God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. Selah.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah.
Come and see the works of the Lord the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah.
Christians love to read the psalms and rightly so. But while Psalms may be the most popular book of the Bible, the psalms are often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Many of us choose a few favorites and ignore other psalms that strike us as bizarre or even cruel. Yet all the psalms were written for our benefit (2Tim.3:16-17). To understand and appreciate the whole collection, we need solid principles of interpretation that will guide us to a proper reading and application of this riveting book. The Psalms is humanity pouring their heart out to God in prose, using all anguish, joy and exaggerations.
There are some principles that we should keep in mind as we read the psalms (with thanks to well-known Old Testament Bible scholar, Tremper Longman III). Not only will they help us understand God's message in the psalms, but these principles will also allow us to see them in all their richness. As we meditate on the psalms we will think, feel, imagine, and make choices in increasingly godly ways.
Principle 1: Read a psalm in its context and understand the genre.
The book of Psalms is unique in the Bible. It is an anthology of 150 separate poetic compositions, not a narrative, such as Genesis or Mark, nor a collection of prophetic oracles like Isaiah. Through the ages, attempts have been made to give a rationale for why one psalm follows another. Occasionally, you can see small collections of similar poems grouped together, for instance the "songs of ascents" (Ps.120-134), or the Psalm we are looking today, being the first of a trilogy of praise psalms. But context does not mean the same thing in Psalms as it does in other biblical books. A psalm may have no relationship to the ones that surround it. Clearly, it is important to read a portion of a psalm in light of the whole poem.
Psalm 46 is a psalm of hope and praise in uncertain times. It was written by the Sons of Korah. They were assistants in the Temple. It might have been composed as a celebration of God's deliverance, possibly when Jerusalem was invaded by the Assyrian army (2 Kings 13:13-19:37 or 2 Chronicles 32). The ideas conveyed show that humans have always lived in fear of a great destruction that would signify their demise or the end of the world. However, the Psalmist's words speak as clearly to us today as to the ancient Israelites. Those who place their trust in God need not fear. God will protect and save us. Before God's greatness, we stand in reverence and awe, offering our worshipful praise (vs.1-3).
Throughout history, humanity has wrestled with this Psalm as a reflection on life’s uncertainty and vulnerability. This psalm inspired Martin Luther’s best known hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” written during the turbulent years of the Reformation. This psalm was read by American President Obama at a recent 9/11 memorial in New York. In the midst of challenges, we recognize that it is God alone who is ever present.
We all face many challenges in this lifetime – loss, grief, and shattered dreams - yet these are not signs that God is not with us. Rather it is the journey for every pilgrim that walks through this extraordinary experience called life. Psalm 46 points to the fact that no matter where your journey takes you, the good news to you is that God is your refuge and strength, and a very present help in trouble.
Principle 2: Ask how the psalm anticipates Jesus Christ.
Jesus gave the disciples a principle that should govern our reading of the whole Old Testament. He told them that his life and glorification were anticipated in “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Lk. 24:44). While the New Testament shows us that a handful of psalms are especially relevant to the coming of Christ (Ps.2, 16, 22, 69, 110, for example), we should read every single psalm with Christ in mind.
Verses 4-5 of Psalm 46 speak of a river that makes glad the city of God. This reference to a river is rather strange considering that Jerusalem had (and still has) only a tiny stream, which originates at the Gihon spring (1 Kings 1:38). The spring was at the foot of the hill on which was located the Jebusite fortress captured by David (2 Samuel 5). Ultimately the hill became part of an expanding Jerusalem. The stream was reached from within the fortress by a vertical shaft and short tunnel excavated through the rock. Although the stream was not a ‘river’, it was Israel’s life-line, especially during times of siege (e.g. 2 Kings 18). This stream became symbolic of a greater ‘river’ and source of life in Zion - God himself and the life which he gives to his people. It was a symbol of hope and confidence.
Of course today when we think of the context and genre of this Psalm we stop and think of the wonderful words of Jesus as recorded in John 7:37-38, "On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive."
This Psalm foreshadow and points to Christ in so many ways – but especially as Immanuel. Your river of life may seem like a tiny trickle but even those little insignificant streams are an indication that the river of God flows through his people in the person of the Holy Spirit. We don’t need to conjur God up, He is already with his people. As Richard Rohr says, “Faith does not need to push the river because faith is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing. We are in it.” If you are in Christ, you are in the river because Christ is in you.
Principle 3: Unpack the imagery of the psalm.
Parallelism and imagery are the two most notable characteristics of biblical poetry. In both cases, we see that we need to reflect more carefully and slowly on poetry than prose, because poetry is compressed language. It says a lot using only a few words. Not only do we need to ask about the relationship between the lines (parallelism), we must be on the lookout for the metaphors and similes that give such imaginative power to the psalms.
In verse 7 and again in verse 11, the psalmist presents us with a picture of God as our fortress. In Old Testament days, especially before the Romans brought peace to Palestine, a refuge or fortress was a very real need. Un-walled villages were clustered around walled stronghold cities, where residents in the region would flee in times of war. High towers and ramparts could be defended against a force many times their size. There is this whole idea about running into the fortress because life is uncertain, unpredictable, and we are vulnerable. The only certainty is that despite our circumstances, we are loved by God more than we can imagine and his presence is offered to us as a mighty fortress. Even when you feel numb or totally disorientated, one day in hindsight you will be able to say, “God was always there, a mighty fortress.”
Principle 4: Glean the theological teaching of the psalm.
The psalms teach us about God and our relationship with Him. This is the heart of theology. The Psalter may be thought of as a portrait gallery of God, presenting us with multiple images of who God is. These images are most often pictures of relationship. God is our shepherd (Ps.23); our warrior (Ps.18); our king (Ps.47); and in the case of Psalm 46, a fortress - our refuge and strength.
