Something Deeper Still (Psalm 46)

My name is Brett Davis, and my family and I have been becoming a part of New Life Manitou for the last six months or so. I’m thrilled—just so pumped—to be sharing with you this morning. I’ve known this morning was coming so I’ve been meditating on and praying through Psalm 46 for a few weeks now… but there was a moment this week, when the words of this Psalm struck me.

We actually just moved down here to Colorado Springs from Denver and our clothes dryer got delivered earlier this week. Our two year old, Daphne, isn’t so sure about dryers. What she knows with absolute certainty about dryers is they make a loud noise—a dryer roars—when they’re finished. Joy and I have tried to turn it into something funny or playful—the dryer is saying “all dooooonnne”—and that’s worked a little bit.

But there was a moment on Tuesday afternoon, when she saw that new dryer in our a new house and when Joy started a load of laundry and when you could hear the dryer making its dryer noises, there was this moment where she ran over to me, and she climbed up on my lap. She was scared, and she came to me. And this psalm came to mind.

She rested…safe in my arms. And suddenly I realized I was her refuge—I was her place of safety—a help so very near in a time of great trouble.

But as I sat there, holding her, explaining that we had turned the buzzer off of this new dryer, and that there was nothing to worry about, and that everything was just fine… I also kept thinking how a dryer isn’t like what’s being described in this psalm. I can protect my two year-old from a dryer, because the dryer’s roar isn’t dangerous. I can tell her “everything is fine” and “there’s nothing to worry about” because everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about. I could be a refuge and strength for her on Tuesday, because—let’s get honest—the trouble isn’t that great.

This psalm is describing the worst of all times, the greatest of all troubles, the scariest of all circumstances… and is still confident.

On a purely descriptive level, the psalm has three stanzas, three movements. If it were a modern song, we would say it’s a song with three verses. The first verse of the song—the first stanza—runs from verses 1-3, the second stanza runs from verses 4-7, and the song ends with a third stanza in verses 8-11. After each of these sections we find the Hebrew word “Selah” (end of v3, v7, v11). Nobody knows exactly what it means, but our best guess is it’s some kind of musical term. Scholars think an indication for the music leader to pause—to give space for people to reflect or pray or praise. It might be the ancient equivalent of Sarah having the band keep playing and giving us space to just be fully present before God.

The song begins with:

“God is our refuge and strength
a help always near in times of great trouble.”

(Psalm 46v1)

And then—quite sensibly, like a lot of modern songs—these opening lyrics develop into a refrain or a chorus after the second and third sections:

“The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!
The God of Jacob is our place of safety”

(Psalm 46v7&11)

That’s the refrain of psalm—the chorus of the song—the song of the people of God: “God is our refuge and strength.” Those Powerful Divine Hands that crafted the cosmos have got our back:

“That why we won’t be afraid
when the world fall apart.”

(Psalm 46v2)

That’s the lyric that has haunted me over the last few weeks. Really? Not when the some silly dryer buzzes…when the world. falls. apart.

We’re in the middle of a sermon series right now where we’re reflecting on the Psalms and we keep saying—again and again—that the psalms give us the language of the life of faith; they give us a grammar for life with God. They don’t just teach us how to be prayerful, they also teach us how to be fully present. How to bring our full humanity—the fullness of the human experience—into relationship with God.

We’ve seen over the last few weeks, how these 150 songs and poems give us permission—they model a pattern—of bringing the entirety of our being before God—whether it’s excitement or disappointment or remorse or despair or frustration or anger. We don’t have play around in prayer. Our prayer lives don’t have to die from politeness. We don’t have to disguise the broken bones that are our sinful souls. We don’t need to hide our tear-soaked pillows. The psalms model what it looks like to bring the entirety of our being before God. They give us the language of faith.

But then… how does this psalm fit into things?

“The Lord of heavenly forces is with us…

…that’s why we won’t be afraid
when the world fall apart.”

(Psalm 46v1-2)

When the world falls apart? Really? Some of you are going through incredible hardship. It feels like mountains are crumbling around you—like all the stability of the world (that you always thought would be there) has suddenly fallen into the center of the sea. Like the churning waters of chaos are pulling you under. What kind of language is this psalm giving us? What kind of pattern is this psalm modeling for us?

