According to legend, an Austrian bailiff by the name of Gessler issued an order requiring all citizens of Switzerland to bow to a hat that he had set atop a pole in the main square of the town of Altdorf. When William Tell refused, he was arrested. Gessler knew of Tell's expertise with the crossbow and struck a deal with him. If Tell could shoot an apple off the top of his son's head, Gessler would set him free.
As you know, Tell's arrow was perfectly on target. Afterwards, Tell confessed that if he had harmed his son he planned to shoot another arrow through Gessler's heart. When Gessler heard of it, he once again placed Tell under arrest. But he escaped and finally managed to assassinate the Austrian leader.
Few people know these details in the story of William Tell. Most remember only one thing: the pinpoint accuracy of his skill with the crossbow. They remember that had his aim been only slightly off target, the results would have been fatal.
I would like to draw an analogy between the experience of William Tell and our worship of God. I want to suggest that, much like Tell, if the arrow of our adoration is even slightly off target, the results can be disastrous. If our worship is not fixed and focused on the Triune God of Scripture alone, what we are doing is not only foolish, but fatal, not only dumb, but deadly.
Worship can and ought to occur at any time, in any place, in a variety of ways and postures. But whenever and wherever we worship, we must not think that whomever we worship is of secondary importance. Nowhere is this better seen or described than in Psalm 115.
"Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory" (v. 1a). That's not a typographical error. The repetition is intentional, designed to highlight the centrality of our focus and the deadly danger of any and all forms of idolatry.
Beginning with v. 4, the psalmist contrasts the one true and absolutely sovereign God who does whatever he pleases (v. 3, which I'll address in the next meditation) with the impotent idols of the world.
(1) "Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands" (v. 4). No matter how costly the substance or precious the metal, it is still only lifeless, inert matter, unlike God who is spirit, who is alive! These deities of false worship are not creators, but mere creations. They do not make; they are made. And insofar as the maker is always greater than the thing that is made, these idols are worthy of even less honor than the men who fashion them! "How irrational," notes Spurgeon, "that men should adore that which is less than themselves" (53).
(2) "They have mouths, but do not speak" (v. 5a). Such dead idols cannot communicate. They make no promises to comfort the troubled soul. They issue no threats to those who would wander. They are incapable of making commands or offering consolation. They give no explanation of the past or predictions of the future.
(3) They have "eyes, but do not see" (v. 5b). Whether rubies or diamonds or whatever precious stone is placed in the blind sockets of these lifeless statues, they are of no use. They are unaware of the needs of people, unable to perceive an impending threat, blind to all that is around them. They cannot behold the beauty of earthly grandeur nor gaze upon the stars that the one true God has set in space.
(4) "They have ears, but do not hear" (v. 6a). However fervent or passionate or loud the prayers of their followers, they cannot hear. They are utterly deaf to the pleas of their people. On reading this I'm reminded of Elijah's taunting the worshipers of Baal:
"And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud [i.e., shout louder!], for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.' And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention" (1 Kings 18:27-29).
(5) They have "noses, but do not smell" (v. 6b). Contrast this with Yahweh who "smelled the pleasing aroma" of Noah's sacrifice and promised never again to "curse the ground because of man" (Genesis 8:21). Contrast it with how the apostle Paul described the monetary support of the Philippian church: "a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God" (Phil. 4:18). Contrast it with how God views the evangelistic efforts of his people, through whom he "spreads the fragrance of the knowledge" of Christ. "For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing" (2 Cor. 2:14-15).
(6) "They have hands, but do not feel" (v. 7a). They can neither receive what is given to them nor give that others might receive. They lack the capacity to touch or to feel or to embrace in love. How different it is with Yahweh, who extends his mighty hand to heal and deliver and save. How different it is with him at whose "right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Ps. 16:11)!
(7) They have "feet, but do not walk" (v. 7b). They have to be carried wherever they go and must be fastened down where they are set lest they topple over. They cannot rush to the rescue of their friends or flee from their enemies. They are immovable, immobile, inert.
Again, on reading this I am reminded of the Philistine god, Dagon. Having captured the ark of the covenant, "they brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him" (1 Samuel 5:2-4).
(8) "They do not make a sound in their throat" (v. 7c). As Spurgeon put it, "neither a grunt, nor a growl, nor a groan, nor so much as a mutter, can come from them" (54).
Worst of all, "those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them" (v. 8). In the end, you will become like that which you behold.
The counsel of the psalmist is simple and to the point: Trust in the Lord, and fear him, for he is your help and shield (vv. 9-18).
If you struggle with this psalm, perhaps thinking it irrelevant, insofar as you would never consider owing an idol, much less bowing in its presence, remember this: false worship begins not with a sculptor's tool but in the mind of the man.
Idolatry exists anywhere or at any time that our aim is off target. When we lose sight of the one true God and yield our affections to money and what it can buy, to sex and how it feels, to people and what they can do, or to self and what we desire, we are as guilty as those who prostrate themselves before a marble statue or pray to a false god.
"Our God," on the other hand, "is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases" (Ps. 115:3). To this glorious truth we turn in our next meditation.