Psalm 115: The Cure For Idolatry In The Postmodern World (Part 2)

The gravers of images, all of them are desolate

Their delights never profit.

Their witnesses do not see

They do not know so that they are shamed.

. . .

He grazes on ash, a heart is deceived, it leads him away.

He cannot deliver his soul,

Nor say, “is this not a lie in my right hand?”

(Isaiah 44:9, 20; author’s translation)1

Introduction

In the movie 101 Dalmatians, there is a scene early in the film where Pongo the Dalmatian looks out the window trying to find a female companion for his lonely owner. As Pongo looks out, he sees a lot of women walking their dogs. What jumps out is that the women and their dogs look alike. I am sure these similarities were fun for the animators to incorporate in design. Perhaps you know someone for whom their pet just fits them. It is a hard phenomenon to explain; but you could not imagine a better pair or them having another pet.

Psalm 115 reminds us that we become like what we worship. I am not suggesting that the women in 101 Dalmatians worshiped their dogs (though, we may know someone who is on the verge of dog worship). Rather, Psalm 115 tells us the same sort of thing happens with worshippers and their gods that Pongo saw with the women and their dogs. There is a growing resemblance between the worshiped and the worshiper. As David Foster Wallace reminds us, we are all worshippers, we just get to choose the object.2 This means we are all becoming like something.

As we considered in part one of this series, Psalm 115 reminds us that paradoxically, the only God worth being near is a God who is far above our comprehension. The only God worth getting near is a God who is unlike us. We will spend a bit more time reflecting on this here as well, but the focus of part two is on idolatry and image. Psalm 115 reflects the heart of the Bible’s teaching on idolatry. Like the dogs who looked like their owners, people look like what they worship.

The Danger of Idolatry

Their makers will become like them,

All who trust in them (Ps 115:8)

I opened this article with two verses from Isaiah 44. I highly suggest the interested reader spend some time reflecting on the whole passage (Isa 44:9–20). It is a vivid picture of the folly of idolatry and the ignorance of the graver of images. In that passage, a deceived heart is led away from the truth, unable to perceive the lie of idolatry. It is hard to be anything other than perplexed when the idolater cannot see the lie in his hand at the end of the passage. I included it because that is the same thing being described in Psalm 115, but from another angle.

This psalm spends time enumerating the body parts that an idol has but is unable to use. In verses 5–7, seven body parts are listed: mouths, eyes, ears, noses, hands, feet, and throats. There is a complete set of parts, yet there is no speech or sight; there are no sounds, smells, sensations, steps, or sighs.3 These idols look like they have all sorts of things going for them. They look like the total package, yet it is all an illusion. We of course do not expect to go to a garden full of statuary and find it moving—this is more of the subject of science-fiction, not daily life. We find idols where they were left because they cannot move themselves.

The psalmist tells us that those who worship these statues and images become dead and unable. If you buy the illusion of idolatry, you are grifted. None of us put “statue” down on a list of what we wanted to be when we grow up. But when we love something, we become like it. Worship is like a slow mirror. In ancient idolatry one became like a statue, looking like a person but in truth inanimate. Those who make stone idols and trust in them become like them.

We may know someone who has, or we may even have had, some sort of literal idol laying around. Most likely, however, our idols are more intangible. We tend to worship things like security, money, comfort, and power. Most of all, we worship ourselves, for at the center of all these is the self. We want to have these things for us, and maybe for those we love most around us. We enshrine ourselves in our daily practices. Perhaps you have heard of or have even participated in “hustle culture.” For those unfamiliar, this is a view of life focused on maximizing money and effort. You get second jobs, you invest, you grow your portfolio. In hustle culture, work consumes you. In its extreme, there is no room for rest—the rest which God has designed us to have and to long for.

It is not just physical, tangible idols which mold us into their image. It is no coincidence that we associate astrology with persons who are not even-keeled. Those who look for a way to understand and/or manipulate the universe through the stars or through rocks are easy to manipulate through spiritual deception. They spend inordinate amounts of time on the stars, spend money on rocks, water, and sticks—all while these “gods” consume them as their sacrifices and make them in their image.

No other god is life itself. If we put anything in the place that the living God should occupy, it will consume us. We will move away from the source of all life and search for the living among the dead. Or as Augustine put it, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”4 We will not find rest in an idol we have to make ourselves. Those who idolize work and money, and those who idolize security never rest. Our idols always need to consume more, and they never deliver.

The Difference of the Living God

The psalmist is subtle in Psalm 115. He invites us to reflect on our own God without ever actually saying so. The contrast he sets up is between those who trust in the idols they created and those who trust in the God who created them. By not spending much time articulating it, his contrast forces us to think about how exactly our God is different.

