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Sunday, July 14th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 115

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-18

Psalms 115:1-18

ISRAEL is in straits from heathen enemies, and cries to Jehovah to vindicate His own Name by delivering it. Strengthened by faith, which has been stung into action by taunts aimed at both the nation and its Protector, the psalmist triumphantly contrasts Jehovah in the heavens, moving all things according to His will, with idols which had the semblance of powers the reality of which was not theirs. Sarcastic contempt, indignation, and profound insight into the effect of idolatry in assimilating the worshipper to his god, unite in the picture (Psalms 115:3-8). The tone swiftly changes into a summons to withdraw trust from such vanities, and set it on Jehovah, who can and will bless His servants (Psalms 115:9-15); and the psalm closes with recognition of Jehovah’s exaltation and beneficence, and with the vow to return blessing to Him for the blessings, already apprehended by faith, which He bestows on Israel.

Obviously the psalm is intended for temple worship, and was meant to be sung by various voices. The distribution of its parts may be doubtful. Ewald would regard Psalms 115:1-11 as the voice of the congregation while the sacrifice was being offered; Psalms 115:12-15 as that of the priest announcing its acceptance; and Psalms 115:16-18 as again the song of the congregation. But there is plainly a change of singer at Psalms 115:9; and the threefold summons to trust in Jehovah in the first clauses of Psalms 115:9, Psalms 115:10, Psalms 115:11, may with some probability be allotted to a ministering official, while the refrain; in the second clause of each of these verses, may be regarded as pealed out with choral force. The solo voice next pronounces the benediction on the same three classes to whom it had addressed the call to trust. And the congregation, thus receiving Jehovah’s blessing, sends back its praise, as sunshine from a mirror, in Psalms 115:16-18.

The circumstances presupposed in the psalm suit many periods of Israel’s history. But probably this, like the neighboring psalms, is a product of the early days after the return from Babylon, when the feeble settlers were ringed round by scoffing foes, and had brought back from exile a more intimate knowledge and contemptuous aversion for idols and idolatry than had before been felt in Israel. Cheyne takes the psalm to be Maccabean, but acknowledges that there is nothing in it to fix that date, which he seeks to establish for the whole group mainly because he is sure of it for one member of the group, namely, Psalms 118:1-29. ("Orig. of Psalt.," 18 sq.).

The prayer in Psalms 115:1-2, beautifully blends profound consciousness of demerit and confidence that, unworthy as Israel is, its welfare is inextricably interwoven with Jehovah’s honour. It goes very deep into the logic of supplication, even though the thing desired is but deliverance from human foes. Men win their pleas with God, when they sue in forma pauperis. There must be thorough abnegation of all claims based on self before there can be faithful urging of the one prevalent motive, God’s care for His own fair fame. The under side of faith is self-distrust, the upper side is affiance on Jehovah. God has given pledges for His future by His past acts of self-revelation, and cannot but be true to His Name. His lovingkindness is no transient mood, but rests on the solid basis of His faithfulness, like flowers rooted in the clefts of a rock. The taunts that had tortured another psalmist long before {Psalms 42:3} have been flung now from heathen lips, with still more bitterness, and call for Jehovah’s thunderous answer. If Israel goes down before its foes, the heathen will have warrant to scoff.

But from their bitter tongues and his own fears, the singer turns, in the name of the sorely harassed congregation, to ring out the proclamation which answers the heathen taunt, before God answers it by deeds. "Our God is in heaven"-that is where He is; and He is not too far away to make His hand felt on earth. He is no impotent image; He does what He wills, executing to the last tittle His purposes; and conversely, He wills what He does, being constrained by no outward force, but drawing the determinations of His actions from the depths of His being. Therefore, whatever evil has befallen Israel is not a sign that it has lost Him, but a proof that He is near. The brief, pregnant assertion of God’s omnipotence and sovereign freedom, which should tame the heathens’ arrogance and teach the meaning of Israel’s disasters, is set in eloquent opposition to the fiery indignation which dashes off the sarcastic picture of an idol. The tone of the description is like that of the manufacture of an image in Isaiah 44:9-20. Psalms 135:15-18 repeats it verbatim. The vehemence of scorn in these verses suggests a previous, compelled familiarity with idolatry such as the exiles had. It corresponds with the revolution which that familiarity produced, by extirpating forever the former hankering after the gods of the nations. No doubt, there are higher weapons than sarcasm; and, no doubt, a Babylonian wise man could have drawn distinctions between the deity and its image, but such cobwebs are too fine spun for rough fingers to handle, and the idolatry both of pagans and of Christians identifies the two.

