“Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).
This verse has become a banner, a justification, a reminder, a rich basis for silence and contemplation. But what do the words really mean? Dare we do exegesis and engage our heads with a verse that so often and so meaningfully has been appropriated by our hearts?
The first section of Psalm 46 is, quite literally, earth-shattering. Although this passage is still frightening in its imagery for us today, to the ancient Hebrews the thought of the earth giving way and mountains falling into the heart of the sea (v. 2) was an unimaginable terror. Not only was the sea representative of chaos, but the land once again disappearing into the waters represented un-creation, a reversal of the good order God created in the beginning (Gen 1:9-10).
Yet, even in the midst of quaking mountains and surging seas (v. 3), the psalmist boldly declares that God is our “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (v. 1). This same message, that “God is our fortress” (vv. 7 and 11) bookends the psalm and holds it together at the center, often the focal or main point in Hebrew poetry. So, we can be sure that in some way, “being still” and “knowing that [YHWH] is God” are related to safety, security, shelter and sanctuary in the midst of danger and uncertainty.
So, does “being still” mean retreating into God as our protection? Is God alone our unshakable foundation in the midst of chaos, attack, and change? When it feels like our world is being destroyed or un-created, is God our safe haven and source of strength? Yes, and more…
The “more” is found in several additional understandings. First, in the place of refuge and retreat referred to in Psalm 46, we are not alone, nor even alone with God. God is with us in the midst of His people. As verse 4 declares, “the holy place where the Most High dwells” is “the city of God.” One person alone in a fortress is not safe for long.
Secondly, the Hebrew word (rapa) translated “be still” in Psalm 46:10 is only once assigned this specific meaning. Elsewhere, the word is translated “let go,” “abandon,” “subside,” “disarm” and “refrain.” But the translation of rapa that fits best here is “go limp.” Not just are we to be still because our shaking and quaking ceases as we trust in God. Not just are we to desist from fortifying our defenses. Not just are we to stop preparing our weapons for the next foray out from our fortress to attack our enemies. No. Instead, we are to “go limp.”
Have you ever tried to go limp? It takes an incredible amount of careful, sustained concentration. And trust. The only time we as humans are naturally limp is when we are sound asleep or unconscious. How then, can we ever in full awareness go limp, as God instructs?
We can go limp in the way God desires only by “knowing” God. The Hebrew word (yada), translated “know” here, is common in the Old Testament. Additional translations include “lay with,” “have sex with,” “be aware,” “find out,” and “realize.” But the translation of yada that fits best in this text is “experience.” Only by experiencing God’s presence, goodness, love, power, faithfulness, attentiveness, and sufficiency can we go limp in the face of impending danger and looming destruction.
Most of us stiffen up when threatened. Often, the stiffening itself increases our injury since taut muscles tear more. Trees that don’t bend in the wind, break. So, God may be saying, “Relax into me. Rest among my people. Be silent in response to taunts and threats. Know me so well by experience that in the midst of danger you are surrendered and abandoned into my care.” Or, God may be saying, “As you trust me and are helpless in my arms, you will come to know me by experience.”
This verse, “Be still and know that I am God,” can be used to call us to silence, solitude, rest, and retreat. But it is so much more. This psalm is about surrender and trust in the middle of great danger, stress, and attack. God’s invitation in this verse is to be completely at rest, experiencing His fierce and tender care even as we are surrounded on all sides by unimaginable destruction. Instead of stiffening up, making a plan, gathering our weapons, or withdrawing alone, may we “go limp” together and experience God. He is more than enough.