The Bible is filled with contrast. Good and evil, light and darkness, joy and sorrow, hope and fear. In many cases, we’re better able to understand just how great something is when it’s compared and contrasted with something that is not very great. If I showed you a twig and a log, it would be immediately obvious which one is bigger, and heavier. But if I held up two twigs that are only slightly different in length and thickness, it might take some time or a closer inspection to figure out the difference.
In the case of the Bible, most of the contrast is noticeable on purpose. That’s kind of the point. It’s included to show just how great the log is in comparison to the twig. And that’s exactly what we’re going to see today as we turn to Psalm 115. We’re going to see a mighty, powerful, strong God contrasted with weak, flimsy, useless idols made by human hands. And as we do so, we’re going to see the futility of so many of the things that fight for our attention and worship, in comparison with the incredible God who deserves it all.
The Bible is filled with contrast. Good and evil, light and darkness, joy and sorrow, hope and fear. In fact just a few weeks ago I was teaching Sunday School and we looked at one of my favourite stories in the Bible where the young boy Samuel grows in wisdom and stature before the Lord, in contrast with the priest Eli and his sons who are described as old, useless, disobedient men.
In many cases, we’re better able to understand just how great something is when it’s compared and contrasted with something that is not very great. If I showed you a twig and a log, it would be immediately obvious which one is bigger, and heavier. But if I held up two twigs that are only slightly different in length and thickness, it might take some time or a closer inspection to figure out the difference.
Retail and marketing companies use this to their advantage all the time, making packaging that is only slightly different in appearance, and it’s not until you look closer at the label you discover the new bottle has a hollow spot and holds less laundry detergent, or the same size tissue box has less tissues, or the chip bag is even less full than it used to be. Meanwhile you’re paying the same amount of money, or sometimes even more for something that looks pretty much the same but is actually different.
But in the case of the Bible, most of the contrast is noticeable on purpose. That’s kind of the point. It’s included to show just how great the log is in comparison to the twig. And that’s exactly what we’re going to see today as we turn to Psalm 115. We’re going to see a mighty, powerful, strong God contrasted with weak, flimsy, useless idols made by human hands. And as we do so, we’re going to see the futility of so many of the things that fight for our attention and worship, in comparison with the incredible God who deserves it all.
Specifically, as we read through the Psalm and all its contrasts, we are going to be reminded that Our God is Living and Powerful, Our God is Caring and Trustworthy, and Our God is Deserving and Enduring. Not quite as memorable as 3 pairs of C’s last week, but some very important realities to be reminded of, especially in the midst of a world and an enemy that wants to shift our focus to literally anything else.
As we read, I also invite you to pay attention to the change in perspective that happens throughout the verses, from first person us, we, our; second person you and your, and third person he, they, theirs, and them. It helps add emphasis to the contrast, and also leads many scholars to believe that this psalm was originally written to be read or sang in parts by different people or music leaders, perhaps even call and response.
OUR GOD IS LIVING AND POWERFUL
The first contrast in this text isn’t actually between idols and God, but between us and God.
Not to us, Lord, not to us,Psalm 115:1 NASB
But to Your name give glory,
Because of Your mercy, because of Your truth.
It’s an incredibly to-the-point opening verse that sets the stage for all that is to come: It’s not about us, but for God’s glory alone that they call on him. Why? Because of God’s character. His mercy, his truth. They know who he is, and are seeking him out, but for his glory, not their own. Already we can see the categories I mentioned bleeding together, as this verse hints at God’s trustworthiness by acknowledging his truth, and it’s also is a clear call to worshiping him like he deserves to be worshipped.
So the goal of the psalm is that God’s name is glorified, and the motivation becomes a bit more clear in the next verse:
Why should the nations say,Psalm 115:2 NASB
“Where, then, is their God?”
Some other nation is making fun of God. They are mocking the people by asking where their God even is. You can almost hear the sneer of sarcasm in their voices. “I thought your God was supposed to be powerful. Aren’t you his chosen people? He must’ve been busy today.”
