“Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
It’s a familiar verse. Perhaps it’s too familiar. Perhaps it has even become something of a Band-aid for every stressful situation that flares up in your life. Maybe it has become the Biblical version of saying “Keep calm and count to ten.”
But the context tells a different story. This is no pastoral idyll encouraging us to close our eyes and think happy thoughts. It is a story of war, not peace; it is not a gentle dream but a stark nightmare. Here are some of the other verses:
“Though the earth gives way…” (v 2)
“Though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea…” (v 2)
“The nations rage, the kingdoms totter…” (v 6)
“Be still and know that I am God… I will be exalted in the earth!” (v 10)
“The God of Jacob is our fortress.” (v 11)
The context is completely different from what one might have expected. It is actually the prayer of someone holding back fear with faith. In a setting of uncertainty, war, and all-around “trouble” (v 1), the psalmist focuses on the peace that comes from being in the presence of God – even though the whole earth around him threatens to fall apart. The verse holds even more power in this context than in my imagined setting, doesn’t it?
The thing is, my imagined context represents a real problem: it’s the tendency to create a bubble, an isolated nook where I can sit tight and pretend that all is well. It’s a little like that old Dylan line: “Close your eyes, close the door, you don’t have to worry any more…”
But this is different. As Virginia Woolf said, “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” The Psalms remain powerfully relevant because they combine reflections on serious human issues with the reality of God’s holiness and faithfulness. These are real people, in real trouble, reminding themselves of the bigger context of their lives. And every one of them comes to the realization that they serve a God who supersedes their worries and replaces them with worship. They heard the command to “be still and know” and found that God was an unwavering rock beneath their feet. Chris Tomlin puts it beautifully:
“There’s a peace I’ve come to know
Though my heart and flesh may fail
There’s an anchor for my soul
I can say “It is well”
Jesus has overcome…”
It’s easy to look at the news and feel overwhelmed with the terrible dangers that threaten on every side. It’s tempting to think that “being still” and listening to God can only happen in dream-like green pastures and “flowery beds of ease.”. But the real context of Psalm 46:10 tells me otherwise. God’s peace works powerfully even when the craziness reaches a crescendo.
“Jesus has overcome.” That’s the reality. And all the “facts” and fears that present themselves to our fretting minds must submit to this supreme fact, despite all the failings of “heart and flesh.”
The Psalm bounces between the two perspectives, as if the writer is reflecting on his problem and then offering the solution, like sounding out his own emotional echoes:
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble…” but “the earth gives way and the mountains fall…” “God is within [the city], she will not fall…” but “Nations are in uproar, and kingdoms fall.” “The earth melts…” but “The Lord Almighty is with us.” And he concludes, with a triumphant repetition: “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
There is something unstoppable about faith like this. It sees the end of all things within the grace and wisdom of God, and finds rest.
Wendell Berry’s familiar poem forms a lovely closing prayer:
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
I rest in the grace of the conquering Christ, and am at peace.