God with us…Advent 2013 Day 10

On this tenth day of our journey through Advent, we return to the book of Psalms and read together Psalm 46. Like so many of the Psalms, this one contains one of those phrases that speaks to us down the ages, particularly when we think about our relationship with God…”be still, and know that I am God”:

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
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. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
“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. Selah

Academic-types like myself love to categorize the Psalms by function and it can be a useful tool for better understanding.There is no story in the book of Psalms, there doesn’t seem to be a single function or even a single author, despite the traditional attribution of these songs and poems to King David.

Psalm 46 is often categorized as a “Song of Zion”, because its text praises God and praises the city of Jerusalem as God’s city.   And this Psalm, along with the other “Song of Zion” readings may have had liturgical use (some clues are the parallel structures in the text, nicely preserved by the translator; the presence of a refrain in v. 7 and 11, and the organization into stanzas or verses).

The primary image in this text is that of God as refuge — clearly stated in the opening verse.  This is a common metaphor in the Psalms, but in Psalm 46, unlike other “refuge” psalms, here protection comes to the entire community, not just the individual. There is a lot of other interesting imagery in Psalm 46:  YHWH as the divine warrior inhabiting Zion,  water as an image of chaos (v. 2-3, relatinggodwithusback to the Creation story), and God as the ultimate refuge against these cosmic threats.  In v. 5-7, we see YHWH as protection against the political threats that surround Israel.   And at last, in vv.8-11, the writer praises YHWH and declares his dominion in all things:  YHWH is cosmic power (v. 8), political power (v. 9), and we stand in awe of that power:  “Be still and know that I am God.”

So why during Advent are we reading this psalm reserved by the Lectionary for the season of Pentecost? What message does this litany of God’s power and might have for us during the season when we observe the transformation of darkness into light?

In Psalm 46, buried in all the talk of nature and nations in chaos, is this simple statement, a statement that reminds us of the meaning of the Emmanuel whose coming we remember in this season: “God is in the midst of the city”, and “The Lord of Hosts is with us.”  And these are literal translations, not the poetic musing of a translator — the words in Hebrew are indeed midst (kerev) and with (im).

God, with us.  And I don’t write that to imply any Christological content in an Old Testament text, although some might.  Because the idea of a God who wants to be in relationship with his Creation, of which we are a part, is not a strictly Christian concept — it is an idea that runs throughout the Hebrew Bible that came before.

No matter what you think about the season of Advent, whether you consider it a time to wait prayerful, or whether you consider it a call to social justice and action (as in the Song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55), there is no more important theme of the season than the the idea of Emmanuel, God with us.

A universal statement of faith.  Not new, not hidden — but there for us all to see and hear, if we will but look and listen.  The message of Psalm 46 for this season and for any season…if you will but be still, you will know that I am your God and that I am with you.  In that knowledge, will you find your refuge.


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