Can you tolerate one more reference to The Princess Bride? I promise I won’t do it again for at least a month. Or maybe a week or two.
In the movie’s climactic scene, the hero, Westley (AKA, The Man in Black), confronts the evil but cowardly Prince Humperdinck. Westley is weak from being “mostly dead” all day and barely has the strength to stand, let alone engage in a duel. But the prince doesn’t know that, and Westley must bluff him into surrendering without a fight.
From the bed where he lies helpless, Westley goads the prince with a series of brave and memorable insults (“warthog-faced buffoon” and “miserable vomitous mass” come to mind), painting a vivid picture of the horrific state the prince would find himself in after a duel with Westley. Then, his eyes locked with the prince’s, Westley slowly stands and points his sword at Humperdinck’s throat. “Drop your sword,” he commands. And after a moment of uncertainty, the prince does just that.
This is the phrase and image that come to mind when I read Psalm 46.
Let me explain. (No, there is too much. Let me sum up.)
. . .
As we’ve seen, Psalm 46 seems to have been written to address some anxiety related to Jerusalem. In the context of the psalm as a whole (not to mention history itself), it seems the city may have been threatened with war and destruction. That’s why, in the refrain that is used in both verses 7 and 11, God is referred to not only as the God of Jacob, but “the LORD of hosts” — or in Eugene Peterson’s memorable phrase, “The GOD of Angel Armies.” What could the armies of other nations do against such a God and such an army?
Moreover, God is portrayed as sovereign over both war and times of peace:
Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire. (vss. 8-9, NRSV)
We may not like the image of God being the author of desolation, but the reality of the Old Testament story in particular is that war can be the instrument of the sovereign God. But he also makes wars “cease” from one end of the world to the other. He shatters the weapons of war; he burns the shields with fire (some translations have “chariots,” but the overall point of God’s sovereignty over war remains).
It is in that context that we read the most well-known verse in the psalm, a word directly from God:
Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth. (vs. 10)
We usually take this as a word to God’s people, in which the message, essentially, is “I am your God. Remember who I am. So calm down! Pray. Meditate.” And that’s not a bad message to take away from the passage.
But many scholars take these words to be addressed to the nations. The words “Be still” are not a gentle reminder from your meditation teacher. Rather, they are a command to the nations to recognize God as the only true god and lay down their weapons: Drop your sword.
We’ve seen the Hebrew word before, in our earlier study of Psalm 37:
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil. (Ps 37:7-8)
Interestingly, though, the “Be still” in Psalm 37 translates a different word than the “Be still” in Psalm 46. The one in Psalm 37 suggests adopting a wise silence before God when we don’t understand why the world seems so unfair. It’s the word for “refrain” (from anger) in verse 8 that matches the word in Psalm 46. It suggests a letting go: literally, in terms of releasing one’s sword grip, or figuratively, in terms of releasing anger or the need to control.
“Be still,” therefore, is a message to the nations, who think they can control history through the might of their armies. It is a command from the God of Angel Armies to cease hostilities. But it is also an invitation to the nations to know God as God.
Does that mean that God’s own people can ignore what God is saying as being addressed to “them” and not “us”? Hardly. As David found out to his chagrin, it is possible even for God’s people and their anointed king to put too much faith in their armies, in their ability to influence history through human power. The word to the nations, in that sense, is also a word to us.
Pray? Sure, always. Meditate? Absolutely. Calm down? That’s usually a good idea.
But first, let go of your striving. Stop trying to control things. And let God be God.
Drop. Your. Sword.