When the earth gives way
In February 2011, we were in New Zealand. After time spent in the lovely little town of Akaroa, we returned to Christchurch for the last days of our holiday before flying home. It was only a week after our return, before we’d even had time to sort our photos, that disaster struck that city. An earthquake devastated the city, killing 185 people. The beautiful cathedral where we’d attended a service was in ruins, the carpark under a cliff where we’d gone to look at the sea was strewn with car-crushing boulders. Our hearts ached, but we were safe and sound. How much worse was it for the people who lived there?
Natural disasters are a horrible reality in this world – earthquakes, fires, floods, tsunamis, cyclones – the list goes on. But there are other kinds of disasters that rip our world apart as well – famines, wars, plagues, droughts etc. And then there are the personal disasters that can upend our lives – bereavement, sickness, accidents, financial loss, chronic pain, broken relationships, and so many others. We are delusional if we think we can be totally secure in this world, in fact Jesus told a story to that effect (in Luke 12) about a man whose harvest was so large that he decided all he had to do was build bigger barns to hold it and sit back and enjoy it. Jesus, you may remember, called him a fool!
So, where can we find security?
Psalm 46 addresses this very thing:
46 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help
2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. 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 her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.
6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he
has brought desolations on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
As a matter of interest, this was Martin Luther’s favourite Psalm, and the inspiration for his famous hymn Ein Feste Burg (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”). You can see why. It’s a Psalm for hard times, and for battling through situations we wouldn’t have chosen to face.
Unlike some Psalms, which start with a lament for the Psalmist’s problem, this one starts from a position of confident faith. God IS our strength and refuge, for all time and in all situations. He is the one who will uphold us with his righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10). He is the one who gives strength to the weary (Isaiah 40:29). His name is our strong tower (Prov 18:10), which we can run to and be safe. Therefore, even in times of absolute calamity, we do not need to cower in fear.
Most of the time, in most of our lives, we manage our problems ourselves. We have processes, we have techniques, we know (or think we know) how to cope. This is part of our difficulty, some of us can be so good at “coping”, that we have very little practice in being truly dependent on God. But there are no coping skills that will carry you through when the earth gives way, and the mountains are moved into the heart of the sea (v2). We need a refuge then, and God has given us one. Himself. He is the one who has told us to come to him when we are weary and heavy laden, and he will give us rest. It is his everlasting arms which are underneath us. We have an eternal security in Christ which is beyond our understanding.
But more, God is a very present help. He is not far away from us. We do not need fancy rituals to reach him, he is as close as the breath of a prayer. We do not need to make ourselves perfect to come to him, we cannot; but we stand in the righteousness of Christ, and we are fully accepted. We do not need to go on arduous pilgrimages to find him, he is here already, and what is even more wonderful, his Spirit dwells within us. There is nowhere we can go where he is not already present.
The Psalmist then goes on to talk about the city of God, which is immovable, with a river running through it. This, at first glance, might seem like a change of subject, but it isn’t. Two New Testament scriptures illuminate this. The first is Revelation 22, which speaks of the glorious city of God which is to come. There is river in the midst of it, named as the River of the Water of Life, and it waters the Tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. It is a beautiful picture of God’s healing and renewing presence giving life to his people.
The second one is from John 7: 38 “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
This makes it personal, and here-and-now. Every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, every Christian has access to that sustaining and empowering river.
The world is a scary place at times. The nations rage, and sometimes the baddies win. The kingdoms totter and the earth melts. Our hearts cry out in horror, fear, and pity. The Psalmist enumerates these things (verse 6), there is no pretence that horrors will not happen. But there is a larger perspective, a bigger picture, when we put God back in the frame, because none of these things can defeat him. No virus, no natural disaster, no wicked army has the final say. God does; and he is in charge, and he loves us. Evil may flourish for a season, but don’t be deceived, its time is short.
This is the context of verse 10, one of those “famous” verses that everyone knows. “Be still, and know that I am God”, and note that it continues “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”. But what does it mean to be still? It isn’t referring to some sort of meditative pose. The Hebrew word means to be weak, or to surrender; some translators put it as “stop striving” or “stop fighting”. It is the same word as Jesus used when he stilled the storm. It is not a passive mental state, it is an active choice, by faith, to entrust ourselves to God and let him deal with the things that are beyond our power. It means giving up the myth that we are in control, it means laying down the pride that says we must be self-sufficient. It means letting God be God and being in awe of who he is and what he does. The victory already belongs to him, we just haven’t seen it yet. But while we wait, we are safe in his hands. He truly is our refuge and strength.