What we have said consistently is that the psalms deal with life and our faith in God as we encounter life. The Bible doesn’t talk about a different world, but the world God created and placed us in. It doesn’t talk about impossible faith, but the faith of real people who lived in history and put their trust in the God of their ancestors in every experience and situation. The Bible is a collection of literature and is sometimes called a book full of stories. Now I often react against that description, but actually it is true. It is the big story of God’s dealing with the world and people, with numerous little stories of specific people and situations. The reason it is powerful is that stories speak into people’s lives. They can relate to the situations and experiences that are recounted and what is more, they are talking about God being part of those everyday situations and experiences.
The Bible doesn’t talk about a spiritual world divorced from life, but one that is part and parcel of life. The development of society has separated Christian faith from ‘real life’ and relegated it to the private sphere; but the Bible doesn’t do that and neither does Jesus. The reason psalms speak into people’s lives is that they are rooted in real life experience and a relationship with God in the midst of it all. Psalm 46 may appear to be a lofty song of praise, but it is rooted in real life.
In my preparation I came across this poem by Byron:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!
Anyone know what he is writing about?
The siege of Jerusalem by Sennacharib, when Hezekiah rebelled (2 Kings 18-19). This is a psalm of deliverance from complete destruction. The layout of the psalm is also a picture: verses 1-3 talk about total upheaval in graphic language; 6-9 talks about political upheaval; and in the middle in verses 4 and 5 there stands firm and secure the city of God in the middle of all that is going on. It is like a ship effortlessly riding the storm and remaining secure. Let’s walk through the sections of the psalm.
If we take 1-3 to begin with we have a description of complete turmoil and uncertainty. In fact the only thing in this scenario that seems certain is destruction – but for the fact that God is the one the writer turns to. I am placing this psalm in the context of the siege. The army was enormous compared with the resources that Judah had. Indeed Sennacharib mocked their pathetic military resources by offering them 2000 horses – if they could find riders for them! Hezekiah and the people were literally expecting the earth to give way and fall as the walls of Jerusalem were brought down. They knew that following this there would be the foaming flood of the Assyrian army which would be merciless in its treatment of the people because they had defied the emperor. Their first port of call was God. In fact this was signalled by the beginning of the psalm. Their trust and faith will be in God who has called them into being, and even though everything may crumble, he is the one where they will find refuge and strength.
An example of this type of trust is found in Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego who refused to worship Babylonian gods or the image of Nebuchadnezzar. As a result they were threatened with the furnace. They still refused saying,
‘King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’
No wonder Nebuchadnezzar was livid at their response. What could he do in the face of such defiance and faith in YHWH? Well increase the heat and throw them in.
The implication of this psalm is that even if everything else crumbles and we fall into oblivion, we will still put our trust in God.That is not blind faith for the following reasons:
- We have experienced the working of God in the past and so trust him for the future.
- He is God and Lord over all, so in spite of disaster we believe he is still worthy of praise.
- Just like Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego, we are aware of the consequences, but still choose to trust in him.
Now I want to jump to verses 6-9 and then we will go back. We have a picture of political upheaval in verse 6. Certainly the Assyrians caused turmoil among the nations and they had deported the people of the Kingdom of Israel. When they came to teach Jerusalem a lesson they swept all before them and the surrounding towns and cities fell. However, even within this, the authority of God was present. It is his voice that is lifted and surprisingly the psalmist says God causes devastation. Think about what happened to the Assyrian army outside the walls of Jerusalem – complete devastation. In shattering the bow and breaking the spear in this circumstance, there was desolation of the army. I would suggest that in bringing sinful people to their senses, God is not saying,’Now I really would like it if you all would stop fighting and play nicely together’, not least because we are too stubborn to listen. Sennacharib had shown his defiance and bore the consequences.
Think about the necessity of the cross and Jesus’ sacrifice. Such is the seriousness of the sin of humankind, it could only take the desolation of the Son of God on the cross to bring deliverance. It is not out of vengeance or with pleasure that God has to deal with the world in this way, but because of the stubbornness of the human heart that needs to be pulled up short. Turning spears into pruning hooks and swords into ploughshares means going through the fire of re-modelling.
Now I’m going to return to verses 4-5. Here I think we have a picture of the serene presence of God in the middle of all the upheaval. Jerusalem was going to face a siege and that would mean food shortages, but more crucially perhaps, the deprivation of water. Jerusalem is built on a hill and not by a river and so water was carried into the city by aqueduct and therefore it was going to be easy for the enemy to but off the supply. Without water the city would fall very quickly. However, Hezekiah ordered the digging of a tunnel to a spring in order to keep the city supplied with water. So there is a double meaning to the verse ‘There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,’ It could refer to this tunnel that provided water and so prevented drought and the fall of the city. It also refers to the presence of God, because he raised their hope and he brings peace in the turmoil.
We think of the woman at the well when Jesus said that he could give her a spring of water that would well up from within. At the Festival of Tabernacles recorded in John 7 Jesus said to everyone, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ Of course Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit, the presence of God that comes and lives in all believers. In Revelation 7 and 22, a picture is painted of the river of life flowing from the lamb of God, bringing life where it flows. This is a picture of the Holy Spirit bringing life to all who put their trust in Jesus Christ and bringing that assurance of enjoying the presence of God forever. In the context of the psalm, the river brings life and hope of deliverance. It brings the assurance of God’s presence and that the people will not be abandoned because though there is physical and political turmoil around, God stands secure and the people stand firm – if fearful – in God. Now for the Christian, this is something to cling onto in the turmoil and to celebrate in deliverance. We have the assurance of the presence of God in our lives through the Holy Spirit; we have the assurance that he will stand firm as the rock, the anchor of our lives.
So we come to the final verses, ‘Be still and know that I am God…’ This is not a request; this is not a suggestion that we find a quiet place and are still and silent before God – although that is a valid thing to do and something we should learn to do as Christians. This is the stamp of God’s authority on the world. Think again about the context I have set.
The army of the Assyrians led by Sennacharib, mocked and threatened the people of Israel. They mocked and threatened a people who were weak in the face of their force, and yet had the audacity to stand up to them. God in his mercy came and stamped his authority and in saying be still, they were stilled forever. There is a reminder again of Revelation when the kings of the earth gather to battle against the rider on the white who horse who comes to bring judgement: he is the King of kings and the Lord of lords and all the nations will bow before him. Perhaps as the Christian church when we feel weak and small in the face of a rising tide of secularism, and dare to stand in defiance, we can place ourselves in the context of this psalm, firm in the confidence that God is Lord over all and will not be moved; that he is the one who comes in salvation; that we are not abandoned and alone; that we know and have experienced the river of God flowing from him into our hearts. We lift up our heads, because:
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.