The words of Psalm 46:
1God is our refuge and strength,
a very 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
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;Psalm 46 (NRSV)
see what desolations he has brought 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 shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Be still and know that I am God
“Be still and know that I am God.” Without a doubt, this is the verse that most people remember from Psalm 46. Most likely, more people can quote this verse than know it is from Psalm 46. The verse is beautiful. It deserves fame. Continuing to wrestle with it and live with the verse is still more beautiful. The words, though simple, don’t give up meaning easily. What does it mean to “Be still and know that [God is] God?”
A pretty prevalent perspective on these words is to think that the stillness encouraged in the psalm is something that is good every once in a while. The reasoning goes like this: “Yes, stillness is a good ‘prayer time’ activity, but it isn’t really practical.” This reasoning can even shape translations of the psalm, so much so that it shows up in the word choices of different renderings of the psalm.
Stillness in so many words…
Knowing the alternate translations of “Be still” in the verse can be helpful for digging into how the psalm goes through our minds (and into our actions). Some notable alternatives to the NRSV translation “Be still” quoted above include: “Cease striving,” “Stop fighting,” and “Calm down.” The translations give you some variations definitely, while preserving a general sense of release, whether from effort, conflict, or strife.
One of the translators of the CSB bible has argued that “Stop fighting” is a better translation because the surrounding verses give clear connotations of war. As their argument goes, other translations do not reflect the intensity of war, so they are not really fitting. In other more simplified words, since being literally, physically still or mentally serene wouldn’t be practical given the intense activity of war, translating the words as “Be still” doesn’t really work.
That line of thinking seems a little too narrow. Action can be calm even when situations are hectic. In fact, isn’t that usually more helpful? If the still and calm can help in such a frantic situation, where else might it be useful? Well, the psalm covers more ground than just the battleground.
Nature, nations, and navies in Psalm 46
The verses that include “Be still” come at the end of the final stanza of the psalm. Verse 10 and 11 seem a natural conclusion to psalm generally. The words “Be still” speak to the first stanza just as appropriately as they do to the last, at least to my reading. So that famous “Be still” speaks to a lot more than war.
The stillness in the psalm doesn’t just apply to such a dramatically stressful situation (war) either, but to all the unremarkable stresses of daily life. Stillness when you feel you need to act urgently, should heighten the importance of practicing stillness in every setting, not only a set “quiet time” or “prayer practice” but throughout life, even when you are quite active. A certain kind of stillness can accompany life even at the most frantic, frenetic times. The contexts of the psalm highlight this well. There are three in particular.
James Limburg in his helpful, accessible commentary on the psalms points out three contexts in Psalm 46. There is one for every stanza. The contexts are cosmic, political, and combative. Each stanza reminds the reader that throughout trouble in each context God is present as a refuge and help. Rather than encouraging some action to resist nature, strive politically for some advantage, or fight our own campaign, Psalm 46 just insists on stillness, taking refuge.
How to be still
I find very little help in trying to understand what stillness could mean here, if all I do is try to think it through. It is better to live it out and let that teach me how to be still. Practicing this stillness (it takes the form of a command after all) seems the best way to come to understand this psalm. How can you be still and take action, all at the same time? Well, can you see what your situation is calling for and do that?
Let’s take the contexts of the psalm as our examples. If there are natural threats, like a dangerous storm, it is natural and appropriate to take shelter away from windows. On voting day in a democratic country, it is appropriate to cast your ballot. When you are in conflict, it is appropriate to seek out peace, and try to come to terms with the other party. Can a person be still in such circumstances and still do what is appropriate? Sure, they can. There are even some practices (like meditation, that is what this site is all about after all) that foster this kind of stillness.
Be Still and know who God is
Finally, it isn’t really the stillness that accomplishes something. The whole drive is knowing who God is. God is the refuge and strength that makes the stillness possible. Possible not only in an existential sense (you wouldn’t be here without God), but in a practical sense. Even when you are least likely to be aware of it, you receive care in a profound, foundational way. Being still and knowing this flows from faith, but fosters it as well.
How do you read this psalm?
Psalm 139 – Where is God?
"There is nowhere God is not." That sounds like an awkward phrase. I think it works better than the more straightforward "God is everywhere." There is a lack of intimacy to say it like that. A loss of intimacy would be a big loss for this psalm, too. The way the writer of the psalm describes their experience it sounds more like wherever you are, God is there. The writer asks rhetorically where they could go where God would not be present. The implied answer is nowhere.
Psalm 23 – a walk through the valley
To a wide range of people these are familiar words. Whether you are the church-going kind or not, there are likely a few phrases that ring a bell. If you've ever heard the 1995 Coolio song, Gangsta's Paradise, you've heard a line from Psalm 23. The song opens with "As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." which echoes the King James Version's "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...". In the New Revised Standard Version, the same verse gets translated as, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley...", which doesn't quite have the same ring to it, but still. Suffice it to say, Psalm 23 is a part of the common consciousness of (at least Western) culture.
Psalm 119 – A light on your way
Psalm 119 describes life as traveling a path. It is a pretty common metaphor. If you travel for any amount of time, you know the importance of having a good route in mind, so that you know where you are going. Whether that route takes the form of an itinerary, map, an experienced guide, or an actual road, it is helpful to have something or someone to help you navigate as you go. This psalm has a particular route prepared. Over and over in this psalm, the writer talks about walking in God's teaching, law, or instruction. For them, this teaching is the guide on the journey of life and a help for the turns life takes along the way.
Psalm 19 – Heaven and Earth Speak
Several years ago, I watched the sunrise over the hills of Kentucky. Cows lowed repeatedly and loudly in the minutes just before the sun's light peeked over the horizon. I was visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton lived and worked. It was at the end of a five-day silent retreat. My bags sat in the trunk of the car I had rented for the short drive between the airport and the abbey. Spending that much time in silence, then watching the sun come up was a funny experience.
Psalm 1 Commentary – Like a tree
One way of reading this psalm is pretty judgmental. Anything that mentions "sinners" and "righteousness" flirts with a judgmental mentality. Given how quickly we tend to judge others, reading this text as permission to think in "black and white" terms about people's lives would be easy. I'll admit that my mind went there right away. Some people are pretty happy to read the psalm that way. It had me pretty turned off by the text to begin with. Parts of it sound like the worst kind of religious sentiment. It feels both unhealthy and unhelpful to harbor and cultivate such judgmental thought.