But a deeper note is struck in Psalms 115:8 in the assertion that, as is the god, so becomes the worshipper. The psalmist probably means chiefly, if not exclusively, in respect to the impotence just spoken of. So the worshipper and his idol are called by the same name, {Isaiah 44:9, vanity} and, in the tragic summary of Israel’s sins and punishment in 2 Kings 17:15, it is said, that "they followed after vanity and became vain." But the statement is true in a wider sense. Worship is sure to breed likeness. A lustful, cruel god will make his devotees so. Men make gods after their own image, and, when made, the gods make men after theirs. The same principle which degrades the idolater lifts the Christian to the likeness of Christ. The aim and effect of adoration is assimilation.

Probably the congregation is now silent, and a single voice takes up the song, with the call, which the hollowness of idolatry makes so urgent and reasonable, to trust in Jehovah, not in vanities. It is thrice repeated, being first addressed to the congregation, then to the house of Aaron, and finally to a wider circle, those who "fear Jehovah." These are most naturally understood as proselytes, and, in the prominence given to them we see the increasing consciousness in Israel of its Divine destination to be God’s witness to the world. Exile had widened the horizon, and fair hopes that men who were not of Israel’s blood would share Israel’s faith and shelter under the wings of Israel’s God stirred in many hearts. The crash of the triple choral answer to the summons comes with magnificent effect, in the second clauses of Psalms 115:9, Psalms 115:10, Psalms 115:11, triumphantly telling how safe are they who take refuge behind that strong buckler. The same threefold division into Israel, house of Aaron, and they who fear Jehovah occurs in Psalms 118:2-4, and, with the addition of "house of Levi," in Psalms 135:1-21.

Promises of blessing occupy Psalms 115:12 and Psalms 115:15, which may probably have been sung by priests, or rather by Levites, the musicians of the Temple service. In any case, these benedictions are authoritative assurances from commissioned lips, not utterances of hopeful faith. They are Jehovah’s response to Israel’s obedience to the preceding summons; swiftly sent, as His answers ever are. Calm certainty that He will bless comes at once into the heart that deeply feels that He is its shield, however His manifestation of outward help may be lovingly delayed. The blessing is parted among those who had severally been called to trust, and had obeyed the call. Universal blessings have special destinations. The fiery mass breaks up into cloven tongues and sits on each. Distinctions of position make no difference in its reception. Small vessels are filled, and great ones can be no more than full. Cedars and hyssop rejoice in impartial sunshine. Israel, when blessed increases in number, and there is an inheritance of good from generation to generation. The seal of such hopes is the Name of Him who blesses, "the Maker of heaven and earth," to whose omnipotent, universal sway these impotent gods in human form are as a foil.

Finally, we may hear the united voices of the congregation thus blessed breaking into full-throated praise in Psalms 115:16-18. As in Psalms 115:3 God’s dwelling in heaven symbolised His loftiness and power, so here the thought that "the heavens are Jehovah’s heavens" implies both the worshippers’ trust in His mighty help and their lowliness even in trust. The earth is man’s, but by Jehovah’s gift. Therefore its inhabitants should remember the terms of their tenure, and thankfully recognise His giving love. But heaven and earth do not include all the universe. There is another region, the land of silence, whither the dead descend. No voice of praise wakes its dumb sleep. {Isaiah 38:18-19} That pensive contemplation, on which the light of the New Testament assurance of Immortality has not shone, gives keener edge to the bliss of present ability to praise Jehovah. We who know that to die is to have a new song put into immortal lips may still be stimulated to fill our brief lives here with the music of thanksgiving, by the thought that, so far as our witness for God to men is concerned, most of us will "descend into silence" when we pass into the grave. Therefore we should shun silence, and bless Him while we live here.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 115". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-115.html.
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