Psalm 46

Alas! I missed a post last week – it’s the first time possibly since I began that I’ve actually missed a deadline. I took a couple weeks off for a show a few months back, but that was a deliberate decision – this one I just missed my deadline. I don’t have a sustained queue at the moment, so things are a bit hectic. Anyway: Psalm 46 is about nature and war and cities – oh, and God. Always God. The first stanza talks about how God is a refuge even when the earth itself starts causing a ruckus. We talked briefly about earthquakes with Psalm 29 – it’s probably one of the most powerful symbols of disruption and anguish in the psalms. Here, it’s used as foil to emphasise the depth of trust in God: “we will not fear, though the earth should change… though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” God is above the natural world, and our trust in Him transcends even the worst disasters.

However, nature’s not necessarily set against God. The second stanza begins with a river that runs through the city of Jerusalem – they’re probably talking about the Gihon Spring, which is connected up to the original City of David. We know that Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians after a two-year siege – it’s possible that this psalm was referring to those events, and the way in which the spring kept the people in water while the Babylonians were camped outside. Anyway – so nature is ambivalent. Sometimes it roars and foams and is dangerous, but other times it sustains the city of God. The river works in unison with God’s design: its streams “make glad the city of God”, while God sets about defending the city: “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.” 

The idea of siege becomes more apparent in the second half of the stanza. “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter” – it’s not explicit, but that’s my reading. The city besieged, but implacable; the river making the inhabitants glad, and God defending the city from the invaders. It’s not a difficult fight either: God “utters His voice, the earth melts.” The power of God is a surety against anything on the earth. It’s also implied that during this melting, Jerusalem is kept safe: the earth melts, but “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” There’s a mirroring of the previous stanza: in the first, the world was shaking, but the speaker took refuge in God. In the second, God shakes the world and safeguards Jerusalem as He does so. The thematic progression from natural disaster to divinely ordained apocalypse reflects the concern of the first stanza: God has sovereignty over the world, such that the natural disasters of the first are subjugated under His rule in the second. And throughout it all, Jerusalem is kept safe.

Thus the third stanza, directed to the people: “Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations He has brought on the earth.” It’s usually considered bad form to attribute natural disasters to God – we had an earthquake in New Zealand recently, and our local religious wack-job was slated when he blamed the gay community for it. It’s certainly hard to get around the fact that it’s what the Israelites seemed to believe though. We could read the passage figuratively, and there’s some productive theology to be had from that, but at some point we’re forced to confront the reality of what the passage is saying. It’s simply celebrating the idea that God will wreak death and destruction on everybody who’s not under one particular religious banner. It’s a primary meaning of the text.

Perhaps more palatable is the next part of the stanza – the promise of the end of war. Reading the destruction in the spirit of apocalypse (that is, in the spirit of end-times and the second coming) adds a redemptive dimension to it, but the list of people considered to be damned should still make us pause for thought. It’s best approached from the perspective of righteousness, of things made right and an end to suffering and pain. Thus God “makes wars cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; He burns the shields with fire.” Violence is overthrown; conflict is overthrown. The internal squabbling and pettiness and inadequacy of the human race comes to an end – it is restored to its full glory under the authority of God. In the closing lines of the stanza, God is given direct voice: He reclaims the world back to Himself with a series of “I am” statements – further reinforcing the theme of apocalypse, insofar as apocalypse literally means ‘an uncovering’. The poem ends with the final two lines from the previous stanza – the refrain threading through the psalm as a whole. God is with us; God is our refuge – the idea is brought to its fullness in the vision of the end-times. This is why we trust in God. This is the hope that we cling to. There will be justice in the world.

 

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though
the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in
the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

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 the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns,
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
He utters His voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

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 our refuge.

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