YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday between May 29 and June 4)
Psalms 42- 44 all end with matters unresolved for the psalmist. They have called upon God but have not received a response. In Psalms 45-48 the assurance the psalmist sought is given. In Psalm 46 it comes in the form of the description of the city of God as symbolic of God as refuge.
Psalm 46 has been chosen this week because of its references to water, thus picking up the theme of the flood story. There are references to the waters roaring and foaming (v. 3) and then to the quieter waters of the river flowing from the city of God (v. 4). The psalm begins in vv. 1-3 with a description of God as refuge in the face of cosmic upheaval. The imagery is drawn from old creation stories where God, in creating the world, struggled with the chaos monster in the form of a sea dragon. By way of contrast we have the peacefulness of the city of God with its streams gladdening the heart, vv. 4-7. The turmoil in these verses is confined to the nations around. The section ends with a refrain (v. 7) which is repeated at the end in v.11. In vv. 8-11 God is seen as refuge who brings peace, albeit with the destruction needed to achieve that. Each section in its own way states confidence in God as refuge, and an inclusio is formed around the whole psalm on this theme (vv. 1 and 11). The psalm is thus a threefold account of the security provided by God interspersed with statements of confidence.
The psalmist boldly proclaims, on behalf of the congregation, the assurance of God’s protection right from the start of the psalm. Verse 1 collects a number of words implying that very notion: ‘refuge’, ‘strength’; and ‘present help’. The immediate result of this statement is that ‘we will not fear’. The psalmist urges the congregation not to let such fear conquer them, setting up fear and confidence in God as opposites. In neither case are difficulties foregone (v. 1). It is a matter of how one faces them.
In each section the poet gives a reason why fear should no longer rule. In vv. 2-3 it is the old creation imagery that is employed. The one who is creator (cf. Ps 24:1-2) can counter even cosmic disruption. We sense immediately that confidence in God is an offshoot of faith in God as creator. The shape of the poem also makes the point: the simple and calm statement that God is refuge is followed by, yet not challenged by, the mounting up of images of cosmic fury and power. The statement of confidence in the second section speaks of a river ‘whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High’ (v. 4). The water imagery is maintained from vv. 2-3 but we might ask what river is understood. This is likely a reference to the mythic tradition of life-giving waters issuing in a controlled manner from the temple or altar where God was imagined to reside (cf. Ezek 47:1-12 (cf. Gen 2:10-14; Ps 65:7-10).
In vv. 6-7 the cosmic gives way to the political. The nations are in an uproar and the kingdoms totter. The same verbs are used in the description of cosmic disruption as earlier in reference to creation (vv. 2-3). When God utters his voice the earth melts. Then follows the refrain: ‘Yahweh of hosts is with us, Jacob’s God is our fortress.’ The use of ‘fortress’ (NRSV: ‘refuge’) develops the metaphor of refuge, conveying a sense of solidity and inviolability (cf. Isa 33:16 etc.). The city is a symbol for God’s protective presence. Moreover the reference to ancestors of Israel in the ‘God of Jacob’ evokes the history of God’s protection of the people. The quiet strength of the refrain within the city stands in contrast to the terrifying scenes of the nations and the cosmos in uproar outside. Such is the certainty of God ‘with us’.
In the final section, vv. 8-11, the focus is eschatological, calling for attention to be given to the marvels of God, the desolations wrought in the earth and especially the end of all wars. The breaking and burning of weapons signifies both victory and the end of opposition. In this section the warrior image of God is reversed. His victory truly means a rest from all war. God is described as ‘one who causes wars to cease’, with a deliberate play in the Hebrew on the noun, Sabbath, in the verb ‘to cease’. In this context, the NRSV ‘be still’ is not a call to quiet reflection, but a call to forsake what has gone before. For the nations that means abandoning opposition to Yahweh. For the congregation, it has many meanings: forsaking the fear that has gripped them (cf. v. 2); letting go of trust in their own strength (cf. Ps 44:3, 6-7); and allowing Yahweh to be their God. Fear will achieve nothing because God is powerful enough for any opposition, the power of opponents is as nothing, and one’s own powers are insufficient to save. Concluding that ‘we will not fear’ in v. 2 was not a call for bravery or heroism, but rather a creedal statement about God.
Yahweh is the one who is exalted, lifted high among the nations and on earth. Opposition turns into praise in this royal context. The invincible warrior is also king. The threefold use of ‘erets, ‘earth/land’, in vv. 8-10 both emphasizes the extent of Yahweh’s rule and, through the ambiguity of ‘land’ (political domain vs earth), signals that what happens within the congregation’s immediate context has cosmic ramifications and vice-versa. It brings together the first two sections of the psalm in this eschatological vision. The congregation responds with the refrain in v. 11 echoing the initial statement about God in v. 1.
The use of the city as a metaphor for God’s protection in this psalm, is meant to bolster confidence in God in the face of many dangers. The uses of the myth of creation as well as the physical strength of the city reinforce the message and question any fear expressed. The psalmist gives no promise of the removal of danger or threat, but calls for holding a firm faith in God in the face of such things. Not even the undoing of creation could pose a threat to that, let alone the turmoil among the nations.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
Verses 1 and 4-5, separately or in combination could be used as a call to worship. Alternatively, vv. 10-11 could be used responsively as a call:
God says:Verses 1 and 7/11 could also be used as a congregational response in the prayers of the people.
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.
Old Testament reading: Gen 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19
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