Studies in Unfamiliar Psalms No. 9


Psalm 115

This psalm is not entirely unfamiliar, by any means, as we will see, but it is not as well known to us or as often read by us as it ought to be and I suspect few of us would have been able to identify its number had I simply begun to read it to you. It sounds more familiar than perhaps it is because it trades in a theme we find in many places in the Bible. I was coming home from Chattanooga, Tennessee Friday night and trying to get ahead in my Bible reading and came twice across statements very like the ones we find here in Psalm 115: one in Habakkuk 2:18-19 and another in Jonah 2:8.

“Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver, there is no breath in it. But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” Habakkuk 2:18-19

“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I with song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. Salvation comes from the Lord.” Jonah 2:8

Text Comment

v.1       This is the original “Non Nobis Domine,” a Christian anthem that has been sung at any number of great turning points of history, not only on the battlefield of Agincourt after the English victory over a much larger French force. It was sung by John Sobieski, the King of Poland, and by his army who defeated the Turks outside Vienna on Sept. 12, 1683, the battle that saved European Christianity and European civilization from Turkish domination, the battle that in effect rendered Islam a relatively minor force in world history until our own day.

v.3       They wanted to know where the god was because they couldn’t see one, couldn’t find it. The great theme of this psalm is the contrast between the living God and the false gods of the nations.

v.8       This is by no means the only place where the Bible puts the idols of the world in their place, by mocking the very idea of manufacturing an inanimate image, creating a god in other words, and holding him or her in one’s hand. Someone who worships such a nonentity, something so helpless and devoid of life will find himself becoming like his god. These gods do not exalt human beings but shrivel and shrink those who worship them and make them deaf and dumb like the images themselves.

v.11     The division of the people into three groups helps us to see how Israelites saw themselves: certainly priests and people, or, as we would say today, clergy and laity. The third group is literally the “god-fearers” who might be a reference to all Israelites together, an embracive category, or a reference to converts to Israel. There were converts in Israel, as you know, from the beginning: think of Rahab and Ruth. And in the NT the term “god-fearer” refers to a Gentile drawn to the Jewish faith but not yet a full convert because not yet circumcised. Whether it has that meaning already here to describe Gentile converts to the Jewish faith is hard to know and the commentators go back and forth.

v.15     In vv. 12-15 the theme is not the Lord’s power to save, as in the previous verses, but his power to enrich his people. [Kidner, ii, 406] Think again of our consideration last Lord’s Day evening of the way we are to read such statements. But take note of our dependence upon the Lord if we are to thrive in this world and our children after us. The “may” should probably be taken not in the sense of uncertainty but of “benediction.” He is not merely hoping that the people should enjoy the Lord’s blessing; he is telling them that they will.

v.16     A fascinating way of putting it, as if the Lord has handed the world over to man. Obviously he has not surrendered his sovereignty over what he has made, but man is his heir and his trustee. God has been generous to men in giving him this role and this vice-regency in the world but he has also entrusted him with a serious stewardship and responsibility. [Kidner, ii, 406] So the earth is at one and the same time God’s realm, Satan’s realm, and man’s realm. All have authority in it and over it in varying degrees. And insofar as it is man’s realm it is man’s stewardship and responsibility.

v.17     One of those enigmatic statements that seem odd to us from the vantage point of the NT but God is certainly a God who deserves the praise of his people in the here and now. That is our calling. We are to be worshippers of God. You remember Jesus telling the woman at the well that the Lord was seeking those who would worship him. Such a God as the living God, the Lord, deserves the praise of his people here and now. That is their calling, to praise the living God, not to invent false gods upon whom to invest their praise. They will have the occasion to praise him forever, we will read in the last verse, but it is our calling to do so now, in this life, a life that must soon end. The speed at which life is passing by is more and more obvious to me the older I get. The other day I was in the dining hall at Covenant College and saw Katie McCoy sitting at a table with a friend. We talked for a bit and in the conversation I recollected that she must be a sophomore now. “No,” she corrected me, I’m graduating this May.” I couldn’t believe it. How could four years pass so quickly? It seems like just yesterday that she went off to college. Well consider then the rapid passage of your years. There is a certain kind of praise and worship, in word and in life, that can be given God here and here only, by faith, in a sinful world, and by those who are not yet made perfect and you will never be able to give him again. You will praise him forever but it won’t be the same. You have a great opportunity to do something now that counts for something greater because it has to be done against the influence of a sinful heart and amidst a sinful world. Such praise has a special quality and so a special value! We will praise him forever, but we won’t be able to praise him there the way we can praise him here.

