Several years ago, Dr. Os Guinness gave me a copy of his book Fool’s Talk. What is the purpose of the book, written by a world-class, highly effective apologist? His goal is to help equip Christians to know how to properly and powerfully address our ever-darkening culture. In the first chapter, titled Creative Persuasion, the author sets the tone for the book by first explaining what believers are up against:
Let me state the problem again: Almost all our witnessing and Christian communication assumes that people are open to what we have to say, or at least are interested, if not in need of what we are saying. Yet most people quite simply are not open, not interested and not needy, and in much of the advanced modern world fewer a people are open today than even a generation ago. Indeed, many are more hostile, and their hostility is greater than the Western church has faced for centuries. Through the explosion of pluralism in the in the last fifty years, our world has grown dramatically more diverse, and through the intensification of the culture warring in many Western countries, our world has grown far more dismissive of our faith. In short, the public squares in many of our nations are more secular and the private spheres are more diverse. We therefore have to speak many languages, and not just ‘Christian,’ and we have to be persuasive when we address minds and hearts that often listen to us with a default position of prejudice, scorn, impatience, and sometimes anger.
His statement about a hostile culture is, unfortunately, truer today than in 2015. Whether it is a Christian’s bank about being closed because the bank didn’t like their conservative stance on social issues, or a Christian educator or doctor being intimidated and eventually silenced by being shamed because they dare believe in two sexes and two genders, we all see open hostility to the faith becoming more prevalent with each passing day. Can you relate?
How should we engage people who, more and more, are convinced that Christianity is a problem, not a solution to cultural woes and complex issues? Is this not the question. Most definitely, especially for those who want to give an adequate defense of the gospel per Peter’s counsel (15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 1 Pet. 3). Further, how do we keep from being overcome (depressed, disillusioned, and derailed) by the acidic nature of cultural opposition to the belief in the Word of God, the existence of God, the moral law of God, and the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ?
Answers to these questions are not new. In Psalm 115, which was probably written during the exile when Israel, as captives, faced daily hostility from a culture steeped in polytheism, both of these questions are answered. What was the Psalmist’s goal for these and future Israelites? To equip them to stand strong in the face of spiritual opposition engendered by the majority, and to teach them how to be God’s witness in the midst of cultural taunts, tests, and trails. The spiritual truths and technique(s) communicated in this Psalm, of course, transcend time and are applicable to all saints for, as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, there is really nothing new under the sun. Translated, we, too, can gain much insight from this Psalm in how to live in tough, trying times.
With all of this before us, I invite you to consider the main motif of these eighteen verses:
How To Be An Overcomer In Times Overcome By Evil (Psalm 115)
Before I show you how the psalmist develops this motif, permit me to offer a few salient points.
One, the apologetic method presented in these verses is just one strategy of one man, so don’t think it is the be-all, end-all. It is not. Concerning this, Os wisely observes: “The deep logic of God’s truth can be expressed in both stories and arguments, by questions as well as statement, through reason and the imagination, through the four Gospels as well as through the book of Romans.” If you want to study some of these other apologetic strategies, I suggest you read Fool’s Talk for starters. I’d also direct you to Norman Geisler’s When Skeptics Ask, J. P. Moreland and Tim Muehlhoff’s excellent and creative book The God Conversation. As you study new methods, also, always be mindful that technique is supposed to lead to talking, to engaging those who don’t know Christ.
Two, I’m going to read large portions of the biblical text and then circle around and offer some specific textual and lexical observations, followed by, hopefully, some helpful words about personal application.
Three, I will develop the Psalmist’s theme in the four movements of this passage by considering the acronym H.O.P.E. I’ve chosen this word because this is what the Psalmist is seeking to instill permanently in those who live in culture’s opposed to them and their faith (which pretty much means all cultures at all times, right?).
So, I must ask you a personal question up front: Is the flame of your faith flickering because of the great gains you see the godless making in sidelining and silencing God-fearing people like you? If so, you, my friend, need some hope, and hope is just what the psalmist offers by way of the divinely inspired words God gave him.
First up is the letter H.
Hold Tightly To God’s Character (Psalm 115:1)
Why? Because it is the profound thoughts of God’s person which will carry you through and empower you in decadent, divisive days. Further, it is because it is the very character of God the world will attack. You, therefore, hold tenaciously to understanding the divine character so you can, in turn, hold it up before those who assail it and (foolishly and arrogantly) think they can relegate it to the trash heap of history.
