Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
It is not possible now to ascertain on what occasion this psalm was composed, or who was its author. It has been generally believed that it was written in the later periods of the Jewish history, and after the captivity in Babylon. There is no improbability in the supposition, though there is nothing so marked in the psalm as to make this supposition necessary. It is evident from Psa 115:2-3, that it was composed in a time of national calamity, and especially of such national disaster as might lead the surrounding nations to say of them that they were forsaken by the God whom they worshipped. This charge is replied to by saying that what had occurred had taken place under the divine permission, and was no proof that Yahweh was not the true God. This thought leads the author of the psalm to prove the utter powerlessness of idols as compared with Yahweh, and, in view of this, to exhort the people of Israel still to trust in their own God as the Being in whom alone they could hope for protection and safety.
The psalm, therefore, comprises the following parts:
I. A statement that all which they had was to be traced to God, Psa 115:1.
II. The existing troubles of the nation as being so great that the pagan were led to infer that Yahweh could not help them, and to ask, with some show of plausibility, where now was the God in whom they trusted? Psa 115:2.
III. The general statement of the psalmist that what had occurred was to be traced to God; that it was not evidence that he had forsaken them, but was proof that he was a sovereign, Psa 115:3.
IV. A statement of the utter weakness, helplessness, and inefficiency of idols; of their entire powerlessness as being without life; and of the stupidity and folly of worshipping such lifeless objects, Psa 115:4-8.
V. An exhortation to trust in the Lord, on the ground of what he had done, and of the blessings which were to be expected of him, Psa 115:9-16.
VI. An exhortation to do this at once, since death would soon occur, and praise could not be rendered to him in the grave, Psa 115:17-18,
Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory - This apparently abrupt commencement of the psalm was undoubtedly in reference to some circumstances which would be well understood at the time when the psalm was composed, but which cannot be definitely ascertained now. It seems to have been in view of some existing troubles, and the language at the same time expresses a hope of the divine interposition, and a feeling that the praise of such interposition would belong wholly to God. The phrase "give glory" means, give all the honor and praise. See the notes at Psa 29:1-2.
For thy mercy - The mercy or the favor which we seek and look for - thy gracious help in the time of trouble.
And for thy truth's sake - Thy faithfulness to thy promises; thy faithfulness to thy people. The psalmist anticipated this manifestation of faithfulness with confidence; he felt that all the praise for such an anticipated interposition would belong to God.
Wherefore should the heathen say - The nations; they who worshipped idols, and who claimed that those idols were true gods. Why should we, thy people, be so left, so forsaken, so afflicted, as to lead these idolaters to suppose that we worship a false God, or that the God whom we adore is destitute of power or faithfulness; either that he does not exist, or that he cannot be relied on. It is evident that they were now in circumstances which would give some plausibility to the question here asked.
Where is now their God? - They seem to be forsaken. God, the God whom they worship, does not come forth for their defense. If he exists at all, he is destitute of power, or he is not true to the people who worship him, and he cannot be trusted. Compare Psa 42:3, note; Psa 42:10, note; Psa 79:10, note.
But our God is in the heavens - The Septuagint adds, "and in the earth." This is not, however, in the Hebrew. The idea is, Our God really exists. He is the true God. He reigns in heaven. His plans are such as are and should be formed in heaven: lofty, vast, incomprehensible. But he is still our God; our Ruler; our Protector. He is not a god of earth - whose origin is earth - who dwells on earth alone - like the idols of the pagan; but the whole vast universe is under his control.
He hath done whatsoever he hath pleased - And, therefore, what has been done is right, and we should be submissive to it. He is a sovereign God; and mysterious as are his doings, and much as there seems to be occasion to ask the question "Where is now your God?" yet we are to feel that what has occurred has been in accordance with his eternal plans, and is to be submitted to as a part of his arrangements. It is, in fact, always a sufficient answer to the objections which are made to the government of God, as if he had forsaken his people in bringing affliction on them, and leaving them, apparently without interposition, to poverty, to persecution, and to tears, that he is "in the heavens;" that he rules there and everywhere; that he has his own eternal purposes; and that all things are ordered in accordance with his will. There must, therefore, be some good reason why events occur as they actually do.
