with Tony W. Cartledge
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” – Psalm 46:10
When All Else Fails
The season we call “Thanks-giving” is appropriate for many reasons, most notably because it prompts us to stop and think – to be reminded of many blessings that should inspire gratitude.
Some of us have far more material goods or money in the bank than others, but you may have observed that some of the poorest people are the richest in thanks. Perhaps it is because, when one has so little, every blessing is appreciated more. Or, perhaps those who are not distracted by bank accounts, big houses, and expensive toys find it easier to stay in touch with the daily blessings of food, health, and life itself.
When you stop to think about thanksgiving, what comes first to your mind?
A refuge(vv. 1-3)
The poet behind Psalm 46 thought first of security: those who are at home with God can face even cataclysmic events without fear. The psalm expresses profound confidence and inner security: something the wealthiest of people can lack. It’s no wonder, then, that Psalm 46 has become a favorite “go to” text for those who face troubling days when life experience seems to be preaching a contrary message.
The superscription of the psalm is interesting but not overly helpful. It is one of 11 psalms attributed to the “Korahites” or “sons of Korah,” who served various functions in the temple, from gate-keeping to “the work of the service” (1 Chron. 9:17-19). Psalms 42, 44-49, 84-85, and 87-88 are all attributed to the “sons of Korah.”
The superscription, an ancient notation not considered to be part of the psalm, includes instructions for the musical director, perhaps related to the tune or style of the music. Unfortunately, “according to Alamoth, a song” is too cryptic to be informative. The word ‘alamōth means “young women,” but whether that describes a tune, a style, or that young women are preferred singers is unclear.
What is clear is that the psalmist is supremely confident in God’s care, no matter what comes: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (v. 1). That introduction is followed by a celebration of God as a refuge against natural disasters (vv. 2-3), a section that honors God’s protection against other nations (vv. 4-7), and a closing meditation that brings the two together (vv. 8-11). The image of God as a refuge begins the first section and concludes the other two (vv. 1, 7, and 11).
The Jordan Rift Valley, which runs between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank to the west and Jordan to the east, marks a fault line that runs from the Jordan River’s genesis in the Hula Valley through the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, and on through the Arabah to the Gulf of Aqaba.
It is a deep rift: land around the Dead Sea is the lowest point below sea level on earth (about 1,300 feet), and the deepest part of the Dead Sea is another 1,000 feet below. The fault remains seismically active, and earthquakes have been occurred since ancient times. Strong temblors in 1837 and 1927 reportedly killed about 4,000 and 300 people, respectively. Newspapers in Israel and Jordan regularly report minor quakes felt throughout the area.
The New Testament speaks of an earthquake powerful enough to split rocks and open tombs when Jesus was crucified (Matt. 27:50-53). Notably, the prophet Amos dated the beginning of his ministry to “two years before the earthquake,” a memorable temblor that probably occurred around 760 BCE.
We cannot know if the psalmist had experienced this earthquake or another one, or if he knew of them only from stories passed down, but vv. 2-3 clearly refer to the possibility of a major upheaval. The psalmist felt no trepidation, however. Trusting God as a refuge and help in times of trouble, he insisted: “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.”
The psalmist draws a picture of a major quake that changes the landscape and sends mountainous landslides tumbling into the sea, resulting in massive tidal waves that crash back against the shore and threaten to wash away coastal residents who weren’t already buried beneath the rubble.
The poet’s words should not be read as confidence that God would never allow the faithful to be harmed by natural disasters, but as an assertion that God has control over the forces of chaos, typically symbolized by the churning sea, which no human can conquer. As an obedient worshiper, the psalmist does not fear whatever God may choose to bring.
A river(vv. 4-7)
The psalmist believed that God’s power over the forces of nature extends to dominion over human nations, as well, and this is the subject of vv. 4-7. Having spoken of waters and mountains in the previous verses, the poet skillfully transitions to the next section by shifting to another mountain, a river, and “the city of God.”