Watch how the Psalmist directs us to contemplate who God is as we walk in godless days:
1 Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to Thy name give glory because of Thy lovingkindness, because of Thy truth.
While the world is awash in hubris, self-centeredness, and pride, the saint is to be awash in humility before the living, unseen God. How do I know this? How could you not see it in the twice repeated “not unto us” be glory, which is a way in Hebrew of speaking of honor. To the Psalmist, honor is due to God for who He is at all times, be they peaceful for problematic.
Underscore the two facets of God’s character the Psalmist highlights.
One, he says that we, as followers of God, give God honor because of His lovingkindness. The Hebrew word is hesed (חֶסֶד ). It has several lexical meanings in the Old Testament, but most of them center on the fact that God is loyal in His love for His saints, meaning He will not ever desert them and will always be there for them, for you. The word also connotes the fact God is kind and merciful to those who really don’t deserve it. Along these lines, Exodus 34 is a case in point. Even though Israel had gravely sinned in creating the golden calf, here we learn how God forgave His wayward, rebellious people and He kindly gave them a second set of stone tablets containing the all-important Ten Commandments. Moses predictably looked at this move of loyal love and gave God the verbal glory, or respect and honor due His holy name. Interesting. In tough times, Moses clung to the lovingkindness of the living Lord. Will you? Do you?
If anything, our current culture is anything but loving and kind toward saints (Jesus warned us that we would be hated by the world for they hated Him first, John 15:18-25). In fact, just the opposite is true as they seek to silence the voice of godly, moral people. Whether it is a group who continually uses (abuses) the legal system to go after a Christian baker for not wanting to bake a cake for a woman’s gender transition to a man, which defies his understanding of God’s Word, or a website like ChurchClarity.com which keeps track of where churches stand on various volatile social issues (no doubt for future legal use), we needn’t look far at unkind, mean-spirited attacks on believers. They not only act in an unkind, unloving fashion, they waste no time accusing God of not possessing hesed Himself. Just let a tragedy occur either publicly or personally, and these types of pernicious people will be the first to say, “If your God is God, then why did He permit this? Why didn’t he stop this from happening? Why pray to a God who never seems interested or capable of putting a stop to acts of evil?” Funny how they have a concept of evil. I wonder what this absolute understanding is measured against in their relativistic, evolutionary, there-is-no-God worlds?
While this trend will most likely continue as we head into the times Paul prophesied (2 Tim. 3), we must keep our focus on the loyal love of God. Why? Because this will not only serve to give Him the praise He deserves, but it will also serve to strengthen us by reminding us the Lord is with us no matter what . . . just as He promised (“5 Let your character be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, "I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,” Heb. 13).
Two, the Psalmist commands believers to give God honor because He is a God of absolute truth. This, of course, is the part of God’s character which drives non-believers over the emotional edge. Our world illogically wants us to believe there are truths, not truth, that truth is what is true to you but that it might not necessarily be true for me. This type of twisted reasoning leads people to wrongly conclude we can have no viable discussion about moral issues for, after all, these issues are just every person’s point of view and all views are equal (except for those which are based in the Word of God, of course). This vacuous view also leads people to oppose anyone who’d dare say that any one religion is true and that the others are false, because all views are, in their minds true based on a relative view of truth. All of this naturally leads these adherents to be actively intolerant toward anyone who courageously stands up for spiritual truth, moral truth, sexual and gender truth, and so forth.
Enter God. He is truth (John 14:6). He is the God and there is, as He says, no other god and no other Savior besides Him, period (Isa. 45;14, 21). By definition, this truth claim means all other religions are espousing doctrines which counter truth and lead people away from the truth which saves sinful people (Rom. 5:12-21). Further, as the essence of truth, God, by definition, can only ever speak that which is true at all times. Hence, what He calls sin in the Old Testament is still seen as sin in the New Testament, and it is still applicable in our day. Why? Truth never changes. What is true mathematically is always true (2 + 2 = 4), and the same applies to morals as well, regardless of what the wild, wicked world says, how passionately they articulate it, or how many ardently believe it.
So, in testy times, times where truth will be in short supply and where falsity will seek to disguise itself as truth, believers are commanded to honor the God who is the essence of truth. By so doing, the saint will rightly worship God, and they will also fortify their minds around what matters most as the world embraces chaos. Truth is the main game, and truth will prevail in the long run. Our culture is throwing truth to the wind at breakneck speed, and the negative results are already shocking. While they are doing this, we need to make sure we, of all people, never surrender our belief in the God who is the measurement of all truth for once truth is sidelined chaos comes in and God’s character is assailed and watered down . . . to our detriment.
