The Antidote for Idolatry (Sermon)
William Wilberforce was elected to the British Parliament at the age of 21. After 7 years in Parliament, he began a lifelong quest to get the slave trade banished and all slaves freed in England. In 1787, he wrote a now-famous statement in his diary that “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.”
After working tirelessly for the abolition of the slave trade for nearly 9 years, a motion to abolish the trade—a motion put forward by Wilberforce that everyone expected to pass—was defeated. Wilberforce was devastated and considered giving up his campaign. He pressed on and in 1807 after 20 years fighting a losing battle, Wilberforce finally saw his bill—the Slave Trade Act—pass in the House of Commons and made into law.
What you may not know is that Wilberforce was a committed student of Scripture, and one of his favorite passages was Psalm 115. During his lengthy battle to eradicate the slave trade, he regularly found himself mediating on the first verse of Psalm 115. “On March 25, 1807, Parliament passed the bill for the abolition of the slave trade wherever the British flag flew. Wilberforce’s response to this victory? By his own testimony, it was first to meditate upon his favorite verse, Psalm 115:1... ‘Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.’”[i]
I think it is appropriate that this Psalm inspired a fight to right one of the great injustices of modern history. This psalm is a psalm about righting an injustice—an injustice that has global ramifications. Across the planet, the glory of God is given to those who have no rightful claim to it. Just as vile men would cross oceans to steal men away from their families and then give them as tribute to those who had no right to possess another person, God’s honor has been stolen and given as tribute to those who have no right to it.
This psalm cries out for this injustice to be ended—the congregation of faithful saints call out for God to reveal His glory, for the foolishness of false gods to be exposed, and for mankind to return to God the worship, praise and adoration that belongs to Him alone.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that, “There are more idols in the world than there are realities.”[ii] Every person has a number of false gods that compete for their worship and trust. Like a medieval castle, your heart is besieged by counterfeit deities that would love to take your affection hostage. Most may not take the form of carved images, but they are just as real.
This past summer as I visited with friends in East Asia, I had the opportunity to visit a Buddhist temple. We walked through room after room, each one featuring a different statue of Buddha—incense hanging heavy in the air. Watching the desperate prayers offered up before ornately carved pieces of painted wood was heart-breaking. The silliness of idol worship was so profound that I almost wanted to cry out, “Why are you doing this? Do you really think that praying to these blocks of wood will do any good?”
But we often do the same thing. The idols of our culture may look different—they may be more sophisticated, but they are fundamentally the same. Listen to this piercing commentary by Tim Keller: “Each culture is dominated by its own set of idols. Each has its “priesthoods,” its totems and rituals. Each one has its shrines—whether office towers, spas and gyms, studios, or stadiums—where sacrifices must be made in order to procure the blessings of the good life and ward off disasters. What are the gods of beauty, power, money and achievement but these same things that have assumed mythic proportions in our individual lives and in our society? We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite, but many young women today are driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over their body image. We may not actually burn incense to Artemis, but when money and career are raised to cosmic proportions, we perform a kind of child sacrifice, neglecting family and community to achieve a higher place in business and gain more wealth and prestige.”[iii]
Every time we bow before the false idols of this world—money, prestige, security, image, family, the list could go on forever—every time we give them worship, we steal that worship from the rightful recipient. We take what belongs to God and give it to another. And the greatest irony is that we do so looking for blessing, but blessing only comes from God. In our quest to be blessed, we steal the glory that belongs to the only one who can bless us, and we give it to someone else.
The only remedy for the injustice of idol worship is worship of the true God. The only antidote for trust in false gods is trust in the true God. This psalm calls us to return to worship and trust in the God of heaven.
This is a corporate psalm. You’ll notice that every time the speaker refers to himself it is in the plural. This psalm is not the cry of a single individual who longs to see God’s glory known and recognized. It is the unified voice of an entire congregation who desire to see God receive the honor that rightfully belongs to Him. It is a people who declare together that no one is greater than God and beg God to spread His glory to the nations.
