As I write this biblical meditation the concept of ‘chaos’ has come into full view in televised news reports from India, where there is a shortage of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders, especially in the capital city, where funeral pyres are the order of the day due to Covid-19 deaths.
Psalm 46 was composed to be sung publicly at a time of international chaos, according to verse 6: ‘The nations are in chaos, and their kingdoms crumble.’ It was ‘a time of trouble, . . . earthquakes’ and hurricanes (verses 2 and 3).
Question 1: When and why was this psalm written?
According to its added heading this psalm was composed:
‘For [the attention of] the choir director: A song of the descendants of Korah, to be sung by soprano voices’ [New Living Translation – unless otherwise indicated].
A quick glance through the lyrics raises a few more questions that can be answered by perusing the accounts of events recorded in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles and Isaiah.
The most probable period of Israelite history that could have given occasion for this song occurred during the reign of King Hezekiah. He experienced a horrific siege of his royal city, Jerusalem, by the brutal Assyrian army under the command of the tyrant Sennacherib. The spiritual lessons that he learned are well documented in 2 Kings 18:1 – 19:37; 2 Chronicles 32:1-22; and Isaiah 36:1 – 37:38.
Question 2: How did the Hebrew word alamoth become ‘soprano’ in the NLT?
The word also occurs in 1 Chronicles 15:20, according to a note in the margin of the text in the NLT. It is the plural of almah – Hebrew for ‘a veiled virgin lass’, hence soprano voices, (or even falsetto male voices?). In either case they would be voices that carried the song’s musical melody rather than a sung harmony.
Question 3: How is God described?
‘The God of Israel’ is referred to as ‘The Lord of Heaven’s Armies’ (verses 7 and 11). This surely reinforces the sense that it was a time of spiritual war! The psalmist reassures the Lord’s people that, not only ‘God is our refuge . . . always ready to help’ (verse 1); ‘He [also] causes wars to end throughout the earth’ by completely destroying all enemy armaments, whether weapons of attack or of defence (see verse 9), for he is not only ‘our refuge’ but also ‘our . . . strength’ (verse 1). His ‘voice melts the earth’ when it ‘thunders’ (verse 6).
Question 4: What is God’s ‘river of joy’?
Bear in mind that no actual geographical river would be found in earthly Jerusalem, as it was established on mountain tops! However, God, by making his home among his people (verses 4 and 5) is himself ‘the river of life’ – as elaborated by Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 47:1-12) and John on Patmos (Revelation 22:1-2).
Question 5: How should we respond?
‘Be still, and know that I am God’ in every way (verse 10). So, clear your vision of the outer chaos, and ‘see the glorious works of the Lord’ – he will ultimately be honoured worldwide (verses 8-10).
Perhaps the exhortation to ‘Be still’ could get mistaken for an invitation to engage in yoga exercises. But a French translation renders it as ‘Stop it!’ which surely is a sharper command to shake a reader out of mystical contemplation and, instead, to concentrate one’s attention on tuning in to what God wants to reveal about his nature and ways, and to widen one’s vision of his potential ‘impossibilities’!