One of the most vocal Atheists of our generation, a biologist named Richard Dawkins, famously writes this:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease… In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

Dawkins’ quote puts the suffering of the world into conversation with our faith. And he raises a brutal question that we’ve got to be bold enough to face: What exactly do we mean that God is our refuge and strength? In a world full of so much suffering and pain and danger and darkness, how exactly can we say in our hearts—or much less invite others to say, “We won’t be afraid”?

How can “we won’t be afraid”possibly make sense when we look at the world? And for some of us, as we look at our lives?

I work in pharmacy right now to pay the bills, and there was this middle-aged, neatly-dressed fellow whom I liked at my previous store in Denver. He would come up to the counter every couple of weeks, and I would always greet him by name: “Hey Mr So-and-So, how are you today?” And—like clockwork—he would always reply the same way:

“Doing just great all the time.”

He would always have a smile, he would always be mildly enthusiastic, he would always sound decently sincere. And after the transaction—when Mr So-and-So walked away—I would always quietly wonder: “…is he really doing just great?—all the time?” Because… that’s great. But I’m not. And I’m never going to tell you I am. (All the time!?) The only time I could say that (“I’m doing just great all the time”) would be in sarcasm. I might be able to say it with a heavy dose of irony—as satire about the human condition—but it would feel deeply dishonest for me to try to make it my routine response.

Is that what Psalm 46 is teaching us to say?

“I’m doing just great all the time. I’m just whistling past the graveyard. I’m just drinking a tall glass of denial and chasing it down with a shot of wishful thinking.”

I don’t think so.

Because of any psalms, the wisdom of Psalm 46 seems to be saying: the life of faith is not the life of denial.

Psalm 46 would never try to pretend everything is “great” when everything is demonstrably “not great.” This psalm is brutally honest—courageously honest—about the ways everything is “not great.” This psalm is chock-full of danger. There are natural disasters devastating the world in verses 1-3—mudslides, flash floods, earthquakes, the oceans roaring (v3) and the mountains crumbling into center of the sea—and there are geopolitical disasters devastating the world in verses 4-6. God’s city seems to be under attack, nations roaring like the ocean (v6), threatening to destroy each other, countries pointing weapons at each other, kingdoms crumbling. There’s a lot of danger in this psalm because the world is a dangerous place.

And yet…

And yet Psalm 46 is one of the most confident psalms in Scripture:

“Oh sure, the mountains are crumbling and the oceans are roaring… but we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart. And oh yes, the nations are roaring at each other and kingdoms do, in fact, crumble…but God has more power than all that. A mere clearing of the Divine Throat outstrips, out-maneuvers, out-powers, the loudest screams of Babylon or Assyria or Russia or the United State. Nation have to roar at each other (v6), but God merely has to utter his voice—to grunt—and the entire earth melts.”

Oh sure, oh yes, there’s danger-a-plenty. Psalm 46 wouldn’t think of denying that. That’s why the news of a Refuge and Strength is such good news. When do you need a place of safety? The answer, of course, is you need safety in the face of danger. In the same way that you can’t appreciate the warmth of a dry shelter without recognizing that it’s cold and snowing, you can’t appreciate a Strength and a Refuge unless you’re honest about the danger. The world is dangerous, and that’s precisely why a victorious Lord of heavenly forces is worth celebrating.

The life of faith looks at the real world, the real danger, the waters roaring, the mountains—stability, safety, familiarity—crumbling, the world falling apart and never says, “It’s not so bad.” The life of faith looks at the world falling apart and says, “there’s something deeper than danger.”

When the world falls apart, faith discerns something deeper still.

In the first three verses, there’s a brutal, courageous honesty about the dangers and disasters that devastate the world, but then there’s a shift after the “Selah.” The waters roar and rage (v3), surging waves barrage and break the mountains, but then suddenly our attention is drawn to a different water… a deeper water.

Verse 4:

“There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city.” (Psalm 46v4)

It’s a beautiful, stirring poetic image, and I wouldn’t want to flatten it out. But I do find it fascinating that there’s a good argument to be made that this is a poetic reference to the Gihon Spring, an intermittent fresh water spring, that lies underneath of Jerusalem. Today it’s the site of a national park, but thousands of years ago it was was a reason why Jerusalem could be a city. Jerusalem—this land-locked city on hill—has fresh-water bubbling up underneath of it.