That’s what excites me about this psalm. Through it, our hearts connect to each other and with those who have gone before us in faith. When we read psalms that focus more on an individual’s experience—(like Psalm 51) “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”—we can identify with the psalmist’s experience. But in a corporate psalm, we are ushered directly into the midst of the congregation. We are given a model to follow in our worship and an invitation to join in their worship.
The Congregation Exhibits a Humble Passion
(Psalm 115:1 ESV) Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!
The congregation begins by declaring their intention that the glory does not go to them. Glory, in the sense of honor, is often our pursuit. We zealously guard our reputation. We carefully choose our clothes. We cautiously craft our image. We religiously defend our accomplishments, all so we receive the recognition that we feel we deserve…that we’ve earned.
But listen to their request: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us.” Twice they state their desire that the glory not come to them. This request is born of genuine humility. “Not for our sake or our reputation or our honor, God, but for yours.” Their desire is for God’s matchless character to be displayed so that people will respond with the worship that is rightfully His.
But how will that happen? How will God receive the glory that is His? At the end of verse 1 we see that the glory is due God because of His steadfast love and faithfulness. “Steadfast love” refers to the covenant love of God for His people Israel. In the past, God revealed Himself through His mighty works of salvation on Israel’s behalf. So the congregation expresses this desire because they understand who God is and why God deserves glory because they saw Him work to bring salvation to His people.
Now the congregation is longing for God to reveal Himself again as He did then so that the same response of worship would result. In fact, Psalm 114 records God’s dealings with Israel. It begins by looking back to that time when God brought His people out of captivity in Egypt. They were slaves and God rescued them. Because He had pledged His love to Abraham, God sent His messenger Moses to bring salvation to the descendants of Abraham. Reflecting on this work of God is what prompted the congregation to give God the glory due His name. They plead with Him to reveal Himself again so that all men would understand who He is and respond to Him in worship.
Brothers and sisters, we understand how God responded to the passionate plea of the congregation, don’t we? God did again show that He was glorious and deserving of man’s praise. In the same way that God sent Moses to rescue His people from the slavery of Egypt, He sent His very own Son to rescue us from the slavery of sin. Because of His steadfast love, He would not leave His people to die at the hands of a ruthless tyrant name Pharaoh, and because of His great love, God did not leave us to die at the hands of a ruthless tyrant named Sin.
Our hearts should echo with the same passion of this congregation in Psalm 115. We should plead with God to open the eyes of those who do not believe, so they will see His salvation and worship Him. Instead of taking the glory that belongs to God and tossing it at the feet of false gods like sex, achievement and relationships, we long to see our friends and neighbors delivered from the chains of idolatry to worship the one true God.
In this opening verse, the fact that God is worthy of worship is presented as undeniable…as indisputable truth. We who have experienced God’s grace understand why. There is no doubt that God is worthy. We long for all men to understand and recognize His glory and bow in humble worship before Him. So let us join with the congregation and beg God to make His glory known in our community, across our country and around the world.
The Congregation Identifies a Tragic Problem
(Psa 115:2-3 ESV) “Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
The problem is two-fold. Other nations are mocking the true God, and then they’re compounding their foolishness by making false gods. The nations are questioning the existence of God. You can almost picture them like a bully on the playground sticking out their tongue, and saying, “Where’s your dad now?”
The implication is that the God of Israel doesn’t exist. “If He really existed, then wouldn’t He do something about this mockery…this blasphemy?” No wonder the congregation wanted God to act. They longed to see His reputation defended. I grew up with 3 very loving brothers. Most of the time we sat around holding hands and singing Kumbaya and other cheesy campfire songs. I can scarcely remember a cross or unkind word spoken between us. Well, maybe my memory is a bit hazy. More than likely there were regular unkind words, most of them including taunts and mockery.
