God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Selah… “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
Psalm 46:1-3, 10
Change is difficult, whether it is change in our relationships, health, finances, politics, and faith, or change in our nation and world. In today’s Scripture the psalmist faces enormous change. It is the earth itself that is changing; mountains are trembling and tsunami waves are roaring.
For the ancient Hebrews the earth under their feet and the mountains represented all that was stable and reliable in the world, while the sea represented the forces of chaos and evil. But the psalmist writes in a time when those two certainties were slip sliding into chaos. Everything they thought was nailed down is coming loose.
It is not clear whether the psalmist is writing about a literal or symbolic change rattling his world. Perhaps the trembling mountains and roaring waters describe a great seismic upheaval, invasion by foreign armies, or personal catastrophe. In whatever way his world is being shaken, the psalmist is confident in knowing God as his protector. Perhaps he finds comfort in repeating to himself again and again what he knows to be true: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…”
A few lines into this psalm the psalmist does something significant: he asks you and me to stop, think, and reflect on what he has just confidently affirmed about God. He does this by inserting the Hebrew word Selah.
The word Selah comes from a word meaning “to hang”, as when people would hang up something on scales for weighing. In the world of the Bible people weighed various commodities by hanging them on a scale. Thus, the various psalmists frequently use the word Selah to encourage readers to weigh, to measure, and carefully assess what we have just read. The Amplified Bible gets the right sense of the word Selah when it renders it as, “Pause, and think calmly of that.”
What a marvelous thing for us to do when facing trouble! Pause and think calmly of this: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change…”
Later in the psalm it is the Spirit of God who speaks, telling us what to do when trouble hits: “Be still, and know that I am God!” Yet, being still is the last thing I want to do when trouble strikes! Being still in the face of trouble strikes me as unreasonable and counterintuitive. I want to rush out and try to fix it. I want to take matters into my own hands. But God commands, “Be still!” And as we learn to be still we will come to “know” in our experience that God is truly Lord over all.
When I was a chaplain for the Department of Juvenile Corrections I thought that the young men wonderfully grasped the meaning of the words, “Be still!” Their translation was “Chill out!” In other words, don’t get all upset and bothered! Take time to be still in God’s presence and you will soon see that He is “exalted in the earth.”
The year 1527 was an earth-shaking kind of year for Martin Luther. Roland Bainton, in his classic biography of Luther, says that it was “the deepest year of Luther’s depression.” (Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther) But one day Luther was reading, praying, and carefully ‘weighing’ today’s Scripture text. As he lingered over each word of the Psalm the words of a hymn began to form within him. He put pen to paper and wrote the great hymn “Ein feste Burg”, i.e. “A Mighty Fortress”.
Writing in his native German Luther compared God to a “feste Burg”, or mighty fortress. The images of the psalm stirred in his mind a “burg” or impenetrable fortress high in the German hills. It was there that the people would flee for safety when threatened by trouble. That is our God!
Soon Luther’s hymn celebrating God as our refuge and strength became the “battle hymn of the Reformation”. “A Mighty Fortress” will be the opening hymn in many churches around the world this next Sunday, “Reformation Sunday”.
Luther had learned how to take time for being still in God’s presence and ‘weighing’ the truth of the psalmist’s words. Yes, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…”
Luther knew how to do it, and the psalmist knew how to do it. So take time today for being still before God and weighing the truth of His promises to us. Chill out! Know that God is God!
Grace and peace,
photo by Adam Stanhope