, and lead me to Jesus, my saviour. And Jesus unburdened me of all my sin and guilt and the despair that comes in its wake. And in my own quiet way, I have been rejoicing ever since. And I know that the joy will never stop. Jesus has filled my heart with lasting joy – everlasting joy. And if you don't already know that joy for yourself, my prayer is that you soon will, by the miraculous, supernatural work of the Spirit of God in your heart. And if you do, keep rejoicing. And share the joy.