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Psalm 46: A Few Thoughts on a Favourite

C. S. Lewis, expert in literature, theology, and philosophy, turned his talents to Biblical exposition extensively in only one small book: the beautiful Reflections on the Psalms (1958). I, who have but an infinitesimal gift compared to Uncle Jack’s, now publish my reflections on but a second psalm.

Psalm 46 opens memorably:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

God is our refuge—a defense against a threat—and our strength—our supply of power to persevere under threat.

God is very present, a phrasing that in other translations is “ever present.” So we have a range of meanings. God is “ever present” plus two meanings of “very”: truly present and especially present.

This trio of meanings comforts us. God is always with us. God is really with us. And God is deeply with us.

Christians know, moreover, that the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit means that God is as present as God could possibly be: refuge and strength right here, right now, always.

We need this assurance in times when it isn’t immediately obvious that God is with us. Yet no matter what (and v. 2 will plunge us into the worst of situations), God is intensely present.

And God is the most present. God is present the way literally nothing else is: not mountains (symbolic of the earth itself), or kingdoms (symbolic of the greatest of human domains), or even chaos (which God can tame, as in vv. 4-5). Whatever else is going on, God is the Basic Fact, the Still Point, the Unmovable Mover.

Therefore, v. 2 opens, with a logical entailment, if not a psychological certainty! The “therefore” means not that we will all immediately do what follows, for of course we won’t, but that we should. It would be illogical—and, in Biblical terms, positively foolish—not to do what is entailed by the solid truth of God’s presence to shelter and to empower.

So what is entailed? We will not fear. To fear something else while enjoying the comforting presence of God is as irrational as to fear someone brandishing a mere pocketknife when your security detail takes out their machine guns.

Yes, one might say, but these circumstances of mine just now are dire. These aren’t ordinary problems, but unusually bad ones. Maybe in this situation fear is justified?

The psalmist is ready for such a dodge:

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.

We will not fear though the earth (the ground of our being, to pun a bit on Tillich) should “give way.” Other translations say “change.” The earth is as solid and stable as anything we know. But if even it should change, let alone “give way,” we yet will not fear.

The psalmist, in good Hebrew fashion, develops this theme by evoking the most extreme form of catastrophe, the unmaking of creation itself. “The mountains,” which are the heights of the land God originally called out of the watery chaos in Genesis 1, now “fall [back] into the heart of the sea.”

Then v. 3 pounds the point home. The most extreme picture of instability imaginable to the ancient Hebrews would be mountains collapsing by earthquake and being swallowed up to be smashed mercilessly and helplessly by the ocean, the Hebrew metonym of chaos.

Mountains, of all things, aren’t supposed to shake. When they (finally) shake, it means that everything else is shaking, too. When it’s bad for the mountains, it’s bad for everyone and everything else.

How did the mountains end up in the heart of the sea? It’s another Flood! Global disaster! It’s the end of the world as we know it.

Abruptly, however, the scene changes, and completely. Instead of a surging, stormy sea, we behold a river—water channelled, chaos controlled. And this water is directed to bring joy, not fearful destruction, to the very city of God:

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

From “the heart of the sea,” the midst of chaos, we are instantly transported to the heart of God’s dwelling on earth, the midst of cosmos, the midst of shalom. God is at the centre of that lovely peace:

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

This is God being “very present” in the very midst of her, within her. Where God is, things don’t fall. And no matter how bad the night might seem, “God will help her at break of day.”

I appreciate this acknowledgement, so common throughout the Bible, that trouble will come and stay for a while. God doesn’t instantly rescue us at the first touch of evil. But even if chaos surges around us, threatening to drown and unmake our lives, God will keep us strong and will come to help us soon.

From natural disaster the register then shifts to the largest of social entities: “nations” and “kingdoms”:

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

Like nature, the human world is also in disarray and badly unstable. Then God (just) speaks, and the very ground beneath those powers (as nature is brought back into the frame) just . . . melts.

So much for the power of humans. It’s as if the strongest of human powers suddenly find themselves awash—like Pharaoh and his army flailing fatally in the Red Sea.

Yhwh Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

This is the first time the personal name of God appears in the psalm, along with the title “Almighty” or “of hosts.” This is indeed the God of Moses, and Exodus, and Sinai, and Conquest. This all-powerful deity is the God of Jacob, of Israel.

He is with us; he is our refuge. In the paradox of the believer’s relationship with God, at once God is within us and we are within him, per Jesus’ prayer (John 17:21-23).

The psalmist then starts part two. (We know it’s part two because v. 7 will be repeated as a “chorus” at the end in v. 11.)

Come and see what Yhwh has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth.

And what has Yhwh chosen to desolate? Warmongering humans—and we can assume that these are humans making war according to their own agenda, and therefore selfish, oppressive, and violent:

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

God violently violates the tools of violence, and thus the violent. How does he make wars cease everywhere? By the paradox of reducing the instruments of war to inoperable rubbish and ash. God destroys the destroyers.

(Note to my pacifist friends: This is God pacifying the earth by force, not by persuasion.)

And then the climax comes in v. 10:

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

“Stop!” God says, foreshadowing Jesus rebuking the storm (Mark 4:39). And just as the disciples came to wonder who this was, that even the wind and the waves obeyed him, so the psalmist’s audience is to conclude that here is the presence of The Deity, now resuming the name of “God”—the only God, and therefore the One entitled to that generic designation.

Yhwh is God, the One in charge, the God who governs the cosmos—and who likewise governs chaos. Everywhere God reigns: “among the nations” and “in the earth.”

The greatest of entities we can encounter, and thus the greatest troubles we can suffer, are controlled by God’s mere voice. This is the voice that called the world into being. This is the voice that makes and unmakes anything and everything. A mere voice.

I love the idea of God sitting comfortably in a chair and merely issuing commands. God literally could exert himself no less than that! And kingdoms collapse as the earth beneath them gives way—by God merely expressing the wish for it to be so.

It is that God who is always, really, and deeply with us. And it is in the very heart of this God—not in the heart of the sea, the ocean of chaos, but in the very heart of Yhwh Almighty—that God’s people dwell.

Therefore, it would be illogical to fear. More strongly, it would be (Biblically) foolish to fear: an act of unfaith, of disloyalty, an insult made only worse by its sheer stupidity. It makes no sense at all to fear.

So let’s not.


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