The Irony of Idolatry (Psalm 115:1-8)

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1 Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness! 2 Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” 3 Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. 4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. 5 They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. 6 They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. 7 They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. 8 Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Ps. 115:1-8)

Psalm 115 begins with an astonishing contrast. God is the only true God who is worthy of glory, worship, and praise. Yet, God’s people turned their backs on him to worship idols, ironically, made by their own hands. 

Sadly, idolatry was one of Israel’s besetting sins. God’s people were caught in a perpetual trap of idolatry. The words “idolatry” and “idols” are mentioned over one hundred times in Scripture, with the vast majority of them occurring in the Old Testament. Idolatry was a blatant violation of God’s clear command: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Ex. 20:3-4).

It would be easy for us to gloss over these commands and ignore God’s warning about idolatry, simply because we live in a different day and context. After all, we are more advanced than the children of Israel. We don’t live in a backwoods, third-world country surrounded by statues of Buddha. Nobody sells idols on the street corners of Anytown, USA! 

Yet one thing Scripture makes clear is that idolatry is far more than the worship of an image. The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. At its core, idolatry is a heart problem. Paul makes this point so clear in Col. 3:5, “Therefore put to death the members which are upon the earth: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” and also in Phil. 3:19.

When it comes to idolatry, the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.

Anything that we value or regard more than God becomes an idol to us. The object itself may not be blatantly sinful; it may even be legitimate. Daniel Akin notes that “the object of idolatry can be a good thing. However, when we turn a good thing into a god thing it becomes a bad thing: an idol.”

In Psalm 115, the psalmist paints a picture of the futility of idolatry by using irony, reminding us that if we fail to worship the true and living God we will incur great spiritual loss.1

Idols Offer No Promises 

“They have mouths, but do not speak…” (Ps. 115:5a)

First, we see the irony of idolatry in the fact that idols offer no promises. They cannot do so, for they cannot speak.

Consider how often God spoke to his people through the patriarchs and prophets. God made promises to his people in the context of a covenant (see Exodus 19). He promised to provide for them, protect them, and guide them—and God faithfully keeps his promises! God promised Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore or the stars in the sky, and God kept his promise even underneath Pharaoh’s iron fist. It is the faithfulness of God’s character that guarantees the fulfillment of his promises.

Consider the promises that we have in the gospel. The gospel promises us forgiveness, deliverance, power, mercy, and the strength to overcome temptation. God has promised to never leave or forsake us (Heb. 13:5), and he has promised to come back for us (Jn. 14:3)! God promises us all that and so much more!

Imagine what it would be like to live divorced from the promises of God. No promise of peace, forgiveness, mercy, or wisdom. The futility of worshiping things that take the place of God is that they cannot offer any real promises to fulfill the deep needs of our heart. 

Idols Offer No Protection 

“They have…eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear.” (Ps. 115:5b-6a)

Second, we see the irony of idolatry in the fact that idols offer no protection. The Bible is filled with colorful metaphors that describe the eyes of God that watch over his people and the ears of God that hear their cries:

  • Prov. 15:3, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”
  • 2 Chron. 16:9, “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him…”
  • Psalm 32:8, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.”
  • Psalm 33:18, “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love.”
  • Psalm 35:15, “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry.”
  • 1 Pet. 3:12, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer…”

At the place where we used to live, there was a busy alley behind our house. My children often played in the backyard or rode their bikes in the alley. When they were little, we allowed them to play in the backyard, but always kept a watchful eye over them — often without them knowing it. We looked through the blinds in the back room and watched them play, concerned that a car would come speeding through the alleyway. Our children were under our watchful eye.

God is watching to give strong support to the blameless in their hour of need. He has promised to keep his eyes fast upon his children, and to give us counsel. He sees and hears us and desires to answer our prayers and give us strength. With his vigilant eyes, he is watching over us to protect us. 

Consider the futility of embracing that which offers no protection. Imagine what it would be like to serve God without the privilege of prayer. To choose to worship something that has no power to guard or protect you is to forsake the One who has promised to watch over you, and that is utter foolishness. Yet, so many do just that. They reject the only true Refuge and embrace what will leave them defenseless in the day of trouble.

Idols Receive No Praise 

“They have…noses, but do not smell” (Ps. 115:6b)

Third, we see the irony of idolatry in the fact that idols receive no praise. Often the Bible speaks about God smelling the aroma of sacrifices offered to him (see Gen, 8:21; Ex. 29:18, 25; Lev. 1:7-9, 2:9, 4:31, 8:28; Eph. 5:2; Phil. 4:18). 

The aroma of a sacrifice was important to God. Note, however, that its importance is not the smell itself, but what it represents — substitutionary atonement for sin and true worship of the living God. God inhabits the praises of his people (Ps. 22:3). He takes great delight when we worship him in Spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:24).