There were gods everywhere in Ancient Near Eastern world. Thousands of gods. Partly as a result of that there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty in ANE theology and ANE faith. Nobody had assurance. Which God mattered at this particular moment? What was this God like? Would he show me favor? This uncertainty is reflected in the names of their gods. Marduk, a Babylonian god, had more than fifty names. Each name reflected some belief concerning Marduk. In striking contrast Israel’s God, Yahweh, had but one name and he hadn’t been named, he had revealed his name to his people. He had told them what it was. And with his name Yahweh told Israel who he was and what he was like. The Babylonians also compensated for their uncertainty by referring to “the god to whom it may concern.” The gods of the ANE were not predictable; they weren’t even moral. They were not loved; they were feared but they were not looked upon with awe. They were not beings of majesty. They were very human-like in fact, petulant, small minded, and selfish. But Israel’s God was altogether unlike the gods of the ANE. He didn’t have to be looked for; he found you! He cared that his people knew him and knew him by name. He was not powerless, as the gods of the ANE pantheon often were. Sometimes they had power but then the nation was defeated and they were as powerless as the people. He was all-powerful, the Lord of hosts, the creator of heaven and earth. And his character was such that his people could confide in him, trust him, look to him in their troubles and times of need, and count on him always to act in justice, wisdom, and love. His character was such that he could tell his people he wanted them to be like him. “Be holy, for I am holy.”

Yahweh would never have asked for, much less demanded the sacrifice of a child. Such a thought was repugnant to him and the attempt to buy his favor with expensive gifts equally so. He gave gifts and freely; he did not demand them except to the extent that in the giving of gifts he could bless his people in other, deeper ways. In every way the living God was utterly different and utterly superior to the idols of the ANE.

You would have to have lived in the ANE fully to appreciate what a universe of difference there was between Yahweh and the gods of Canaan and the rest of the ANE, between Israelite monotheism and ANE polytheism. The Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, certainly no friend of Christianity or of the Spanish conquest, has nevertheless written of the astonishment of the hundreds and thousands of Indians – used to the cruel, feckless, and unpredictable gods of their Aztec heritage – gods very like the gods of ANE religion – who asked for Christian baptism because they were being asked to adore a God who sacrificed himself for men instead of asking men to sacrifice themselves or their children to him! [Cited by Robert Royal in First Things (May 1999) 37.]

No one today worships the Aztec gods. No one worships the gods of the ANE. Who any longer prays to Baal or Chemosh or Marduk or Zeus or Jupiter? They are dead and forgotten, relics of the imaginations of a foolish people, themselves long since dead and forgotten. What must become of gods who demand and a people who acquiesce in the demand to sacrifice their children in the fire? As our psalm reminds us, “Those who make [such idols] will be like them and so will all who trust in them.” The peoples of the ANE have disappeared as well, apart from the Jews. The race remains but as national entities and even as specific ethnicities the peoples of the ANE have disappeared.

It is this view of things, the vacuity and terminal silliness of idolatry and its capacity to destroy the soul that accounts for the fact that idolatry is not only condemned and warned against in the Bible, but mocked. Remember Elijah, atop Mt. Carmel, mocking the priests of Baal to call louder upon their god. “Perhaps he is busy at something else, perhaps he is on a journey, or is asleep and needs to be awakened.” You remember that one medieval Jewish commentator took one of those Hebrew phrases to mean, “perhaps he is going to the bathroom;” all in all perhaps not as likely a reading. But the great rabbi, Rashi, certainly captured with that translation the mockery in Elijah’s words. Or think of Isaiah asking the question: “How stupid does somebody have to be to make a god out of wood – “Be careful to cut and sand precisely so that when you stand it up it doesn’t topple over!” – use the rest of the wood to warm oneself by the fire, and then bow down to your creation in worship and in hopes of reward? Hello!

All of that is obvious to us. We read our psalm this evening with a quiet sense of vindication. Or we do until we remember that idols are as surely with us today as they were prevalent in the ANE and we are as tempted to take them seriously and to offer them our allegiance, worship and loyalty as Israel found herself tempted again and again. The human heart, Calvin said, is an idol factory and your heart and mine are creating idols everyday. And now we live in a time in which idolatry, the making of idols, has been raised to an art form virtually unparalleled in human history.

Consider this observation of Malcolm Muggeridge.

