< October 28, 2012 >

Commentary on Psalm 46

 

The good news of Psalm 46 is essentially the same as that of last week's psalm (see Psalm 91:9-16, Twenty first Sunday after Pentecost) -- that is, God is "with us."

This message is reinforced by the refrain of Psalm 46 (verses 7, 11), and it is the central promise in the divine address that concludes Psalm 91 (see "with them" in verse 15). Thus, Psalm 46, like Psalm 91, is often labeled a psalm of trust.

Because of God's powerful and protective presence, "we will not fear" (verse 2); and this is the same message delivered in 91:5, "You will not fear" (see also 23:4, another psalm of trust). In short, God can be trusted; or to use the psalmist's vocabulary, God is "our refuge" (verse 1), which is the keyword in Psalm 91 (see verses 2, 4, 9; the NRSV "refuge" in 46:7, 11 represents a different but synonymous Hebrew word).

Although Psalms 46 and 91 are similar in several respects, the assurance is voiced in a different mode in Psalm 46, especially in verses 4-6, where the direct focus is on Jerusalem, "the city of God" (verse 4). The central feature of Jerusalem was Mount Zion, the location of the Temple, "the holy habitation of the Most High" (verse 4).

So, in addition to being a psalm of trust, Psalm 46 is also included among the Songs of Zion (see Psalms 48, 76, 84, 87, 122, 132). Jerusalem and the Temple, although they were specific places, also functioned symbolically as visible signs of God's presence and power. To visit Jerusalem, to enter the Temple, was to be put in touch with God and with God's claim on the entire world. In short, Psalm 46 and the other Songs of Zion are ultimately proclamation of God's universal reign.

This conclusion is reinforced by the placement of Psalm 46. The sequence of Psalms 46-48 means that two Songs of Zion surround Psalm 47, an explicit proclamation of God's world-encompassing kingship (see especially verses 2, 6-8). This arrangement is almost certainly intentional, and it solidifies the symbolic significance of Zion as a witness to God's universal sovereignty. Because God claims the world and all its peoples, God can be trusted to be a powerful, protecting presence.

As is the case with Psalms 23 and 91, the promise of God's protective presence is not a guarantee of an easy, care-free existence. Rather, the promise of God-with-us comes in the midst of "the darkest valley" (23:4) and when the psalmist is "in trouble" (91:15). 

These situations are certainly bad enough, but the situations described in Psalm 46 are even worse. In verses 1-3, the whole earth is threatened as "the mountains shake in the heart of the sea" (verse 2), making "its waters roar and foam" (verse 3). We might picture a disastrous tsunami, but the threat is even greater than this.  Because the mountains were understood to be the foundations or pillars that held up the sky and anchored the dry land, the shaking of the mountains represents the very undoing of creation (see Psalm 82:5).  Even in the midst of a pervasive cosmic threat, "we will not fear" (verse 2).

The situation in verses 4-6 is equally unsettling. The Hebrew verb translated "shake" is repeated in verses 5-6 to emphasize the threat of instability (see "moved" in verse 5 and "totter" in verse 6); and "roar" in verse 3 recurs as "uproar" in verse 6. The crisis in this section is political, involving "nations" and "kingdoms" (verse 6); and we contemporary folk might think of what is often referred to as "the terrorist threat."

But in the midst of the turmoil, God offers a point of stability that "shall not be moved" (verse 5; see Psalms 93:1; 96:10). The repetition of "help" (verses 1, 5) reinforces this conclusion. In the midst of the threat of international and even cosmic chaos, God's presence is the genuine source of "help" that offers the promise of being able to live without fear.

The promise is a timely one! Countless strategists and politicians seek election and power precisely by playing upon what is usually called "the politics of fear." We must not, they tell us, let the terrorists win; and this means arming ourselves and our allies in order to fight violence with more violence. The implicit, and often explicit assumption, is that "God is on our side."

But Psalm 46 does not promise the U. S. A. or any other sovereign state that "God is on our side." Rather, it promises that God is "with us." And contrary to what we often think or are told, this means not arming ourselves but disarming ourselves. The surprising nature of this conclusion is captured by the seemingly satirical strategy in verses 8-10. 

God's "desolations," it turns out, mean nothing short of the destruction of the implements of war, and indeed, the abolition of war itself (see Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-3). Following this astounding bit of information is a very explicit invitation that is very frequently misunderstood: "Be still, and know that I am God!" (verse 10). It is not an invitation to quiet meditation or a slower pace of life. Rather, it is a clarion call to the nations of the world for a universal cease-fire; and it would better be translated as "Stop it!" or more paraphrastically, "Drop your guns!"

To know that God is "with us" means not the courage to wage war, but rather the courage to wage peace! To be sure, waging peace will be a "fight" in a world seemingly fascinated with violence and warfare. But it is in the "fight" for peace that we can faithfully claim that God is "with us" (or even say genuinely that "God is on our side").

Psalm 46 is fitting for Reformation Sunday because of Martin Luther's enduring metrical paraphrase, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." Luther found in Psalm 46 the inspiration, courage, and energy to resist forces that seemed irresistible; and his resolute stand changed the Church and changed the world. The nay-sayers today tell us that world peace is not possible, and that it is naïve even to envision the possibility.

But Psalm 46 is precisely God's vision of a world at peace. So, the psalmist and Luther together remind us that all things are possible with God!