Their idols - Their gods - the gods which they worship, as contrasted with the God whom we adore. The design of this description Psa 115:4-8 is to show the utter vanity of trusting in such gods, and to lead the people of Israel to put their trust in the true God - in Yahweh.
Are silver and gold - Made of silver and gold, and they must have, therefore, the properties of silver and gold. They can be of value only as silver and gold. They cannot do the work of mind; they cannot do the work of God. The psalmist was not disposed to depreciate the real value of these idols, or to throw contempt on them which they did not deserve. He was disposed to treat them fairly. They were silver and gold; they had an intrinsic value as such; they showed in the value of the material how much the pagan were disposed to honor their objects of worship; and they were not held up to contempt as shapeless blocks of wood or stone. The psalmist might have said that most of them were made of wood or stone, and were mere shapeless blocks; but it is always best to do justice to an adversary, and not to attempt to underrate what he values. The argument of an infidel on the subject of religion may be utterly worthless as an argument for infidelity, but it may evince ability, learning, subtilty, clearness of reasoning, and even candor; and it is best to admit this, if it is so, and to give to it all the credit which it deserves as a specimen of reasoning, or as stating a real difficulty which ought to be solved by somebody - to call it "silver and gold" if it is so, and not to characterize it as worthless, weak, stupid - the result of ignorance and folly. He has great advantage in an argument who owns the real force of what an opponent says; he gains nothing who charges it as the offspring of stupidity, ignorance, and folly - unless he can show that it is so.
The work of men's hands - Shaped and fashioned by people's hands. They cannot, therefore, be superior to those who made them; they cannot answer the purpose of a God.
They have mouths ... - They are shaped like people, but have none of the attributes of intelligent beings.
They that make them are like unto them - Stupid; senseless; irrational. See the notes at Isa 44:9-20.
So is everyone that trusteth in them - People who do this show that they are destitute of all the proper attributes of reason, since such gods cannot help them. It is most strange, as it appears to us, that the worshippers of idols did not themselves see this; but this is in reality no more strange than that sinners do not see the folly of their course of sin; that people do not see the folly of worshipping no God. In fact, there is less of folly among the pagan than there is in this class of men. The worship of an idol shows at least that there is some religious tendency in the mind; some conviction that God ought to he worshipped; some aspiration after a proper object of worship; some appreciation of the true dignity and rank of man as made for worship; but what shall be said of the man who evinces no such tendency - who has no such aspiration or desire - who endeavors to extinguish in his nature all that was designed to express the idea of worship, or to lead him to God - who never starts the inquiry whether there is a God - who never prays for light, for guidance, for pardon, for a preparation for death and eternity - who never even testifies so much interest in religion as to set up an image of gold, or wood, or stone, as indicative of the fact that he is made above the brutes? There are multitudes of the pagan less stupid and foolish than people in Christian lands.
O Israel, trust thou in the Lord - This exhortation is founded in a great measure on what had been just said in regard to idols. They had no power. There was no reason why they should be confided in. They could not help in the day of trouble; and as people need a god, and as the idols cannot be to them as gods, the exhortation is addressed to his people to trust him. He would be to them all that was implied in the name God; all that was wanted in a God.
He is their help - The help of those who trust in him. He is able to help them in the time of trouble; he is willing to help them; he will help them. They who put their trust in him will find him a sure and certain help. This is the experience of all who confide in him.
And their shield - Their protector. See Psa 5:12, note; Psa 18:2, note; Psa 33:20, note. Compare Gen 15:1; Deu 33:29; Pro 30:5.
O house of Aaron ... - Ministers of religion; descendants of Aaron. His family was consecrated to the various services of the sanctuary.
Ye that fear the Lord ... - All the people that reverence God; all his true worshippers.