Being mocked is not fun. We don’t enjoy being mocked, but as bad as being mocked is, there is generally some truth to it. It hurts. It stings. It’s cruel. But the truth is I have “mockable” qualities and characteristics. I have so many issues that the mockery will undoubtedly contain kernels of truth. Plus, I’ve dished out enough cruelty that the case could be made that I’m simply reaping what I sowed. But that’s not the case when God is mocked. There is no truth in it. He is perfect.
That’s what brings such righteous indignation from the congregation. “Mock us. That may hurt our feelings; there may even be some truth to it. Eventually we’ll get over it. But don’t mock our God.”
The nations mocked God saying He wasn’t around. The reality is that God is in heaven, orchestrating His sovereign will. In fact, the irony of their question is that the correct response to where is your God is that God is exactly where God should be—in heaven, ruling over all the nations. Their mockery was foolish and ignorant. They expected a god that was visible and easily contained. Their picture of God was someone that finite man could wrap his mind around. They had a puny picture of a tiny, impotent and trite God. They couldn’t see God because He is transcendent. He rules from heaven, a place man can barely fathom. He is not the miniscule god of an earthly, feeble nation; He is the God who rules over all kings and nations.
Brothers and sisters, we will hear men mock God, and it is tempting in those moments to go on the warpath. Like the disciples of old, we want to call down fire and brimstone on those who would dare to question our God. Instead let us rest in the truth that God is sovereign. I love the reminder from John Piper:
“God was the living God when this universe [came] into existence. He was the living God when Socrates drank the poison. He was the living God when William Bradford governed Plymouth Colony. He was the living God in 1966 when Thomas Altizer proclaimed him dead and Time magazine put it on the front cover. And he will be living ten trillion ages from now when all the puny potshots against his reality will have sunk into oblivion like BB’s at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.”[iv]
This verse presents a beautiful picture of God’s transcendence and His immanence. You could easily read this verse and think, “Wow, God must be far off. He must be unknowable. If He is ruling and reigning from heaven, but I am here, can I really know Him?” Read verse 3 again:
(Psa 115:3 ESV) “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
Yes, God is transcendent; He is so far above us that the greatest telescope could not capture the hem of His heavenly robe. But God is also personal. He is “our God”. Not a distant deity, but a personal Creator and King.
The beautiful combination of God’s greatness and His nearness is nowhere represented more clearly than in a lowly manger on a hillside in Bethlehem nearly 2,000 years ago. God can do whatever pleases Him, and what pleased Him was sending His Son to be born as a man, to fulfill the promise of Immanuel—“God with us.” In His sovereign pleasure, He chose to offer His Son as the perfect sacrifice, bringing salvation to all who would trust in Him. Yes, God rules in heaven, but He is not far off. He is near, and He promises that all who seek Him will find Him.
The nations were mocking God, but they did not stop there. They also crafted false gods for their worship. These gods are described in great detail over the next 4 verses.
They are made of gold and silver. How ironic! They appear to be valuable but are really worthless.
They have all of these body parts, but none of them work. The congregation surveys the idol from top to bottom, yet finds nothing useful about them. They are pictures of inability—they can’t speak, see, hear, smell, feel, walk or even make a sound.
Charles Spurgeon made a clever observation, “We pity a blind man, it is strange to worship a blind God.”[v]
However, the real point in describing these idols is to show the contrast between them and the true and living God. The psalm seeks to answer the question, “Why give God glory instead of these idols?” The answer is that idols are made by men (v.8), but God made men (v.15). As the psalm works through the list of useless body parts that are found on idols, the contrast with God who does whatever He pleases becomes ever clearer. I couldn’t help but contrast these idols who “do not make a sound in their throat” (v.7) with the God of Psalm 29 who speaks and the mountains skip like a young goat.
This section ends with a sobering statement:
(Psa 115:8 ESV) “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”
Worshipping useless, powerless and lifeless idols makes a person like them: useless, powerless and ultimately lifeless. False gods are ineffective at bringing anything but death and destruction.
