Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken (Part 1)
In a sermon preached the same year that Augustine began to write his City of God, he told his congregation: “Brethren, when I speak of that City, and especially when scandals grow great here, I just cannot bring myself to stop…” (Enarr. In Ps. 84.10). As in Augustine’s time, so in ours as well scandals increase. Whether they do so more in our own time, I am not one to judge (though I rather doubt it). It would be true to say, I think, that we feel the growth of scandal—of vice and its attendant anxiety—very deeply; our world seems to be loosened at its hinges. As Alex Williams of the New York Times put it: “If you’re a human being living in 2017 and you’re not anxious, there’s something wrong with you.” Perhaps, then, we should make like Augustine, and cast our intellectual gaze upon that city whose foundations cannot be shaken. There are many places in the bible, of course, where one could go—and Augustine did go—to contemplate this magnificent theme (Genesis and the Psalms, in particular). One of the most beautiful, surely, is Psalm 46. For this post and the next, then, I will reflect upon this psalm.
1God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;
God will help her right early.
6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has wrought desolations in the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
he burns the chariots with fire!
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth!”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
It would be difficult to overemphasize the power of the opening line: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. It sets the tone for the remainder of the psalm. As in a symphony, when the baseline remains constant and steady, against which all the fluctuations in the different melodies are harmonized, so also this first line rings deep, rich, and pure through the entire psalm. The rest of the psalm is harmonized in light of this confession. Surely for the Christian this line—‘God is my refuge and strength’—must be the cry of her heart in the night, the praise on her lips in the morning. To all who flee to him, he stands ever ready to be a refuge and strength. And this is why we need not fear. Even if…the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
As I see it, vv. 2-6 beautifully and frightfully layers together three strata of imagery. We’ll walk through them briefly. The first stratum of imagery lies at the surface of the psalm: mountains are quaking, the seas are raging; these are natural phenomena, full of fury and deadly force. Contrasted with the powerful raging of the turbulent world is, v. 4, the “glad city of God,” which “is not moved.” The imagery is of a walled city so well built that, after the dust settles and out in the midst of the contorted and broken earth, it can be seen steady and stately, still standing, none the worse for wear. The citizens, moreover, who are in that city, escape the turbulent twisting and writhing of the earth, for they are in the city that does not so move. Or, the imagery is one of a strong, coastal fortress; the waves of the sea crashing upon its exterior, yet it holds. Those on the interior are none the put out; for all the raging without, they are established within. Further, contrasted to the violent and threatening waters outside the fortress, is the gentle, flowing stream inside, bringing its inhabitants life and respite.
This, then, is the first level of imagery in this psalm. It is a city properly built, properly fortified against the natural perils of the world. Though wild without, the city is a garden within. Even amidst the turbulent world, the City of God remains glad because she is not moved; because she is sustained within. God is in her midst.
But there is a second level of imagery in this psalm, a little further down: one of cosmic judgment. This becomes clear when one reads this psalm against the backdrop of other psalms contemplating God’s creation of the world. For example, Psalm 104: 5–9:
He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they fled; at the sound of your thunder they took to flight. The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them. You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.
Psalm 104 poetically develops the Genesis account of creation. Water, in Psalm 104, is “standing over the mountains” (mirroring the ‘face of the deep’ in Genesis), but God “rebukes the water” and it flees to its rightful place. He establishes the mountains as unmovable and sets the boundaries of the oceans. In the Genesis account of creation God moves creation from an initial chaotic state towards order; from restlessness to rest—and in Psalm 104 that movement is illustrated by the mountains going to their established place and the oceans remaining within their boundaries. This is God’s creative act.
Back in Psalm 46 the order is reversed: the mountains are no longer so established; the oceans begin to transgress their boundaries. If the establishing of the mountains and the setting of the boundaries of the oceans speak to God’s creative act, then the shaking of the mountains and the bursting forth of the ocean signify God’s de-creative act, that is, his judgment. Indeed, there are echoes here in Psalm 46 of that first great, de-creative act of judgment in the Old Testament, the cosmic deluge. The psalmist dares to contemplate a world as unsettled and unhinged as when under the judgment of God in the days of Noah.
