Psalm 46 – A Psalm of Hope
When we look at the world today there seems to be very little to hope for. The real tragedy of the events of last week in Paris are that they aren’t the only tragedy. In the past week there’s been attacks in Beirut, in Mali, as well as in Paris. Only a fraction of these make our news headlines, perhaps because if we were too confronted with the real state of the world we’d give up hope. There seems no hope for peace in our world in our lifetimes, or in the lifetime of our children or their children.
The hopelessness of the global state of affairs is mirrored by the hopelessness of our local community. This week I was able to meet with Peter Walsh, our local state member. During our meeting I asked him, given all the conversations he has with people, what he thought the most pressing needs in our community are. Without needing to think about it, he gave three answers. We’ve heard them all before, they were drug abuse, including ice and alcohol, domestic violence and homelessness. The only surprise is that given successive policies and programs over the years, despite all the efforts of governments and churches and individuals, these problems still remain. We might ask, what hope is there for our world if these obvious problems persist?
The optimistic hope of the Enlightenment, and of secularism, is that given time humanity will conquer all evils. Their belief is that we as we gradually improve ourselves through education, science and philosophy we’ll eventually arrive at a utopian society. I love science fiction. Growing up, I was a big fan of Star Trek. Shows, and stories, like that affirm this vision of a bright, shiny future, where humanity hasn’t just thrown of the shackles of the earth to explore the stars, but has also bested racism, sexism, violence and war. But really, that seems more of a fantasy than all the fancy technology. It seems we’ll have transporters and star ships before we have real peace, prosperity and paradise.
As we saw last week, there’s much to lament in our world, in our society, in our selves, in our sin. What hope is there then? But whereas Psalm 38 was a lament in the face of suffering, Psalm 46 is a song of hope.
The Psalm begins by focusing on God.
1God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
As Christians, we trust in something bigger than ourselves. God is a refuge and strength. The one we put our faith in is trustworthy. No matter if the even the earth were to heave under us, if the seas roar and rage, or the nations rise up against each other, we needn’t be afraid. For God is our strength and refuge. We’re reminded that no matter what our circumstances, God is bigger. God is also present. He is very present in times of trouble. This Psalm is a statement of faith, a faith that looks beyond what we see, beyond what’s happening around us right now, beyond the pain and the difficulty and says that God himself is with us. Like all the Psalms, this Psalm is too honest to say that nothing bad will happen to us if we trust in God, but it does say that no matter what befalls us, even if its pain, catastrophe, failure of chaos, even then the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Martin Luther was very fond of this Psalm and in times of stress or trouble he would often say to his colleagues, ‘Come let us sing the forty-sixth Psalm.’ He took the words of Psalm 46 and made them the basis for his hymn, ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’. Those words, the first line of that hymn and this Psalm are now etched around the tower of the Castle Church in Wittenberg where Luther lived and worked. There were no shortage of occasions that would’ve inspired Luther to express the confidence of his faith, his security in God, and his great trust for God. Despite the threats on his life, his health, his family, the church and the gospel itself he continued to have trust in God as his strength and refuge, his help in times of trouble.
But the Psalm teaches us that we don’t just have hope because of who God is, but because of what he’s doing. There’s a surprising shift in verse 4. In verses 2-3, the waters are depicted as roaring and raging. But in verse 4, suddenly we’re presented with water that makes us glad. There’s a river, whose streams makes glad the city of God.
Now at first we might think that the city of God is Jerusalem. It was after all the capital of Israel, God’s chosen nation. And the temple, the place on earth where God had promised to dwell, stood in Jerusalem. But, there was and is no river in Jerusalem! Now, it could be that the Psalm is using poetic licence, painting an image of streams of blessings from God flowing through Jerusalem, refreshing the city. Or it might be a the Psalm is making a powerful promise that God will protect Jerusalem and provide for her needs in times of trouble and siege, the way a river would.
But I think there’s another image at play here, one that is the source of our hope as Christians. It goes to the heart of the Christian worldview, and the way we understand time and God’s purposes for the world.
In Genesis 2, there is a river that flowed out of the Garden of Eden and watered the earth. It was in the Garden of Eden that God dwelt with his people, where they were secure in his place, under his rule, obeying his word. But, as you know, we mucked it all up by disobeying God.
The rest of the Bible is the story of God’s plan to rescue his creation, to redeem his people and to restore his plans for his world. That’s why Jesus came, why he died on the cross and why he rose to new life. So that we could be restored and forgiven. So that we could again be God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule. But the picture the Bible gives of heaven, of what that future looks like, isn’t a return to the Garden. God’s plan isn’t to put things back the way they were, not exactly.
See God never intended us to remain in the Garden of Eden, without change or progress. When he created humanity, he invited us to join him in the ongoing work of creation! So the picture we have in the prophets, and in the book of Revelation, is of heaven not as a garden, but a city! A city in which God dwells with his people. And in this city there is a river, whose streams make glad the city of God. Listen to how John sees it in his vision in Revelation:
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’ – Rev. 21:1-4
1Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. – Rev. 22:1-2
Doesn’t this vision give you hope? While our world might at times seem out of control, while it might seem like we never really learn our lessons, or that history keeps repeating itself, the message of the Bible is one of great hope. God has a plan. God is in control. And the future God has in mind for his people is more glorious and wonderful than any science fiction story or utopian dream.
Christian hope is very different to the hope the rest of the world has. For the world, the word hope is more like vain optimism. I hope this will all work out. I hope that my football team will win next year’s grand final. I hope that mum will get better. We have a sure and certain hope. For our hope is in God, he is our strength and refuge. We have the hope of eternal life, which God who never lies has promised to those who believe. We hope for the future, for God’s future, which is sure and certain as he is.
The last stanza of the Psalm invites us to come and see this for ourselves. To look back and see all that God has done. To look forward and see what God has planned. But it’s also an invitation to look here and now, to see the signs of God’s kingdom springing to life around us, as the buds of spring give promise to the fruit of what is to come. We see God’s kingdom advancing when we see others putting their faith in Jesus. When we see lives transformed by the light, life and love of God in Jesus Christ. We’re invited to come and taste of God’s goodness for ourselves. So that we know our hope isn’t blind, but is in a sure and certain thing.
And we’re also invited to be still and know that he is God. How hard is it to be still sometimes. We see a problem and we want to fix it. We see something happening and we want to be part of it. We sit and we want to fill the void with noise. But God bursts into the song, to say, ‘Be still and know that I am God.” He wants us to be still and know that he is in control. To be still and know that he is God. To know, in Hebrew, doesn’t mean just to acknowledge something intellectually, but to internalize or to embody the truth fully. He wants us to know and live out the knowledge that he is God. And then God’s voice closes the psalm by asserting his exaltation over both spheres of creation that have been in rebellion against God: “I am exalted among the nations” and “I am exalted in the earth.”
That’s the promise of both the psalm, and in a larger sense, of the entire Bible. That the God of Jacob and the Lord of Israel will, in the end of all things, prove a faithful refuge for those who are caught in the fallen condition of creation and humanity.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at the Psalms. I hope you’ve been encouraged to read them in a new light. I hope that as we read them, as we sing them, as we pray them, we’ll find words to express our faith and trust in God, no matter what season we find ourselves in.
Let me pray…