BEING THANKFUL IN TIMES OF UNCERTAINTY, Thanksgiving Devotional Series: Psalm 46, November 5, 2020
Reflection | Today’s psalm is the first in the Book of Psalms of what are known as the Songs of Zion. Other psalms that are a part of this series include Psalm 48, 76, 84, 87, and 122. The Songs of Zion center around the meaning and importance of Jerusalem in the Lord’s relationship with His people and the world.
Mount Zion is a broad hill in Jerusalem. It was the highest point in the ancient city. According to the Book of Samuel, Mount Zion was the site of the Jebusite fortress called the “stronghold of Zion” eventually conquered by King David, and thus becoming his palace and the City of David. Biblically, the word “Zion” can refer to one of three places: the hill where the most ancient areas of Jerusalem stood; the city of Jerusalem itself; or the dwelling place of God.
It is widely held that Jews who had been scattered during the Diaspora (the forceful dispersion of the people after the fall of Israel), sang the songs of Zion whenever they returned on pilgrimage. In particular, psalms like this one would be lifted up as those pilgrims stood just outside the gates of Jerusalem. All of these songs herald Jerusalem as the unshakeable center of all creation because, prior to the coming of Jesus Christ, this is where the presence of the Lord dwelt.
More than being about a physical location, however, the subject and the theme of these songs is about God Himself being the place, the person in whom our help and our hope can be found. Historically, this particular psalm is associated with the deliverance of Jerusalem from the threat of the Assyrian Empire during the days of the prophet, Isaiah (see 2 Kings 18:35-37). At a time of great destabilization, the song from the past prophetically looks forward through a series of potent word pictures to invoke a posture of thanksgiving for us in our present times.
The opening imagery is terrifying. The earth “giving way” (verse 2) can mean the earth is being literally shaken or completely changed in state. Mountains, typically serving as signs of strength and security, “fall into the heart of the sea.” The “waters roar and foam” (verse 3) as the boundaries of the sea crash down upon the earth. And yet against this backdrop, these collective descriptions of the violence of the natural world, a confession of persistent faith is expressed: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear” (verses 1-2).
Refuge means a condition of being safe or protected from pursuit, danger, or trouble. It also means a place of shelter or sanctuary. To understand our God as our refuge is to seek our well-being in the presence of the Lord who stands above the created order. For only in the One who is the Creator of all these earthly elements can we find both our shelter from and our strength to endure the storms of this life.
In contrast to the destructive waters of the sea, the psalmist tells us, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (verse 4). The city of Jerusalem has no river within its borders. Its only water source is the spring of Gihon and Hezekiah’s Tunnel which brings water into the Pool of Siloam. Instead of looking for a body of water, we are again to recognize the living waters we thirst for are the refreshment and sustenance of the Lord’s presence. Or as the psalmists adds, “the holy place where the Most High dwells.”
“God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day” (verse 5). The psalmist localizes the reality of the Lord’s presence within the walls of the city of Jerusalem. The security and stability of the city are juxtaposed with the insecurity and instability of the natural world. This contrast is pushed even further as the disorder of human history is now brought into the frame: “Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;” (verse 6). Before all the rage and conflicts that both lead to the rise and descent of human empires, the Lord remains in control and in command: “he lifts his voice, the earth melts.”
Humanity’s persistent response to uncertainty is to attempt to master her own destiny. Each and every time, trouble ensues. Blood is spilled and any so-called victory from battle is built on the backs of others. But as the psalmist makes clear, war, conflict, and violence are not part of our Creator’s design for this world. Their devastating consequences are not what the Lord intended for humanity. These are the rotten fruits that grow out of our rejection and rebellion first against God and then inevitably, each other.
