Man Loses his Dignity When he Worships Idols

Commentary on Psalm 115, «Hymn to the True God»

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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 1, 2004 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at the Wednesday General Audience, which he dedicated to comment on Psalm 115, «Hymn to the True God.»

* * *

Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name give glory because of your faithfulness and love.

Why should the nations say, «Where is their God?»

Our God is in heaven; whatever God wills is done.

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.

They have mouths but do not speak, eyes but do not see.

They have ears but do not hear, noses but do not smell.

They have hands but do not feel, feet but do not walk, and no sound rises from their throats.

Their makers shall be like them, all who trust in them.

The house of Israel trusts in the Lord, who is their help and shield.

The house of Aaron trusts in the Lord, who is their help and shield.

Those who fear the Lord trust in the Lord, who is their help and shield.

The Lord remembers us and will bless us, will bless the house of Israel, will bless the house of Aaron,

Will bless those who fear the Lord, small and great alike.

May the Lord increase your number, you and your descendants.

May you be blessed by the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth is given to us.

The dead do not praise the Lord, all those gone down into silence.

It is we who bless the Lord, both now and forever. Hallelujah!

1. The living God and the inert idol confront one another in Psalm 115, which we just heard and which forms part of the series of of Psalms of Vespers. The old Greek translation of the Bible of the «Seventy,» followed by the Latin version of the old Christian liturgy, has joined this Psalm in honor of the true Lord to the preceding one. It has resulted in a single composition which, however, is clearly divided in two different texts (the second half is Psalm 116).

After an initial invocation addressed to the Lord to attest to his glory, the Chosen People present their God as the omnipotent Creator: » Our God is in heaven; whatever God wills is done.» (Psalm 115:3). Faithfulness and love are the typical virtues of the God of the Covenant in relation to Israel, the people He chose (see verse 1). Thus, the cosmos and history are under his sovereignty, which is power of love and salvation.

2. Then, set against the true God adored by Israel are » the work of human hands » (verse 4). Idolatry is a temptation of all of humanity in all lands and at all times. The idol is an inanimate thing, born from the hands of man, cold statue, deprived of life. The Psalmist describes it ironically in its seven totally useless members: silent mouth, blind eyes, deaf ears, nose that does not smell, inert hands, paralyzed feet, throat that does not make a sound (see verses 5-7).

After this merciless criticism of the idols, the Psalmist makes a sarcastic remark: » Their makers shall be like them, all who trust in them.» (verse 8). It is a wish expressed undoubtedly in an effective way to produce an effect of radical dissuasion before idolatry. Whoever adores the idol of wealth, power, success loses his dignity of human person. The prophet Isaiah said: “Idol makers all amount to nothing, and their precious works are of no avail, as they themselves give witness. To their shame, they neither see nor know anything; and they are more deaf than men are.” (Isaiah 44:9).

3. On the contrary, the Lord’s faithful know that they have «their help» and «shield» in the living God (see Psalm 115:9-13). They are presented according to a triple category. First of all is «the house of Israel,» namely, the whole people, the community that gathers in the temple to pray. There, also, is the «house of Aaron,» which refers to the priests, custodians and heralds of the divine Word, called to preside over worship. Finally, those who fear the Lord are evoked, namely the authentic and constant faithful, which in Judaism subsequent to the Babylonian exile and later also denotes those pagans who approached the community and faith of Israel with a sincere heart and with a genuine search. Such would be the case, for example, of the Roman centurion Cornelius (see Acts 10, 1-2.22), converted later by Peter to Christianity.

The divine blessing descends on these three categories of true believers (see Psalm 115:12-15). According to the biblical conception, it is the source of fecundity: » May the Lord increase your number, you and your descendants” (Psalm 115:14). Finally the faithful, full of joy because of the gift of life received from the living and creator God, sing a hymn of praise, responding to the blessing of God with their gratifying and confident blessing (see verses 16-18).

4. In a very lively and evocative way, a Father of the Eastern Church, St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th century), in the fifth Homily on the Canticle of Canticles refers to our Psalm to describe humanity’s passage from the «ice of idolatry» to the spring of salvation. In fact, St. Gregory recalls, human nature seemed to have transformed itself «into that of immobile beings» and without life «who were made objects of worship,» as is specifically written: «May they be like those who make them and those who trusts in them.» «And it was logical that it should be like that. As, in fact, those who trust in the true God receive in themselves the peculiarities of divine nature, so also those who turn to the vanity of idols become that in which they trust and, from being men become stones.

Given that human nature, became stone because of idolatry, was immobile before the better, gripped by the ice of the worship of idols, for this reason there arose over this tremendous winter the Sun of justice which brings the spring of the midday gust, which dissolves the ice, and warms everything with the rays of that sun. Thus man, who had been petrified by the ice, warmed by the Spirit and the rays of the Logos, returned to be water that gushes for eternal life» (Homilies on the Canticle of Canticles — «Omelie sul Cantico dei Cantici,» Rome, 1988, pp. 133-134).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the Audience, one of the Pope’s collaborators read the following summary in English:]

In Psalm 115 the chosen people describe their God as the all powerful Creator of heaven and earth, different in all ways from pagan idols: «Our God is in heaven and does whatever he wills.» The characteristic virtues of the Lord of the Covenant are «love and truth,» and they are confirmed in his relationship with his chosen people. Indeed, both the cosmos and history are under his sovereignty of love and salvation. Juxtaposed to the concept of the true God is the worship of idols. Idolatry is a temptation for all of humanity in every place and at every time. The psalmist reminds us that those who worship the idols of wealth, power, and success betray their human dignity. It is only by looking to the one true God that we receive in ourselves the characteristics of the Divine and the strength to reject the enticement of worldly idols.

[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

I am pleased to greet the English-speaking pilgrims present at this audience, especially those from Ireland and the United States of America. Upon you and your loved ones, I invoke the Lord’s blessings of health and joy.

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