I was sent this article by one of our members this week: “A British medical journal has published findings saying a mistress of 16th-century French King Henry II may have died from consuming too much drinkable gold. When French experts dug up the remains of Diane de Poitiers last year, they found high levels of gold in her hair. Since she was not a queen and did not wear a crown, scientists said it was hard to see how jewelry could have contaminated her hair and body. Experts now say that the popularity of drinkable gold — believed to preserve youth — in the French court makes it very likely de Poitier's beauty elixir ultimately killed her.”[vi] She became like her false god.
Brothers and sisters, when we elevate anything to a position of worship we invite sorrow and despair. We know that a piece of carved wood can’t bring happiness, but what about a fully-funded retirement account? We realize that a gold statue can’t bring meaning, but what about a healthy, happy family? We understand that a silver trinket can’t bring fulfillment, but what about a romantic relationship? Good things—valuable things—can become idols. We can elevate them to positions of worship; we can begin to serve them. We can fear them so deeply or desire them so strongly that they attain functional control over our lives.
It’s easy and dangerous to read a passage like this and think, “How stupid and silly to worship idols. I’m glad I don’t do that.” That’s true only if you think idols are man-made statues. Listen to the great British preacher’s definition of idols or false gods. Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote: “A man’s god is that for which he lives, for which he is prepared to give his time, his energy, his money, that which stimulates him and rouses him, excites him, and enthuses him.”[vii]
What excites you? What do you live for? What do you give your time and attention to? Where does God fit into those answers? Are there other things or people that you look to for safety or security or satisfaction? Where do you find your identity? Is it in Christ or your job…your family…your abilities?
Let’s summarize what we’ve discovered so far: the congregation wants God to receive the glory that is His. The only problem is that the worship of false gods—idols—is rampant, even among God’s own people. What can be done about it?
The Congregation Remembers a Magnificent Promise
There is a truth repeated throughout Scripture which has its origin in the very first chapters of Genesis. When God created man, He blessed him. The first man and woman were placed in a world created for their good, and they received a single command to worship God. Worshipping God meant more than just praising Him; it included the concepts of faith and obedience. For them to worship God, they needed to trust that what He said was true, and obey His Word. We know the rest of the story don’t we? Adam and Eve gave up the blessing of God when they chose to believe a lie and disobey His Word. Their refusal to worship God brought devastating consequences. Consequences which we still face today.
The teaching of worship (which includes faith and obedience) and blessing continued as Adam and Eve had children. If man placed his faith in God, demonstrated through obedience, then He would receive God’s blessing. Noah believed God, obeyed His Word and was saved from the Flood’s destruction. Repeatedly, Abraham demonstrated faith in God’s promise and received the promise of blessing.
These same truths open the book of Psalms. In Psalm 1 & 2, we are called to worship and promised blessing. Psalm 2 ends with this instruction:
(Psa 2:12 ESV) “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
“Him” is the Son of God—the coming King—Jesus Christ. So, the book of Psalms calls God’s people to “take refuge” or put their faith in Jesus Christ, and then promises blessing for those who do.
What’s the cure for idolatry? What’s the message that the nations need to hear so they will turn from worshipping false gods and give God the glory that is rightfully His?
(Psa 115:9-11 ESV) “O Israel, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield.”
God’s glory will be seen when God’s people turn from trusting in the Styrofoam promises of this world and depend fully on the solid rock of Jesus Christ. When we do, then God will move and act among His people. Unlike the lifeless gods of this world, the God of heaven—the true and living God—will be active among His people; He will be our defender and helper.
Are you finding your refuge in the Son? As a church, are we building on the certain foundation of Jesus Christ, or are we looking elsewhere for help? We must heed the call to trust in the Lord.
William Ernest Hemley penned the poem Invictus.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Brothers and sisters, maybe our false god isn’t a wooden idol, but self-sufficiency. Maybe our trust is in our “unconquerable soul.” Is it possible we’ve bought into the deadly lie that we are “the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul”? In our humanistic society, self-worship is encouraged. Most religions are built on the concept of self-worship because religion teaches that I must be my own Savior. I must do enough to earn God’s favor and merit His approval. Through my effort and energy I can assure my right standing before Him. Religion encourages me to view myself as my own master and captain.
