Obvious only with hindsight

As for all the gods of the heathen, they are but idols :
   but it is the Lord that made the heavens.

Psalm 96:5

That verse from Psalm 96 is a great example of one of the many things I love about the psalms, and one whose significance can be overlooked: their unshakeable confidence that Yahweh is not only the god of Israel, but the maker of heaven and earth, the ruler of the whole world.

Now that both Judaism and Christianity have become Great World Religions™, with countless adherents found in every country in the world, it is easy for us to overlook how counterintuitive statements such as this were at when originally made. A neutral observer looking at the middle east in the first millennium BC would not have singled out the people of Israel as the nation whose god would come to command the allegiance of a third of the world’s population. Surely that honour would go, if anyone, to the gods of the great nations of the time that surrounded Israel on every side: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon.

And yet we find this tiny, put-upon nation confidently claiming not only that its god is better than everybody else’s god – everyone did that – but that its god is on a completely different plane of existence. Take Psalm 115:

Our God is in the heavens;
   he does whatever he pleases.
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;
   they make no sound in their throats.
Those who make them are like them;
   so are all who trust in them.

And the psalmists do not merely assert that the god of Israel is the God of all the earth, the only god with any real existence. They claim with equal confidence that one day that fact will be recognised throughout the world, and the god of Israel worshipped as God by people of all nations:

All the ends of the earth shall remember
   and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
   shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
   and he rules over the nations.

Psalm 22:27,28

In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons;
   you will make them princes in all the earth.
I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
   therefore the peoples will praise you for ever and ever.

Psalm 45:16,17

Again, it is easy to overlook how fantastically unlikely it was, in human terms, that these predictions would come true; how inconceivable it was that people 3,000 years later should be worshipping the god of Israel in Britain or America or China – or indeed the land of Palestine. After all, all the other local gods of the time – the Baals and Ashtoreths, Chemosh and Molech – are forgotten in their own lands, let alone further afield.

And quite apart from anything else, I find it deeply moving to contemplate the people of Israel, this tiny nation facing constant threats from the great nations around them and constant temptations to turn away from single-minded devotion to their god, singing in the teeth of the visible evidence:

Your way, O God, is holy.
   What god is so great as our God?

Psalm 77:13

The fact that we are able to join in this song today is, in itself, compelling evidence in support of the psalmists’ claim that the god of Israel is indeed the God of the whole earth, the maker of all things; whose way is holy and who alone deserves to be called “great”.

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7 Responses to Obvious only with hindsight

  1. Phil Walker says:

    Not only the faith in Israel’s God, but also the documents detailing the actions of that God have survived. Everything we know about what the pagan gods (which are no gods at all) were said to have done, we know from archaeology. But Israel’s God? His story has never been forgotten. The casual observer might almost be led to surmise that something was going on, but I think most people can studiously avoid such thoughts. πŸ™‚

  2. Josh S says:

    There are only around 14-15 million self-identified Jews in the world, with only around half of them identifying themselves as Jewish by religion rather than ethnicity. 0.1% of the world’s population does not a world religion make.

  3. CPA says:

    Pascal’s apologetic started with the existence of the Jews. This was, he held, an amazing sign of divine protection. And yet how can a purely ethnic religion which, as Josh just pointed out, is basically insignificant in numbers, be God’s final word? So there must some way, connected with the Jews, in which God is making Himself known to the whole world.

    Another interesting thing. The first mention of “Israel” in any non-Biblical source is Merneptah’s stele (c. 1200) in which he proclaims “Israel is widowed for Egypt”. The second is the stele of King Mesha of Moab (c. 850) in which he proclaims how Israel and his god have been wiped out by Chemosh the mighty God of Moab.

    Israel keeps on getting wiped out and keeps on having the last laugh — if laugh it can be amid the tears.

  4. Chris Williams says:

    I wonder though, could these same arguments be re-orientated to support Islam? Just my initial reservation.

  5. John H says:

    Chris: of Islam one might say, like Joan Baez of Bob Dylan, “You burst onto the scene/Already a legend”. πŸ™‚

    The most remarkable feature of early Islam was the rapidity of its expansion. Within a generation of Muhammad’s death, the Muslim empire controlled vast swathes of territory as great as those held by almost any previous empire. For a Muslim to sing “What god is so great as our God?” would not have seemed remotely strange by, say, AD 650.

  6. Rick Ritchie says:

    I think this is an area where apologetics arguments can be made. But I think they need to be tested and poked a bit before using them on the street. I’m with Chris here.

    If we use these with an educated non-Christian, he might suggest that the claim would need to be taken as it was meant at the time. Did the Israelites imagine the UK or America or Australia when they said what they said? No.

    That doesn’t exactly disprove what John presented. But you will want to have a response ready. Does it matter what “the ends of the earth” meant to a Jew at the time? If not, why not?

    I would probably approach it like this. Whether or not the Israelites conceived of the “ends of the earth” being nearby or far away, the expression conveys a totality. The totality happens to be larger than was expected, so the fulfillment is more impressive.

  7. John H says:

    Rick, Chris: to clarify, I wasn’t putting this forward as an apologetical argument to convince non-believers. As such an argument, I accept it’s a total crock (not that that generally stands in the way of many apologetical arguments finding gainful employment!)

    Perhaps the problem was using the word “evidence” in my final paragraph, rather than “confirmation”, “corroboration” or whatever. This is an argument to strengthen and nourish existing faith, not to persuade a sceptic.

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