The third stanza of Psalm 14 describes the way of the fool, which we have now seen to be the way of the entire human race apart from God’s special, saving intervention. There are two things said about us. First, we never seem to learn. We are practical materialists; that is, we are relentless in our efforts to use others for our advantage, profiting from them. We will not learn that “man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3; cf. Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4). And we are prayerless. We “do not call on the Lord,” because we believe that we can manage very well without him.
Here are two illustrations of this truth. Recently I heard Dr. Joel Nederhood, the radio preacher of the Christian Reformed Church, tell of being in Moscow and attending a booksellers’ convention. The fascinating thing about this convention was that, in this age of glasnost (the new openness in the Soviet Union), the American Bible Society was present and was giving away Bibles. There was a long line of people patiently waiting to receive these Bibles and, as Nederhood told it, this line stretched several hundred feet out into the display area where it passed in front of a neglected booth manned by seventy-year-old Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the most famous of American atheists, who sat there glowering.
She must have been thinking, “What fools these Russians are to stand in line for Bibles. They should be buying books about atheism from me.” But it was she, not they, who was the fool. For they had tried atheism and had found it wanting. She has lived about as long as Communism has ruled Russia, but she has learned nothing.
I came across another illustration of our inability to learn in these areas in an essay by Joseph Addison, the eighteenth century prose writer, who is quoted by Spurgeon in his Treasury of David. Addison had been shipboard with a particularly vile person when, as it happened, the ship was overtaken by a gale. The passenger was the only one severely frightened. But he was so frightened that he went to the chaplain, fell on his knees and confessed that he had been a denier of God and an atheist ever since he had come of age.
It soon got around the ship that there was an atheist on the upper deck, and the common sailors who, said Addison, had never heard the word “atheist” before, at first supposed that it was a rare kind of fish. But when they learned that it is a man who denies God they were frightened themselves and suggested, not quietly, that “it would be a good deed to heave him overboard.” However, the ship soon came near land, and when the penitent saw that they were not going to perish after all, he repudiated his conversion, begging the passengers not to say a word to anyone of what had happened, and went back to his openly wicked ways.
That part of the story alone would make my point, but there is more. After two days on shore this man ran into one of the other passengers again, and the passenger reminded him of his new-found piety on board the ship. The atheist denied it, and the argument got so fierce that it ended in a duel in which the atheist was run through with his opponent’s sword. Addison said that at this point he “became as good a Christian as he was at sea—till he found that his wound was not mortal,” at which point he relapsed again. The last Addison heard of him he had become what in those days was called “a free thinker” and was writing foolish books about religion.5 The fear that he felt when he was in danger disappeared when the trouble was past. He did not learn the spiritual lessons that these experiences should have produced.