Not only do we never learn, but the second thing that is said about us in this stanza is that we are occasionally “overwhelmed with dread” (v. 5). The psalmist expresses this in a strange way, saying literally, as the New International Version indicates: “There they are, overwhelmed with dread…” which has led many writers to wonder what specific “there” he is referring to. Where does this take place? When is the moment at which those who deny God are so moved? Some have suggested that this is fear which will emerge only at the Final Judgment. It is what Jesus seemed to speak of when he described the ungodly crying out for the mountains and hills to fall upon them and cover them in that day (Luke 23:30). Others have suggested that it is fear evoked by some calamity, as in Addison’s story about the panicked sea passenger.
I think it is none of these but is rather what we would call an inner psychological dread. In proof I cite Psalm 53:3. Psalm 53 is the psalm which is an almost exact repetition of Psalm 14, as I said earlier. But at this verse there is an important variation, an addition. After the words “There they are, overwhelmed with dread,” Psalm 53 inserts “where there was nothing to dread.” In other words, the fear described is an inner fear, occasioned by no visible cause.
To put it another way, no one is threatening these unbelieving persons. They seem secure, as the wicked often do. But in their quiet moments, deep in their hearts, they sense that if this is a moral universe, as they suspect it must be, then they are guilty of many sins and will undoubtedly suffer for them. They are unnerved by this and shudder violently.
The psalmist is not shuddering, however. And the reason is that he has learned what unbelievers have not learned, namely, that “God is present in the company of the righteous” and that “the LORD is their refuge” (v. 6). He concludes with a prayer so tranquil that it is almost a sigh. It is a prayer for deliverance: “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad” (v. 7). It is not possible for us to get to that quiet position of trust and confidence by ourselves. For if we have understood this psalm rightly, we know that we are in the exact position of those who cry out, “There is no God,” unless God himself makes his person and ways known to us.
How does he do it? He does so in Jesus Christ. In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul is talking about wisdom, and he is contrasting the true wisdom of the gospel with the apparent wisdom of the wise, who regard the gospel as foolishness. God has destroyed this human wisdom, he says. And he has given us Jesus, “who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). That is it exactly! Left to ourselves, our minds run to utter foolishness, and we act the fool too. But in Christ we find a wisdom from God able to save us and lead us in the way of righteousness.