As for all the gods of the heathen, they are but idols :
but it is the Lord that made the heavens.
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in every country in the world, it is easy for us to overlook how counterintuitive statements such as this were at when originally made.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.
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.
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?
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”.