Friday, September 4, 2009

Psalm 46, Chaos, and the Cross

Psalm 46 is a song of trust celebrating God’s protective presence with his people in Zion. By its very structure, the song highlights that God’s presence is the source of the believer’s security. It opens with the confession that God is a “refuge” and “very present help” for his people in times of trouble, and the refrain, “Yahweh of armies is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” appears at the middle (v. 7) and end (v. 11) of the psalm.

Psalm 46 makes two audacious claims concerning God’s ability to protect those who trust in him. The first is that God provides security for his people in the midst of a catastrophic storm on the scale of the Noahic flood (vv. 2-3). The earth trembles, the mountains “tumble” (מוט) (mot) into the sea, and the raging waters “roar” (המה) (hamah) and “foam” (חמר) (chamar). The malevolent forces of chaos threaten to destroy the earth and humanity in the process. Gerald Wilson writes, “The radical confidence of the psalmist is exhibited in the ability to stand without fear in the face of what constitutes a threat of uncreation” (Psalms: 1, NIVAC, 716). Even in the midst of worldwide tsunami, God provides a protective presence for his people.

After focusing on natural disasters, the psalmist turns to catastrophes of the man-made variety. God not only protects his people from the storm, but he also delivers Zion from the hostile armies that assault the city and seek its destruction (vv. 4-7). The violence of verses 2-3 contrasts with the peaceful calm of verses 4-5. Zion is a place of security even as the earth is falling apart. The mountains of the earth may “tumble” (מוט) (mot), but Zion is “not moved” (בל-תמוט)(bal-tamut). The peaceful river of God’s presence (represented by the Gihon spring in Jerusalem) may seem insignificant by appearance, but it is in fact more powerful than all of the threatening seas. The waters that flow from God’s presence are a source of blessing and joy.

Like the raging seas, the enemy nations also “roar” (המה) (hamah) and “foam” (חמר) (chamar) against Zion. These hostile armies are a human embodiment of the forces of chaos as they threaten Jerusalem and its inhabitants (cf. Jer 4:23 where the prophet hyperbolically warns that the assault of the Babylonian army on Judah will return the earth to a state of chaos and darkness). Even under attack, Zion is secure because the armies of the earth are nothing compared to the “Lord of armies.” The Lord dispatches these enemies with only his voice, which has the power to melt the earth. As previously with the raging waters, the whole world threatens to dissolve, while the tiny hill-fortress of Zion is safe and secure.

The Lord’s deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrian army in 701 B.C. provides a historical example of what Psalm 46 envisions (see 2 Kgs 18-19; Isa 36-37). The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, demanded the unconditional surrender of Jerusalem, warning that the Lord would be no more effective in protecting his people than the gods of other conquered peoples. When Hezekiah turned to the Lord in faith, the prophet Isaiah promised that the Assyrian army would not enter or even fire an arrow into the city. The angel of the Lord miraculously destroyed the Assyrian army in the middle of the night, putting an end to the threat against Jerusalem.

The final stanza in verses 8-11 is the difficult part of this psalm because it is the point of personal application. The psalmist invites all worshippers to share his radical faith and to “be still” and recognize the greatness of the God in whom they have trusted. There is once again a contrast between the swirling, surging violence of the first half of the psalm and the peaceful quietness of those who trust the Lord in the second half. The Lord is worthy of trust because he will one day silence the forces of chaos and bring an end to warfare and violence on the earth. If God is able to protect his people in the greatest natural and man-made disasters imaginable, then he is able to give security to us, no matter what circumstances or situations we are facing in our lives.

The subjugation of the sea and the defeat of the waters of chaos are common images for the Lord’s sovereignty in the Old Testament. The Canaanites believed that Baal had risen to kingship over the gods by his defeat of Yam (Sea) and Nahar (River). In defeating the unruly waters, Baal had also slain the sea monster, Leviathan (Lotan). The Old Testament writers use this imagery for the polemical purpose of asserting that it is Yahweh who rules as king and not Baal. Yahweh subjugated the sea at creation by putting the waters in their place and establishing their proper boundaries (Job 38:8-11; Pss 65:5-7; 74:12-17; 89:9-13; 93:3-4; 104:6-9). Yahweh further demonstrated his power over chaos by using the sea to deliver the Israelites and to destroy the Egyptians at the exodus (Exod 14; Pss 77:16-19; 114:1-5). Egypt is Leviathan (Ps 74:17), Rahab (Ps 87:4; Isa 30:7), and the “dragon” (Ezek 29:3-5).