And so even though the armies of men or the armies of hell may surround and siege the people of God, the city would not crumble (v5). The city has deeper supports and a deeper foundation than any Enemy could ever imagine. It will not crumble, because God is there. God is in that city, under that city, supporting that city, like deep, subterranean water. And when morning dawns (v5), God is going to rescue.

That’s the forecast. That’s what’s coming at break of dawn. That’s what the future looks like. It’s going to happen. This psalm, in particular, invites us to discern—to open ourselves—to recognize—that despite danger, darkness, or even death, there’s something deeper than danger.

Something deeper still.

The psalmist is clued in to the reality that there’s something upholding up the city of God, there’s something lending support to the mountains, there’s even something beneath waters of chaos. Psalm 46—and the Church across the centuries—answers Richard Dawkins that rock-bottom reality is most certainly not pitiless indifference. The core of reality is all-powerful cross-shaped life-giving Love.

It’s hard to picture the core of anything.

Maybe the easiest we can picture is an apple core. I can just pretend to eat an apple, to strip away—bite after bite—every bit of apple until we get to the core. And in your minds you can all picture the core—the middle—the marvelous center that holds an apple together.

It gets trickier if we try to think anything bigger though. Like planet Earth. It has core. Day-in and day-out, most of us don’t give much attention to the fact that beneath our feet—right now—lies a super-dense sphere of iron-nickel about three-quarters the size of the moon and hotter than the surface of the sun. The earth’s core. Most of our attention is given to what is right in front of us—lofty mountains, raging waters cities bustling, armies marching, but that’s—literally—not even scratching the surface of the planet. Because 3,100 miles beneath our feet,there’s a core to this planet that makes life possible. The gravity of that core literally holds our feet to the ground. But that core does more besides, a protective magnetic field around the world,shielding us from unseeable dangers, and simultaneously generates an atmosphere. We can’t see this core. We can only measure its effects and marvel when bits of its molten power erupt to the surface and alter the landscape.

In the grand scheme of things, the earth’s kingdoms are just just the earth’s crust, the roaring seas are just the skin. All the danger we see and anxiety we carry and things we fear… that’s all just the surface. There’s something deeper still. There’s a solid center. Something beneath it all, making it all possible.

And, of course, we’ve thought ourselves toward something deeper than just the planet at this point. The church’s claim is that above and behind and under everything, at the core of reality… deeper still than any danger… there is love. Crackling, all-powerful, nuclear Love. Merciful, just, sacrificial, cross-shaped Love. Endlessly, generously, creatively pouring out life Love. Christians insist there’s a solid center to reality—a molten core to creation—the endless, eternal love and delight of Father, Son, and Spirit made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth.

And with the name of Jesus—now we’re really getting at the heart of things. Now we’re getting close to an answer about how “we won’t be afraid” makes sense. Because if want to know what the Lord of Heavenly forces look like—and what it looks like to follow him—you’ve got to look again and again at Jesus. Because in Jesus of Nazareth, we glimpse what God himself really looks like and what true humanity really looks like. In Jesus we see rockbottom reality made seeable and touchable. We see All-powerful, Cross-shaped, Life-giving Love walk among us in the flesh.

If there was ever a human being who trusted God the Father as his Refuge and Strength, it was God the Son. Yet Jesus’ life of trusting his Father as his Refuge and Strength ends up taking Jesus into the heart of danger. When Jesus is being arrested in Matthew 26, he says:

“Don’t you realize that I could call twelve legions of angels—some 60,000 angelic special forces—if I wanted to?” (Matthew 26v52)

But—mysteriously—he doesn’t want to. Which takes us squarely to the cross. When the Lord of Heavenly Forces arrives in the flesh, he doesn’t stop his own world crumbling. Jesus doesn’t wave a magic wand and stop the world from falling apart around himself or those he loves.

Evidently following the Lord of Heavenly forces doesn’t mean our world won’t fall apart. Kingdoms will still sometimes roar. Mountains will still sometimes crumble. That the waters of chaos will still swirl and surge. The world may still fall apart. But Jesus’ life shows us that following the Lord of Heavenly forces means our world will always (always!) be put back together better, truer, more glorious than it ever was before.

