Preached at 2nd Friends meeting, Indianapolis.
Psalm 46 from the King James Version
1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
6 The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
8 Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
9 He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
10 Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
11 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. (KJV)
This psalm is familiar to all who hear it. We are encouraged that God protects us, and those in the Society of Friends are eager to quote verse 10, “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46 is a picture of the faith that we live, and it is the inspiration of Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” It is not easy to find something more basic than Psalm 46, for it is the picture of faith in an almighty God.
When I was reading scripture, this Psalm jumped out at me. Like everyone, I have seen trouble, I have tried to fight with my own strength, I have tried to go forward and be in control instead of stopping and waiting on God. Like others, my faith has been weak, even though God proves Himself faithful – because the words spoke to my heart, I began to consider the psalm more carefully. I want to learn to take refuge in God, I want to quiet myself and KNOW he is God.
Reading the Psalm, we can see several things about the time and place it was written. The psalm is divided into three sections: The first section, we see “God is our refuge and strength,” even though the whole world is changed, even though the mountains are thrown into the sea. In the first section, we see the Psalmist looking to God although the whole world seems to be collapsing around him.
The second section describes a city of God, supplied by a river, where God Himself camps. Though Kingdoms are moved, it speaks of God’s help and protecting, suggesting that where God dwells will “not be moved”. There is much about this description to suggest that it is Jerusalem. Jerusalem had a building to house God, and also proved to be difficult to conquer. You might know, Jerusalem had its own water supply, and under siege this water supply was a life saver. Jerusalem could hold out while the army camping at their gate became anxious for battle. Jerusalem could both hold its own, and it was the symbol of God’s presence.
The third section is the most telling. The command “Be still and know that I am God” is surrounded by military language. God destroys, ends wars, breaks the army. We get a picture of God fighting the battle for Jerusalem, God ending the war by destroying the aggressive ability of the enemy. Instead of fighting, the place of Jerusalem in this case is to wait and see what God will do to save them – God himself fights this battle.
When thinking about this, the mind goes through the history of Jerusalem. When was Jerusalem the center of worship and under siege by its enemies? When did the whole world appear to change? Which battles were won without a fight? The most obvious time is during the reign of King Hezekiah, which is described in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Isaiah. This was also the time of the prophet Micah.
2 Kings 17-19 gives the history of the situation clearly enough – we could read these three chapters, but instead I shall give an overview. When Hezekiah became King of Judah, things were not good for those who feared God. Hezekiah’s father Ahaz worshiped other gods. He worshiped every god known in the area at every high place, he gave every sacrifice including making a burnt offering of his living son to Moloch. Ahaz trusted everything and everyone but God, so that when he was at war with Syria, he made an alliance with the Assyrian empire, paying tribute and becoming a protectorate.
Hezekiah became king of an idolatrous nation paying tribute to Assyria. When he became king at Jerusalem, Hoshea was king at Samaria, The Assyrian empire caused Hoshea to surrender, so that both Israel and Judah were at this time tribute paying vassal kingdoms. Hezekiah became king in a rather unpleasant time, for he answered to Assyria, Hosea also answered to Assyria, and the people of Israel and Judah worshiped every god except God. Scripture tells us that when Hezekiah became king, the temple was shut up and in disrepair, all worship of God had ceased.
Hezekiah ordered the temple repaired, and restarted the systems of worship and holidays. Not only did he restore the priesthood, temple worship, and common faith, but he sent messages to Israel asking them to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. He put aside the royal rivalry with Israel and invited them to share a common faith, if not common politics. Hoshea would have nothing to do with this, of course but many under his rule did. There was a great restoration of faith in God, and with it the places where the Ba’als were worshiped were destroyed. Judah devoted itself to living according to God’s law. Hezekiah built a new refuge in God for a people who only knew other places to take shelter.
Hoshea, king of Israel was a very poor vassal, and conspired with Egypt to defy the Assyrian empire. Needless to say, Assyria was made an example of Israel, and destroyed them as a political entity. All that remains of them to this day is what is known as the Samaritans.
Hezekiah’s kingdom of Judah was all that remained, and Hezekiah decided to build his kingdom as where David failed. He built an army, and he defeated the Philistines pushing them out of his territory. Hezekiah also prepared to face Assyria preparing for a siege by rerouting water to make supplies more difficult for those who would attack. Finally, when he felt secure in his strength he stopped paying tribute to Assyria. Assyria proceeded to destroy Judah just as it destroyed Israel several years before.
When only Jerusalem was left, the King of Assyria tried to secure the surrender of Jerusalem by through intimidation, telling him that neither his armies nor his god were any match for the Assyrian army. Isiah let king Hezekiah know that they would win this battle without even a fight – not an arrow would fly. When morning came, they did not see an army, but a field of dead Assyrians.
This Psalm clearly seems a commemoration of the victory. God’s temple was not assaulted. Jerusalem felt safe in God’s arms, as God protected himself and his temple. God is a greater refuge than nationalities or armies. Though the king did everything possible to withstand an assault, it was not the work of the King, but God’s work that protected Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, for those who found safety in the temple, the temple itself fell and was destroyed. The question for Jews and for Christians as well is: “Does this psalm remain meaningful even though God did not continue to protect his city?” If it does remain meaningful, how does it remain meaningful? This difficulty was obviously overcome, as we read these words in the Psalms. This was maintained through the Babylonian captivity and has come to us today. Jews and Christians still sing this Psalm, and find comfort in God’s protection.
One thing to notice though, God did not seem eager for a temple in the royal city of Jerusalem, in fact when David wished to build the temple, God asked him not to through the prophet Nathan. When Solomon built the Temple to God, he also built temples to the gods of his various wives, though it was a great temple it was not a great act of piety. God of Jacob was put within a box to become God of the line of David instead of the God is all of Israel. The temple was the cause of much division as it clearly favored one tribe above the rest. God needed not make his dwelling in the temple – God’s city did not need to be the city of David.
When Judah was carried off into Babylon, one thing that they learned is that religious community and practice survived though they lived in a foreign land. They adapted, and remained people of faith. Though they even lost the outward symbols of their worship, they found that God remained with them. God gave strength to their prophets, and protected them…and eventually returned a homeland to them. God proved to be their refuge, even when the temple and the holy city were not visible.
Just as the Jews have – we are also tempted to take refuge in things other than our God. We take refuge in politics, in knowing the right words, in our bank accounts, or in our positions of power. Just like before, we take refuge in our nations and our armies. We take refuge in dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ so that we know our friends from our enemies. Bluntly, we take refuge in making ourselves Lord, and pushing God as far from us as possible.
Just like Judah, we are doomed to fail if we continue. There is no safety in wealth, or in politics, or in knowing our battles. When we line up winners and losers, there will be losers. Wealth is not reliable…nothing that we trust in is reliable – this is the message of the new testament.
This is rather difficult to say, but, this Psalm is a call to do nothing and let God do instead. It is a call to trust in God and not in our own work. Friends, too often we are eager to do first, and after that tell God what we want him to do, instead we should be quiet, listen and let him work. Have faith that He has done everything necessary and that he can take care of his own. It is not our duty to do great things for God, but instead to be, and allow God to work great things in us.