Be Still And Know What This Psalm Is Really About

Years ago, I memorized Psalm 46:10

Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.

That verse has found its footing as a mantra for busy Christians seeking to escape the frenetic pace of modern life. We use it to remind ourselves of the importance of personal prayer time, of slowing down. Coupled with a majestic mountain scene, it has made for many a screensaver. But I think we’ve mistreated this psalm, because the rest of Psalm 46 is about something much more unpleasant.

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.

This week, Louisiana has gotten to know about foaming waters and earth given way.

He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.

This week’s headlines included Russia, Iran, and ISIS wielding the modern equivalents of bows, spears and shields.

The backdrop for this psalm isn’t a microwave dinner and a nagging middle-class angst about personal piety. Despite its frequent misapplication, Psalm 46 wasn’t written to people dealing with crowded calendars or a crammed inboxes. It was written to people reeling from natural disaster and man-made tragedy; things like things like floods and mass shootings and Islamic state. Ancient Israel was certainly familiar with such calamity. Lately, so are we. And so we can take deeper comfort from this little song. It can remind us not just to have a quiet time, but to trust in an authority that transcends the powers quoted in our newspapers. In the face of terrorism and Zika and political battles and a destabilized Middle East, Psalm 46 declares for God’s people:

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.