The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

My Notes on Psalm 115

Posted by Dim Bulb on May 22, 2011

The circumstances out of which this poem originated are not known in detail. Albert Barnes, an old Protestant commentator writes: “It is not possible now to ascertain on what occasion this psalm was composed, or who was its author. It has been generally believed that it was written in the later periods of the Jewish history, and after the captivity in Babylon. There is no improbability in the supposition, though there is nothing so marked in the psalm as to make this supposition necessary. It is evident from Ps 115:2-3, that it was composed in a time of national calamity, and especially of such national disaster as might lead the surrounding nations to say of them that they were forsaken by the God whom they worshipped.”

The Psalm is variously divided and/or structurally analyzed  by scholars and translators. In my opinion (whatever that might be worth) I find the division given to this Psalm in footnote #1 of the NAB to be the most likely. For other divisions one can consult Father Richard J. Clifford’s PSALMS 73-150; Konrad Schaefer’s Psalms.

 1 Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to thy name give glory, for the sake of thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness!

The people of God are being reviled and, in the process, their God is being reviled as well, for the implication of the taunt in verse 2, “where is their God?” implies a powerlessness on his part to save or aid them.

But to thy name give glory. The words give glory are a mistranslation of the Hebrew   כבוד  על (nâthan kâbôd). A better translation would be: But to thy name display glory, (see how nâthan kâbôd is translated in Ezek 39:21). God is being requested here to display his name before the Gentiles to silence them.  For the sake of his name God keeps from destroying Israel (Isa 48:9), and for the sake of his name he gives them aid and saves (Ps 54:3).

For the sake of thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness.  These attributes are closely associated with the covenant. Steadfast love ( חסדך = chêsêd, or hessed, often translated as “mercy,” or “grace”), is a motivation for God to save (Ex 20:6).  In Exodus 34:6 the word chêsêd (hessed) is coupled with God’s faithfulness (אמת = ’emeth)

Pope John Paul II~”In describing mercy, the books of the Old Testament use two expressions in particular, each having a different semantic nuance. First there is the term hesed, which indicates a profound attitude of “goodness.” When this is established between two individuals, they do not just wish each other well; they are also faithful to each other by virtue of an interior commitment, and therefore also by virtue of a faithfulness to themselves. Since hesed also means “grace” or “love,” this occurs precisely on the basis of this fidelity. The fact that the commitment in question has not only a moral character but almost a juridical one makes no difference. When in the Old Testament the word hesed is used of the Lord, this always occurs in connection with the covenant that God established with Israel. This covenant was, on God’s part, a gift and a grace for Israel. Nevertheless, since, in harmony with the covenant entered into, God had made a commitment to respect it, hesed also acquired in a certain sense a legal content. The juridical commitment on God’s part ceased to oblige whenever Israel broke the covenant and did not respect its conditions. But precisely at this point, hesed, in ceasing to be a juridical obligation, revealed its deeper aspect: it showed itself as what it was at the beginning, that is, as love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin.

“This fidelity vis-a-vis the unfaithful “daughter of my people”(cf. Lam. 4:3, 6) is, in brief, on God’s part, fidelity to Himself. This becomes obvious in the frequent recurrence together of the two terms hesed and ’emeth (= grace [mercy] and fidelity), which could be considered a case of hendiadys (cf. e.g. Ex. 34:6; 2 Sm. 2:6; 15:20; Ps. 25[24]:10; 40[39]:11-12; 85[84]:11; 138[137]:2; Mi. 7:20). “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name” (Ez. 36:22). Therefore Israel, although burdened with guilt for having broken the covenant, cannot lay claim to God’s hesed on the basis of (legal) justice; yet it can and must go on hoping and trusting to obtain it, since the God of the covenant is really “responsible for his love.” The fruits of this love are forgiveness and restoration to grace, the reestablishment of the interior covenant.” (Dives in Misericordia, footnote #52).

This verse is often interpreted in reference to the gratuity of grace; thus St Augustine comments: For that grace of the water that gushed from the rock (“now that rock was Christ ” 1 Cor 10:4), was not given on the score of works that had gone before, but of His mercy “that justifieth the ungodly.”(Rom 4:5) For “Christ died for sinners,”(Rom 5:6) that men might not seek any glory of their own, but in the Lord’s Name.

 2 Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”

A common taunt against those who are in straits or suffering (see Psalm 42:3, 10, 79:10). While the question is not directed towards Jesus explicitly as he hung upon the cross, the words of the Chief Priests, Scribes and elders express the implication: He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, `I am the Son of God’ (Matt 27:43).

 3 Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.

This response to the taunting question of verse 2 provides a transition to the polemic against pagan idols in verses 4-8 and, in light of that polemic, takes on meaning. See my next comment.

 4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s 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 are like them; so are all who trust in them.

In verse 3 God is declared to be in the heavens and thus free and does (Hebrew, עשׂה׃ = ‛âśâh)  whatever he pleases. Not so the god’s of the pagans! They are the work (Hebrew, מעשׂה = ma‛ăśeh)  of men’s hands.  The fact that does and work are related words is important for the psalmist who, in issuing his polemic, has turned the tables on his God’s taunters, turning to taunt them instead. God can do what he wills, but the gods exist by the will of the makers.

A series of 7 negations follow in verses 5-7 which highlight the impotency of man made god’s who, precisely as creations of man, are more limited than their makers. They cannot speak, see, hear, smell, feel, walk or talk. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them, i.e., useless and impotent. The irony is intense: “Just as God creates in the divine image and gradually shapes in the divine semblance, so idols reduce their adherents to nothingness” (Konrad Schaefer, PSALMS, pg 284).  For other OT polemics against idols see (Jer 10:1-16; Isa 40:18-20; 41:6-7; 44:9-20; Wis 13:10-15:17).

9 O Israel, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield.
 10 O house of Aaron, put your trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield.
 11 You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield.

The contrast between those who trust in man made gods (verse 8) is here contrasted with those who trust in the LORD.  In light of what was said about the gods in verses 4-7 the idea of trusting in them is absurd, for they cannot act in any way, shape or form but the LORD is both a help and a shield.

12 The LORD has 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 those who fear the LORD, both small and great.

The LORD has been mindful of us, is another response to the taunting question of verse 2, Where is their God? The very existence of the house of Israel, the house of Aaron, and those who fear the LORD can be seen as indications of this.  The words he will bless indicate the trust mentioned in the previous verses.

14 May the LORD give you increase, you and your children!
15 May you be blessed by the LORD, who made heaven and earth! 

Another contrast with the impotency of the gods. Note the reappearnce of the word made (עשׂה = ‛âśâh) in verse 15 (see note after verses 4-8 above).

16 The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the sons of men.

To turn gold or silver or any other created reality into a god or place it in service to idols is an affront to God who has given us creation to be enjoyed, not idolized (See Hosea 2:10-15).

17 The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any that go down into silence.

The dead…that go down into silence. Those who worship and trust in lifeless idols (see verse 5-8) rather than the living God (see Jer 10:10-16).  All who do such things are destined for wrath (1 Thess 1:9-10).

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

Provides a contrast with the previous verse and is yet another exhibition of trust.


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