Fear Not, No Matter What
July 31, 2016 Speaker: Series: Psalms
Passage: Psalm 46
Have you ever asked yourself the question, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Many of us probably have. Hopefully that question didn’t lead you into some kind of foolish behavior. We own a game called “Worst Case Scenario.” And in this game, there are cards that describe various survival situations and give three possible courses of action. And you gain points by choosing the proper course.
If we were to come up with a “worst case scenario” for southern CA, what would it be? Perhaps an earthquake. We live not far from the famous San Andreas fault. It runs right through the Cajon Pass and down through San Bernardino to Palm Springs. So a major earthquake along that fault line would be devastating to us. It could wreak havoc upon our cities, potentially take the lives of family members, destroy our homes… who knows. But I can think of another “worst case scenario” even more frightening than that of an earthquake. What if our portion of the country was invaded by some foreign power? Like if China launched an attack on the LA or something. It’s hard even to fathom how awful that would be.
Today’s psalm is one that asks the question, “What’s the worst that could happen,” answers that question, and then concludes that even in that scenario, God’s people have no reason to fear, because He is their refuge and He is with them. Turn with me in your Bibles to Psalm 46.
We don’t know anything conclusive about the background of this psalm. Some have suggested that it has to do with Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah in 701 B.C., but that’s just a guess; we can’t know for sure. The psalm title reads, “To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. A Song for Alamoth.” Which probably means that the psalm was written by the sons of Korah, who were Levites, presented to the Chief Musician so that he could direct it, and intended for soprano voices. And it is often classified as “a hymn of confidence” for obvious reasons.
So without any further ado, let’s read Psalm 46.
Would you bow your heads and close your eyes? We’re going to pray in just a minute; but before we do, I’d like to encourage you to examine your heart. And I’ve asked you to close your eyes because it’s often easier for me to focus when my eyes are closed. So I figure it might be easier for you as well. I know that in a room this size, there are people who are struggling with fear this morning. Now you may have pushed your anxiety to the proverbial back burner while you’re at church, but you know it’s still there. You might be afraid about your health, your family, or your finances. You might be afraid about your job, or about this country—or maybe you don’t even know what you’re afraid of, but you’re still afraid! I would encourage you to listen closely this morning because this passage of Scripture is for you. And I’d encourage the rest of you to listen carefully as well because even if you aren’t being tempted with fear right now, you certainly have been at some point and will be again soon. So take a moment in the quiet to confess any known sins to God and to commit yourself to listening to and to obedience.
Heavenly Father, thank You for being our refuge and very present help in trouble. Please grant us the ability to understand Your Word this morning and help us to obey it. I pray that You would fill me with Your Spirit as I preach so that I would be pleasing to You. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
"God is our refuge and strength..."
The theological meat of this psalm is found right off the bat in v. 1 and repeated in vv. 7 and 11.
The first line of v. 1 says, “God is our refuge and strength.”
Those are powerful words. The same words in fact, that inspired Martin Luther to write his famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” A refuge offers protection from the storm, like a storm shelter during a tornado. But a refuge also offers protection from the attacks of the enemy, like a bunker during a bombing raid. God is our refuge. He is our safe place to which we can run in times of trouble. And He has promised to protect us.
But He is also our strength, which is another way of saying that He gives strength to His people. As it says, in Isaiah 40:30-31, even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall. But those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” And so if you feel weak, like you don’t have the energy that you need to do what God has called you to do, just remember that He is your strength and He promises to strengthen you as you do His will.
But all of those promises would fall to the ground if God were not with us. That’s why the second half of v. 1 is so important (v. 1b).
The word “trouble” means a tight spot or a bind and implies the internal anguish that goes along with a situation like that. It’s the kind of circumstance that causes you to cry, “There’s no way out. Help me! I’m trapped!” And so it’s comforting to know that in situations like that, God is right there, waiting to help us.