God calls us to a radically different life. We cannot save ourselves. He had to act, and He did in Jesus. We must trust Him. We must renounce all ability to attain salvation through our own effort, and instead take refuge in His Son.
Friend, have you done that? Have you renounced your own effort and placed your faith in the Son of God? I can think of no better time to turn from your sin and receive God’s salvation than right now, as we celebrate the birth of mankind’s Savior.
When we begin to worship God by recognizing that He has provided a way of salvation, then we receive His blessing. It doesn’t come through effort, but through emptiness. By letting go of false gods, we are brought into fellowship with the one true God and receive the blessings only He can offer.
(Psa 115:12-13 ESV) “The LORD has remembered us; he will bless us; he will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron; he will bless those who fear the LORD, both the small and the great.”
It makes no difference who we are—whether we’re small or great—it only matters who God is. He promises to bless those who place their faith in Him. We’re reminded of the greatest need of all humanity—maybe that’s why we see such opposites small and great—all humanity over all time has needed God’s blessing more than anything else. Our hope is in God. We trust that He will be faithful to His promises, and will bless those who by faith come to Him in humble worship.
I schedule a lot of lunch meetings throughout the week. It’s my opportunity to meet with and encourage the men in our church. This past week I scheduled 2 unusual lunch meetings. One each with my two oldest boys. We went out for a sandwich, just me with one of my sons, and we talked about lots of things. I told them about the lunch meetings a day or two before we had them, and they were pretty excited. Though when I asked Max if he was free and could squeeze me into his full calendar, he told me that he’d let me know in the morning. Knowing how much this meant to them, I was bound and determined to make sure that nothing came up that would hinder me from keeping my appointment with them. I did not want to have to talk with them and tell them I had to cancel. There would be a look of disappointment in their eyes that would break my heart.
As much as I want to avoid it, I am going to disappoint them. Maybe it’s a broken promise or an unkind word, but there’s no escaping the fact that I will bring them disappointment. That’s just one of the reasons I would make a terrible god.
I want my sons to learn not to put all their hope in a person, even one who loves them as much as I do. Because people make terrible gods—maybe even worse gods than pieces of gold or silver—giving their worship to a person, whether a parent, a future spouse, a friend or a child will only bring disappointment and despair. I also want them to learn that success and sex and romance and control and self-esteem make terrible gods. If they give any of those their allegiance and devotion they will be disappointed.
There is only one who will never disappoint. There is only one who is able to receive our worship and trust. I want my sons to learn that God is worthy to receive our worship and allegiance. My hope is that their prayer will be, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory.” If that is their prayer, then I can remind them of God’s promise.
(Psa 115:12-13 ESV) “The LORD has remembered us; he will bless us; he will bless those who fear the LORD, both the small and the great.”
That is God’s promise to each person who turns from worshipping false gods and puts their trust in Jesus Christ—the promised Savior. I don’t know what you are trusting in this morning. I don’t know what you worship. I don’t know what gives your life significance and meaning, but I urge you to remember the promise of God. The blessing you’re looking for…the blessing your heart longs for will only come through Jesus Christ.
(Psa 2:12 ESV) “Blessed are all who take refuge [not in a job or a relationship or a religion] in him.”
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2010.
[i] Steven J. Lawson, Psalm 76-150, Holman Old Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006), p. 215.
[ii] Twilight of the Idols, quoted in Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods (New York: Dutton, 2009), p. ix.
[iii] Counterfeit Gods, p. xii.
[iv] John Piper, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, accessed from desiringgod.org on 3/6/08.
[v] C. H. Spurgeon, Treasury of David, Psalm 115.
[vi] Accessed at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,580457,00.html, on December 18, 2009.
[vii] Quoted in Lawson, Psalms, p. 216.