Who, then, are overcomers? Good question. They are believers who have a firm grip on the knowledge of the God who is all about truth in a truth-less day and age. They are people like J. P. Moreland, Greg Koukl, John MacArthur, Darrell Bock, Os Guinness, and, yes, you. You worship the God of truth, you stand for truth, and then stand back and watch darkness flee.
Second, in difficult days when the faith is relentlessly harangued and harassed, you need to . . .
Organize Your Offense (Psalm 115:2-8)
What offense? This is your apologetic strategic plan of reaching out to non-believers, for building bridges to them so you can eventually tell them about the risen Savior, Jesus, the Christ. Here is how the Psalmist’s presents his situation and spiritual response:
2 Why should the nations say, "Where, now, is their God?"
It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to create the historical background which might have prompted this taunt in verse 2. The ten tribes of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and then the final two tribes, along with their powerful fortress in Jerusalem, fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. With their cities destroyed, their countrymen dead on the battlefield, their holy Temple looted, the remaining people were hauled off across the hot, arid desert some 600 miles to Babylon. For seventy years they remained captives under the iron-fisted rule of the world’s most powerful nation. For seventy years they couldn’t go through a given day and not encounter the plethora of Babylonian gods, nor could they escape the condescending taunts from the polytheists:
If your God is so great, why did He let us walk all over your army and defenses?
If your God is the living God, it sure looks like He was asleep when we invaded and took whatever we wanted.
If your God resided in the Temple, why didn’t He do anything to protect it when we entered the supposedly holy precincts?
If your God is kind and loving, why did He allow us to put hooks through your jaws and rope you together for your long, dangerous walk back to Babylon?
If your God is so great, why are our monuments to all of our gods standing strong and true? Marduk, our primary god still enjoys his temples. Nergal, the god of the underworld, empowered us, as the god also of war and famine, to overpower you and your so-called God. Adad the god of storms is still bringing storms. Ea the god of wisdom is still giving wisdom to our priesthood, which is still functioning unlike yours. Shamash, the god of the sun and divine justice is still dispensing justice while your god is really just silent about the supposed “injustice” of your national fall.
I’ll stop there for I’m sure you get the point.
How did the Psalmist counsel the people to respond to this frontal attack on their faith and their God? Read on and you’ll see.
3 But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases. 4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of man's hands. 5 They have mouths, but they cannot speak; they have eyes, but they cannot see; 6 They have ears, but they cannot hear; they have noses, but they cannot smell; 7 They have hands, but they cannot feel; they have feet, but they cannot walk; they cannot make a sound with their throat. 8 Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts in them.
Basically, there are four methods of apologetics. Classical apologetics first answers the question, “Is there a God?” Evidential apologetics “stresses the need for evidence in support of the Christian truth claims. The evidence can be rational, historical, archaeological, and even experiential.” This strategy will even use precise prophetic evidence to prove its various points. Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands A Verdict is a case in point. Presuppositional apologetics presupposes that the Word of God should rightly be the starting point for discussions about truth. Experiential apologetics appeals to personal experience as the means to prove the existence and power of God. After all, a look at what He has miraculously done in their formerly sordid, reckless, twisted life is hard evidence.
With these methods in mind, I think the Psalmist here employs evidential apologetics insofar as he uses rational, logical thought to deconstruct and deflate the polytheist’s position that his gods are the true gods. Lovingly, logically, and forthrightly he quickly points out that all of these pagan gods are simply idols made by mere men. Even if they cover their stone or wood shapes with silver or gold, they are still nothing but wood and stone, lifeless and worthless. Can you say the psalmist is candid when it comes to truth? Indeed. Do you think he meant to deliver this truth in an offensive, condescending fashion? No. He just wasted no time pointing out the obvious holes in reducing the Almighty to a manageable concept in the form of man-made idol. How illogical. How ridiculous.
He also gave a candid word of warning: you will reflect the false system you embrace. You might need to read that again. Just as idol worship is illogical and meaningless, an idol worshipper will, by default, live a life known for illogic and having no true meaning. If your false religion is one structured around laws, rules, and regulations, you will become so legalistic you will never know joy and peace, just rules . . . and fear. Satya Narayan, an elderly Hindu man, attended New Member classes at my home in California. At the close of one study we stood and the front porch and talked. He said, “I’ve served 5,000 gods my whole life and I now know I cannot please them. Could we go back inside your home so I can hear more about Jesus and His gospel?” We went back inside, sat down, talked, and in no time he traded falsity for truth.