The Lord hath been mindful of us - This would be especially appropriate if the psalm was written, as is commonly supposed, after the return from the captivity of Babylon. In such circumstances it would be every way proper to bring before the mind of the people the fact that God had remembered them and had delivered them.
He will bless us - Our past experience furnishes the fullest evidence that he will continue to bless us. He who has delivered us from so great calamities, and who has restored us to our native land after so long and so painful a captivity, will not forsake us now. There can be now no circumstances in which he cannot bestow on us all the blessings which we need; there will be none when we may not hope that he will bless us. If he could save us from such troubles, be can save us from all; if he did thus interpose, we may argue that he will always grant us his help when we need it.
He will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron - Compare Psa 115:9-10.
He will bless them that fear the Lord - Compare Psa 115:11.
Both small and great - Margin, as in Hebrew, with. The little with the great; children and grown persons; the poor and the rich; the ignorant and the learned; those of humble rank, and those of most exalted birth and condition.
The Lord shall increase you more and more - He will increase your numbers and your power. We may suppose that the people were greatly diminished by the captivity, and that on their return to their country their number was comparatively small. This promise of a great increase was in accordance with the cherished wishes of the Hebrew people, and with the repeated promises which God had made to their fathers. Compare Gen 15:5; Gen 22:17; Gen 32:12.
You and your children - The blessing shall be not only on you, but it shall go down to future generations,
Ye are blessed of the Lord - Blessed in your present comforts and mercies; blessed in his promises in regard to the time to come; blessed in the prospects which are before you.
Which made heaven and earth - The true God; the great Creator of all things. It was not the blessing of a creature - man or angel - it was the blessing of the living God.
The heaven - Hebrew, "The heavens."
Even the heavens are the Lord's - A more literal and correct rendering of this would be, "The heavens are heavens for Jehovah." That is, he has reserved the heavens as a home for himself, or as his special possession and home. Compare Isa 66:1; Mat 5:34; Act 7:49.
But the earth ... - He propared earth for the abode of man; he has placed man upon it to cultivate it; he has given its fruits and productions to man, to be held and enjoyed by man; he has made all on earth subject to man - the dwellers in the air, the land, and the waters. All this he has given to man; not to the angels. Earth is the home of man, the birth-place of man; the place where he lives, where he shows the result of his toil, his skill, and his ingenuity; the place where he builds houses, bridges, monuments, works of art; the place where he prepares for another state of existence; the place where he dies, and is buried. It is, as formed by the Creator, a beautiful home outfitted for mankind; how much more beautiful would it be, if man never defiled or desolated it by sin! how happy an abode would it have been if sin had never entered it!
The dead praise not the Lord - The meaning of this is, that as those who are dead cannot praise God, or cannot worship him, this should be done while we are in the land of the living. This opportunity, like all other opportunities, will be cut off in the grave, and hence, we should be faithful in this duty, and should avail ourselves of this privilege, while life lasts. In regard to the sentiment here expressed, and the grounds on which that sentiment was entertained, see the notes at Isa 38:18-19; notes at Psa 6:5.
Neither any that go down into silence - Into the grave - the land of silence. Psa 94:17. Nothing is more impressive in regard to the grave than its utter silence. Not a voice, not a sound, is heard there - of birds or human beings - of song or conversation - of the roaring of the sea, the sighing of the breeze, the fury of the storm, the tumult of battle. Perfect stillness reigns there; and the first sound that shall be heard there will be the archangel's trump.
But we will bless the Lord ... - While life lasts; now and ever onward. Our lives are spared; and while those lives shall be continued they shall be spent in praise. We will transmit the praise to future times; and when we are dead, the voice of praise shall be prolonged by those who come after us. It may be added here that we have now higher and clearer views of the grave and of the future world than the psalmist had, and that though it is certain that our voices of praise must be stilled by death, yet in another world we shall continue the work of praise in strains more lofty than here, and in a continuance of service that shall never end. The grave is, indeed, before us all; but so is also heaven, if we belong to those who truly fear the Lord, and who sincerely worship him through Christ Jesus.