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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
Psalms 115

 

 

Verse 1

PSALM 115

GOD'S INFINITE EXCELLENCE ABOVE HEATHEN IDOLS

Although the date and occasion of this psalm cannot be certainly determined, the scholarly guesses on the subject are of interest. "Weiser favored a pre-exilic date," but McCullough thought that the evidence, "Favors the period of the Second Temple."[1] According to Leupold, "The time of composition was shortly after the return from Babylon."[2] Briggs identified the psalm, "With the Greek Period."[3] McCaw rejected the later dates, declaring that, "It is altogether simpler to see here the congregation assembled for worship at one of the great festivals in monarchic days."[4] The simple truth of the matter is that, "Nobody knows"!

This psalm is a part of the Hallel of Egypt. (See my discussion in Psalms 113.) Most writers agree that the psalm is liturgical, despite the fact that the exact usage of it in the worship is not clear. As noted earlier, this is one of the psalms sung at the end of the Passover celebration (and also other occasions), being therefore among the possible hymns used by Jesus and his disciples on the night of the Last Supper.

The divisions of the psalm according to Rawlinson are: (1) God's aid invoked (Psalms 115:1-3); (2) God contrasted with idols (Psalms 115:4-8); (3) Israel entreated to trust in the Lord (Psalms 115:9-13); and (4) God's blessing invoked (Psalms 115:14-18).[5]

Psalms 115:1-3

NOT UNTO US ... NOT UNTO US

"Not unto us, O Jehovah, not unto us,

But unto thy name give glory,

For thy lovingkindness, and for thy truth's sake.

Wherefore should the nations say,

Where is now their God?

But our God is in the heavens:

He hath done whatsoever he pleased."

The occasion here could have been one of several after which Israel had been shamefully humiliated or defeated. The loss of King Josiah in battle, the first conquest of Jerusalem, or the return from Babylon - any of these could have been the time. One thing is clear. Israel was suffering taunts from their heathen neighbors who mistakenly judged the misfortunes of Israel to have resulted from the weakness of Israel's God. That is the background of these three verses in which the .psalmist prays that God will glorify himself by exposing in some dramatic fashion the false notions of the heathen.

"Where is now their God?" (Psalms 115:2). "Such remarks, of course, were an indictment against the glory of God."[6] They show how desperate the situation in Israel must have been at that time.

"But our God is in the heavens; he hath done whatsoever he pleased" (Psalms 115:3). This is the psalmist's reply to the taunting question of the pagans. It says, in effect, that what has happened to Israel, "Was not evidence that God had forsaken them, but was proof that He is sovereign."[7]

"He hath done whatsoever he pleased" (Psalms 115:3). We agree with Leupold's criticism of our version here which, as he says, "Does not make this say enough. It removes the situation into the past."[8] It applies also to the present time and to all the future. "His divine sovereign will knows no restrictions or restraints."[9]


Verse 4

THE WAY IT IS WITH HEATHEN IDOLS

"Their idols are silver and gold,

The work of men's hands.

They have mouths, but they speak not;

Eyes they have, but they see not;

They have ears, but they hear not;

Noses have they, but they smell not;

They have hands, but they handle not;

Feet have they, but they walk not;

Neither speak they through their throat.

They that made them shall be like unto them;

Yea, every one that trusteth in them."

This is one of the classic passages in the Old Testament regarding idols. It ranks along with passages in Isaiah 40; Isaiah 42; and Isaiah 44 and is repeated verbatim in Psalms 135:15-18.

We are surprised that Addis expresses the old heathen apology for idols, stating that, "The heathen did not, as the psalmist assumes, identify the idol and god."[10] Among the most intellectual pagans, that distinction was probably made. Indeed, Israel attempted to use it when they made the golden calf, affirming that it was the same as the God, "who brought them up out of Egypt (Exodus 32:4,11)." God allowed no such apology for an idol, and men should not allow it today.

As Delitzsch said, the psalmist here probably knew from his own experience, "How little was the distinction made by the heathen worshipper between the symbol and the thing symbolized."[11]

The widespread lack of information concerning the entire subject of idols and the consecration of sacred images, which to all intents and purposes are indeed no different from ancient pagan idols, is pitiful indeed. For further extensive comment on this subject, see Vol. II of my series on the Pentateuch (Exodus), pp. 272-275.

The essential evil in all idols (and images) is that any symbolism ascribed to them is a falsehood. By its very nature, any religious image is false, being a lying presentation of what is allegedly represented. How can that which is material represent that which is spiritual? How can that which is helpless represent omnipotence? How can that which decays represent life eternal? How can that which is not intelligent represent omniscience? How can that which is dumb, blind, unfeeling, deaf and dead represent any of the vital realities of God and his holy religion?

"There is abundant proof that the heathen did indeed trust their idols, as revealed by Herodotus, 5:80 and VIII: 64,83."[12] Thus, the "assumption of the psalmist here" that the heathen were actually worshipping idols, as contrasted with what they were supposed to represent, is altogether true.

