Thursday, August 4, 2011

Psalm 46:1-7
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. —Psalm 46:1

1 God is our refuge and strength, a present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should
change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of
God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

When we sing Martin Luther's hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" as part of our worship services, those who may normally mumble their way through the hymns sing out boldly and with gusto. The combination of a powerful and uplifting tune along with lines like "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing," "on earth is not his equal," and "He must win the battle" inspire us to sing and make a joyful noise. When our voices join together and we sing those words we may be assured that God will prevail over any and all adversaries. Martin Luther was inspired by Ps. 46 when he wrote his famous hymn. Generations of God's people have turned to this psalm for comfort. The words are ancient but they touch universal human emotions and situations. "God is with us" expresses an enduring confession of faith for God's people, especially during critical times. We read these words at challenging and painful moments in our lives. The words remind us of who God is and the nature of our relationship with God. They also serve to remind us of why we trust God when it seems as if the world is falling apart. These words give us comfort in the midst of difficult times.

Biblical theologians tell us that the Old Testament reveals significant tension between two expressions of God's covenant with Israel: the Mosaic covenant and the Davidic covenant. God's covenant with Israel as given through Moses emphasizes key themes of salvation history: liberation from slavery; the land of promise; laws and codes for behavior; and ritual processes and purity. It is a conditional covenant. That is, God says, "If you follow my command, then I will dwell with you."

In contrast, the Davidic covenant emphasizes Jerusalem, the Temple, and the monarchy as undisputed evidence of God's favor. It is an unconditional covenant. God promises to dwell in Jerusalem; Zion becomes a cosmic gateway to the presence of God. The promise includes a ruler—one like David, from David's family tree, will sit on the throne in Jerusalem forever. This feature of the Davidic covenant will eventually develop into the hope for a Messiah.

Following the reigns of David and Solomon, the kingdom split in two: Israel or Ephraim (Northern Kingdom); and Judah (Southern Kingdom). The north fell to the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C. In 701, Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, turned his attention farther south, surrounding Jerusalem with several hundred thousand soldiers. In desperation, Hezekiah, king of Judah, sent for the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah proclaimed that Jerusalem would not fall to the Assyrians. Amazingly, 185,000 Assyrian soldiers dropped dead one night. The Assyrian army retreated; Jerusalem was spared. (See 2 Kings 18:13—19:37; 2 Chron. 32:9-22; and Isa. 36—37 for the story.)

Those who propagated the Davidic covenant and the belief that Jerusalem was indestructible because it was God's home felt vindicated in their belief. However, the prophets warned the people about putting too much faith and confidence in Jerusalem and its Temple. Jeremiah, an adherent of Mosaic covenantal theology, said:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive word's: "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD." For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever (Jer. 7:3-7).

Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C. The people of Judah were deported to Babylon. Jeremiah's words rang true, for the people ignored God's commandments to worship rightly and to establish a just society. Even so, God did not abandon them in Babylon. God was at work renewing the relationship with the people during exile, preparing them for their return home seventy years later.

Psalm 46 is one of the songs of Zion, the city of God— Jerusalem. In sure and certain tones, the psalm claims the protection of God over Jerusalem, as if the author and the city have endured difficult times.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge, (vs. 5-7)
"God will help it when the morning dawns" (v. 5b) may be an allusion to the withdrawal of Sennacherib's forces following the night when scores of his troops died. Yet, how are we to claim the truth of Ps. 46 without also falling prey to the false confidence engendered by the unconditional nature of Davidic theology?

One way to read the psalm without fear of misplaced devotion is to think of "the city of God" as beyond any specific geographic location. The poetry of the psalm gives us license to apply "city of God" to any time or place where the people of God live out their lives in obedience to God. The care and authority of God is not limited to any one location or to any one era of history. God is our refuge and ever-present help in any place and at any time. That might help us avoid the problem of glorifying Zion. We do not glorify Zion in and of itself, but as the place where God is known and worshiped. Jerusalem is not our refuge; God is. Jerusalem, by its faithful worship and obedience, draws the nations of the world to the holy mountain so that the true God of the universe is worshiped and served (see Isa. 59, 60).

God is our refuge. God is our strength. God is our help in times of trouble. God is not just an occasional help but is readily found. The psalm gives a straightforward description of the nature of the relationship between God and God's people. God is like a fortress, a safe place where those who would do you harm cannot reach you. Psalm 46 does not offer a theoretical exploration of God's nature. This is not idle speculation. Trouble is a part of life. The people of God experience grief, pain, and hard times. God has not abandoned us; the psalm celebrates the presence of God in the midst of those bad things. God is our refuge and safety.

The people of God can expect difficult times to be a part of their lives. Problems can feel like earthquakes sometimes: Financial stability, like the ground below us, breaks apart. Medical problems threaten to drown us like the raging seas during a tsunami. All people experience "earthquakes" that no geologist can measure. But the psalm assures us that God is with us in the midst of these "earthquakes."
Psalm 46 is prayed at funerals and before serious medical procedures. We pray these words because we find comfort in them, as have believers through the ages. The psalm does not declare that the people of God are privileged to live lives without suffering and pain or hard times. All sorts of troubles, and illnesses, and eventual death are realities for all people. The people of God must face these things. But God does not abandon us in the midst of pain, suffering, or any other "earthquake" we may be facing. God is present with us. God is our refuge. God is our source of strength.

How are we to square the seeming message of Ps. 46 with the death or destruction of those who are faithful?
Why do you think that the people of God are not "immune" from difficult times?
What does it mean to trust God in times of economic or political turmoil?
How might people's faith guide their responses to global terrorist threats?

O God, our refuge, we thank you for your promise to be with us in the midst of all kinds of turmoil. Thank you for sustaining us in our darkest times. Help us not to forget you during the good times. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

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