“In the twentieth century, man has created the most disastrous of all images, [Remember image and idol are synonyms, they mean the same thing and when, in the second commandment, that is simply another way of saying not to make an idol.] which is himself, and he falls down and worships him…. Never in human history have the unworthwhile things of life been presented so alluringly, through advertizing… This is Vanity Fair into every single person’s sitting room, hours and hours of it, day after day.” [Cited in Touchstone (Dec. 2003) 30]

In the ANE people went to the high place to worship their images. In the 21st century the high place comes to them. We live in a culture of images, images more alluring, more  convincing, than the wood and stone idols of the ancient world. People worship them just as surely as ancient people worshipped their images. Modern people invest their hope in these gods, these idols, that they will provide them what they seek in life. The idols of modern life – money, sex, pleasure, sensual beauty, fame, power, celebrity, ease, comfort, security and the rest – have never been presented so appealingly. Muggeridge is certainly right about that! You’ve seen pictures of ANE idols. Many of them were naked women. The worship of ANE idolatry was sexually charged. We refer to our present-day culture and 21st century American and Europe as the porn culture. ANE society was a porn culture and the worship of its idols was profoundly pornographic.

And images of the modern type are duping people just as surely as the images of ANE idolatry duped human beings in their day. These gods are as irreal as the images of stone and wood that were supposed to represent a god and make it possible for human beings to connect with that God and receive some favor from him. And that is precisely what our psalm says. The one who worships images, false gods, is a dupe. And it is precisely this conviction that we must gain, keep, and strengthen as we live in our idolatrous world and precisely this conviction that we must instill in our children until they are so sharp- sighted that they can detect an idol immediately.. That is what this psalm is about. It is a call to the Israelite people not to be duped; to remember how absurd it is to worship something of a man’s own making, the creature instead of the creator. And the argument would not have been made, the mockery wouldn’t have been recorded in Holy Scripture as often as it is, were God’s people not vulnerable to being duped in just this way.

The history of idolatry and of the attraction of images, false gods, is such that it would be very foolish for any Christian not to realize how susceptible he or she is to being duped in just the same way as the ANE people were and to be distracted from the worship of the true and living God as Israel so often was. We scorn the idea of bowing down to a block of wood, but somehow it does not occur to us to think that we are bowing down to a piece of paper with numbers and pictures on it! The living God stands above all of that. He is not only worthy of all our praise and worship, but is a God who will not fail to bless and reward those who trust in him, both in this life and the life to come. As surely today as in the time Psalm 115 was written, there is still a single alternative, one of two choices: the stupidity and futility of idolatry or the worship of the living God of infinite power, wisdom, and love. You have opportunity to do one or the other. Which will it be? You cannot serve both God and money, or God and sex, or God and pleasure, or God and anything else.

And now as then, if we do not stand against and push back against the forces of idolatry – it remains the primary weapon of the Devil in this world to seduce men and women into false forms of worship and commitment – I say, if we do not push back we will be swept away by the images of our time, beguiled by them, however empty they are, however worthless, however soon to be demonstrated to have been nothing at all. You will be swept away by them even if in the back of your mind you know full well that they are nothing. After all, the people of the ancient world had the evidence of the futility of idolatry, the stupidity of it, before their eyes all the while, but it never sank in. People all over the world still ardently worship and serve blocks of wood and stone and metal, idols they have made with their own hands. What makes us think, then, that there is not a readiness and willingness in our hearts to do the same?

People worship the idols or images of modern life for the same reason people bowed down to wood and stone in the ancient world. They hope to get something in return from these gods. They invest in the worship of their idols in hopes of being favored by them in return. But it is perfectly obvious that our modern idols are no more capable of blessing human life than the ancient images were. Has our wealth made us a happier people? Has the possibility of sex with many partners ennobled and fulfilled us? Has education made us a wiser people? Has our vaunted technology made us a better people?

How many people nowadays even believe the propaganda anymore? Will the modern world really deliver its promised goods to the next generation of human beings? Is the world likely to be a calmer, more peaceful place over the next hundred years? Are the economic injustices of life likely to be eliminated? Are the terrible cruelties perpetrated by human beings against one another actually going away? It took the yeoman effort of some great social heroes and some very bloody wars to bring slavery to an end in the 19th century. But it is estimated that there are many more slaves of all types in the world today than there were in the 19th century, and among them a great many desperate people who live in even more inhumane conditions than did the slaves of the 19th century. These benighted people are absolutely at the beck and call of their masters and, in many cases, are mistreated in ways that any human being ought to find repugnant and repulsive. Think, for example, of the sex slavery that can be found in virtually any country in the world – the modern ones included, the United States among them as a major customer – in which kidnapped girls and women are forced to work in prostitution or face being beaten or murdered.

