Psalm 46 “He makes wars to cease to the ends of the earth.”
What does this Song mean? It rocks across vast themes and defies a merely poetic interpretation. Let’s have a go at it. The opening is defence – the refuge, the fortress, the present help in trouble – and God is the defence, the One who meets fear, who is strength, however desperate the circumstances. This is not just personal defence. Then, there was no public and private segregation and a lot of life was scary anyway. But the reference later in the Song to making “wars cease” suggests this is a big canvas, and it gets bigger.
The structure of the first three verses is: God is our refuge, “though the earth give way” and there are earthquakes and hurricanes. In other words, whatever the natural destructions and catastrophes, God the Creator is our strength. This is somewhat extreme, but this is where it stands. Whatever rages, God.
The next section is like the quiet second movement of a symphony. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.” Suddenly the water is calmed and becomes the life giving streams for the city of God, for Jerusalem, the place that acknowledges God. The “holy place” is where life is whole and not segregated off from God. God is within her; she will not fall. God will help her at the break of day, however dark the night has been.
The great epic of disorder comes together again in verse 6. “Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.” But it is not entirely satisfactory. Why should the nations be in such turmoil? It is cataclysmic, but how is God in charge? How is this power manifest? The line, “God lifts his voice, the earth melts” suggests something new. God’s voice is to be heard, and the earth melts, melds, how – we do not know.
Even the refrain of verse seven, repeated in verse 11, is not quite adequate. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” It is a local response, a concern with our security. How can God provide this kind of security? What is it? The fortress defends. What defence is this?
Verse 8 “Come and see the works of the Lord, the desolations he has brought upon the earth” is also perplexing. Is it ironic? Why would God bring desolation? It sets us up for what follows, but we can scarcely take it in.
“He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shield with fire” There is no mistake about what this is saying. It is taut – either in describing the breaking of weapons. The chief arms used in these conflicts are taken out, as we world say, to end war. The “shield” may be “chariot”. Indeed, because they were largely wood, they burn more directly, though shields of that period may also have been substantially wood. This is the bonfire of weapons under the rubric, “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.” Is this vain hope or the solid understanding of what God is about when God rules, which is always.
The Psalm closes on the verse, “Be still and know that I am God” so often rightly taken as the centre of human life, the place where we are before God personally. So far, so good, but the context is fuller. “I will be exulted among the nations. I will be exulted in the earth” is not so much focussing on the acknowledgement of God, though that it does, as on the reason for recognizing God as supreme, for when we do, wars cease and we are still from war.We see beyond the shallow conflicts of nations in uproar. Be still and know that I am God. The God of Jacob is our fortress, because with God we do not need fortresses.