Now that word “help” could be deceiving. As many of you know, I’m a bit of a music nerd, and when I was in high school, I got this sacred Irish Tenors CD. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Irish Tenors, but they’re opera singers who perform Irish folk music. (It’s funny, I haven’t listened to that CD much since I’ve been married.) Anyways, I remember the first line of one of the songs on that CD. The song was entitled, “My Forever Friend,” and it started off, “Everybody needs a little help sometimes.” Can I just tell you that’s bad theology?
When the Bible says that we need God’s help, it doesn’t mean that we’ve got the situation mostly under control; it means that we are utterly helpless without God. And in Psalm 46, the fact that God is our helper means that without Him, we would be swallowed up by the forces of nature or decimated by our enemies. He’s our Savior, and He’s right there when trouble comes. According to v. 1, He’s a very present help in trouble. He’s not just there, He’s right there, and He’s there all the time.
"Therefore we will not fear..."
So how are we to respond to these truths? Well, v. 2 tells us. It says, “therefore we will not fear.”
That sounds like a strong assertion, doesn’t it? But remember that the children of Israel were people who struggled with fear just like we do. That’s why this psalm was necessary. It was written to people struggling with fear to remind them that they had no reason to be afraid and to encourage them to trust the LORD. So when you read the words, “We will not fear,” don’t think of a bunch of super-Christians, think of regular, ordinary, fearful people who are choosing to put off fear based on what they know to be true about their God.
Did you know that you can choose not to be fearful? You say, “But Pastor Kris, you don’t know how hard it is for me!” I’m not saying that it will be easy or that you’ll always be victorious, but I am saying that with God’s help, you can choose to put off fear, because that’s clearly what this verse implies. And that’s the choice that children of Israel were challenged to make when they sang this psalm. “Fear not.”
But the psalmist didn’t just say, “Fear not”; He said, “Fear not, no matter what.” Fill in the blank. Think of the worst case scenario you can possibly imagine. Even in that scenario, God’s people have no reason to fear because God is with them and He is their refuge. And the psalmist proves this point by listing two of the worst scenarios we could possibly imagine.
The first scenario is a natural disaster of epic proportions. Listen to the way he describes this hypothetical event. He says, “We will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.” The Hebrew word for “be removed” can also mean “be changed.” In other words, the psalmist envisions a disaster so severe that it causes significant changes to the surface of the earth—probably a greater disaster than we have ever seen.
When this takes place, according to v. 2, “the mountains are carried into the midst [or literally “the heart”] of the sea.” The word translated “be carried” can also be translated “slip.” It is a word that in other contexts describes the way that a person stumbles and falls.
My grandparents went on an Alaskan cruise a few years ago, and when they returned, they showed us their pictures and videos. I remember one video that they took of a glacier. And I remember watching large chunks of ice break off the side of that glacier and slip into the ocean. Have you seen anything like that before? Now, imagine if those pieces of ice were entire coastal mountain ranges that were shaken perhaps by an earthquake so that they actually broke loose from their moorings and plunged into the ocean. Now I think you have a picture of what the psalmist had in mind.
Verse 3 describes other aspects of this disaster. There is a tsunami, as the oceans “roar and foam,” shaking the mountains, perhaps a second time. So in vv. 2-3, the waves are crashing, the rocks are splitting, and the cliffs are sliding into the ocean. But remember, that the psalmist’s point is that even if all of these things were to occur, God’s people would still have no reason to fear. And to make that point, he changes tone abruptly in v. 4 (v. 4).
"There is a river..."
One commentator calls this “one of the most beautiful but least understood lines of poetry in the book of Psalms.” (And that man wrote commentaries on all of the psalms!) This verse is the basis of the hymn, “Like a River Glorious, Is God’s Perfect Peace.” But what does it mean?
Well, the psalmist is talking about the peace, joy, satisfaction, and life which are to be found only in God; and he compares those things to a river. But what river did he have in mind when he wrote these words? Or was he not thinking about any particular river?
