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God is our Refuge and Strength

Posted by Gary

I've decided that I'm going to eventually make the move to Wordpress.

Two things led me not to do this before:
1. I liked the ads program that was supposed to generate a little money (google owes me $2.50 for that, btw)
2. I wanted to import all of my blogspot posts. I'm no longer sure if I want to do that.

When/if I make the big leap, I'll make sure to let you guys know.

In the meantime, let's talk about Psalm 46. Here's the NIV text.

1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.

5 God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

7 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

8 Come and see the works of the LORD,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.

9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields with fire.

10 "Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth."

11 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

General thoughts on the structure of the Psalm
This happens to be my favorite psalm. I roughly divide the structure into two parts:
1-7: Communal declaration of faith: God is present to protect us, even if the world is falling around our ears.
8-11: Call to worship.

Several ideas really jump off the page in this psalm. Fire, waters, mountains, and warfare. I almost have to ask why tornadoes aren't mentioned -- I guess that element wasn't really an issue for the Israelites. But regardless of that, all of these things are elemental calamities, things too great for any one person or even a small village to stop. In fact, even mighty kings don't always win wars, so we have to remember that these items: fire, water, earthquakes, and war; are scary primal forces of destruction that we are ultimately helpless against.

But God is not helpless against them. You think those things are "desolations?" That's nothing compared to what God can actively cause. He is the Lord. He has mastery over all of these primal forces, and can even turn them against one another, breaking spears and burning shields.

On a theological level, we can take this psalm at face value as showing us God's mastery over the elemental forces, his ability to protect us, and also his worthiness for worship. An attempt to reconstruct the situation that prompted this psalm will confirm that face-value interpretation.

The Story behind the Psalm: my Interpretation
When your city is under siege, the most important thing you could do is call on God for protection. And so, we have this communal declaration of faith. Even when surrounded by a pagan army that seeks only to rape, pillage, and slaughter, we affirm that God will protect us. Although the elemental imagery of fire, earthquakes, and water can be read at face-value to show God's mastery over the elements, if we read this at the literary level, these images basically represent all hell breaking loose. Verses 6 and 9 make it clear that the major issue is warfare.

Imagine for a moment that you are a priest in Jerusalem. You're under siege from, say, Babylon. Whenever two armies clash in the physical realm, it is thought that the gods themselves also clash in the metaphysical realm on behalf of their armies. That is, unless you have displeased your gods. Because then you're SOL.

So you, as a priest, you worship before the Lord, offer sacrifices, and you prostrate yourself and pray. You join in affirming this creed declaring God's protection, roughly similar to 46:1-7. "Our God is our fortress. He will save when the going gets tough and our lives are in danger. Even though no actual river passes through Jerusalem, there is always the 'river' of God's faithfulness to his promise to our forefather, Abraham (Gen 12:2-3). God is within his holy city -- he won't let it fall to the siege. Nations come and go -- they act in confused, godless, disarray. But God makes His decree, and the land itself melts. Our God is our fortress."

And then, you hear the charge of the Babylonian army. You can't help but look out across the area surrounding Jerusalem. A charging army is a spectacle in and of itself, but something truly extraordinary is happening. For just a second, the land starts shaking and the waters foam. The shields of the charging army are suddenly set ablaze. Spears snap just below the head. Bowstrings suddenly snap. As the halted army looks at their equipment in horror and seeks to unstrap their now-flaming shields, the heavens open, and a voice echoes forth: "STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING! ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM GOD, AND THERE IS NO OTHER."

From the Babylonian perspective
How surprising it must be for an army to be suddenly stopped due to natural disaster and a widespread case of equipment failure -- not to mention spontaneous combustion!

Clearly, your gods have failed you. The voice of the gods that comes out of heaven says he is God. There's no one like him. There's only one god. He calls you to "be still" [i.e. "halt" or "stop"] and acknowledge that very fact -- that he alone is God. Even though you came to rape and pillage and destroy his people, God is calling you to stop and worship. While your gods failed you -- or, apparently, don't exist -- this God who stopped your charge and broke your equipment now calls you to join his people in worshiping him.

The Israelite Perspective: After the Event
Now you take this creed about God's protection on his people (the paraphrase I made up above) and you work it into a complete psalm. You change the wording of the hymn so that it reflects elemental language (fire, earth, water). You add verses 8-10 to the creed in memory of God's saving power when he answered your cry. Then you end with verse 11, which repeats verse 7. You decide to repeat that verse as if to end the psalm by saying "that's who our God is," much in the way of a child showing off how amazing his daddy is. (Of course, the Holy Spirit inspires this reworking of a basic hymn into a scriptural psalm, but I won't try to explain it because I can't imagine it).

In Summary
This psalm is a communal declaration of faith in God's deliverance. It is also (as I imagine it) a testimony to God's saving power. This psalm is a declaration of God's mastery over the primal forces of earth, water, and fire. It is also an indictment against the aimless and vain ways of nations not in submission to God (compare 46:6 with Psalm 2) -- which is to say, every nation.

And also, this psalm is a call to worship. It is even an evangelistic call to worship. Those who came pillage are called to pray alongside those who they sought to destroy. I'm not sure if we really give this enough thought, but God is evangelistic in the OT as well as the NT. He's constantly reminding his own people that he alone is God (e.g. Exodus 20:2). Yet he also concerns himself with revealing himself to all the nations.

In the New Testament we have the principle of "First to the Jew, then to the Gentile." It was no different in the Old Testament. First, you have to get a small segment of people to get things right, and only then can you get the whole world to get things right. That's why God focused on the Hebrews in particular. But really, there was nobody who could "get things right" and be an example. Fortunately, we have Christ to be our example. He got things right.

From now on, I hope you'll never use the phrase "Be still and know that I am God" as a meek little devotional mantra. It is actually quite forceful and awe-inspiring. Not just is it a call for God's people to worship him because of his deliverance, but it's also a call for unbelievers to start worshiping the Lord.


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