We are not presented with a carefully precise prose description of the nature of God, but rather with metaphors, through which we learn truly but not comprehensively. God is far above our thoughts, but he kindly gives us glimpses of his nature through imagery. Our finite find it impossible to grasp the magnitude of God. Trying to understand God is a bit like a raindrop trying to comprehend the ocean. Reflecting on the Psalms should create in us a humility in response to the vastness of God.
When we begin to understand this we begin to see things differently, people differently, God differently. He is greater, because he is mystery and wonder. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning once said, "Earth's crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries." Theologian Karl Barth who wrote a whole book on the mystery of God said this: "This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before."
The good news of today is the gospel in a nutshell – Immanuel. There is no place that you go that God is not. His presence surrounds you like a fortress for a frightened refugee. His river of life flows in and through you when you stop screaming, running and ranting enough to meditate, hear ... and listen.
Principle 5: Consider the psalm a mirror of your soul.
When I get up in the morning, I drag myself to the mirror. As I force my eyes open, I gasp. I then quickly throw water in my face, and apply creams as they are meant to cure you of all sorts of calamities. A mirror, you see, gives me a close look at my physical appearance. Psalms also give me a good look at myself, but they peer deeper than a glass mirror; they reveal my soul. The psalms express every emotion that human beings experience. The laments articulate our fear, despair, shame, and anger. The hymns express joy, love, and confidence. As we read the words of the psalmist, they become our own. They help us understand what is going on inside of us. But even more, they minister to us as they direct us toward God.
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” This is not a summons to quiet meditation or a momentary spiritual pause. The Hebrew imperative indicates a strong meaning of “desist,” “give in” or, “let be”— like, shut up. Cease striving and admit that God is in ultimate control of human history. In faith we assent, “God the Creator reigns; God’s rule stands firm.” We do not reign; we cling to the Rock, against which the pounding waters break. As Christians we trust that, through Jesus Christ, God speaks the divine word “above all earthly powers.” Love is lord of heaven and earth. “Be quiet. Acknowledge that I am God.” The future is in the hands of the Most High. We do not control the outcome. “Be quiet. Relax. Yield.” Gelassenheit. In other words, “Step back and trust me.”
Now for a German who likes things in place, on time and in order, that mirror is not some lovely poetic prose. It can be pure torment and anguish at times. It challenges me to my core because I want to be in control. Everything within me fights against that this because, for me, it feels like the last several years I have been surrounded by a thick mist and the only grace given to me is enough light for the next step and the words “Trust me”. Now friends, that sounds romantic and beautiful – it’s not. Our contemporary culture and Christian culture encoruages us to have vision, to set goals, to look ahead, to dream and to strategise ... and yet all you can see is the mist. There’s nothing romantic about that. But the Psalm provides a mirror to my soul. It shows me how much I voiced trusting God but truly failed to trust him until the storm breaks out. God is God, I am not. Be still and know that I am God.
Principle 6: Let the psalm guide your life.
The psalms do more than teach us about God by stimulating our imagination. They do more than guide our emotional lives. They lead us to godly actions and attitudes. Preeminently, the psalms, as the hymnbook of ancient Israel, tell us how to worship. They encourage us to sing, praise, clap our hands, pray, fall on our knees, to lament, and cry to God. They invite us to an enthusiastic adoration of our God in good times and in difficult times. These principles can help us as we seek to understand and apply the psalms to our lives. They are not a magical formula, however. We must approach the psalms with the understanding that we will meet our God there.
How does Psalm 46 guide my life? It guides me into a quieter places of trust and contemplation. It's in that place that I observe the storms of life that seek to beat me. It guides me to a less hurried life because if there’s one thing I have recently learnt – that to understand the "Be Still" bit – I have to be totally ruthless with my tendency to continually be in a hurry and busy.
Contemplation is nothing less than a secret, peaceful and loving infusion from God. The road of contemplation is where God himself feeds and refreshes the soul directly, without the soul’s help or meditation. There is a remarkable transformation of the heart’s desires as a result of surrendering to God in our soul’s center. Our desire and God’s desire now join in a consonance of desire.
Contemplation also allows you to go to the dark and shadow places of our heart – the ones we pretend are not there until we finally believe the lie and live a fake, delusional life. The parts that we shut out from God and our neighbor. It’s one of the biggest problems in our fast-paced, image driven, hyper-spiritual modern Christian culture. We just don’t like to admit that darkness that resides in us. So we cover it with clichés, and false dichotomies, and adrenaline addicted hyper-reality. But our dark shadows will find us in different ways, most often in our dreams, or addictive and harmful behavior.
Be still – the contemplative life makes me realize that I can go to the shadows and not recoil in horror but realize that God is already there waiting for me. Waiting for me to embrace, acknowledge, recognize, all of my life, and allow him to transform all of my life, not just what I think are the nice bits.
Unless you learn to face your own shadows, you will continue to see them in others, because what you see on the outside is often a reflection of what is going on inside of you. You will never be able to truly love your neighbor, until you understand that you have to embrace all of your life – and love you as you. Church should be a safe place to discover that, but unfortunately much of modern Christianity has become a behavior comparison spectacle or belief odometer, so that we end up comparing ourselves amongst ourselves, instead of creating a place of authenticity, transparency and journeying with one another. Make the courageous choice to live authentically. Focus your soul on God and meditate on the greatness of God as your protector and fortress.
The Psalms are God’s gift to us. In them we, with people of antiquity, express our emotions to God and we stand in wonder. May you use them as a light in dark times, and as an expression of praise in moments of great joy, but most of all may they give you another insight into the greatness of God.