Saturday, February 9, 2013

Psalm 115

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 115.  I will post Psalm 115 in the King James Version (which is in the public domain), and I will comment on select verses.

1. Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake.

The Psalmist is asking God to deliver God's people, not for Israel's glory, but for God's own glory, and on account of God's mercy and truth/faithfulness.

2 Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?

The reason that the Psalmist believes that God's deliverance of Israel would be for God's glory is that the nations are asking where Israel's God is, as if Israel's God is not as powerful as other gods.  The Psalmist wants God to prove them wrong!

But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.

Whatever the nations may say, the God of Israel is powerful and is in heaven, doing whatever God wants.  Even though Israel is going through difficulties at the hands of other nations, the God of Israel is still sovereign.

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.

They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, 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.

Whereas the God of Israel is sovereign, the idols of the nations are inept.  Was Israel making the mistake of assuming that other nations actually worshiped the idols themselves, when paganism did not worship the idols but rather the gods whom they believed inhabited (and in some cases even animated) the idols (to draw from the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary)?  Maybe, and maybe not.  Perhaps the Psalmist believed that idolatry was an inept religion because he thought that there were no actual pagan deities who inhabited and animated the idols.  Regardless of what the pagans believed, the idol was just a piece of wood or stone, without any deity being inside of it.  From this perspective, the idolatry of the nations was solely a human invention, and the idols were lifeless entities.  The God of Israel, by contrast, is not someone who was created by human beings but is himself the creator of humanity and everything else, and God is living and does what God wills.  The Psalmist hopes that Israel's God will not just be living but also active on Israel's behalf, however!

They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.

This could mean that those who trust in the idols are on the path of becoming like the gods that they worship: lifeless.  Some preachers say that we become like the god whom we worship.  If our god is harsh, then we will be harsh, the spiel runs.  What's interesting about this claim is that a number of conservative Christian preachers assert that those who believe in a God who has all-love and no-wrath are constructing an idol in their own minds rather than worshiping the true God.  In their opinion, we should believe in a God who will dispense of a large segment of humanity in hell, because it did not accept Christ prior to death.  But why would I want to be like this God?  And how can I be sure that this God is not an invention by humans, just like the idols that Psalm 115 criticizes?

O Israel, trust thou in the LORD: he is their help and their shield.
10 O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD: he is their help and their shield.

The reference to the House of Aaron has convinced a number of scholars that Psalm 115 is post-exilic, since that was when the House of Aaron was the dominant priestly house.  But couldn't the House of Aaron have also been influential in pre-exilic and exilic times, which were other periods in which Israel was vulnerable to foreign enemies and desired for her God to intervene?  If so, then why couldn't Psalm 115 be dated to Israel's pre-exilic or exilic periods?

11 Ye that fear the LORD, trust in the LORD: he is their help and their shield.
12 The LORD hath been mindful of us: he will bless us; he will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron.
13 He will bless them that fear the LORD, both small and great.

You may notice that there are three categories of people who are mentioned twice within Psalm 115:9-13.  First, there is Israel.  Second, there is the House of Aaron.  And, third, there are those who fear the LORD.  Because those who fear the LORD appear to be in a category that is separate from Israel, a number of scholars have argued that those who fear the LORD are Gentile proselytes to Judaism.  But there are scholars who dispute that, one reason being that they think that proselytism to Judaism was a late development, and another reason being that v 13 mentions people who are small and great, and some don't think that it makes sense that the Psalmist would refer to small and great proselytes.

In my opinion, perhaps those who fear the LORD are not proselytes, per se, but are resident aliens within the Israelite or Jewish community who fear the LORD.  This would encompass people who are small, and also people who are great.  There were Gentiles within Israel who were slaves and did grunt work, and there were Gentiles who had a higher status.

Or here's another thought: Perhaps those who fear the LORD are simply Gentiles who fear the LORD.  Some of them live within Israel, and some do not.  Some are slaves.  Some are in positions of prominence within the Gentile authority structure.  But, for some reason (perhaps their hearing about God's mighty deeds, or their seeing something admirable in the Torah), they fear the LORD, and, on some level, they are rooting for Israel.  The point of v 13 may be that anyone----even a Gentile---who fears the LORD will be blessed, especially if the Gentile lives in a world that mocks the God of Israel as inept.  

14 The LORD shall increase you more and more, you and your children.
15 Ye are blessed of the LORD which made heaven and earth.
16 The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD's: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.