First, the true God is a God who can do all these things, even though “he is Spirit and does not have a body like men.”5 Or as the psalmist puts it in verse 3, “all that delights him, he does.” At the same time, he does not have hands, feet, eyes, or mouth. In his essence, God lacks the seven body parts of an idol—but God can do all seven actions. The living God acts in salvation with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. Without a body he is everywhere, seeing all. Most importantly, without a mouth, vocal cords, or a diaphragm, he speaks to his people. God is not limited by his being; the idols are limited by their materiality.6

Second, our God delivers on his promises. He is a God who makes promises, takes oaths, and makes covenants. The idols are themselves false promises. The problem is not only that we will become like idols, it is that idols themselves are false; they do not deliver on their promise. This is because there is nothing true or divine about them. Idols lie by their very nature. They themselves are vain promises. They promise to give control over weather, crops, flocks, life, death, sickness, and health. But only our God both remembers and blesses his people (vv. 9–16) in accord with his promise to be their God (Gen 17:7).

Finally, all of this is grounded in the distinction between God as creator, and everything else as creation. If you make an idol, you have to use created materials. You and idols share a category. You and a tree are both dependent creation. Not so our God; he does not live here, but in heaven (v. 3). He knows, designs, and sustains all things. And that God who made heaven and earth remembers and blesses his people. He is faithful. This is entirely unlike the idols.

The Hope of True Worship

There is one further implication of this psalm. It is not only that idolaters become like idols, but also that worshipers of God are made in his image. If we worship the living God in Spirit and in truth, we become alive. Pay attention to verses 9–17. If those who trust in idols become like idols, what happens to those who trust in the Lord? The creator God blesses them (vv. 12–13, 15). He adds to them and their sons (v. 14). And in verse 16, he gives the earth to the sons of man.

Finally, he gives the promise that those who worship him will do so eternally (vv. 17–18). If we become like what we worship, when we worship the true God, our hearts find their eternal resting place. We experience life from the God who is life and the fount of life. God blesses his people as his people. We see three things here: a people, a place, and an eternal destiny. We will look more at this in the next part.

This is why it is so important to worship in Spirit and truth. True worship remakes the worshiper. We must take care that our worship extols God and not man. We must take care that our worship does not make God in our image but presents God as he has revealed himself. One of the best ways to do this is to sing God’s word, the Psalms and other canonical songs. When we sing psalms like Psalm 115 we are reminded of God’s transcendence and his nearness. We are reminded of God as he has revealed himself.

This too will be our eternal occupation: to praise God. Worship in Spirit and in truth is not only God-centered worship; it is also joining in the song of heaven. Take for example the picture of the throne room of heaven in Revelation 4,

And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,

who was and is and is to come! (Rev 4:8; ESV)

Here the picture is reminiscent of Isaiah 6, wherein Isaiah has a vision of the throne room and finds the seraphim singing. Yet John’s vision continues beyond Isaiah 6,

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,

to receive glory and honor and power,

for you created all things,

and by your will they existed and were created.” (Rev 4:9–11; ESV).

Singing God’s praises unites us with the heavenly assembly and prepares us for the world to come. We become alive by living the life we were created for. This is the rest that God made us for and which Christ won for us. In true worship assembled with the saints, we join in this heavenly reality, and God prepares us for the world to come.

We cannot be at rest as God rested from all his work unless we rest in God. We cannot have eternal hope and eternal life outside of the God who is life. The hope of Psalm 115 is that those who worship God in Christ by the Spirit are made like Christ by the Spirit. God accomplishes this in Christ and by his Spirit. He conforms us by his Spirit to the image of Christ because of the work of Christ. The new self Christ gives to us is “renewed after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10). This psalm reminds us that worship conforms us to the image of God in Christ, who is the fount of all life.

Notes

  1. All translations are the author’s unless otherwise specified.
  2. David Foster Wallace makes this point in his commencement address for Kenyon College in 2005. This was later published as David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009).
  3. The number seven here is hardly accidental and suggest the totality of the idols’ materiality.
  4. Augustine, Confessions, 1.1. See also the stimulating discussion of the theological implications of this in Gavin Ortlund, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2020). My review of this volume is published here on the Heidelblog.
  5. Joseph P. Engels, The Kids’ Catechism: An Introduction to the Shorter Catechism (1840), Q. 9 (slightly modernized by the author to teach to his kids).
  6. God is actus purus, “pure act,” meaning he has no potentiality because he cannot become better. The idols have no potential in the opposite way; they are not anything by their own power.

©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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