The imagery of the verse is captivating: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High” (v. 4). The meaning of the verse, however, is a bit confusing.
On the one hand, we may assume that the city is Jerusalem, where the Hebrews believed God’s presence, in some fashion, dwelt above the cherubim in the Holy of Holies. There is, however, no river in Jerusalem. It is possible that the psalmist is speaking metaphorically, for though Jerusalem sits atop a steep hill and has no river, at the base of the hill is the strong Gihon Spring, which gushes clear water from the earth and provides the city with adequate water. In Hezekiah’s time, a deep tunnel was cut through bedrock, bringing the spring’s water into the city, where it fed the pool of Siloam. That dependable stream surely brought gladness to the city.
Imagery from both Canaanite mythology and early traditions about Melchizedek may also have influenced the picture. The Canaanites believed that the high god El sat enthroned at the head of two streams on lofty Mount Zaphon, a mythical mountain in the north, sometimes identified with Mount Hermon, which is often snow-capped and gives rise to the Jordan River. In v. 4, “the city of God” uses the title Elohim for God, while “holy habitation of the Most High” refers to God by the title Elyon.
The story of Abraham and Melchizedek (Genesis 14) describes “King Melchizedek of Salem” as the “priest of God Most High.” The term “Salem” almost certainly refers to Jerusalem, and “God Most High” translates El Elyon. The Hebrews came to believe that El Elyon of “Salem” and Yahweh of Hosts, the God of Jacob (v. 7), must be the same God.
As far as our text is concerned, the poet’s point is that because God dwells in the city (probably Jerusalem), “it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns” (v. 5) The temple was in Jerusalem, and it is most likely that the psalmist was, too. He did not fear attacks from other nations, because he did not believe God would allow the city to be conquered. The psalmist must have been confident that the people in his day were living up to their covenant obligations, because God’s promises of victory were conditioned on Israel’s obedience.
The psalmist again flashes poetic skill by using some of the same words to describe the nations that he had previously used for the earthquake-stricken mountains and sea. The city of God does not “totter” (better “slip” or “slide”), as the tottering mountains slid into the sea, but “the kingdoms totter” and fall. As the seas “roared,” so “the nations are in an uproar” (using a different form of the same verb). When God “utters his voice” – a reference to the sound of thunder – “the earth melts,” as do God’s enemies.
The section concludes with a confession that “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (v. 7). The same confession, which echoes v. 1, will be repeated at the end of the psalm, in v. 11.
A reminder(vv. 8-11)
The psalmist closes by bringing together God’s rule over both the earth and its people. God has brought desolations on the earth (v. 8) while bringing wars to an end, presumably in Israel’s favor. In language reminiscent of the “swords into plowshares” prophesies of Micah and Isaiah (Mic. 4:1-4, Isa. 2:2-4), the psalmist speaks of Yahweh breaking and burning the weapons of war to bring peace to the earth (v. 9).
This brings us to v. 10, a much-loved and often-quoted, but generally misunderstood verse. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted in the earth.” We usually read the verse as an invitation to pause in our busy days and meditate on the goodness of God, but in context – whether addressed to Israel or the defeated nations – it calls for humans to cease their striving (“Quit it!”), recognize that God is king, and let God be about God’s work of ruling the earth and bringing peace.
This does not diminish the importance of being still and pondering our place in God’s world – its main purpose is to remind us of our place: God is king; we are not. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for November 20, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Psalm 46
Our society is busy. We are busy. We use technology to make things more efficient to give us more time, but then we take the time that is saved and fill it with something else. There are rarely moments in our day that we are still. But when we are still, we are grateful for the stillness that we experience. Talk to your students and ask them why they are so busy. Help them discern what pressures are real and what they are unnecessarily heaping on themselves. But be ready for them to want more stillness, because you will have to practice it is as well.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Thanksgiving” from The Blind Side via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Psalm 46