We recognize God’s actual intentions as the psalmist beckons us to “come and see” (verse 8) the reason we can stay hopeful: “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth” (verse 9). One day, the Lord will bring an end to all human conflict. As the psalmist anticipates it, the very power of civilizations to make war, including all of the weapons crafted by humanity for the purpose of battle, shall be extinguished by God’s own hand. A similar vision and promise echoes throughout the words of the prophets (see Isaiah 2:1-4 and Micah 4:1-4). The Lord alone can bring the chaos we create through neglect, hatred, and violence and transform certain destruction and death into new life and a different world – one without the inevitability and the trappings of conflict.
Before the ongoing threat of a global pandemic, in the aftermath of a historic election, and as we struggle to find healing and unity as a divided nation, we find ourselves in unstable and uncertain times. But this is not uncharted territory for humankind. God’s people have walked this path before. Future generations will likely do so again. The invitation and the challenge before us are to choose how we will walk. Will it be forward or backward? Will it be together or apart? Will it be by the sheer force of our own will or abiding faith in the One who declares, “Be still, and know that I am God” (verse 10).
As the psalmist has shown us today, as we make our own pilgrimage back from exile, we can dare to have hope. We can be made glad. We even find reason to give thanks even in the midst of uncertainty. For our salvation is not found in mountains and human kingdoms; it is assured by the Architect of all creation, the King of all Kings who reigns over all life as we know it. Our word of confidence in these unsettling and tumultuous times is an age-old and eternal assurance; it the repeated refrain of this psalm: “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress!” (verse 7 and 11).
Living as if God is our fortress means more than “throwing up a prayer” from time to time, reading your Bible now and then, or even regularly participating in worship on Sunday. The image the psalmist gives to us isn’t a religious picture; but a lived reality. To make God our fortress means our lives are found in Him. The Lord is our inspiration, our security, our hope. Not our jobs, our health, our friends or family. We must not confuse our thanksgiving for the blessings of God with the Giver of all good gifts.
Whatever you are worrying about right now, stop trying to work everything out by yourself. Humbly but expectantly come and be with Jesus. Let the Word of God dwell richly in your mind and your heart. Patiently rest, stand firm, and entrust yourself and this world of ours to the goodness and glory of the Spirit of the Lord who is both with and for us. Believe and discover that when we allow our thinking and our vision to be directed this God, we are enabled to see whatever is before us through a different and more promising lens.
Consider & Discuss | What are you facing right now that is uncertain and worrisome? Where are the places you typically run for refuge and strength when you are anxious and afraid? If those places are not the person of Jesus Christ, how are those other places working out for you? Has your stress turned to tiredness? Has your tiredness turned to frustration? Has your frustration become bitterness? Who is paying the price for all that tiredness, all that frustration, and all the bitterness?
When was the last time you felt afraid or unprotected and you found refuge in Jesus? How did Christ end up meeting and providing for you? What would it look like for you to run to Christ and take shelter in Him instead?
Prayer Focus | Take some time to become still in God’s presence. Slow your breathing through the following prayer exercise.
Inhale: Breathe in and be still and know… that God is near.
Exhale: Breathe out any fear of being alone or on your own.
Inhale: Breathe in and be still and know… that God is reliable.
Exhale: Breathe out all worry and anxiety before life’s uncertainties.
Inhale: Breathe in and be still and know… that God is in control.
Exhale: Breath out, let go, and release everything that is beyond your control.
Inhale: Breath in and be still and know… that God is to be worshipped.
Exhale: Breath out and lay down whatever keeps you too busy to abide in Jesus’ love.
Inhale: Breath in and be still and know… that God is with you and for you.
Exhale: Breath out any nagging doubts about your identity and worth in Christ.
Continue doing this until you feel ready to meet God according to His will for your life.
Bonus Material | Martin Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” derives from this psalm. Luther penned this song in the thick of the Turkish army’s unsuccessful siege against the walls of the city of Vienna in 1529. While Luther was inspired by the words of this song of Zion, ironically, his hymn bears more of a fighting tone in service to the Lord than the ethos of quiet trust in God that anticipates an end to all wars.