A fellow trustee of Covenant College, a Justice Department attorney, worked for some years in the Department’s sex trafficking unit. He often says when speaking to groups, “Don’t think of Julia Roberts in Pretty Women; it isn’t like that at all. It is terror and depression and disease and utter hopelessness and self-loathing for millions of little girls stolen from their parents or tricked with false promises, whose lives are utterly destroyed before they have a chance really to begin.” That’s what worshipping sex and money gets you. You become as foul, as disgusting, as morally despicable and small a people as your gods. Think of the polite and well-dressed, urbane, successful Japanese or American businessman traveling to some Asian destination and paying a premium for a 13 or 14 year old virgin. In worshipping your god you are led willingly to conspire, with scarcely a pang of conscience in the cold-hearted destruction of another human being. Even the Aztec gods didn’t require this! You worship the god of sexual pleasure, you worship Eros, and you become as low a human being as there is, however expensive a suit you are wearing. At least when long ago an Aztec sacrificed his young daughter to the Aztec gods, it was over quickly. You didn’t degrade the person over months and years before you murdered her.

And as you know I could go on and on. What did the worship of money over the past few years get us? What did it make of Bernie Madoff and his investors desperate to get the highest return and what it did make of those millions of people who bought homes they could not afford in a made dash to get on the gravy train? What is the difference between what those people did and what the Canaanites did when they went to the high place? Both put their trust in a mirage, an image, in something that wasn’t real and anyone should have known it. What did we get from the promise of never-ending growth in the equity in our homes? We got snookered, that’s what we got. We got taken to the cleaners. We ended up with egg on our face and a great concern as to where all of this will eventually lead us. But back to the high place we are going as quickly as we can get there.

But, you see, millions upon millions and hundreds of millions are absolutely enthralled by these gods, these images that they worship, these idols that anyone ought to see are utterly irreal, utterly unworthy of the mind and the heart and the soul of a human being. Even when we watch others being debased and shrunk by their worship of these gods we can find ourselves shouldering them out of the way so that we can get to the same high place to offer our allegiance to the same idols. Yes, even Christians can find themselves enthralled, deeply attached to what is, at last, nothing at all. There are a thousand examples of this for us to observe every day, but take this as an illustration.

I read the other day of a Christian young woman at a Christian college who gathered with her friends week by week in the dorm to watch the reality TV show The Bachelor. I do not regret to say that I have never seen this show, but in typical reality format, a season of shows develops around the format of a group of attractive young women, each of whom is trying to win the hand of the single, always very attractive, sometimes wealthy or famous young man who is “the bachelor.”

The young woman reported that her friends invested in this show a significant measure of real emotion, to the point of shedding real tears in response to developments in the show week by week. She writes “They feel triumph, elation, pain, and sadness, when the handsome prince chooses or rejects the maiden (using that term very loosely here!) that they’re rooting for.” [Mat Vos, “Postmodern Theories: Calling Meaning into Question.”] What is more, these young women, smart college girls, in tune with the American media, seem altogether to forget that they are watching a television show. They seem rather to think that the emotions they see on the screen and the developments that produce them are real and serious. Perhaps they actually know, in the back of their mind, that these shows are scripted, tightly controlled by the corporate medium producing the show for the sake of advertising dollars; that decisions about the progress of the plot are made in response to weekly ratings and focus group interactions. Fantasy, carefully crafted images were taken to be the real thing and heart and mind were devoted to them even though the young women would probably tell you, if you asked, that they knew the show was staged to a great degree.

Or think, for example, of professional wrestling. The companies that stage these “events” have to register with state governments and licensing bodies as “entertainment enterprises,” because if they claimed to be a sport, they would be subject to prosecution for fraud, because the results are scripted. Somebody knows who is going to win every one of these “matches” before it begins. The plot thickens as the year proceeds. People know this! That is why you don’t bet on professional wrestling. People betting on the result could sue the companies for deceptive business practices. It isn’t a secret. But it doesn’t keep stadiums and arenas from filling up with rabid fans who yell and scream as if they could cheer their hero on to victory. “Hit ‘em over the head with the folding chair! Throw him from the ring!” And he will, if it’s in the script, taking care not to injure his opponent because everyone’s income depends upon the man being able to fight again at the next event!

