We live in a volatile world, a world that is constantly changing. Borders change. Economies change. Climates change. Governments change. How we take in knowledge changes. We live in a world that is constantly evolving and changing and this makes many of us uneasy. Some of us may enjoy minor changes from time to time, but most of us do not enjoy major changes in our lives. We value stability. We like things that are dependable. We want to know that there are some things we can rely upon.
Even though we strive for stability in our life, sometimes change is inevitable. We may go to the doctor for an ordinary check up, and she may end up giving us some bad news. We may be living life and all of a sudden a disaster strikes. There are some things we cannot prevent. There are some changes that we cannot avoid. Life happens and sometimes it is scary.
This is not something unique to our day and age. Ancient people faced the same worries. In fact, their world was less stable than ours in many ways. Nations were constantly going to battle against other nations. A good king would die and a bad king would take his place. Famine was always a problem. There were no grocery stores, so if a famine occurred one simply went without. Modern medicine had yet to come along so, even a minor health issue was a problem. People died of things that could easily be cured today.
Add to all of this the fact that ancient people did not have a great understanding of weather patterns, earthquakes, or why natural disasters occur. We still do not understand all there is to know, but at least we can predict a tornado or a hurricane. We have some warning as to when certain disasters are going to strike and we can prepare. Ancient people did not possess this type of knowledge. A volcano would erupt, an earthquake would occur, or perhaps a violent storm would hit and they had no warning. Worse yet, they did not understand why these things were happening. It was a mystery. It was confusing. In their minds the world was unstable. It was always changing and they did not know what to do. Many people lived in fear. They lived in fear of what was going to happen politically, and they lived in fear over what disaster or tragedy might strike next.
This is the context of Psalm 46. What do you do when your world is always changing? What do you do when nothing makes sense?
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots 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 of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
For the people of God there is stability in a tumultuous world. There is peace and calm in a world that often does not make sense. This stability and peace does not come from a strong military or a powerful government. It comes from the presence of God. The people of God take comfort in knowing that God is with us. He is our fortress. He is our strength. He is present when we are in trouble. Emmanuel. God is with us!
One of my favorite hymns is based on this psalm. It was written during the 1500′s which were a difficult and changing time especially for religious people. The renaissance was in full swing and Christians began to question the religious authorities that were in control. This was very serious. Earlier Christians, like John Hus, had done this and they were put to death. Hus was burned at the stake for questioning the religious abuses that he felt went against Scripture. The most famous of these reformers was Martin Luther who in 1529 wrote a hymn entitled “A Mighty Fortress.” Here are some of the lyrics to this famous song.
A mighty fortress is our God
A bulwark never failing
Our helper he amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing
Did we in our own strength confide
Our striving would be losing
Were not the right man on our side
The man of God’s own choosing
Dost ask who that might be
Christ Jesus it is he
Let goods and kindreds go
This mortal life also
The body they may kill
God’s truth abideth still
His kingdom is forever!
In a time when things were uncertain and a person could be put to death for what he or she believed Luther and others looked to Psalm 46 for comfort. They needed to know that God was their fortress. They needed to know that God was with them. They took comfort in God’s son and the name he was given, Emmanuel.
The theme of God being with his people is found throughout Scripture. God was with Noah and made a covenant with him when all the earth was corrupt. In Genesis 12 God called Abraham and was with him and blessed him and his descendants. In the wilderness God was present with his people in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. God was present in the tabernacle and at Shiloh. Most famously, God was present in the temple, in the holy of holies. Throughout the history of Israel God was present with his people. Even after the presence of the Lord departs the temple in the book of Ezekiel, God is still with the remnant, those who remained faithful even in exile. Echoes of these stories are heard in Psalm 46 that repeats the refrain “the Lord of hosts is with us.” And all these stories point forward to the promise of Emmanuel, a time when God will be with his people like never before.
Psalm 46 points out the contrast between an unstable world, where natural disasters can strike at any minute and where politics can make life hard, and a secure city where God is with his people. In verse 5 the psalmist writes,
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.
God is present with his people in the middle of the city, but what city is the psalmist referring to? At first one might guess Jerusalem, since this was the city of David and the place where the temple was located, but interestingly the psalmist never names the city. For a time God dwells in Jerusalem in the temple, but eventually Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed. It could refer to the city Abraham was looking for, a city of God here on earth, but I think what the psalmist has in mind is God’s presence with his people. It is not so much a physical city as it is wherever the people of God are located. God has promised he will be with his people. Even though the waters roar, the mountains tremble, and the nations are in an uproar, God is with his people and they are secure. They will not be moved.*
Because God is present with his people they will not fear. The psalmist begins by stating,
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change.
It is natural that people are afraid. They are afraid because our world is constantly changing and there is nothing that can be done about it. This is just the way it is, but things are different for the person who puts their faith and trust in God. The people in the world have no choice but to be afraid. However, things are different for believers. We do not have to be afraid because God is with us. He is our refuge and strength. He is present in very specific ways. The text says, “He is a very present help in trouble.” When we find ourselves in trouble, God is there and he is ready to listen and help. He is over all the nations, and he controls the wind, rain, and earth. When we trust in God we no longer have to be afraid.*
The psalm concludes with an invitation. Verses 8-11 are an invitation to come and know God. The psalmist writes,
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end 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 am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is with us.
This invitation to come and know God begins with a call to consider his works. Look and see what the Lord has done. God is not the author of confusion or chaos. God does not bring instability into the world. God is a god of peace. He makes war cease. He destroys the instruments of warfare. War makes things uncertain. It often leads to death, hunger, and captivity. This is not what God wants, nor is it what he does. His works are good.*
Also, consider God’s strength. He is above the earth and above the nations. The two main things that bring about fear and uncertainty according to the psalmist are natural disasters and politics, and God is above both of them. He has control over the earth and control over the nations. A person should put their trust in God because he is above all! He is Lord of lords and King of kings!
The main reason why one should accept the invitation of God is because of the promise of his presence. The psalmist concludes,
Be still and know that I am God!
The Lord of hosts is with us.
The God of Jacob is our refuge.
The promise we find all over Scripture is the central theme of this psalm. God is with his people and he will never forsake them. He is present when we are hurting and he is present when we experience great joy. He is always faithful and he will never leave us. We can leave him, but he will not leave us. His love for us is great, and his grace and mercy is plentiful. When we feel uncertain about life, all we have to do is be still and know that God is with us. When we do not know what to do or where to go, all we have to do is be still and know that God is with us. When the world becomes chaotic and presents us with life altering changes, again we just need to slow down, take a deep breath, and know that God is with us.
Emmanuel. God is with us! This promise was spoken of in the gospel of Matthew.
Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.
In a time when people were hurting and oppressed, God’s presence came into the world like it had never done before. God took on flesh. He was born. He lived among us. He walked this earth. He fed the hungry and healed the sick. He offered living waters to anyone who would drink. This was not the first time this promise was made, but it certainly was the climax of all the promises in Scripture concerning the presence of God.
Emmanuel. God is with us! This is perhaps the greatest thing this world has ever known. It is so great that now, 2,000 years after the birth of Jesus, the world continues to measure time according to this historic event. God came into the world and took on flesh. He is with us and he continues to be until the end of the age.
As we go out into a world full of fear and uncertainty, may we always keep this promise fresh in our minds. No matter what happens God is with us, and if we happen to forget this, all we have to do is remember the words of Scripture “Be still, and know that I am God.”
* I drew inspiration for these paragraphs from James L. Mays commentary on Psalms in the Interpretation series.