As Christians, we read Psalm 46 through the lens of Jesus. And that means cross and resurrection is why “we won’t be afraid” makes sense. That’s ultimately how God as our Refuge, God as our Strength, actually works. One early Christian puts it this way:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3v10-11)

The earliest Christians were not proclaiming a faith that guaranteed the world wouldn’t fall apart. Part of what the psalms—and the life of Jesus—teach us is that pain and danger are inescapably part of the human experience right now. The earliest Christians were proclaiming that the world can and will be put back together. Christians aren’t the people whistling past the graveyard—we know that this world is full of carnage, danger, and death. But Christians ARE the people learning and daring to sing in the graveyard because we trust that the bottom of the grave is not rockbottom reality. We have a King who has descended into the watery depths of death and hell and proven himself to be even more powerful.

Danger and death don’t get the last word according to the gospel—and even according to this psalm. The last stanza of this psalm (v8-11) gives us a mysterious glimpse of the earth’s future. There’s a day coming when the devastation of nature (v1-3) and the devastation of the nations (v4-7) will finally see  “the devastation” (v8) that God intends to bring to the world. And it’s a beautiful “devastation.”

There’s a day coming when God will whisper the word and devastate the world with love. He will devastate all darkness, devastate all danger, devastate everything that destroys the world. He breaks the bow (v9), shatters the spear, obliterate the guns, burnthe chariots, and the last enemy to be destroyed is Death itself. There’s a day coming when this world will be remade and everyone who wants to be embraced by All-powerful, Cross-shaped, Life-giving Love will get their wish. Because God’s going clear his throat and this broken world will melt into New Creation.

Christians aren’t in denial, we’re just learning to trust that there’s something deeper still… All-powerful, Cross-shaped, Life-giving Love that remakes, restores, and resurrects. Let that be your Refuge when all seems lost. Let that be your Strength when you don’t think you’re going to make it through the week. We could say it this way:

Faith about the core moderates fear about the surface. I use the word “moderate” intentionally, because I don’t think if it’s possible to be entirely free of all fear in the world right now. Fear may be present, fearfulness does not have to be part of our innermost being. If we can recognize the goodness of the future it will relieve our fears in the present.

When God finally speaks in this Psalm, he says:

“That’s enough! Now know that I am God!” (Psalm 46v10)

A few translations memorably say it in familiar language:

“Be still… and know that I am God”

That famous declaration is not to us addressed to us when we’re sitting serenely in a bathrobe with a peaceful breeze blowing when all is right with the world. That word—“be still”—is actually a word that means: “let go” or “loosen your grip” or even “go limp.” And it’s addressed to those of us living in and contributing to a world of danger. It’s the image of holding so tightly to something—white-knuckled, tearing your skin—and then letting go.

“Be still. That’s enough! Let go.”

In the full context in the psalm, it’s about seeing all of the danger and entrusting ourselves to love deeper still. This Psalm is training us in the art of recognition: recognize that rockbottom reality includes resurrection.

Psalm 46 simply says… recognize you are on the surface of something deeper. Be awake. Become aware. And when you do, the core of all things can comfort you on the surface. Recognize that something—Someone—deeper gives you life. Recognize that life and provision and protection do not come from you. They come from the God made known to us through the cross and resurrection. And Jesus is the only person with the credibility to say to any of us, in the midst of our suffering, agony, and sleeplessness nights: “Your world falling apart is not the end of the world.”

There’s Someone deeper than your pain or your struggles or your doubts or your dangers. And this is true whether we believe it or not.

Even if you’re doubting God’s existence, take comfort in the fact that God holds you togetheryou don’t hold God together.

You can rest in him.

“Be still. Let go. That’s enough”

Jesus’s cross and resurrection is why we won’t be afraid when the world fall apart. It may be deep below the surface, but there is a River. You will not crumble. Your thirst will be quenched. There’s something deeper still… all-powerful, cross-shaped, life-giving love. Jesus transforms your catastrophe into a cross, and promises he’ll share his resurrection with you. The world can be resurrected. Our lives can be resurrected. And so they will be. May we believe the gospel.