Some scholars believe that the psalmist was thinking of the water that flowed from the Gihon Spring down to the Pool of Siloam through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Because of this water source, the people of Jerusalem would have water to drink during a siege. And that’s very possible, especially since Isaiah uses this water source, which he refers to as “the waters of Shiloh,” to stand for peace, and satisfaction, and all of those other things in Isa. 8:6-8. But it’s also possible that the psalmist was thinking of the river described in Gen. 2:10-14, whose fountainhead was in the Garden of Eden and which split into four rivers. I actually think it’s likely that the psalmist had both of these “rivers” in mind. And what’s more, his description of this figurative river corresponds perfectly with the Bible’s description of the River of Life which will one day flow out from under God’s throne in the New Jerusalem. And that is because the spiritual reality that the psalmist was referring to corresponds to the future physical reality that God has promised. I hope that you were able to follow all of that. If not, feel free to ask me about it later or to study up on your own.
But the point that the psalmist appears to be making is this: fed by the figurative “river of life,” God’s people not only survive, but thrive during crises. They not only survive, but thrive during crises. The world is literally falling apart around them; but all the while, God is satisfying their souls so that they have peace, joy, and vitality while everyone around them is panicking.
Have you experienced that before? If not, have you observed another believer who was marked by that type of serenity? It’s possible. It is possible.
"The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved..."
As we move forward into vv. 5-6, we begin to notice another crisis developing. However, this time, it’s not creation order that’s being threatened, but the holy city of the Most High God, Jerusalem.
Verse 6 says that the nations raged, and the kingdoms were moved.
That word “rage” in v. 6 is the same word that the psalmist used to refer to the roaring of the oceans in v. 3. And the word “moved” is the same word that describes the way that the mountains slip into the sea in v. 2. In fact, it’s quite possible that all of vv. 2-3 are figurative descriptions of hostile nations, since it is to that topic that the psalmist now turns, and he remains on that topic for the remainder of the psalm. So as this second scenario unfolds, we see that it includes horrible upheaval caused by war.
Now the language that the psalmist uses in this verse is definite. In other words, it appears that he’s no longer referring to a hypothetical situation, but to an actual instance that took place. We don’t know what instance that was, but I would assume that it was the instance that occasioned the writing of this psalm. Some nations rose up against others, like a tsunami beating upon the land. And superpowers fell, like a coastal mountain range plunging into the ocean. The entire scene is characterized by a sense of chaos and uncertainty.
But what’s worse is that the holy city Jerusalem was threatened. And I say that because v. 5 refers to the help that God provides for Jerusalem or will provide for her. In the situation that the psalmist experienced, God helped Jerusalem by destroying her enemies (v. 7b).
When the Bible says that God utters His voice, it usually refers to a thunderous shout. I like to think of Aslan’s roar. And how did the earth respond to His voice? It melted. I love that imagery!
When the psalmist says that the earth melted, he is probably using a figure of speech called a synecdoche to refer to nations or a particular nation on the earth that opposed God’s rule.
But what does he mean when he says that they melted? Well, when the Bible says that someone melted, it sometimes means that he was so scared that he lost every ounce of his strength. Perhaps we might think of someone fainting. But in other places, when the Bible says that someone melted, it can mean that he was destroyed. Both meanings seem to come together in this verse. It is a picture of God’s fearfulness and of His absolute supremacy over both the forces of nature and the nations. When God roars, the heathen nations are so fearful and helpless that they melt into a puddle. I love that!
With a God like this living in Jerusalem, it’s no wonder that the psalmist states his confidence in v. 5 that “she shall not be moved.” Other kingdoms may be moved, the mountains may slip into the heart of the sea, but Jerusalem will not budge. She will stand firm.
“But wait,” you say. “Didn’t Jerusalem fall to the Babylonians? Didn’t it fall to the Greeks and the Romans and the Arabs? How can God make this promise?” Well first, it’s important to recognize that in this psalm, God’s promise to deliver Jerusalem is tied very closely to His presence there. So we could safely surmise that if God’s presence were ever to leave the city, His protection would also cease at that time. And according to Ezekiel, that is exactly what happened prior to the Babylonian conquest.
In addition, God clearly states elsewhere that His promises to protect Jerusalem and its Temple could not be divorced from His commands (Jer. 7:2-15). He was not bound to protect an apostate city. I hope that makes sense.
