They were hiding behind the walls of Jerusalem.
The tension had been building for over a decade. After the glory years of David and Solomon, the people had been batted around by the Assyrians, the Egyptians, now Babylon. In 597 King Jehoiakim’s plan to join forces with Egypt blew up in his face, Nebuchadnezzar and his armies crashing into the city. He plundered the Temple’s vast wealth and deported the king and 10,000 nobles, artisans, and young men to Babylon. A decade later the final blow came – the King encircling the city with forts and a siege wall. Inside, for 18 months, people wandered the streets, scrounging for food as the drums beat outside.1 This is the context of this second portion of the Psalter, anticipating the crisis of exile – of the city burned, of the even more desperate famine that ensued.2 But, somehow, as they crouched behind the walls they found courage to proclaim: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." The Egyptians cannot be our refuge. Nor the Babylonians. Only God.
And I must admit I don’t know how they did it. Sometimes it seems a little ridiculous to proclaim God’s sovereignty like this – with the crush of political advertisements (that I know have only begin) because we live in a battleground state, with the same homeless faces standing at these same intersections at Garrett, or on 15/501, with the larger church recovering from another cantankerous General Assembly. Many us of went over to our sister congregation Triangle Presbyterian on Wednesday to grieve the death of a good friend of many of our youth, 16, from the toll cancer took on her young body. One of the pastors read this very psalm. How can we, with a straight face, say to the world that GOD is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble?
But somehow they are given the courage to make their proclamation. It begins, for the psalmist, with this affirmation of faith. God is described as our shelter, our stronghold in trouble. The word for refuge is used first in psalm 2, and occurs 22 more times in the first two books of the Psalter. Because the psalmist knows who God is, this becomes the groundwork for the next, even more astounding affirmation: Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, when everything falls apart – mountains trembling, sea roaring, threats from above and below. EVEN when the very structures of the universe cannot be depended upon, she proclaims, God can still be trusted.3
The next stanza moves beyond the present reality. God can be trusted when the earth trembles now, but our eyes are also drawn up to a greater vision. Jerusalem, the city that is under siege, crumbling, is seen as something entirely new, rivers, streams flowing in, like envisioned in the new Jerusalem in both Ezekiel and in Revelation.4 The Holy City, the City of David, quite literally the dwelling place of God. Can you hear how radical it is for those Jews, with exile upon them, to still proclaim that God is in the midst of the city and that it shall not be moved? In our darkest moments, when we are tempted to lose hope here, those hopes must be bolstered with the beyond, with a God who is stronger than anything we can encounter, even death itself. We must take care not to look beyond this earth too quickly – God has work of compassion and justice for us to do now. Faith isn’t all about leaping from here to heaven. But when all else seems lost, especially when we confront the end of our lives, those of people we love, we need God who is a refuge and strength now, but also that promise of the Holy City, that new Jerusalem, where, as the vision of the book of Revelation tells us, "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."5 The confidence in God here is extraordinary. Moving back to the present, the psalmist still says that even though the kingdoms totter, God utters God’s voice and the earth melts.
Then the psalmist makes her final turn, and it’s an invitation: Come, behold the works of the Lord. Look and see what God has done. The psalmist gives examples – making wars to cease, destroying the tools of violence. We could give others, I am sure, as we have our own list than runs counter to the pain in the world – of lives transformed by God, of people fed and clothed and housed, of relationships built, of the ways you have been strengthened – I know I can speak firsthand of the ways God worked through you to sustain our family in some pretty dark days. And we know there is no other way we can make it through.
Then God directly addresses the people. "Be still and know that I am God!" This is often read as an invitation to relaxed mediation, but the language is much stronger than that. The Tanakh, the Jewish holy book, renders this word DESIST.6 It is something closer to STOP, ‘throw down your weapons.’ In other words, ‘Depend on God instead of yourselves,’ one translator says.7 Don’t pause, reflect on God’s goodness, and then go back to your life as before. Don’t do that, God says. "I am exalted among the nations." I think you could read a parentheses in there – NOT YOU. I am exalted in the earth. NOT YOU. The psalmist returns, restating his theme: The Lord of hosts IS with us, The God of Jacob IS our refuge.
This psalm is so resonant and strong. No wonder we read it so often at funerals, quote it to each other – the language gives you space to proclaim God’s power even when you aren’t sure it’s true. I have found myself whispering these words to myself, when I spend time with people who are suffering, as we confront difficult decisions, as we worry about our kids: God is our refuge and strength, my very present help in trouble. Therefore I will not fear. These words have the capacity to pull out of you what you aren’t sure exists, to allow space for faith to grow, and to remind of the good news that it isn’t all up to us.
It is also interesting how the Psalter evolves. Psalms 1 and 2 lay the foundation on the law – do these specific things and you will prosper. While a bit rigid, that is difficult enough. As we read more, as the book moves forward, the theme of trust gets stronger and stronger. While a bit more amorphous, trusting is also infinitely harder than just doing the right thing. I think I’d prefer a list: help with this project, serve a shelter meal 3 times a year, check on the neighbors, sing in the summer choir, tithe, read the bible each day. Give me a list; I’ll take care of it. We are a list-making people, checking things off with pleasure. If anything, we can handle a list. But the psalms in general, and this one in particular, are calling us to something deeper – a reorienting of our entire being towards God. This requires us to take responsibility, to look inside, to assess all of our priorities and how they reflect upon what we claim to believe. God doesn’t share well, and demands nothing less total commitment.
So, friends, in whom do you trust? I want you to take some time this week, and think through all of your life – your priorities, the different arenas, from work to family to church to friends. I challenge you to ask – what would my life look like if I trusted in God with every fiber of my being? How would it re-order your work, the goals you pursued, who you were shaping your kids to be? What would you risk giving up? What are you chasing after that, from a step back, really isn’t that important? In this brutal political season, might we resolve to avoid sound-bite arguments with friends or online? With the same faces at the same intersections, might we roll down our window and ask someone their name? Might we have the courage to look at our friends in the church, or beyond, in the face of tragedy, and grip their hands so tightly and whisper, God is our refuge and our strength, and very present help in trouble. They could still make this proclamation hiding in Jerusalem, with the drum-beats of destruction coming ever closer. If they could do that, the very least we could do is listen: "Be still," God says. "STOP, DESIST, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth," God reigns over all things. And then we can lean into the psalmist’s confident hope. "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. For this summary I relied upon Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: A Biography (New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 2011), pages 44-48.
2. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IV, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 660.
3. NIB, 865. Clint McCann writes this helpful section.
4. NIB, 866.
5. Revelation 21:4.
6. The Tanakh, Second Edition (Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society, 2003), page 1468.
7. NIB, 866.