A safe stronghold our God is still
Psalms 46-48 are full of confidence in God – whether because of his present protection or the assurance of his future help.
Yesterday I commented on how my thoughts on Psalm 42-43 had been influenced by the hymn ‘As the deer’ – Psalm 46 has inspired several well known hymns, especially those by Martin Luther (A safe stronghold our God is still) and Richard Bewes (God is our strength and refuge, sung to the ‘Dambusters March’). They are much fuller paraphrases of the psalm, following the whole of its thought. It’s no wonder – the imagery of the city of God is a rich and powerful one, and this is one of the strongest and deepest expressions of trust in the Bible.
There’s another hymn which takes a phrase from this psalm, though – ‘Be still and know that I am God.‘ It’s a beautiful, calm hymn which we sing a lot. The phrase itself is a good one to repeat to settle into quiet prayer, and the hymn leads us to think of peace, healing and confidence in God. But we tend to forget that it comes here as an affirmation of God’s peace in the middle of conflict and trouble – when the whole earth seems to be shaking around us and the mountains are falling, the nations are in uproar and the storms of life seem overwhelming.
This assurance of God’s peace isn’t just for easy times when we can sit in blissful stillness. It’s a phrase given to us more to call upon when we need to step back from a stressful situation, breathe and remember that God is bigger than the problem and more faithful than we can imagine. Perhaps we should make it a habit to recall that phrase whenever we feel the danger of being overwhelmed by life – and then as soon as we can, to go back and read the whole psalm that sets the phrase in place and gives it depth.
After all, when we can sit in calm and stillness, the knowledge of God’s presence is a wonderful and enriching thing. When we are in the middle of life’s storms, then it may be a vital refuge.
We’re all doomed… not exactly
After all of this assurance and confidence, Psalm 49 strikes a very different note which may jar. We’re all going to die, says the psalmist, and we can depend upon God to ransom us from the power of Sheol (Hell, not as a place of punishment but as a place of non-existence). Strangely, though, the knowledge of our mortality can be a great encouragement to affirm our life – and while it’s a truth we all know about, it’s not something of which we like to be reminded.
But knowing that we will one day die reminds us to live this present life to the full. To me, it is a reminder that my ability and responsibility to do things has a limit – in the end, I will leave behind much of the work that I start (one day with my death, but hopefully before then when I move to a new parish!) and others will continue it or let it end. And that’s ok – because I and all that I do are in God’s hands.
And when life seems to be unfair, I can at least know that it won’t always be this way. That doesn’t make everything all right, but it does make it possible to get on with life knowing that one day it will be sorted out.
So the thought that I will one day die may not be comforting – but it is a reminder that today I’m alive, and that today is given to be lived to the full.