It reminds me of Matthew’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus, in chapter 27:
“At that time two rebels were being crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left. And those passing by were speaking abusively to Him, shaking their heads, and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself! He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He has trusted in God; let God rescue Him now, if He takes pleasure in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” And the rebels who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him in the same way.”Matthew 27:38–44 NASB
So because of this blatant disrespect and mockery of their God, the author of the psalm, and collectively the people singing it, are taking a stand! They are glorifying his name, speaking to his character, and they are going to show just how deserving of worship he truly is in comparison to the idols of the other nations. For starters:
But our God is in the heavens;Psalm 115:3 NASB
He does whatever He pleases.
This a direct response to the question of “Where, then, is their God?”: “He’s in heaven, doing what he wants, because he’s God”. But it also makes some important truth statements to set up for the contrast to come. The fact that God is in heaven is of crucial importance, compared to the idols that are purely of earth. The fact that he “does whatever he pleases” emphasizes his sovereignty, and that God does not come to every beck and call of mankind like a genie in a bottle. That’s part of what sets him apart as God!
If God did whatever we asked him, or told him to do, he would no longer be God, because the implication is that we would be above him or in control of him, or that he serves us rather than the other way around. In other words, part of the reason he is deserving of worship is because he is in heaven, doing what he wants to do. Because he’s the one with the actual knowledge, insight, and wisdom to know what’s right. Because he’s God!
Now here comes the first big contrast between God and the idols of the nations: our God is in the heavens, doing whatever he pleases, but:
Their idols are silver and gold,Psalm 115:4 NASB
The work of human hands.
I said earlier that “we’re better able to understand just how great something is when it’s compared and contrasted with something that is not very great.” This is that moment. Silver and gold might be nice, but they are nothing compared to a powerful living God. Something made by humans can never come close to the God that made humans in the first place. He does whatever he wants, and in contrast, they do…well…nothing. Because they aren’t living. They aren’t active. They aren’t powerful. As much as they might try to replicate a living being, it’s moot, because they are utterly incapable of even the things that their human creators can do.
They have mouths, but they cannot speak;Psalm 115:5–7 NASB
They have eyes, but they cannot see;
They have ears, but they cannot hear;
They have noses, but they cannot smell;
They have hands, but they cannot feel;
They have feet, but they cannot walk;
They cannot make a sound with their throat.
Notice the big shift in tone, from “us” and “God” to all these “they” statements. It’s repetitive, adding emphasis. No matter how many human characteristics they might have, these idols aren’t even as good as humans, let alone gods. It’s almost as though the author is taunting back. “You ask where my God is? He’s in heaven, doing as he pleases. I can see your ‘gods’…but something seems wrong with them? I see mouths, but why aren’t they talking. I see eyes and ears but they clearly aren’t seeing or hearing. They can’t smell, they can’t feel, they can’t walk, they can’t even make a sound! So sure, you can’t see my God, because he is so far above us and has his own agenda. Because he’s actually God. But your idols can’t do anything anyways, so who cares that you can see them?” What’s the point of a “god” you can see if that “god” is completely and utterly useless? Or to put it another way, a god that requires no faith is no god at all.
In contrast, our God is alive. He is the creator, not the created. He is powerful and capable and active. He speaks and his people listen (or at least they ought to). He hears their cries and watches them omnisciently. He smells the sweet aroma of their sacrifices. He’s even been known to walk among them at times. And while we as humans are made in his image, these idols of humanity are simply a poor attempt to make something in our own image.
We’ve had a contrast between us and God, as a reminder that this whole psalm is under the banner of giving him glory and not us. We’ve seen the start of how God compares with manmade idols (with more to come). But before we move on to the next section we also have the start of an implied comparison, between those who trust in God and those who trust in those idols.
Those who make them will become like them,Psalm 115:8 NASB
Everyone who trusts in them.
The implication that starts here and will be resolved further down is that those who make and trust in idols are doomed to be just like them: unliving, useless, and incapable. That will not be the reality for those who trust in the living, powerful, capable God.
Now, just before we continue, I think it’s important that we pause and zoom out and ask the question of “what does this have to do with people living in Western culture in the 21st century?” People aren’t bowing down to gold or silver statues. If anything, people worship nothing, and don’t even believe in any gods. The reality is that everyone worships something. It may not be God, or a “god”, or anything the world would deem “religious”, but we all give our time, energy, trust, effort, and worship to something.
Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s “success”, whatever that means. Maybe it’s status, or science, or popularity, or job title. Or maybe it’s just ourselves. I don’t think it’s at all a coincidence that this psalm’s opening verse is a reminder of how far beyond us God is, and that it’s him that deserves glory, not us. Because for the majority of our culture, even within Christianity at times, the “god” that is worshipped, the final authority on truth, the thing that comes before all others in a way that somehow actually seems righteous and agreeable now is self.
Many people in today’s world would say that the most important thing is to be “devoted to or [care] only for [your]self; [to be] concerned primarily with [your] own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.” What I just read, by the way, is the literal dictionary definition of the word “selfish”, and yet I know we all know people who have bought into that reality, hook, line, and sinker.
We may not have physical idols of silver and gold, but idolatry is rampant in our society. And reminders of just how great God is in comparison to literally anything else that begs for our time, attention, and worship is just as important today, in the face of nations that are still saying “Where, then, is their God?”
OUR GOD IS CARING AND TRUSTWORTHY
The next section of verses is very repetitive and poetic, and probably the section that involved splitting into parts, with some being sung by a leader and then responded to by the people.
Israel, trust in the Lord;Psalm 115:9–11 NASB
He is their help and their shield.
House of Aaron, trust in the Lord;
He is their help and their shield.
You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord;
He is their help and their shield.
“Israel” obviously refers to God’s people. “House of Aaron” refers to the priestly line. “You who fear the Lord” could be a term for those who were not Israelites by birth, but had been brought into the people, or it could be a way to distinguish that the author is referring to all of the Israelites, even after the nation was split into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
The point is that everyone, all of God’s people, whether those in power, or those who led, or those who served; all need to trust in the Lord, because “he is their help and their shield.” We’ve talked about those terms before, but they refer to God’s protection and deliverance. It’s a reminder that our help doesn’t come from anything manmade, it comes from God. This is the reminder to the people, a people that often struggled with idolatry and bending to the beliefs of the culture around them, that there is hope to be found in no one but their God. The God who has helped them and shielded them, protected and delivered them countless times in the past. And in response, the psalmist is confident of the results:
The Lord has been mindful of us; He will bless us.Psalm 115:12–13 NASB
He will bless the house of Israel;
He will bless the house of Aaron.
He will bless those who fear the Lord,
The small together with the great.
Notice it’s the same order of groups: Israel, House of Aaron, Those who fear the Lord. And the confidence of blessing is not misguided, but based in the care of God in the past, “He has been mindful of us; He will bless us.” The word “bless” is used 4 times in these two verses, and “blessed” comes up again shortly.
This word in the Hebrew is a bit different than the one we’ve looked at in other weeks with beatitudes, “blessed are those…” This is more the traditional way we might think of blessing, something that is pronounced upon someone, whereas the other one refers to that happiness or contentedness. And to clarify that this blessing is for all of God’s people, the author emphasizes, “the small together with the great”.
And because he’s a God that is living and powerful, because he’s a God that’s caring and trustworthy, the author includes requests for blessings as well:
May the Lord increase you,Psalm 115:14–15 NASB
You and your children.
May you be blessed of the Lord,
Maker of heaven and earth.
So it’s not just “he will bless”, but also “may you be blessed!” And note the transition back to the second person, again suggesting that those reading the words were perhaps leaders pronouncing these scriptural blessings upon the people. It’s a request for both more of God’s blessing, but also the desire that those blessings will be fully experienced by the recipients. And not just them, but their families, their descendants too!
This section ends with the reminder that the Lord is the “maker of heaven and earth”, which again points back to his power, and the importance of placing our trust in the creator rather than the created. Be it for deliverance or protection or blessing: it comes from the Lord.
Now, if “self” is the prevalent “god” of the day, one of the most popular desires/goals/ambitions or choice dictators has to be “happiness”. The pursuit of happiness directs our career choices, our spending, our relationships, our marriages, our families, our living situations, everything! For so many of the critical choices and experiences in our lives, the glaring narrative is “if it doesn’t make you happy, get rid of it.” Key word being “you”, because again, it’s all about you and your happiness and what you want of course.