Again, imagine the futility of worshipping and praying to a dead, lifeless idol made by your own hands. How awful would it be knowing that your best was “never recognized or received.” In much the same way, those who place their affections or spend their time and resources on anything in the place of God will ultimately find that their “offerings” were wasted.

Idols Have No Power 

“They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.” (Ps. 115:7)

Fourth, we see the irony of idolatry in the fact that idols have no power.

An idol is powerless to receive the sacrifices and gifts offered to it. One pastor said that when he was in Nepal visiting a Hindu temple, it was the monkeys who fed off the offerings that were offered to the idols! Lifeless idols are not like the living God. Idols are powerless to extend their hands to save, deliver, or heal. The prophet Jeremiah likens idols to a scarecrow in a cucumber patch (Jer. 10:5)! They are powerless to do good, and they are powerless to do evil.

Think of how often the Bible uses the metaphor of God’s hands and arms to illustrate his sovereign, saving, and sustaining power: 

  • Deut. 33:27, “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms…”
  • Josh. 4:24, “So that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.”
  • Isa. 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
  • Isa. 48:13, “My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand forth together.”
  • Isa. 59:1, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear…”
  • Hab. 3:4, “His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power.”
  • Acts 11:21, “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.”

The contrast between the living God and idols is laughable! Idols must be carried wherever they go (see Isa. 46:1-8). Even the smallest insect has more power of movement than the greatest idol! They are completely dependent on their worshipers to carry and secure them so that they don’t fall over. They are totally unable to even grunt or groan! In short, they are utterly lifeless and, therefore, absolutely bogus. 

The contrast is clear. God created everything; idols are fashioned by the hands of men. God dwells enthroned in heaven; idols dwell upon the earth. God does whatever pleases him; idols are powerless to do anything. God sees, hears us, and accepts our worship; idols are blind, deaf, mute, motionless, and impotent. 

Imagine where you would be today without the saving power of God’s hand upon your life. Idols offer no power to redeem, restore, or sustain us in our hour of need. 

A Warning to Idolaters

The Psalmist gives a stern warning to those who trust in idols: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8). The psalmist is implying that if we continue to worship other things in the place of God, we too will become like the gods we worship — blind to things of God, deaf to the voice of God, weak and powerless — impotent and immobile. “Whether that god is material or imaginary — we can never rise above it. It is a vicious circle that only redemption can break!”

For example, speaking about Israel’s pursuit of idols, God asks Israel, “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?” (Jer. 2:5). In other words, they went after worthless, empty idols and became worthless and empty themselves. They soon began to resemble the objects of their worship. This is an eternal principle which is always true — you become like what you worship, and if what you worship is empty, futile, and broken, you will be too.

Bill Ury once remarked, “Those who worshipped idols become conformed so much to that culture that they became totally inclusive, totally open, and totally pragmatic.” We wonder how people can go as far as they do in sin. Yet when you become inclusive, open, and pragmatic about what you worship, you never know where you’ll end up. Whenever we replace anything with God, it always causes spiritual retrogression. 

Final Exhortation

To reject idolatry, we must turn to the Lord, tremble before the Lord, and trust in the Lord.

TURN TO THE LORD

In contrast to the worship given to idols, “we will bless the LORD from this time forth and forevermore. Praise the LORD!” (Ps. 115:18). As Spurgeon said in The Treasury of David  (5:270), “Though the dead cannot, the wicked will not, and the careless do not praise God, yet we will shout ‘Hallelujah’ for ever and ever.” Turning to the Lord involves a voluntary act of the will to reject what is false and embrace that which is true. This is what John had in mind in 1 John 5:21: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” To truly turn to the Lord means that we keep ourselves from trusting, obeying, and following anyone or anything other than the true God (1 John 1:20).

TREMBLE BEFORE THE LORD

Twice in this psalm, the psalmist mentions the word “fear” (vv. 11, 13). In light of who God is and what he has done, we should fear him and tremble before him. Although the Bible says that we can approach God as our “Abba,” we should never be flippant with God. We should always maintain a Biblical respect and adoration for him. God is not a galactic grandfather who pats us on our head when we sin. We must always remember, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

TRUST IN THE LORD

That’s what verses 9-11 are referring to. We can trust in the Lord because he is our help and shield. Idols offer no help or protection, but we can trust in the living God who does!

In closing, consider Jonah 2:8: “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them” (NIV).

Bow your heads and listen carefully to this question, and allow the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart: “What is it that you’re clinging to that is keeping you from experiencing the best of God’s love and grace in your life?” 

Is it worth it? The answer is a resounding No! Turn to the Lord today, tremble before his majesty, and trust in the living God to be to you what idols never can.

 

  1. The following sermon outline has been adapted from Warren Wiersbe, Real Worship: Playground, Battle Ground, or Holy Ground? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), p. 64-65.