Untwisting Scripture: “Be still and know that I am God” edition


February 11, 2018 by jmar198013

Consider this the “pilot episode” of a new feature on my blog: a semi-regular series called, Untwisting Scripture. My plan is to occasionally visit a popular verse or passage or interpretation of scripture, and explain how we’re mostly getting it wrong. Why it matters. And what happens when we correct our misunderstanding.

Be still, and know that I am God. (Psalm 46.10 NIV)

You’ve probably seen these words on inspirational posters, coffee mugs, and all manner of Christian swag. You may have also sang those words in popular hymns.

But do you really know what they mean?

Here’s how I’ve typically seen this passage applied in popular devotional literature, religious songs, and the broader Christian-industrial complex. These words are generally taken as a call for a restless, weary, overburdened, stressed out believer to chill out, and rest in faith in God’s loving embrace.

Basically, these words are taken to mean: Chill out, brother or sister: God’s got this. Psalm 46.10 is overwhelmingly applied as simple spiritual advice. Typically almost therapeutic in nature.

But is that really what those words mean in context?

Let’s get a flavor from a couple of other translations. Up top we have the NIV, which has a pretty standard rendering of the phrase. But listen to the CEB rendering:

That’s enough! Now know that I am God!

And now check out what Eugene Peterson does with it in The Message:

Step out of the traffic! Take a long,
    loving look at me, your High God,
    above politics, above everything.

What’s going on here?

The psalm begins thus:

God is our refuge and strength,
    a help always near in times of great trouble. (Psalm 46.1 CEB)

So the setting of the psalm is a time of great turmoil. And the author wants their hearers to trust God during this troubled time. Specifically in vv2-3, the author seems to be speaking of some great cataclysm: earthquakes, floods, mountains breaking apart.

Is the author speaking symbolically? Is this one of those instances where the Bible is using apocalyptic language about the world being shaken, rocked to its foundations? Is all that really symbolic language to describe geopolitical events? Wars and conflicts?

Perhaps so. Because vv4-5 seem to be assuring the hearer of the psalm that Jerusalem–God’s city–will survive, because God is with them.

Then verse 6 proclaims:

Nations roar; kingdoms crumble.
    God utters his voice; the earth melts. (CEB)

This doesn’t sound at all like a call for believers stressed out by daily cares to rest in God’s gentle providence, does it? No–it sounds more like God has declared a world war!

There’s a refrain in this psalm, at vv7 and 11. See how the NIV translates it:

The LORD Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

You can hear the military imagery a little bit, with the metaphor of God being a fortress. But the phrase LORD Almighty obscures what the Hebrew of the psalm actually says there. The CEB and Message express it more plainly:

The LORD of heavenly forces is with us! (vv7a, 11a CEB)

Jacob-wrestling God fights for us,
    GOD-of-Angel-Armies protects us. (vv7, 11 MSG)

What these verses are actually saying is that God is the commander of heavenly or angelic spiritual forces. God is a warrior who fights on behalf of his people.

But vv8-9–the immediate context of our text under consideration–proclaim something rather amazing. God doesn’t just fight to bring peace and prosperity for his special people. God fights to rescue all the world from the hands of tyrants and warlords. Listen to what the psalmist says in those verses:

Come, see the Lord’s deeds,
    what devastation he has imposed on the earth—
     bringing wars to an end in every corner of the world,
    breaking the bow and shattering the spear,
        burning chariots with fire.

These verses proclaim that God is fighting for peace. God fights to bring an end to all wars and violence and chaos in the world, among all the nations. God will not be done until the bows and spears are all broken, and all the chariots are turned to ash. In today’s terms, the psalmist would say that God will keep on fighting for peace until every gun is nothing but rust; every bomb is dismantled; and all the materials that make tanks and bombers have been recycled and repurposed to build … I don’t know. Playgrounds or something.

Isn’t that cool? That’s a picture of God we don’t meditate on enough.

In light of all that, let’s listen to all of Psalm 46.10, from the CEB:

“That’s enough! Now know that I am God!
    I am exalted among all nations; I am exalted throughout the world!”

God doesn’t speak those words to stressed-out, burned-out, or over-scheduled believers to invite them to rest. They are not gentle words of reassurance. You’re supposed to hear God shouting those words, with thundering authority, to all the tyrants and oppressors and warlords of the earth.

Those words are a warning; they may become a threat. It’s basically God saying to those who do violence, who oppress people, who make wars: Drop your weapons! And if you don’t, I’m going to break them … and you’re going to break with them.

The reassuring words to troubled believers in this psalm aren’t found in v10, Be still, and know that I am God. The words meant for troubled believers are the ones found in vv7 and 11. Again, from The Message.

Jacob-wrestling God fights for us,
    GOD-of-Angel-Armies protects us.

The real good news of this psalm is that God is bent on bringing peace and justice to God’s creation, and all the people that dwell in it. In times of distress–wars, rumors of wars, genocide, political corruption, and unjust rulers–we shouldn’t be complacent or complicit with evil. But we can and should trust that God will not let those forces win. They will not harm and destroy forever. That’s the promise we should take refuge in.

Be still, and know that I am God, isn’t good news at all for those God speaks those words to.

It’s God’s way of saying, You better knock it off. Your days are numbered. I am God, and you are not.


One thought on “Untwisting Scripture: “Be still and know that I am God” edition

  1. […] Untwisting Scripture: “Be still and know that I am God” edition […]

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