Theme: The Futility of Idols
This week’s lessons remind us of the need to trust God in all things, and of what he will do for us as we look to him in faith.
Scripture: Psalm 115:1-18
The first major section of the psalm, after the thematic statement of verse 1, is the polemic against idols found in verses 3-8. It is the first polemic against idols in the Psalter, though there was one brief reference to idols in Psalm 96:5. This is somewhat surprising when we think about it, but it may indicate that Psalm 115 was written after the Jews’ return from the Babylonian Captivity, where they would have been able to witness the idol worship of the Babylonians first-hand.1 These verses are highly sarcastic and profoundly mocking, much like several well-known passages in Isaiah (see 44:6-20 or 46:5-7; similarly Deuteronomy 4:28; 28:36; Habakkuk 2:18; Isaiah 41:21-24; Jeremiah 2:8 and 16:19).
What is wrong with idols? What is wrong is that they are only objects made by human hands; hence, they are less significant than those who made them, even if they are made of precious metals such as gold and silver. And they are certainly not gods. The psalmist cries,
They have mouths, but cannot speak,eyes, but they cannot see;they have ears, but cannot hear,noses, but they cannot smell;they have hands, but cannot feel,feet, but they cannot walk;nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
I have not found Saint Augustine’s massive commentary on the psalms to be very helpful for studying the psalms today since he sees almost all that is in the psalms as prophecies of Christ. But Augustine had witnessed the futility of pagan idol worship firsthand, and at this point in his writing his comments are both wise and witty. He comments on the fact that idols have mouths, yet do not speak; eyes, yet cannot see; ears, yet cannot hear, and so on. Then he says,
Even their artist surpasses them, since he had the faculty of molding them by the motion and functions of his limbs…. Even you surpass them, though you have not made these things, since you do what they cannot do. Even beasts excel them….For they see and hear and smell and walk, and some apes, for instance, handle with hands.
He observes that mice, snakes and birds have sometimes made their home in the larger idols or settled on them.
A man then moves himself that he may frighten away a living beast from his own god; and yet worships that god who cannot move himself, as if he were powerful, from whom he drove away one better than the object of his worship.
At the end of this sharp paragraph Augustine adds the greatest indignity of all: “Even the dead surpass a deity who neither lives nor has lived.”2
Worshiping an invisible God was entirely incomprehensible to Israel’s pagan neighbors, since their religions were so closely tied to idols. Even the great Roman general Pompey was surprised to find nothing in the Most Holy Place of the temple when he looked into it. But there was a profound and important reason for God’s forbidding the use of images in his worship: namely, God cannot be represented by idols without grossly misrepresenting him. God is not less real than the material idol, but infinitely more real, infinitely greater, infinitely above the idols. Thus any representation of God by anything material merely debases God and misleads the worshiper.
1A similar but somewhat shorter version of this polemic occurs in Psalm 135:15-18. It is so close that it may be copied from Psalm 115.
2Saint Augustine, “Expositions on the Book of Psalms,” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 8, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), p. 552. I have modified some of the language from old to contemporary English usage.
Polemic: an argument against an opinion or doctrine
What is the polemic of verses 3-8? Why might this be the first such polemic in the Psalter?
What is the possible setting for this psalm?
How did Augustine describe idols? Why does he say even the dead surpass an idol?
Why isn’t God to be represented by an image?
Reflection: What are the idols of this age? Why are idols so often pursued by men and women?
Prayer: Ask God to reveal any idols in your life.