And yet, he says, even still, “we will not fear…” Just as those in the ark were carried through the waters of judgment in the bosom of the ark, so the inhabitants of this city remain glad. For God the Most High has made this city his habitation, as well as theirs. Therefore, it will not be moved. God resides in this city as a shepherd among his flock. And while his mighty waters of judgment crash on the world outside the city, there is a quiet river within; and he leads his sheep besides its still waters, replenishing their souls. This psalm, then, also provides us the imagery of safety from God’s wrath, a safety he himself grants. The city of God remains glad even amidst the judgment of God, for God has provided for her salvation.
Going deeper still, one uncovers a third stratum of imagery deposited in this psalm; and this is brought out clearly in v. 6 and 7:
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our fortress…
And now the metaphor implicit in vv. 2-3 becomes explicit. Often in the Bible the uprising and shifting of the natural elements are used as metaphor for the waxing and waning of the kingdoms of the earth. Here in v. 6, it is no longer the oceans that rage, but the nations; it is no longer the mountains that totter, but the kingdoms.
One cannot read too much history, or, indeed, watch too much news, without noticing what this psalm thrusts to our attention: the perilous nature of, the inherent instability of, the kingdoms of this world. This is what Augustine called ‘the city of man.’ It is the city of Cain, of Enoch, and of Lamech, built on a foundation of murder, a lie, and a boast. It is the city of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose prosperity led to pride and then to perversion; a city whose inhabitants cultivated a distaste for the poor and the needy, and a gluttonous obsession with their own pleasure. This is the city of Babel, the heights of its walls erected in pride: they had no need of God, they surmised, but would make themselves to be god. This is the city of Egypt, Edom, Philistia, Babylon, and Assyria, who decided that if they could not be God they would try to beat him; who filled their citadels with boasts and brags of their opposition to God Most High and to his people. This is the city comprised of the nations referenced in Psalm 2:
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The Kings of the earth have set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, Against the LORD and against his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.
The nations of this city, the city of man, do rage, as it says in Psalm 46:6, but they also totter! Why do they totter? First, because the more they rage the more inherently unstable they become. The angry man loses more control with every new degree of anger. The world in its anger against God becomes hateful. Consumed with rage, it totters and froths about in a stupor. It is tragic. And history has this tragic reel on repeat. Even more, the kingdoms of the world totter because ‘the LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.’ God remains in control, as Psalm 2 continues: He who sits in heaven laughs… Like the waves of an angry sea, it is they who break on this fortress. They, like Nebuchadnezzar, are eventually bow the knee and confess:
…his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34-35)
And so, v. 10 of Psalm 46, God declares: ‘I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’
This is the third level of imagery: it is battlefield imagery. A city besieged by another. Yet no matter how many troops pour against the walls, no matter how hard they pound at the gates, God himself is our fortress (v. 7), and God cannot be broken.
I have said that there are three strata of imagery in the psalm. But in fact, I think there is a fourth level—not really a fourth level of imagery in the way I have been using it, I suppose, but I fourth level of meaning. Or, perhaps even better, a central meaning. I cannot develop it here, but merely point to it.
That most marvelous line in v. 4, there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God points us simultaneously to protology and eschatology. Here is what I mean. The river mentioned here brings to mind that river in the garden of Eden, which ‘flowed out of Eden to water the garden…’ (Gen. 2:10). Psalm 46 carries us back to the beginning, however, to drive us forward to the end. In John’s vision of the completed city he sees “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city…” (Rev. 22:1-2). There, the seas will be no more. There, there will be a river. That river is the life of God flowing down through the tree of life, who is Christ, to those inhabitants of the city of God. There, Augustine says, “we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise.”