These are perfect pictures of what human beings all do and do all the time. Elite, sophisticated people who would turn their nose up at professional wrestling do it just as often. They may know that their idols are not real, that worshipping them will not secure good fortune; they may repeat the conventional wisdom about money not buying happiness or that what the world needs is love, true love. But they will act as if money does buy happiness and as if sex is as good as love, if not better. Like the young women watching The Bachelor or professional wrestling fans, they will invest themselves to a very significant degree in what they know in the back of their mind is not real, is nothing but an illusion.

And the Devil, of course, will make the idols as beguiling as he can. No advocate of sexual license, no pornographer, no advocate of drug use ever promotes his or her view point as a sure method of destroying human happiness, the security and blessedness of marriage, or the dignity of human beings. So it is always packaged in terms of freedom, equality, and self-expression, popular virtues in our culture. But, of course, we now know, after so many years, that the sexual revolution has been terribly destructive of human happiness and dignity and of the security and blessedness of marriage, especially the security and happiness of children that depend so profoundly on marriage.

We are seeing before our eyes something I think only the most far-sighted saw a generation ago. We are seeing paganism roaring back in our time. The ethics and philosophy of life that lie behind modern American idolatries is not new, it is as old as the hills. As Abraham Kuyper put it more than a century ago,
"The fundamental problem has always been, is still and always will be till the end, Christianity or Paganism, the idols or the living God."
Our viewpoint is also as old as the hills: belief in the living and true God who made and rules the world. The only difference is that we are perfectly happy to admit that our viewpoint is ancient. We are proud to say that it has been the conviction of vast multitudes of people throughout the entire history of the world.
So let’s finish with this question: what is the remedy for this terrible tendency that human beings have, and we among them, to trust ourselves to what is not real, to invest in an illusion?
No doubt many things could be said in answer. But this psalm teaches us to do two things: to mock the idol and to confess the majesty of God. That is we are to bring to mind, we are to instruct ourselves in the folly of idolatry whenever and wherever we see it, and especially when we find it rising in our own hearts. “This is ridiculous; what am I thinking?” we are to say to ourselves. “What will I get, what can I possibly get for investing such hope and confidence in such a man-made thing? What do others get? Stop this daydreaming. Be a Christian for goodness sake! Use your mind and apply your knowledge. Don’t be a dolt. Don’t invest emotion in what is not real and what cannot save.” That is the kind of conversation you and I have to have with ourselves every day we live in this world.

Remember the great early missionary, Boniface, who took the gospel to Germany in the 8th century. There was a large oak tree which the pagans at that time and place worshipped as a spirit. Boniface cut it down, just like King Asa cut down his grandmother’s Asherah pole (2 Chron. 15:16) and Jehoiada and Joash destroyed the temple of Baal – pulled it apart piece by piece – that had been set up in Jerusalem. The tree was a beautiful creation of God, to be sure, but it was only a thing. So Boniface cut it down. Let the idol prevent him if it can! It was no God and no human being ought to worship it! And don’t expect the pagan thinking or the pagan worship to let go very easily. Remember, Boniface was murdered by a pagan mob. Expect push-back even in your own heart, but then push back yourself!

And, at the same time, confess the Lord ever day: his majesty and power, his truth and wisdom, his grace and love in Jesus Christ his Son. Remember what he has done, what he has promised. Bring it to mind. Call it to remembrance. Who are you? What has God done for you? Where are you going? Why? What are you do to while you are here these few days that remain before you are no longer in the world?

There should not be a day in your life when you do not, in effect make the argument of Psalm 115 over again to yourself. It is, after all, a hymn. Sing it to yourself or if not this psalm one of hundreds of hymns like it.

John ends his first letter, written to a Christian congregation, not a one of whom was any longer tempted to any degree to bow down to wood or stone, with the words: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” John knew what Christians needed to do! He knew that the heart was an idol factory and he knew we had to work to keep our hearts free of idols. Be alert, thoughtful, intelligent; see through things.

Remember the haunting words from this psalm: “those who make them will be like them.” You don’t want to be like an idol, you don’t want to be deaf and dumb, you don’t want to be stupid, and you don’t want to be powerless in the day of God. Paganism is always impersonal and anti-personal, whether in its ancient or modern form. Both destroy the soul. You cannot worship a false god – whether a block of wood, money, sex, fame, power – without becoming false yourself and without it destroying your soul.

But, worship God, the living God, and you become a larger, deeper, wiser, better, more beautiful person in every way. You cannot help it! Because God is real and wise and beautiful and those who worship him become like him.