I believe Psalm 115 was written in the light of the memories of the nation’s defeat and exile. It may be that this was a Psalm that was part of the worship of the Second Temple, after Israel was restored as a nation. Of course, I have no way of knowing this. But, it appears to me from the language and sentiments of this Psalm, that this arises from a nation that has known defeat.
Israel was brought low. They knew themselves to be God’s people, but they now know that their status of being the “favored of God” was no guarantee against failure and defeat and suffering. Their connection with God did not save them from misfortune. They broke the covenant and they were brought low.
It was a time when Israel’s enemies had the opportunity to taunt them. Verse 2:
לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ הַגּוֹיִם אַיֵּה־נָא אֱלֹהֵיהֶם
“Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?'” (NRSV)
Adam Clarke remarks:
This appears to refer to a time in which the Israelites had suffered some sad reverses, so as to be brought very low, and to be marked by the heathen.
Such a taunt could arise because of a military defeat, or a natural disaster (Joel 2:17). But, it would especially be appropriate after the fall of Judah — when the temple of God itself was destroyed (Psalm 79:10; Micah 7:10).
Yet, the words of this Psalm are a remarkable contrast to the sentiments expressed in Micah 7:10:
“Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, ‘Where is the LORD your God?’ My eyes will see her downfall; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets.” (NRSV)
Here in Psalm 115 we do not hear the call for vengeance. As previously noted here & here the call is for God to be glorified regardless of the state of the people. It is one of the many reasons I find Psalm 115 so impressive. I understand the desire for vengeance and retribution. It is a built-in instinct. We instinctively think those who have brought us suffering should suffer themselves. It’s only natural to feel this way.
But, what we encounter in Psalm 115 is this: ‘We don’t deserve any glory, Lord God, may the glory be yours. Whatever may happen to us, may you be glorified. We don’t deserve to be glorified. God deserves to be glorified — and before all the nations.’
I find the sequence of thought rather startling, actually.
The concern is strictly for God’s reputation among the nations.
Which brings me to the thoughts in the next verse, verse 3:
וֵאלֹהֵינוּ בַשָּׁמָיִם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־חָפֵץ עָשָׂה
“Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” (NRSV)
God was not obligated to deliver the people, if they had broken the terms of the covenant. Being the “chosen people” was not a matter of privilege. It was a special relationship, but it did not mean preferential treatment if they had failed to follow.
This does not mean that God is capricious or arbitrary. Quite the contrary: it means that the God of Israel will do right — whatever people do. God was not bound to them. His ways and purposes transcended their national interests. God cannot be made to do anything — by anyone. God does whatever God pleases. And, God’s actions are stable and trustworthy, because they are a reflection of his character.
God is not some sort of ancient oriental despot: whatever he does is law. This is not the point being made in this context.
God is dependable, but God is not under our control.
And the thought becomes clear as we look at the verses that follow. the so-called gods of the nations are made by human hands — to be manipulated by human gifts and rituals.
עֲצַבֵּיהֶם כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵי אָדָם
פֶּה־לָהֶם וְלֹא יְדַבֵּרוּ עֵינַיִם לָהֶם וְלֹא יִרְאוּ
אָזְנַיִם לָהֶם וְלֹא יִשְׁמָעוּ אַף לָהֶם וְלֹא יְרִיחוּן
יְדֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְמִישׁוּן רַגְלֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְהַלֵּכוּ לֹא־יֶהְגּוּ בִּגְרוֹנָם
כְּמוֹהֶם יִהְיוּ עֹשֵׂיהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־בֹּטֵחַ בָּהֶם
“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
“They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
“They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
“They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats.
“Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.” (NRSV)
That is: they are human creations, made to do human bidding. But, in fact, they are empty, unable to do anything.
The God we know through Scripture is beyond our comprehension. God is not bound by our ideas. God is always greater. God is not bound by our rituals: if they do not honor God they are empty.
So, the question for me is this: am I serving the true God or am I serving an idol? Am I serving a God of my imagination — a God I think I fully understand and control?
This is why I keep looking to the Scriptures for insight. This is why I will not settle for some fixed doctrinal formula as the final goal of my devotion — I must move on, I must go deeper. I want to serve the real God, the God who is by definition beyond comprehension. I do not want to settle for an idol. I do not want to settle for a false God. I cannot settle for a God I imagine I can fully comprehend or control.
I am to serve God. God does not serve me.
beyond our comprehension,
whom we know through Christ as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
You are the God we cannot control or manipulate,
You always act in a way consistent with Your character.
Grant us the grace to recognize You for who You are,
to serve you with true devotion.
Grant that those whom You have washed and renewed in Holy Baptism
may never stoop to idolatry — imagining that our God is under our control.
May we always serve the God of Heaven,
Made known to us in Jesus Christ. Amen.