Psalm 115: The Cure For Idolatry In The Postmodern World (Part 1)

Not ours, YHWH, not ours

For to your name, give glory.

On account of your steadfast love

and on account of your faithfulness.

Why should the nations say “Where, now, is their God?”

Our God is in the heavens,

All that delights him, he does.

(Psalm 115:1–3, author’s translation)1

We all know that appearances can be deceiving—like in Treasure Island when the humble ship’s cook, Long John Silver, turns out to be a mutinous pirate.2 Or take a positive example. In The Fellowship of the Ring, when the hobbits meet Strider, they are suspicious. Frodo himself fears “he had fallen in with a rascal” whose purpose was to rob him.3 Butterbur the innkeeper does not trust him and neither do the hobbits. There are many examples of how appearances can be deceiving, for good or for ill. In Psalm 115 we find that our initial impression and expectations are mistaken, both for good and for ill.

Paradoxically, Psalm 115 reminds us that the only God worth being near is a God who is far above our comprehension. This runs exactly counter to our usual inclinations and expectations. For many of us, the following maxim is true either practically or principally: if we cannot see it, it does not exist. As we will see as we look at Psalm 115, this is not the case with God and idols.

The Contexts Of Psalm 115

Psalm 115 comes from the last of the five books of the Psalter. The last book of Psalms is situated after books three and four which respond to the exile and destruction of the temple.4 Book four focuses more on YHWH’s kingship where God is said to reign.5 But in book five, the temple and David return to the fore. Book five has two Davidic collections (107–110 and 138–145) which remind us of the promised son of David. The Israelites look backward to look forward, because of the promises of God, given in the past for future fulfillment. This book also contains psalms for festival pilgrimages to the second temple, the Hallel of Psalms 113–118, and the Ascent Psalms of 120–134. The Hallel draws its name from the Hebrew verb that permeates this section, the constant command to “Praise the Lord,” or as we know it, hallelujah. The name for the Ascents collection comes from their shared title “for going up.”6 For instance, in the Psalms of Ascent, Psalm 134:1 addresses those “standing in the house of YHWH at night.” Psalm 132, the longest Psalm of Ascent, captures the themes of book five. It begins by looking backward. “Remember, YHWH, David—all his afflictions” (v. 1). Yet it ends looking forward, with YHWH promising, “There I will sprout a horn for David, I have lined up a lamp for my Messiah” (v. 17).

Psalm 115 itself shares themes and motifs with other psalms in book five. The phrase “house of Aaron” only occurs in book five.7 As part of the Hallel, it serves to remind us why only our God is to be praised. This psalm comes to us from a time when God’s people had been, and some were still, living among pagan nations. The surrounding idolatry was deceiving; thus, this psalm calls us to look deeper than the appearances.

You may also be familiar with this psalm from church history. In the Reformed churches, these Hallel psalms are associated with communion because of their association with Passover. In a section on the changes to the post-communion liturgy at the time of the Reformation, Hughes Old writes of the First Zurich Service Book of 1525,

It would seem that the choice of Psalm 113 is no random choice. It was chosen because it was the first psalm in the Great Hallel, that is the six psalms, 113–118, which were traditionally sung at the conclusion of the Passover. These psalms according to Paul of Burgos, were the psalms sung by Jesus at the Last Supper. It was in the singing of these psalms that the Passover liturgy celebrated the redemption of Israel from Egypt and hoped for the coming of the Messiah. Zwingli was well aware of this when he chose the psalm.8

These psalms have been important in the church liturgically and were originally given to the people of God as they dwelled among pagan nations. What makes them so special? Well, they communicate a great lesson for Christians like us in the postmodern world. These psalms, and especially Psalm 115, remind us of the great God whom we worship amid the many idols that would take his place. These psalms remind us why he is the only one worthy of our worship. We should cling to these truths as Christians have in the past.

Immanence and Transcendence

The immediately preceding psalms share a motif that Psalm 115 applies to idolatry. In Psalm 113:5–6, God’s transcendence is proclaimed:

Who is like YHWH our God, who goes high up to sit?

Who comes low to look at the heavens and earth?

Here, to sit down God must paradoxically go up high; and to see the very heavens themselves he must abase himself—he must come down. The heavens here are “the visible heavens,” what we moderns might call the observable universe. God must abase himself to look at them. That is how exalted he is in himself.

And Psalm 115:3 speaks of God in the same exalted terms,

Our God is in the heavens,

All that delights him, he does.

God is constrained not by his dwelling, but only by his delight. He does what he pleases and he has all ability, all authority in heaven and on earth, because he is above and outside of their bounds.

Once, in an undergraduate theology course, I recall a fellow student struggling with the classic doctrine of God’s immutability. The doctrine itself was not in doubt for her, but the process of understanding it forced a reorientation of how she conceived of God. Sometimes we act as though or even believe that God’s exaltation (his transcendence) makes him remote. In the words of one songwriter, “He bent down and made the world in seven days, and ever since he’s been a-walking away.”9

Instead of this, both Psalms 113 and 115 remind us not only of God’s transcendence, but also of his nearness. His exaltation does not inhibit him from being near to his people. Psalm 115 especially reminds us that for those who trust God, God himself remembers them.

