When the world is falling apart

For my entire life, California has been my home. Unfortunately, it’s also home to the massive San Andreas Fault, which runs nearly the length of the state. I grew up with only the occasional earthquake, but were told repeatedly that “the big one” was coming.

That fear makes for profitable big-budget cinema: 1974’s Earthquake and 2015’s San Andreas come to mind. But it doesn’t make for a very restful night of sleep, especially when you’ve just been through an earthquake and become overly sensitive to every imagined vibration in the house.

If you’ve never been through one, earthquakes are disturbing because you don’t realize until then how much you take the solidity and stability of the ground for granted. The earth on which we stand and build our cities is the most solid thing we know. It’s not supposed to shake or move, undulate and crack. And if the very earth can’t be counted on to remain stable, then…?

And in these days of pandemic, nothing has seemed quite stable. The world as we know it has been shaken. Sometimes, it feels like it’s falling apart, and some things may never be the same.

. . .

Psalm 46, as we’ve seen, declares what should be the people’s confidence in God as a place of refuge and strength, calling upon them to turn to God for shelter and safety. The psalm is attributed to the sons of Korah, a family of Levitical priests who functioned as worship leaders. God is our refuge in time of trouble, and the trouble is described using imagery reminiscent of earthquakes and tsunamis:

That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,
    when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea,
when its waters roar and rage,
    when the mountains shake because of its surging waves.
(vss. 2-3, CEB)

People of the psalmist’s time and culture often feared the sea as a place of darkness and chaos. In the creation story, God gathered the seas together and separated the land — and it was good (Gen 1:9-10). But when the poets needed an image for their deepest and darkest fear, they returned to that scene of primordial chaos. The seas roar and threaten to overwhelm the mountains; the mountains shake, totter, and finally crumble into the raging sea.

The world, in other words, falls apart. Literally.

But we won’t be afraid, the poets declare. Though God is the one whose voice melts the earth (vs. 6b), God is also our refuge, our strength, the place we run for safety. Thus, the psalmists repeat the language of threat, of the waters that “roar” and the mountains that “crumble” — but they turn the language around, using the words to declare their trust in God instead:

There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city,
    the holiest dwelling of the Most High.
God is in that city. It will never crumble.
    God will help it when morning dawns.
Nations roar; kingdoms crumble
. (vss. 4-6a)

The background anxiety that animates the psalm seems to be some threat to the city of Jerusalem from other nations. But Jerusalem is where the presence of God resides, in his holy tabernacle. It will not, therefore, crumble. Rather it is the nations that roar, and their kingdoms that crumble, not the Holy City.

. . .

Was this psalm written before the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians? If so, I can’t help but wonder how the psalm was read afterward, during the days of exile. For that matter, how would it have been read after the city and temple were destroyed again by Rome?

But the psalm was always less about the city and more about the God whose presence graciously dwelt with his people there. God is our refuge and strength, the psalm declares: not the city, not its walls or fortifications, not even the temple. This was part of the conflict between Jesus and those who had made the temple the focus of worship in a way that dishonored God. The Jerusalem leadership had lost its way — so much so that when God appeared in the flesh and challenged their way of thinking and their religious system, they killed him.

We mustn’t make the same mistake, though it is tempting to look to earthly sources of security and strength when it seems like the world is falling apart.

In the tsunami of pandemic, racial injustice, and political instability, God is our refuge. When the world seems to be falling apart, God is our strength. When we feel the threat of chaos raining down upon us, God is our shelter.

The God of Jacob is our place of safety.

None other.