The words of the Psalmist are so enlightening and instructive. From him we learn we are to give ample time and thought to what hostile (and peaceful) non-Christians are saying, teaching, and pushing about the faith of Christians. We, additionally, are to realize there are many ways to dismantle false teaching, be what it may, in order to hopefully guide a pugnacious person toward divine truth. In Mere Christianity, as Guinness points out, C. S. Lewis used rational, logical thought to guide the lost to the Savior. In the Screwtape Letters he employed a fanciful story to teach truth about the Devil and his minions and how they deal with a new Christian convert. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis, again, used an imaginative story to teach powerful spiritual truths embedded in the Holy Scriptures. In their book, The God Conversation, J. P. Moreland and Tim Muehlhoff give us excellent advice on how to use stories and illustrations to teach non-Christians about everything from why there is only one God to whether we are an accident or a planned design by a designer. Again, the use of stories and illustrations is quite different from the sound scientific logic for belief in God as found in God’s Undertaker by mathematician John Lennox. These methods also differ from that of Greg Koukl in his excellent book called Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. Wisely does Greg show willing students how to use Socratic questions to show modern day Babylonians just how illogical their view really is so they will be moved to consider greater, more logical thoughts about the living God.
I say all of this to underscore one key point: We need to have studied responses ready to give to those who oppose the faith. By attending Dr. David Geisler’s Conversational Evangelism seminar next Saturday from 9:00-12:00 p.m., you will learn how to lovingly and compassionately oppose false teaching/thinking, while building a bridge to the lost so the gospel of Jesus Christ can save them. And if you don’t have time to attend, you can order and read the book and devise your own plan. Further, you can take a book like Norman Geisler’s When Skeptics Ask and you can create a one-page response sheet on the twelve areas he covers, which are topics you will encounter. On this page you can put The Claim of the non-Christian followed by a few of their supporting arguments in bulletized format. Then you can center the words The Counter-Claim below this and list a couple of solid, logical points or stories/illustrations you need to present to guide the person away from their vain idol/false ideology/false theology. Once you are finished with this, I challenge you to memorize the page and then pray for opportunities to engage with the goal of sharing the gospel of Jesus.
Now is not the time to retreat, run for cover, or to be silent. No, now is the time, as we learn from the Psalmist, to speak up and out, to go on the offence for the gospel without being offensive. The Scriptures give us wonderful and highly practical counsel regarding our spirit as we engage. Paul’s words to Pastor Timothy are a case study:
24 And the Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Tim. 2).
Content is everything, but so, too, is demeanor and attitude.
So, are you ready to engage? An overcome is one who is prepared to push back against the encroaching darkness. I pray this describes or at least inspires you to change your current life course.
Third, overcomers are believers who learn to . . .
Power Up With Trust (Psalm 115:9-16)
Read and you will see what the psalmist means:
9 O Israel, trust in the LORD; He is their help and their shield. 10 O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD; He is their help and their shield. 11 You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD; He is their help and their shield.
Three times the psalmist commands us to trust the LORD. Why? Because in tough, trying, tempestuous times we can be tempted to question God (like Peter did when he denied Christ three times), to walk away from Him because evil seems, well, unstoppable, and because the world can become so crazy we can wonder where God is and does He really care? Just hearing about Disney turning the beloved Gonzo into a gender fluid Gonzo-rella for the Disney Junior’s Muppet Babies is enough to discourage most saints who understand what is really going on here. Hence, the need to remind us to never stop trusting in the God who is there.
Why should we trust Him? Three times the Psalmist tells us He is our help and our shield. Translated, he will be there to help you walk in and through the darkness, be what it may. If you are an educator struggling with how to handle some of the explosive cultural issues, don’t fear for He will be your help. He will give you wisdom above your years so you’ll know how to navigate. He will shield you from those who’d seek to silence or sideline you. If you are a student heading back to a university to take classes from professors you know are known for purposefully dismantling and embarrassing Christians, you need to trust that God is with you. He will help you when you hear thoughts contrary to the faith. He will help you when you have to write a paper which you know will go against the godless ideological grain. He will be your shield too as others will gain up on you for being so narrow-minded, insensitive, illogical, and uncaring (these, really, are words which describe your gospel opponents . . . if they are honest).