Israel, trust in YHWH,

He is their help and their shield

House of Aaron, trust in YHWH,

He is their help and their shield

Those fearing YHWH, trust in YHWH

He is their help and shield

YHWH remembered us,

He will bless

He will bless the house of Israel

He will bless the house of Aaron

He will bless those who fear YHWH

The small with the great. (vv. 9–12)

Judah, exiled in Babylon or back in the land but without a Davidic king, seems to have struggled with the feeling that God had forgotten them. But this psalm reminds them and us that God does not walk away; he remembers his people from least to greatest. Being the least among God’s people is to be remembered by the God who hung the stars. He remembered them in Egypt, he remembered them in Babylon. And he blessed them in the promise of what was to come.

If we are honest, we probably feel this way sometimes too. Nevertheless, we have Christ as our Great High Priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses (Heb 4:15). And how does he do this? The transfiguration is a picture of the God who is near us. He comes down from glory in the heights of the mountain to heal the sick and the unbelieving. Where the transfiguration is recorded, it is always followed by the healing of the sick boy whose father says, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, cf. Matt 17:1–20; Mark 9:2–29; Luke 9:28–43). The Logos comes down from his glory because God’s story of salvation is not just a “glory story.” Christ meets sufferers in their suffering to bring them to glory.

Idolatry Does Not Make God Nearer

One of the main lessons in this psalm for us postmodern folks is to remember that we do not make God nearer by our efforts. God is the one who must come to us. In the next part of this series through Psalm 115, we will look closer at the main theme of this psalm—idolatry. Throughout the history of God’s people, there has always been the temptation to try and usher in immanence—to make God seem nearer.

In the ancient world, that temptation often led to the creation of idols. They wanted a God they could see and touch. But to artistically represent such a “god” was to present divinity as inert, unable even to move. Perhaps our modern temptation is toward an imminent style of worship (lots of things to see, smell, and feel). Or maybe the temptation is to a “spiritual but not religious” spirituality. Or maybe there is even a temptation to a return to a soft paganism. Once while killing time on the neighborhood streets of Georgetown in DC, I heard a group of teenage girls talking about how a store had “the best crystals.” New age and neo-pagan ideas are becoming fashionable again. This is because they make the spiritual, or the divine, seem near and manipulable.

To this the psalmist says, you cannot make God nearer. And for the Christian, God is never nearer than in the ascended Christ who gives us his Spirit. My favorite article of the Belgic Confession of faith summarizes this well. In the late patristic and medieval period, God’s transcendence had again become a stumbling block for many of his people. And so the practice of prayer to and intercession of saints grew. To address this misconception, the Belgic Confession martials together all of its teaching on Christ in its final article on his person and work.

For neither in heaven nor among the creatures on earth is there anyone who loves us more than Jesus Christ does. Although he was “in the form of God,” he nevertheless “emptied himself,” taking the form of “a man” and “a servant” for us; and he made himself “completely like his brothers.” Suppose we had to find another intercessor. Who would love us more than he who gave his life for us, even though “we were his enemies”? And suppose we had to find one who has prestige and power. Who has as much of these as he who is seated “at the right hand of the Father,” and who has all power “in heaven and on earth”? And who will be heard more readily than God’s own dearly beloved Son? (BC 26)

To this we answer, no one. Jesus Christ reveals the transcendent God through the cross. There is no greater love than Christ’s, no greater power, and no greater mediator between us and our God than Christ. Our efforts do not make God closer, do not make the gospel sweeter, or even cause our prayers to be heard more readily. They did not do this for Judah and they do not do this for the postmodern person either. God is with us in Christ by the Spirit. And it is in Christ and by the Spirit that God hears and answers our prayers. It is not in our worthiness or by our works. It is not in creation or by our manipulating it in a certain way. God is near to us in Christ and by the Spirit through the great work of reconciliation and intercession accomplished by Christ.

In the next part on Psalm 115, we will take a look at what idolatry does to us and how the counter to idolatry is found in the worship of Christ, in Spirit and in truth.

Notes

  1. All translations are the author’s unless otherwise specified.
  2. Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005).
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, in The Lord of The Rings, 50th Anniversary Ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 163.
  4. cf. Psalm 89, the last psalm in book 3.
  5. Psalms 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1.
  6. Hebrew, hammǎᶜlôt.
  7. I refer here to the Hebrew bêt ᵓahǎrōn in 115:10, 12; 118:3; 135:19.
  8. Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1975) 320–21.
  9. Josh Ritter, “Thin Blue Flame,” track 10 on The Animal Years, V2 Records, 2006.

©Luke Gossett. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here. 


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    Post authored by:

  • Luke Gossett
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    Rev. Luke Gossett (MA Westminster Seminary California, MA and PhD Candidate, Catholic University of America) is Associate Pastor at Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) in Washington, DC, where he has been a member since 2017. The Council of Christ Reformed DC has begun the process of sending Luke back to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to plant a church in the URCNA. He dissertation focuses on the linguistic functions of the Hebrew word for “now.” Luke has been married to his wife, Jennifer, since 2014, and they have two wonderful children.

    More by Luke Gossett ›

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