Any student of church history or hymnody knows the lengths to which Martin Luther enjoyed Psalm 46. After all, one of the stalwarts of any hymnbook is his masterful hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which was based off of Psalm 46. I have been fortunate to have been a part of some fantastic renditions of the hymn, and utterly blessed to have sung a modern setting of the psalm at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Of all the words and phrases to be studied, meditated upon, and breathed in, my attention usually is drawn at some point to the phrase the NASB translates “cease striving, and know that I am God.”
It’s commonly quoted in the manner the KJV initiated: “Be still, and know that I am God.” (See also ESV, NIV, NLT.) In a similar vein as the NASB, the HCSB translates it as “stop your fighting.” This is a pretty big difference in translation, which leads to a pretty big distinction in interpretation! On the one hand (KJV, et al), we have a call to contemplative meditation on the sovereignty of God.
But NASB and HCSB give us a much different picture! Think of it in context:
- v. 2 – the earth changing, the mountains slipping into the sea
- v. 3 – the waters roaring and foaming the mountains quaking
- v. 6 – the nations uproaring, kingdoms tottering, the earth melting
Yet, the city of God will not be moved (v. 5). Yahweh of Hosts is with them, and the God of Jacob is their stronghold (v. 7)! In His time, He brings about utter destruction of all Israel’s enemies when He makes wars to cease, rendering bows and spears and chariots ineffective to their designed end. (Sidenote: How great would it be to see this applied in our constant state of war?)
With all the commotion going on in Psalm 46, is this the time for a faint whisper in our ear, encouraging us to sit down quietly and ponder? No! Anything but! The call to cease striving and be still is the command of a King standing to reclaim what is His, slamming His scepter on the ground with authority, and issuing one loud decree: That’s enough! I. am. God. I am the high and exalted One! It is time for them to know and understand this!
I wonder if there is any correlation between this concept and what we find in Mark 4 when Jesus calms the storm with just one word. The Greek word is phimoo, and it means “to muzzle, silence.” With the sea in tumult, and the disciples fearing, Jesus speaks but one word (two in English): Be still. Or, to use the vernacular: Shut up! (Although we were never allowed to say such a word growing up, and I still don’t care for it.) And just like that, the storm subsides.
Turns out I’m not alone in this interpretation. James Montgomery Boice writes:
[I]n this setting, “be still and know that I am God” is not advice to us to lead a contemplative life, however important that may be. It means rather, “Lay down your arms. Surrender, and acknowledge that I am the one and only victorious God.” No one can hope to resist Him. (Psalms, Volume 2, p. 392)
How awesome of a picture does this paint in your mind?! God will not tarry forever. When He returns to “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6), He will not do so as He came the first time — meek and mild, as a babe. He will come riding on a white horse, ready to lay waste to all who have not believed in Him (Rev 19:11-21). Now there is something to meditate on!