Trust in God. It’s the very thing the Devil wants to attack because it leads to you tapping into God’s power for victorious living. If you are having trouble trusting Him, then today is the day to confess that sin to Him and ask Him to help you and to defend you in a profound fashion.
What additional things happen when you trust God in tough times? The Psalmist doesn’t let you down:
12 The LORD has been mindful of us;
Translated: God knows exactly what you are going through because He cares for you. Your life is constantly on His righteous radar. He knows all the ups and downs you’ve experienced, and He’s privy to what and who you are up against. So trust Him.
When you trust Him, which means you walk closely with Him and don’t argue or complain about what’s going on around you, He, in due time works to bless you in profound ways:
He will bless us; He will bless the house of Israel; He will bless the house of Aaron. 13 He will bless those who fear the LORD, the small together with the great. 14 May the LORD give you increase, you and your children. 15 May you be blessed of the LORD, maker of heaven and earth. 16 The heavens are the heavens of the LORD; but the earth He has given to the sons of men.
Underscore that word “will.” When you trust God, when you decide to put Him first, when you commit to following hard after Him, He will pour blessing on your life. Verse 14 really spells out what it meant by the word blessing. Here the prayer is for God to make you increase, which is the Hebrew yasaph ( יָסַף ) which denotes the concept of flourishing.
Last year I planted a Thai pepper plant in a colorful planter in my backyard. I made sure I placed it where it would get good exposure to the sun, as the directions on the label stated. Within about 45 days I enjoyed a bumper crop of those green, small, but radioactive peppers. This year, I bought another plant and put it in a different pot on my wooden deck. Sure, this spot is covered by the shade of an 80-foot tulip popular, but I thought it would get enough sun in the morning. I thought wrong. Now, 3 ½ months later all I have is a mature Thai pepper plant but no blossoms, meaning there are no peppers.
Thinking minds need to mark this well as you think about how to flourish. You must follow the directions even though you might think you are smarter and wiser. When you are a Christian who desires to flourish for God, you have got to follow His directions. What do His directions call for? They call for you to trust Him. What does that entail? It entails you follow where He is leading you, even if it is into turbulent or challenging waters, while knowing He always makes saints flourish when they lean on Him and not on themselves.
Get out into the heat of the sun. Peter did it when he preached his first sermon among Jews who had either been instrumental in crucifying Jesus, or at least cheered the tragic event that fateful Friday (Acts. 3). After his step of faith, he flourished by leading many people to salvation. Paul did it when God positioned him to speak to the philosophical intelligentsia of Greece on Mars Hill in Athens. After his step of faith, he flourished when former philosophers knelt in repentant faith before the resurrected, though unseen, Christ.
Volatile, antagonistic times can make any saint pull back and fade into the background for self-preservation purposes. God’s counsel: Don’t to it. Trust where He is leading you, follow Him, and then watch your life flourish for Him in ways you never thought possible.
Fourth, those who overcome the troublesome times in which God places them have one more key ingredient in their lives. They have lives which . . .
Engage In Praise (Psalm 115:17-18)
Here is how the Psalmist develops this concept:
17 The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence;
18 But as for us, we will bless the LORD from this time forth and forever. Praise the LORD (Ps. 115)!
Verse 17 is one of those “no duh” verses. When you die, the time for praising God is over because your physical body isn’t capable of doing it anymore. What you should be doing is stated emphatically in the Hebrew text of verse eighteen where the coordinating conjunction, and, waw (pronounced vav, with the “w” being akin to the German), is purposefully wedded to a non-verb (this is called a waw-disjunctive). Here this is the third person personal pronoun, we ( וַאֲנַ֤חְנוּ).
Why does the Psalmist end on this positive point? Because difficult days can so wear you down you get so depressed, so despondent you forget what you were saved for. The living God saved you so you could offer positive praise until He calls you home. What does it look like? Better yet, what does it sound like?
Lord, I praise you even though my family life is complex because some embrace cultural thinking.
Lord, I praise you even though my marriage has hit a rough patch because my unbelieving mate finds my faith problematic.
Lord, I praise you even though the culture is trying to cancel me because I stand for holy and moral things.
Lord, I praise you even though I know my career has hit a ceiling because I don’t (and won’t) go along with non-Christian ideologies in order to get along.
Lord, I praise you . . . well, I think it is your turn to fill in the blank.