One of the most iconic pieces of consolation in the Old Testament is Psalm 46.
Be still, and know that I am God. (v. 10a, NKJV)
This verse usually enters a mind, heart, or conversation in the midst of an emotional maelstrom. If you are frightened, vexed, anxious, sad, etc., you are called to be still.
Don’t move–for he is the Lord above all.
Upon murmuring this verse in the quiet of your heart, the expectation is that all worries will be assuaged, for we believe God, in his prescience, said and had written this verse for us today, for us while we’re in that event which is corralling us into a sordid pen of worry.
This is not a heretical line of reasoning. I wouldn’t plainly call it a “high view of Scripture,” for that can mean different things. It is rather a more literal or narrowed understanding of Scripture. We should still believe and rightly so that all of Scripture is God-breathed and intended to communicate to all people at all times and places throughout all history, today, and to eternity.
However, God’s word is not in a vacuum… except that sometimes it is.
In and Out of Context
Sometimes we think that any piece of Scripture can be extracted and used–played with like dough–safe to be put back to its original place with no harm done. This is kind of what we do with the phrase, “Only God can judge me.”
I mean, that’s phrase is true in a particular sense.
The judgment often talked about in Scripture is not the type of judgment we’re well acquainted with. We think of shallow criticism we throw at someone before we abscond from the scene in fear of being attacked back.
That’s superficial. In God’s kingdom, judgment means something far more serious: the due recompense for our sins; in other words, we get what we deserve. Thankfully, because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we get mercy instead of the just payment for our sins.
But Jesus actually says,
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. (Matthew 7:1-2)
He’s telling us not to judge, because
- We swiftly become hypocrites; and
- We as sinners are in no place to judge,
when in reality, we deserve it and know it–we just don’t want other people to acknowledge it in us.
The “judging” we sinners do is often so far removed from the meaning of judgment God talks about that it’s no wonder he tells us, essentially, “Don’t even try. That’s my thing.”
This example quickly illustrates that not only are we familiar with taking Scripture out of context and marring it, but we’re also quite good at it, and it has become accepted behavior in the Christian sphere.
Psalm 46: The Layout
“Don’t even try. That’s my thing,” is exactly what is happening in Psalm 46, rather than a casual invitation to an oasis of peace amidst a desert of worry.
Through a series of declarations in the psalm [of the sons of Korah], the author establishes that God is…
- strength and refuge in trouble (vv. 1-2),
which leads him not to fear regardless of the circumstance (v. 3);
- inhabiting the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle (v. 4),
which demonstrates that God dwells in the midst of their city, so they are safe from their enemies (v.5);
- a conqueror over enemies when the nations around them rage (v. 6);
- with them, as both a refuge and Lord of Hosts (or “armies,” in a military sense) (v. 7).
At this point in the psalm, the tone shifts from adoration, comfort, and surety to an invocation by all those in Israel to note, declare, and be emboldened by the ascriptions made to God.
“Come, behold the works of the Lord” (v. 8)
- has made desolation on the earth,
- ceases wars,
- breaks bows and cleaves spears in two,
- and burns the chariot in fire.
In this context, God interrupts:
Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (v. 10)
There is a reason why the psalmist, specifically in this psalm, uses the refrain “Lord of Hosts” twice. He actually couches our main verse in two of these.
The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (v. 7)
(When you see two similar phrases in one verse like this in the Old Testament, it’s called synthetic parallelism: the expression of one idea with two phrases or sentences. A perfect example of this is Zechariah 9:9 when the Messiah is pictured as riding “on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Obviously Zechariah means the Messiah is riding one animal, but Matthew funnily messes it up in verse 7 by misunderstanding synthetic parallelism common to Hebrew writing, which evokes this awkward scene where Jesus is positioned riding on two animals at once.)
The psalmist is communicating that God is a God of armies, able to conqueror any army that comes up against Israel. (Notice above the words about “wars,” “bows,” “spears,” “chariots,” etc.)
Psalm 46: The Hebrew
The operative word in our verse is the verb harpu, which is an imperative of the root rapha (not to be confused with rapha, to heal, which has a different “a” vowel).
While we translate harpu as “be still,” it rarely means that per its word usage. Some of its more frequent meanings are lazy, fail, sink, relax, and slack.
A few verse examples may be to “sink down in a hay of flame,” letting hands go from work in fear, or ceasing from anger.
While the meaning of harpu can still connote relaxing or being still in the psalm’s context of war, it makes little sense when Israel has no power in the first place–not just as humans, but also as an inferior nation militarily. God, when ascribed the “Lord of Hosts” refrain twice, is saying, essentially, “your efforts are futile.” No bows, spears, guns, or any human contraption can usurp my role on the throne.
No amount of warmongering by any side can beat the God of Jacob. God will win; the people against Israel will lose. The earth will tremble, melt, and fold, and he alone will be exalted.
Notably, Rapha (the root of harpu) does not have a negative connotation, as if “being still” or relaxing is a bad thing. I don’t want to make it sound like the peaceful words of God telling us to “be still” when life is tough is a bad thing.
But when the context of this phrase is war and is conveying the unassailable sovereignty of God, the vast polysemy of words come into play: harpu here means something far bolder than “have tranquility, my child.” There’s power in it, as a mighty king would say to his vassal nations.
Okay, so now what?
Does it mean that God won’t calm the storms in our life? Na.
This contextual take on Psalm 46, rather than removing the personalness of God by reinforcing his sovereignty, actually helps us realize that we are more fragile, more incapable of calming those storms in our life than ever before.
We can’t beat the war on our own. We can’t even beat the petty battles with sin.
God, in his sovereignty, didn’t just choose to rule. All rulers do that.
He actually chose to gave us his Son as a sacrifice for us. Rulers don’t do that. Rulers don’t love like that.
When God says he will be exalted above all nations, above all the earth, he is speaking to us too. When we let him be exalted above our will, we become able to deny ourselves, to deny sin, and to turn to the one in whose hands are lives are.
If there is an army heading straight for us in life, we can be still, but we can also know there’s a mighty God behind us who is fighting our battles… as we await the true hero, Jesus, to return and judge the living and the dead. Amen.