Essay / Misc.

Be Still: Right Doctrine, Wrong Text

Psalm 46:10 says: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Perhaps you know a song with these words. You may even have a coffee cup with them on it, perfect for those laid back (but with caffeine mandatory!) quiet times. Perhaps you’ve seen images that try to capture the feeling evoked by the words:
Be still

A holy hush descends and these words call us back to a place of stillness, a place of quietness, the exercise of the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude. What we need above all is to turn away, if only for a moment, from the hectic pace of modern life and spend some quiet time in the presence of God. There, in the silence, we can recollect the truth: God is God. He is sovereign. All our noise and fuss distracts us from attending to this one thing necessary, the quiet and passive recognition of God’s Godness.

All of that is true. And if reading my quick reminder of it in the above paragraph rings true for you, the right thing to do is to close your internet browser and go pray.

But if you’re still with me, or if you’re back, here’s my point: I’m pretty sure Psalm 46:10 isn’t talking about any of the things I just said. Taken on their own, the words “Be still and know that I am God” sound like “have a quiet time to reflect on God’s Godness,” but taken in context they’re pointing in another direction.

Just look at the verses immediately preceding (Psalm 46:8-10, ESV)

8 Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”

“Be still” here seems to mean something like “Stop that infernal war racket, you rebels!” rather than “find a quiet place in your heart.” The “works of the Lord” that we are called to behold are the mighty acts of a God who smashes armies, who overwhelms the warlike with superior force. When God speaks in first person in verse 10 (marked by quotation marks in the ESV), it’s to deliver the message (“I am God”) which follows the desolation, bow-breaking, spear-shattering, chariot-burning intervention.

Instead of a peaceful scene from one of nature’s quiet spaces, a better image would be a burning tank:

Be very still

Though I admit that wouldn’t look very good on a coffee cup.

I don’t blame the coffee cups or the modern Christian merchandise industry for uniquely misinterpreting “Be still and know.” There is a long tradition of taking Psalm 46:10 out of context, because (a) it’s a beautiful phrase and (b) the Bible does recommend that kind of “being still” (it just does so in other verses).

But classic exegetes have also known how to keep it in its original setting. Here for instance is Calvin:

the Psalmist exhorts the world to subdue and restrain their turbulent affections, and to yield to the God of Israel the glory which he deserves; and he warns them, that if they proceed to act like madmen, his power is not enclosed within the narrow limits of Judea, and that it will be no difficult matter for him to stretch forth his arm afar to the Gentiles and heathen nations, that he may glorify himself in every land.

And Isaac Watts puts the whole passage into verse quite aptly:

8 From sea to sea, through all their shores,
He makes the noise of battle cease;
When from on high his thunder roars,
He awes the trembling world to peace.

9 He breaks the bow, he cuts the spear;
Chariots he burns with heavenly flame:
Keep silence, all the earth, and hear
The sound and glory of his name:

10 “Be still, and learn that I am God,
Exalted over all the lands;
I will be known and feared abroad;
For still my throne in Zion stands.”

And of course Martin Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” based on Psalm 46. He interpreted the enemies as demonic forces, and found that when God spoke a word which defeated his foes, that “little word” (ein Wörtlein in German, a wordlet or wordling) was a Word we know well: Christ Jesus, the Lord of Hosts (“Lord Sabaoth his name”), the right man of God’s own choosing.

Out of context, “be still and know that I am God” can remind us of a theme that is truly present elsewhere in scripture. But in context, it’s stern stuff for the people of God facing overwhelming opponents.

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