"They that make them shall be like unto them ... yea, every one that trusteth in them." The principle that men become like the object of their adoration holds good if that object is a dead idol. This imprecation applies not only to the craftsmen who made the idols, but to those who employed them, "And is extended in the climax, to all idolaters, every one that trusteth in them."[13]

Regarding all idols and sacred images, even those in nominal Christian churches, there are several divine prohibitions. It is a sin: (1) to make them; (2) serve them; (3) or even to bow down in front of them; and (4) of course, a sin to worship them. (See a full discussion of this third item in Vol. 12, of my New Testament Commentaries (Revelation), pp. 435,436,511-513.) It is a sin to bow the head, genuflect, bend the knee or make obeisance to any sacred image, even if the person doing so mistakenly thinks he is worshipping what the image is alleged to symbolize. The sin is making any such gesture "in front of a man-made image."


Verse 9

ISRAEL ENTREATED TO TRUST IN THE LORD

"O Israel, trust thou in Jehovah:

He is their help and their shield.

O house of Aaron, trust ye in Jehovah:

He is their help and their shield.

Ye that fear Jehovah trust in Jehovah:

He is their help and their shield.

Jehovah hath been mindful of us; he will bless us.

He will bless the house of Israel;

He will bless the house of Aaron.

He will bless them that fear Jehovah,

Both great and small."

As Dummelow noted, "Psalms 115:9,10,11 here seem to have been written to be sung antiphonally,"[14] the response, "He is their help and their shield," to each exhortation being sung by a separate group of singers.

The only question that arises here is that of, "Just who are those addressed as `Ye that fear Jehovah.'"? Three different groups have been supposed to be indicated. "The identification of this third group is uncertain. It may be composed (1) of Gentile converts to Judaism (often called God-fearers), (2) an inner circle of the truly devout (the true seed of Abraham as distinguished from the rest of Israel), or (3) both the laity and priests already mentioned separately."[15] (Parenthetical statements here by J.B.C.)

Of these possibilities, we strongly favor understanding the third group as the true "sons of Abraham," as distinguished both from the priests and from the nation as a whole. Some prefer to think of them as the proselytes, but McCullough's comment casts much doubt on that interpretation. He wrote, "It is improbable, even if the psalm belongs to the Persian or early Greek period, that proselytes were present in the temple in sufficient numbers to form a special group of worshippers."[16]

"Both small and great" (Psalms 115:13). This is probably a reference to both young and old, adults and children.


Verse 14

INVOKING THE BLESSING OF GOD

"Jehovah increase you more and more,

You and your children.

Blessed are ye of Jehovah,

Who made heaven and earth.

The heavens are the heavens of Jehovah;

But the earth hath he given to the children of men.

The dead praise not Jehovah,

Neither any that go down into silence;

But we will bless Jehovah

From this time forth and forevermore.

Praise ye Jehovah."

"Increase you more and more" (Psalms 115:14). In the KJV, the promise here is stated as prophecy of what will be; but as Miller noted, "The rendition that expresses a prayer or a hope is better."[17] If the psalm was written shortly after the return from captivity, this blessing would have been especially appropriate for Israel at that time.

"The dead praise not Jehovah" (Psalms 115:17). A statement like this is usually the signal for writers to relate how the Hebrews had no hope of a future life; but such a view is untenable. THe Jews did believe in the after-life, as affirmed in Psalms 16:9-11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:23,34 and in Isaiah 26:19, and in many other direct statements and allusions in the Old Testament. See our comments on all those references. "Too often this verse is made the substance of a supposed Old Testament view of death, bringing it into conflict with the evidence."[18] J. W. Burns also observed the same truth, declaring that, "Part of this text has been quoted to support the opinion that the Old Testament saints were in the dark on the subject of immortality. The whole text here goes to prove the very opposite."[19]

"We will bless Jehovah from this time forth and forevermore" (Psalms 115:18). Briggs downgraded what is stated here to make it mean, "In all subsequent generations and ages,"[20] but that is not what the passage says. It is not "all subsequent generations: that shall praise the Lord, it is the psalmist himself and his fellow-worshippers. We will bless Jehovah ... forevermore. "`Forevermore' is a word of very frequent use; and it has but one meaning, and that meaning is Eternity."[21]

In fact, there is a little noticed distinction made in Psalms 115:17 between the "dead who praise not Jehovah" and "any that go down into silence." The word "neither" in our text proves that two classes of people are indicated, not merely one. Since those that "go down into silence" are obviously those who die and descend into Sheol, who are the "dead" of the previous clause? It appears that they are the "dead" worshippers of the dead idols mentioned above, of whom the psalmist stated that they would be like what they worshipped. If this is correct, the people referred to are like the person whom Paul mentioned, "being dead while living" (1 Timothy 5:6).

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 115:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/psalms-115.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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Tuesday, December 10th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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