King of peace
[Published in Mennonite Weekly Review, 10/4/10]
Psalm 46 contains some of the richest imagery we will see this quarter portraying the God affirmed in Old Testament faith —imagery that remains potent for our convictions today.
Right away we get a threefold picture: God as “refuge,” “strength” and “help” (46:1). All three elements imply human vulnerability. We need a refuge. We need strength. We need help.
In the background here we may see human efforts to dominate the world through self-exertion, especially in the form of great empires and military might, but also — more in the modern world — through exploitation of nature and unlimited economic expansion.
Imagine the worst
The psalmist challenges us, though, to imagine the worst. The earth may “change;” the mountains may “shake” (46:2-3). In the psalmist’s world, the mountains’ “shaking” means the worst imaginable physical catastrophes. The mountains anchor all the rest of creation. When they “shake,” everything else is devastated.
Matching the physical upheaval, the psalmist also imagines political chaos: “the nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter” (46:6). It’s like Karl Marx wrote back in the 19th century (little imagining what the next 150 years would bring): “All that is solid melts into air.”
In stark contrast with Marx, though, the psalmist affirms that God is the one sure thing, our one best hope. But Psalm 46’s God contrasts mightily with the power elite’s “god” that Marx understandably rejected.
This psalm tells us that the strength behind the universe is neither indifferent to our dangers and suffering (as is the universe of much modern science and philosophy) nor the cause of our dangers and suffering. The God of Psalm 46 is for us. In fact, the psalm’s first words could accurately be translated: “God is for us, a refuge and strength.”
In imagining the “nations in an uproar” (46:6), the psalmist quite likely has in mind a military attack on God’s people (note the reference to God as the “Lord of hosts,” that is, the “Lord of armies,” 46:7).
Here, the psalm truly gets radical. The God of Psalm 46 indeed may be portrayed as a warrior God, the Lord of armies. But notice what this “warrior” does. There are “desolations” that come from God (46:8) — but of what sort?
The God who fights for peace
The Lord “makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; the Lord breaks the bow and shatters the spear; the Lord burns the shield with fire” (46:9). What an amazing set of images to find within the Old Testament, portrayed (erroneously) as a book of violence!
The “desolation” the Lord visits on the nations destroys their weapons of war. Indeed, this is a “warrior” God — a God who fights for peace. A God who fights human violence and human efforts to dominate creation and other human beings through brute force.
The psalm ends with an exhortation. In light of this God who fights for peace, the God who is your help and strength and refuge, you have a job. “Be still!” (46:9). This “be still,” though, is not a call to quiet meditation. It’s a call to stop your own violence. Throw down your weapons. Trust in God’s ways.
Harkening back to Genesis 12, what we have in Psalm 46 is a call to respond to human brokenness by imitating God in destroying the weapons of war, and to trust in God’s ways of wholeness and justice. This is where we find our refuge when all that is solid melts into air.