Perhaps because the Psalm 46 touches my heart, I was almost reluctant to spend a lot of time in my head examining it.  Much as music can soothe my soul, these words embrace and assure.  I don’t really need to know how or why.  I am grateful for the present help.  That said, here are some of my reflections.

The psalm is written in three stanzas—verses 1-3; verses 4-6 and verses 8-10.  The refrain, or perhaps a congregational response is found in verses 7 and 11.  Poetically, it would seem that the refrain also belongs after verse 3 and some translators ‘restore’ it.  It certainly flows as a responsive reading in a congregation or an antiphonal response sung by a choir.

“God 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.”

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

In FIRL, I asked people to describe a time in their lives of great upheaval. Each person had a personal story.  People spoke of the death of spouses, of divorces, and of having to watch loved ones in pain.  We live together in a weave of life and when that fabric is torn, it is cataclysmic.  The earth is shaken, the mountains tremble, the waters of chaos roar and foam.  The same phenomena occurs in our larger community.  Covid and the polarization of our political landscape have combined to place our entire nation into trembling uncertainty.  Most of us are exhausted, many are depressed and angry.  Individually and corporately, these are times our individual and human efforts fail us.

In such situations, psalm 46 is a familiar source of comfort.  Though often read at funerals, its solace is certainly not limited to the upheaval of death.  It is something to hang onto whenever our worlds are shaken.  It is something to hang onto whenever it seems impossible to know what we can rely on or how we can continue. It arouses our childhood for “mommy to kiss it and make it better.”  Not one of those kisses stopped the bleeding on a scrapped knee—that often included an unpleasant encounter with hydrogen peroxide—but the embrace does make all the difference.  Mother is a present help—not only present  in time but also in presence in body. In times of pain or disoriented, we need present help.  

Our self consciousness and our idolization of self sufficiency make it difficult to acknowledge those needs. Secularly, it’s not very grown up or self-reliant to touch the part of ourselves that needs a ‘very present help in trouble.’  We don’t want to appear self indulgent and cry out unnecessarily.  We don’t want to expose that we don’t seem to be coping like everyone else.  And God forbid, we do not want to be labeled ‘needy’  and become a burden on others.  We compare, rationalize and often unwittingly believe that not feeling is the same as endurance.  When we do so however, we lose an opportunity for transformation.

“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.”

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

In the second stanza, a remarkable transformation occurs.  The raging waters that roar and foam have become a ‘stream that makes glad the city of God.’  This is a transformation that often occurs when we come out of the other side of earth shaking change.  When that change occurs, it starts to have applications in the ordinary uncertainties of real life.  

 When I asked the FIRL group what they had learned from their personal experiences of profound upheaval, the general response was that their relationship with God had changed.  Almost to the person, group members reported that what had seemed like unendurable pain had been survivable.  Chaos and upheaval, in very frightening ways, exposes our limits and our ability to manage outcomes.  There are a whole lot of things we cannot manage.   Questions asking ‘why’ or needing to understand lost their urgency.   We cannot know.  We can only take the next step.  We cannot know the future but we can live in the present.  Nobody asked if we approved or if we liked it.  

If we are to have life, we must live with what we’ve got. That includes loss, suffering, aging and great political uncertainty.   But we do so in the knowledge that “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”  This is what it means to be in right relationship with God.  And this is what it means for God to be a present help.  As human as our fear and anxieties are, they become a misuse of life energy. They deflect us from the reality of our dependence.  

Chaos teaches there is nothing earthly we can lose that we can’t live without.  That is a melancholy truth and it is grounded in grief. But in the end, it is freeing.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;  see what desolation 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.” 

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

God desolates the hubris that we can manage the world.  One of the most human means to try to manage outcomes is to say “or else!”  We go to war to try to impose our will.  But trying to force outcomes in relationships, between political adversaries or between nations will fail.  Such strategies may have short term success but in the end they  perpetuate a circle of righteous retaliation.  The desolation the Lord of hosts inflicts is taking away our means of aggression.  The Lord of hosts does not wage war.  The Lord of Hosts wages peace—he breaks the bow, shatters the spear and burns the shield.  We are left defenseless—vulnerable and dependent upon God.  That is what happens when chaos and great upheaval disturb our lives. Once again, God is present and acting in ways that we cannot imagine.

I had always understood the line  “Be still, and know that I am God!” to be a command to be humble and meditative.  That interpretation may well apply.  This time around however,  I hear it as God’s command to the nations—or perhaps to our political polarization.  Knock off your foolish indignant, retaliatory war mongering ways.  Learn that you cannot control outcomes.  Trust me. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. 

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.