I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group at church on Psalm 115. As an interesting aside, the invitation came about three days prior to the car crash, and I was specifically asked to focus on verses 9 to 11 and the idea of God as our shield. My preparation was greatly disrupted in one sense, yet in a way I was far better prepared than I could have achieved through mere study.
Anyway, while doing the actual talk I noticed a feature of the text that I had previously missed. Here’s a brief outline of sorts I had drawn up.
A Psalm 115:1-3 — God’s glory challenged/answered
B Psalm 115:4-8 — idolaters like idols (inert, unfruitful)
C Psalm 115:9-11 — Trust in the Lord (he is your shield)
B’ Psalm 115:12-16 — God blesses, all is fruitful
A’ Psalm 115:17-18 — those who praise the Lord, those who don’t
So who are the dead that don’t praise the Lord (Psalm 115:17)? I’d originally thought this referred to those who had actually died, fitting in with some of the general statements earlier in the Old Testament prior to a more specific doctrine of life after death and resurrection becoming normative.
But that seems to miss the point of the psalm. Who challenges God’s glory at the start of the psalm? Idolaters. And how does the psalm describe idolaters? As dead people. If you read Psalm 115:5-7 as a riddle to someone, they would probably think you were talking about a corpse, and Psalm 115:8 declares that idolaters become like their corpse-idols.
Such a reading firms up the chiastic structure and helps us read verses 12-16 in their proper context: as an answer to the lifelessness/fruitlessness of idol worshippers. What a great summary of creation and redemption! All creation is created for life, for fruitfulness, for people. Think of Genesis 1 and the creation mandate. And this purpose is found in redemption, through the trust of God and the scorning of idols. God is life, and in him we have our life.
This approach to Psalm 115 also seems to lend some nice detail to Jesus’ call to those who have ears to hear, tieing in with Isaiah 6.