But again we’re forced to ask some questions: why look to something made by human hands to bring happiness when the one who made us offers so much more? And beyond that, why look to pursue what other humans say we ought to pursue when that same living, powerful, caring, trustworthy God would say that happiness ought not be our primary focus in life? Do we trust that God knows what’s best? That he’s a good Father who gives good gifts? Do we trust in him for deliverance and protection and blessing? Or are we trusting the world and their idols?
OUR GOD IS DESERVING AND ENDURING
The psalmist concludes by reminding us of more important truths about God:
The heavens are the heavens of the Lord,Psalm 115:16 NASB
But the earth He has given to the sons of mankind.
This is not only a statement about God’s power as keeper of the heavens, which leads us in the direction of the worship that he deserves, but it also points back to that earlier question: “Where, then, is their God?” We can’t hold God at fault for the brokenness of this world, because he gave this world to mankind. God has given humanity free will to do what we please, and so he isn’t to blame for wars or murders or disasters or hatred or terror or suffering or any of the things we often want to blame him for.
Our sin has brought us to where we are. It has marred all of God’s creation, and while one day Christ will return to set up his perfect kingdom, redeeming all the creation that groans for his coming, in the meantime we are left sitting in the mess that our sin has caused. That doesn’t mean God isn’t involved or that he doesn’t care, given that the psalmist has been demonstrating just the opposite. But it does mean that seeing brokenness should not cause us to question God’s existence or goodness or whether he’s deserving of worship. And since that God has given the earth to humanity, each and every one of us is faced with a choice: who or what will I serve and worship with my time here?
In follow-up to that we have:
The dead do not praise the Lord,Psalm 115:17 NASB
Nor do any who go down into silence;
This is sort of the end-bracket for the earlier contrast between worshipers of God and worshipers of idols. Because those who worship idols “will be like them” as we read before. Dead. Useless. Utterly incapable. Those who die still praising idols will have wasted their time, wasted their opportunity to praise the actual Lord. But in magnificent contrast:
But as for us, we will bless the LordPsalm 115:18 NASB
From this time and forever.
Praise the Lord!
Ending, as we began, back in the first person, giving glory to the God who deserves it, the one who endures through all of time, who grants us the gift of praising him forever. We will not be like the idols or those who worship idols, but we will be praising the Lord for eternity. A reminder for us to keep everything in this life, the successes and failures, the joys and the sufferings, the gains and the losses, all within an eternal perspective. Because our God will be there for eternity, and he deserves our worship for eternity.
The author of this psalm, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wanted to remind God’s people of the qualities and character that make their God the God that should be worshiped, in contrast to who or whatever the nations around them were praising. And while we aren’t in the exact same situation as these words were originally written for, we are constantly faced with the choice of who or what gets our time, attention, and ultimately our worship.
The world around us has their perspectives, their “gods” made by human hands, but we serve a God who is living and powerful, caring and trustworthy, deserving and enduring; the opposite of worldly idols. And so our response to the reminders of this psalm is simple: Give him the glory, trust in his power, praise him forever.
Give him the glory: practically speaking, this is that reminder that it’s not all about us. We are not the center of the universe, and everything we say and do ought to be for God’s glory as our creator, sustainer, and savior. So take a moment this week to consider what is getting the majority of your time, who is the final authority of truth, where does your allegiance and worship lie?
Trust in his power: I’ve noticed that a lot of the psalms I’ve preached on this year emphasize trust, and I think that’s because it is something that we as humans tend to struggle with. It’s hard to just say “trust more”. So instead, this week I encourage you to find some way to actually build that trust. Maybe it’s spending more time in God’s word learning about him. Maybe it’s spending more time in prayer laying your burdens on him. Maybe it’s taking a leap of faith and trusting that he’s got you.
Praise him forever: This is not so different from the first one, given that our lives can and ought to be lived as acts of worship. So instead, my challenge is to encourage you to really focus on the “forever” part. Consider that eternal perspective. In what areas of your life are you living for today, and in what areas are you living for eternity. This doesn’t mean we can’t have fun or enjoy the creation that God has given us here and now. But again, where is your primary focus?
We’re going to close today, as usual, with a song. This is one we haven’t sung in a while, but it is a great anthem for us to leave with today, praying to God to give us hands that serve him and hearts that praise him; a mere glimpse at the praise we will offer him for eternity.