In v. 6, the psalmist expresses his confidence that God will help Jerusalem “just at the break of dawn.” What does that mean? Well, the “morning” is viewed metaphorically as a time of vindication after the dark “night” of trouble. In other words, things may get really bad for Jerusalem, but then God will help her. Have you ever heard that saying, “It’s always darkest just before the dawn?” That’s the idea here. God’s vindication of His people is like the sunrise after a long, cold night.
By the way, God saved Israel from the Red Sea at dawn. Sennacherib’s army was discovered to be all dead corpses at dawn. And Messiah’s first and second advents are described the same way. Luke 1:78 refers to Jesus as the “sunrise from on high,” and Revelation 22:5 says that in the New Jerusalem there will be no more night. Praise the Lord for His deliverance!
"The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."
Verse 7 is a theological refrain that reminds us of the truths that we learned about God in v. 1. Number 1, He is with us; and number 2, He is our refuge. But in this verse, the psalmist also introduces two names for God.
The first, “LORD of Hosts,” means that God is the supreme commander of the heavenly armies and He leads them into battle. BTW, the Hebrew word for “hosts” is tsebaoth, from which Luther transliterated “LORD Sabaoth” in “A Mighty Fortress.” (We should probably just change those lyrics to read, “LORD of Hosts His name.” It would make a lot more sense to people.)
The second title that the psalmist introduces in v. 7 is “the God of Jacob,” which points to God’s covenant relationship with the nation of Israel. But the title, “God of Jacob” also reminds us that God offers grace and strength to the needy. Have you ever wondered why the psalmist said, “God of Jacob”? Wouldn’t “God of Moses,” “God of Joshua,” or “God of David” have inspired much more confidence? After all, those were brave men who accomplished great exploits for the Lord!
I think that one of the reasons God refers to Himself as the “God of Jacob” in this verse is to remind His people that the strength that they needed was not in them. Like Jacob, they needed to learn to depend on Him.
"Be still, and know that I am God..."
The next two verses of psalm 46 look forward to the day in which God will return to judge the wicked and cause all wars to cease throughout the earth (vv. 8-9).
We know that these verses must be referring to the peace that the world will enjoy following the Second Coming, because there is no other time that I am aware of in which God causes wars to cease “to the end of the earth." In these verses, God’s people are encouraged to view these events prophetically, as if they had already taken place.
And ironically, God causes wars to cease, not by negotiating some massive peace treaty, but by utterly decimating all of his enemies, after which, He destroys the weapons of warfare to ensure that there will be no more uprisings.
And then, in v. 10, God Himself speaks (v. 10). Unfortunately, I think this verse is often misunderstood and misapplied. To “be still” means to “drop the hands,” or to “cease and desist.” It doesn’t mean to be calm and quiet as much as it means to stop what you have been doing and be still. Which means the command in v. 10 is probably directed at the nations and not at Israel. After all, they are the ones who have been raging and attacking God’s people. Viewed in this way, v. 10 is a call to absolute surrender based on the certainty of God’s final victory as described in vv. 8-9. The nations must stop fighting against God’s people because God wins in the end. They must acknowledge God’s sovereignty and their own helplessness before Him and repent before it’s too late.
Application: It may be that the reason you’re anxious this morning is that you are fighting against God or His people. You may not even be aware that that is what you are doing; but the Bible is clear that prior to salvation, we were all God’s enemies. And if that is the case with you, then you honestly have a lot to be afraid of. Because God is fearful, and He will judge His enemies. So I would urge you today to repent and turn to Jesus before it’s too late. “Be still, and know that He is God.”
But there’s also a secondary application here for God’s people, who are allowed to listen in on His instruction to the nations. When God’s people here the words, “Be still,” they are reminded that God is victorious, and they are encouraged not to stop being fearful or panicking.
Psalm 46 ends with a repetition of the refrain from v. 7 (v. 11). And the two-fold repetition of this refrain and three-fold repetition of these ideas indicates that the primary means by which God’s people get victory over anxiety is by meditating on these truths. Maybe this afternoon, you need to go home and take some time to quiet your heart. Stop panicking about whatever it is you’re fearful about and meditate on these truths. “The LORD of Hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge.”