Psalm 96 – Value-Subtracted Gods

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Today’s PassagePsalm 96

Here’s another call to worship, echoing similar themes as yesterday’s psalm. But what caught my eye was how it views “other gods.”

Psalm 95 identified God as Creator of land and sea, the only God who made any kind of world, and therefore the only God worthy of worship. Psalm 96 puts a different spin on this idea; the psalmist writes, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens” (96:5). I noticed in the margins of my NASB an alternate translation for “idols”: “non-existent things.” My curiosity piqued, I went straight for my Strong’s Concordance.

The word for “idol” here is eliylIt means basically a thing of no value. On rare occasions, it’s used to describe people (i.e. physicians in Job 13:4, shepherds in Zechariah 11:17), but far and away it’s used to talk about these gold or silver things that have been shaped into a statue to worship. Imagine: you take a valuable material, a precious metal, you ply your craft of metalworking on it, you worship it, and suddenly it is worth less than it was before. You have diminished its value, by turning it into something that draws people away from the Creator who actually deserves worship. That’s all the other so-called “gods” are: just lumps of stone or metal that somebody’s wasted their time on making it into an object of worship. These gods never actually made anything, never gave anyone anything good. They just leech off humanity like parasites.

Isaiah uses the word eliyl in a handful of places, but not where I expected him to. His famous critiques of idolatry in Isaiah 44:9-20 and 46:5-7 employ a different term that emphasizes the idol as a sculpted thing, not as a worthless thing. That said, Isaiah is still deeply critical of idolatry as a futile practice.

God the Creator, in contrast, is worth worshipping because he gives something back. The psalmist leads the people in their song, telling them, “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns; indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity'” (96:10). The Lord serves his creation as judge, ensuring righteousness in the order of the cosmos, setting the world on a reliable foundation.

Other gods take, but this God gives. And he’s worth giving back to.


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