Psalm 115 was possibly written for the Jewish exiles returning to Jerusalem.
Who will Israel worship?
When the Jews had their country destroyed by the Babylonians and they were carted off to captivity one thing they learnt was that God doesn’t tolerate idolatry. Babylon was a city steeped in idolatry. 70 years of exile had reinforced to them the utter futility of idol worship.
The first commandment must have really become ingrained in their consciousness in those 70 years. “You shall have no other gods besides me!”
Isaiah who was there with them in Babylon certainly hammered it home.
Isaiah 42 verse 8.
“I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.
So the Psalmist, whoever it was, cries out, “Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.”
Israel in their history before the exile had to have continual reminders of this but it didn’t really sink in.
We also need continual reminders of it. We can so easily lose our focus from God the creator to the created things around us. That is one of the reasons we come each Sunday to spend time together – encouraging one another, opening God’s word, singing songs which emphasise these things. However, it should not be just a Sunday thing but a daily reading his word and seeking him.
Psalm 115:2 Why do the nations say, “Where is their God?”
It seems that as they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild, the non-Jewish people who occupied Palestine were ribbing the Israelites. “Ha, your God is useless he didn’t protect you against the Babylonian invaders and he won’t protect you now. Your God isn’t worth worshipping.”
True the Israel had given the nations round about plenty of ammunition to scoff at them about. It was a hard lesson for them.
When Christians behave in ways that don’t honour God, the non-Christian world scoffs. We have a huge responsibility to walk the talk.
However, the people of Israel did have an answer. Their re-entry to Palestine was nothing short of miraculous. God in his mercy and grace had coerced the Emperor of Persia to restore Jerusalem.
They sure had their struggles during the process of restoration - with taunts and many setbacks. But they could say,
Psalm 115:3 “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.”
God is Sovereign and because of his loving kindness and faithfulness to his promises he uses all situations to bring glory to his name. Nothing is a surprise to God. He is not frustrated by sin. He specifically uses our failings to show his glory and to bring more glory to his name.
God was not caught off guard when the Jewish leaders decided to crucify Jesus.
Israel’s idolatry was no surprise to God either. Those who sin must bear the consequences of their behaviour but God is still able to work his purposes out despite sin and evil.
It is not as if God hasn’t given us enough evidence that he is Creator of all and also the only one worth worshipping. The problem isn’t with God – it is with us and our wayward hearts.
In Isaiah chapter 44, the prophet encourages the exiles with similar words.
Look at verses 6-8 of Isaiah 44. Notice the names of God in this section.
Isaiah 44:6 “This is what the Lord (Yahweh) says—Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty:
He is their true ruler and he is their Redeemer. He saves them from their slavery and sin. He is the LORD Almighty – the Lord of all the armies of heaven. Israel’s God is well able to act on their behalf.
continuing in verse 6, I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.
Their God is not only eternal but everything in the universe starts and will ends with him.
So, God asks them:
7 Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me
what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come—
yes, let them foretell what will come.
8 Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago?
You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me?
No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.”
The exiles were able to speak up in defence of their God. Only their God had the ability to predict the future and as he had in their history. His prophets had repeatedly warned them that they would end up in captivity but also that their nation would be restored.
Their God was very different to the gods of wood and stone that the pagans around them worshipped.
Just as in the Psalm, Isaiah now goes into a scathing attack of the gods of the surrounding nations. What a to contrast they are to the Almighty God.
As we read these verses you see Isaiah’s mockery of those who reject Israel’s God and replace him with those of their own making.
9 All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame.
10 Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing?
11 People who do that will be put to shame; such craftsmen are only human beings.
Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and shame.
12 The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint.
13 The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine.
14 He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
15 It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it.
16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”
18 They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
19 No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
20 Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”
Those of you who have lived or travelled particularly in Asia will understand clearly what Isaiah is talking about here.
When I was growing up in India there were Hindu and animist shrines everywhere.
When Judy and I were in Japan recently one of the main touristy things is to see are the Buddhist or Shinto temples and shrines – like these three in Kyoto.
This one is the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which has over 10000 gates up the hill behind it.
The shrine is dedicated to the Shinto god of rice. Japan has over 8 million gods.
The gates in front of many of these shrines represent the idea of entry into the sacred.
Some of you will remember Nozomi and Masa when they were here. We visited a very old temple with them, in Izumo where they live. Nozomi was telling us about the temple. The elaborate structure hanging at the front is to welcome the gods to the temple. The people who come to worship at the shrines enter and clap two or three times to wake up the gods of the temple and to ward off evil spirits. Often there is also a bell which helps this. They then bow in respect to the gods there. At new year millions of people go to the temples to pay their respect. We could hardly move in the throng.
Often the people will then pay for a piece of paper or a wooden plaque on which to write their requests. At the shrine in Izumo, Nozomi said that at new year many people come from all over Japan because at this time, they believe, many gods come to this particular temple and these the gods will help with match making.
When the people write down their requests the priest warns them that they must include their address so the god knows where they live. Otherwise the request will not happen.
What the Psalmist in Psalm 115 says is true.
The idols have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see.
6 They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell.
7 They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
8 Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.
Isaiah and the Psalmist are both in agree on the utter absurdity of idol worship.
An idol is anything that we can create in the place of the One God – but if we make it cannot be greater than ourselves.
Anything or anyone in the place of God is an idol. Our Western culture is just as idolatrous. People put inordinate value in cars, houses, celebrities, sport and a host of other things. Filling their lives with anything but God. All of these things are as fleeting as our own lives.
Ultimate happiness is not found in created things but only in living to bring glory to the one and only Creator of All.
When I have doubts about my faith in God – and let’s face it, we all, at times, question in our minds, “am I fooling my self and others round me” – when I have those doubts I always come back to the absurdity of thinking that my existence is just some random coincidence.
It is interesting that Atheistic organisations are often called humanist societies. They believe that happiness is found in the pursuit of human reason without recourse to God.
In Japan we visited another building of worship, (Takashima chapel). Our time there was more uplifting than all the temples. There we saw the truth proclaimed and the true God glorified.
Fukuyama, the city where Greg is based, is a city about twice the size of Wellington. There are probably only 6-8 Christian churches.
...”live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” 1 Pet. 1:17-19