Why does this verse mention that God possesses the heavens while God has given the earth to human beings?  What role does this notion play within the larger argument of Psalm 115, which is that God will intervene on Israel's behalf and silence the scoffing of the heathen?  There are a variety of answers that have been proposed.  One solution is that the verse is saying that God is sovereign in heaven, although God allows humans to exercise their free-will on earth, even to destructive ends.  And yet, the hope of Psalm 115 is that God will eventually (or, more accurately, soon) intervene in the course of earthly events on Israel's behalf.  Another solution is that v 16 is emphasizing that God is in heaven and is the one who gave people the earth for their enjoyment, and so human beings should honor this God rather than worshiping lifeless idols.  Neither view strikes me as completely adequate, but I don't have a better solution to offer at this point.  It's puzzling to me that this Psalm is expressing a desire for God to intervene on earth, yet v 16 says that God is in the heaven but has given the earth to human beings.

I'd like to mention two additional items of interest about Psalm 115:16.  First, from Matthew Henry, I learned that Psalm 115:16 was mocked in the days of John Calvin, and my reading of John Gill indicated to me that it was derided in Gill's day as well.  The reason that it was derided seems to be that it says that God gave the earth to human beings, and yet look what human beings have done to the earth!  Did God exercise poor judgment in giving the earth to human beings?  Many would argue that even that is part of God's larger plan.  Second, more than once, I heard or read a conservative Christian point to Psalm 115:16 to argue that there is not intelligent life on other planets.  After all, v 16 says that God is in heaven and that God has given the earth to human beings.  But, in my opinion, that's irrelevant to whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets.  Maybe God gave other planets to other intelligent creatures.

17 The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.
I grew up in Armstrongism, which believed in soul-sleep, the doctrine that the dead are unconscious until their resurrection in the eschatological era.  Armstrongites appealed to Psalm 115:17 to support their position.  How would those who don't believe in soul-sleep----who insist instead that people's souls go to heaven or hell immediately after they die----handle Psalm 115:17?  I came across a variety of proposals.  One is to say that the author of Psalm 115 was simply expressing his own limited opinion.  Another is that Psalm 115:17 is talking about the bodies of the dead, not their souls.  Another is that Psalm 115:17 is talking about the spiritually dead, who go to hell and do not praise the LORD there, whereas the souls of the righteous are in heaven praising God.  Still another view is that people can only serve the LORD in this life, even if their souls survive death.  Moses' service to God, for example, ended at his death, then Joshua took over.  Some may see these solutions are sensible, whereas others may regard them as a stretch.

Here's another thought: Perhaps the dead cannot praise the LORD because they no longer have access to the physical sanctuary, which was where the formal worship of the LORD took place.  David, after all, in I Samuel 26:19 felt that his being driven out of the land was essentially encouraging him to worship other gods.  God was associated with the land of Israel and with the sanctuary.  Maybe the idea of Psalm 115:17 is that the dead are cut off from these things, and thus from the praise of God as well.  But this would assume that Psalm 115 was pre-exilic, before Israel went into exile and concluded that she could praise God away from the land of Israel and the sanctuary.  And yet, not so fast, for, according to I Kings 8:46-53, the Temple site still played a significant role in Israel's worship when she was in exile, so perhaps one cannot easily detach the physical sanctuary from the worship of God, within ancient Israelite thought.  

In terms of the meaning of v 17 within the context of Psalm 115, the Jewish Study Bible's note says that v 17 means that those in this life who don't praise the LORD are like the dead in Sheol, who also don't praise the LORD.  This applies to those who worship idols rather than the LORD, and it may also be an encouragement to Israel to keep on praising God, even when God appears to be inactive or silent, for that is what people living on earth should do.

18 But we will bless the LORD from this time forth and for evermore. Praise the LORD.

Whereas the dead do not praise the LORD, Israel will.  Keil-Delitzsch say that the point here is that the church, which praises the LORD, will not die. 

Many biblical scholars have contended that, within the Hebrew Bible (except for the Book of Daniel, and perhaps a few other passages), there was not a rigorous belief in an afterlife.  Rather, the expectation was that everyone would go to Sheol, where he or she would have a lesser form of existence.  Many may interpret Psalm 115:17 in light of that.  In that case, the message of v 18 may be that we should worship God while we are still alive!

But I have issues with that interpretation, at least when it comes to Psalm 115.  The dead appear to be set in contrast with those who will bless the LORD----and those who bless the LORD will do so "from this time forth and for evermore."  Perhaps one could say that individuals----even individual Israelites and fearers of the LORD----will go to Sheol, where they will not praise the LORD, whereas the community of Israel will survive forever and will keep on with its praise.  But that position does not particularly satisfy me, even if it might be technically correct (and I'm not sure that it is).

Here's a perspective that a Christian may be able to take, however: Prior to Christ, everyone did go to Sheol, a place that lacked the praise of God.  But, now that Christ has defeated death, we have the hope of something better.  Not only will we live again with a fuller existence than we have now, but we will be praising God.

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