The Old Testament also promises God’s eschatological victory over Israel’s enemies as the ultimate and final victory over the sea and the forces of chaos (Isa 27:1; 51:9-10). Daniel 7 portrays this cosmic drama unfolding throughout human history as successive empires arise out of the sea and culminate in a hideous beast that is finally destroyed when the Ancient of Days confers an eternal kingdom upon the Son of Man and the saints of the Most High. Jon D. Levenson (Creation and the Persistence of Evil) explains that the motif of Yahweh subjugating the sea is an important component of Old Testament theodicy. God controls evil from the time of creation, but evil is not eliminated or removed until the eschatological future.

The tenacious faith that God’s presence would bring real and permanent peace to Zion pervades and even extends beyond the Hebrew Bible. N. T. Wright (The New Testament and the People of God, 247) comments:

Again and again in the Pentateuch, the psalms, the prophets, and the subsequent writings which derive from them, the claim is made that the creator of the entire universe has chosen to live uniquely on a small ridge called Mount Zion, near the eastern edge of the Judean hill-country. The sheer absurdity of this claim … is staggering. The fact that [more powerful nations] had made explicit mockery of the idea did not shake this conviction, but only intensified it.

The problem is that the beauty of the poetry in Psalm 46 often bears little correspondence to the ugliness of the real world. This confidence in Zion’s security and the larger Old Testament hope of the final dissolution of evil is a noble sentiment, but is it really anything more than wishful thinking? The Bible explains that the fall of Jerusalem to enemy armies in 586 BC and 70 AD was the result of disobedience and unbelief, but the righteous and wicked suffered together. There were other inexplicable defeats when Israel was not guilty of national infidelity (Ps 44:9-22). As an old man, David asserted that he had never seen the righteous lacking bread (Ps 37:25), but one suspects that David may have needed to get away from the palace and the temple a little more often. The holy city of Jerusalem seems no closer to enjoying lasting peace today than it did in the days of the Babylonians and the Romans. The surging waters of the Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina swept away the godly and the ungodly. The brutal murders of two Christian college students this past week here in Lynchburg are a stark reminder of the pervasiveness of evil and seem to mock the psalmist’s confidence in the Lord’s protection.

What keeps us from throwing away our confidence in the final victory over evil is the historical reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sins and absorbed the violence of the cross so that the endless cycle of evil and death could be broken. The motif of God’s conflict with the sea offers another demonstration of how Jesus completes and fulfills what is promised and anticipated in the Old Testament. Revelation 12 reminds us Christ came to engage the dragon (Satan) in a cosmic battle that lasts until the end of time. In his miracle of calming the sea (cf. Matt 8:23-27), Jesus announced that the eschatological kingdom of God was breaking into human history and that the days when death and evil would rule over the earth were numbered. In subjugating the sea, Jesus acted with the power and authority of Yahweh himself. As Schreiner (New Testament Theology, 181) observes, the miracle of Jesus walking on the water “hearkens back to Yahweh who walks upon the sea” (cf. Matt 14:25; Mark 6:48; Job 9:8 LXX; Hab 3:15). The conflict between Christ and Satan reaches a climax at the cross. The darkness and earthquake accompanying the death of Jesus recall the cosmos-shaking storm in Psalm 46 (cf. Matt 27:45-53) and symbolize the destruction of the powers of evil carried out even as Satan unleashes the full torrent of his hatred. The ultimate irony is that Jesus triumphs as the Divine Warrior by sacrificing his own life and then overcoming death through his resurrection:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Col 2:13-15)

Longman and Reid (God is a Warrior, 150) comment that Christ’s triumph is “not the victory of a more powerful being over less powerful beings (as if it were a cosmic struggle of strength against strength in which salvation was achieved by a tour de force); it is the victory of holy, righteous, and creative love over the destructive forces of evil.” The decisive victory is won, but we are continually reminded of the powerful grip that death and evil still hold over the earth. The conflict between God and evil will only intensify until the final beast that rises out of the sea and Satan himself, the great dragon, are ultimately destroyed (Rev 13:1; 19:19-21; 20:7-10). The biblical promise is that there will be no more sea in the new heaven and the new earth of the eternal future, no more of the rebellion, violence and death that has infected the old earth we live in now. Even in the darkest of times, Christ is our refuge and our source of hope. He gives substance to the Old Testament’s lofty aspirations for the peace of Zion, and the final promise of Scripture is that God will eternally extend that peace to all of creation when heaven and earth meet in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21-22).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this excellent article! I made extensive use of it in a teaching for my church. The connection between God being the conqueror of the sea and Christ calming the stormy sea is marvelous and very powerful.