Dear brothers and sisters, Shalom!
“Be still, and know that I am God!
I will be exalted (honored) by every nation.
I will be exalted (honored) throughout the world.” (Psalm 46:10, ESV)
Lydia (my wife) thinks that I have ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), the hyperactivity-Impulsive type! These days because of COVID-19 and the order (from the government and my family) to stay home, my symptoms seem much more pronounced and have worsened as I have been housebound in “boredom” for over a month! (haha!) For someone like me, this is like being imprisoned, or at least like Paul, in house arrest. However one thing I am trying to imitate Paul but am doing a poor job of, is to try and write more “Prison Epistles!” How is to “be still” even possible in tumultuous times such as ours? We are all restless with nothing to do (?) and nowhere to go! We are all at a standstill during this COVID-19 pandemic, with self-quarantine, self-isolation, and physical distancing, while some cities in the world are even in complete shut-down or lock-down. The world seems to grind to a halt and many hearts are still in fear and even panic. Shouldn’t we rather find ways to “be active?”
Why did the Psalmists say “Be Still”?
But do the Psalmists have something to teach us today? Scriptures tell us they were “the Sons of Korah” who were in fact the principal families involved in leading the people of God in praise and worship in the Jerusalem temple. (2 Chron. 20:19) This Psalm addressed Israel in a time of national crisis. We see this in the reference to ancient wartime scenes of burning shields/chariots, bows and spears, the nations in uproar, yet God’s holy city was not falling (v. 5, 6, 9). The message is, despite being devastated by war, God still dwells in His holy city Jerusalem. (v. 4-5) Indeed, this Psalm begins with the declaration that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (1) We hear war language frequently used in recent days, and comparison is even made to WWII. Yes, we are all fighting a war, with an invisible enemy, COVID-19, but also with “fear” itself. Times are different, but the fear, sickness, and death are the same. Psalm 46 describes a time when the entire world is shaken, as in earthquakes. (2, 3) Nevertheless, the Psalmists were confident that despite all these, “we will not fear.” (2). Is that possible?
What did it mean by “be still?”
The Hebrew word raphah is translated “be still” (in ESV, NIV) [“要休息” in CUV; “要安静” in CCB] or “cease striving” (in NASB) [“要住手” in CNV] or “stop your striving” (in NET), which simply means: to let drop, to relax, to let go, to be still or to be quiet. There are at least two ways to interpret this. In the context of this Psalm, these words could be addressed to the “nations,” warning them to let go and not keep attacking the people of God, bringing an end to the war (9), as God will eventually be exalted among “the nations.” (10b) If however these words were addressed to the people of God, then the people of God were to recognize that the Lord is God Almighty (El Shaddai), and He will fight for them and they need only to “let go and let God.” Either way, it is so comforting to know that with God as our protector, we need not struggle on our own and we can all lay our burdens at His feet.
What does it mean by “be still”?
In the current pandemic, we need to be quiet (still) before God, recognize God for who He is and yield to His sovereign rule. Eugene Petersen in The Message has this rather contemporary and interesting translation: “Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.” I get most frustrated when I am stuck in traffic. At times like ours with COVID-19, we are stuck at home and for many, what feeds our frustration actually is allowing ourselves to be stuck in front of the TV, consuming all the bad news and the latest statistics, or the flood of household secret remedies we can use to prevent us from being infected. Let’s leave those things alone, at least not be consumed by them, and focus on God and His assured triumph over the world and all its troubles. Didn’t Jesus assure His disciples and said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world?” (Jn. 16:33)
Yes, our world is shaken because of COVID-19, our health, our family, our work and our livelihood are all threatened, but if God is with us, and so who can be against us?! Why not take time to be still in God’s presence and recognize again who God is, and be at peace.
How can we “be still”?
While “be still” is clearly stated and it does mean “be quiet,” but our full understanding of what it truly means makes a lot of difference to how we practice it.
First of all, “be still” does not mean “do nothing.” If we sit and do nothing, we are being “idle” and wasting our time. That is the furthest thing from the truth. In fact, Paul was quite adamant against people who were “idle and disruptive,” (Gk. ataktos, undisciplined, insubordinate, I Thes. 5: 14; II Thes. 3:6-15) [“不守規矩的人” CUV, “游手好閑的人” CNV] In fact, in the modern church, there are too many people who want to stand at the sideline and be critical of everything and everyone else. The more we are idle, the more we can see the speck in the other person’s eyes and forget the beam in our own eyes.
Secondly, “be still” does mean to be quiet before God. Christians today are active and uncomfortable with silence and contemplation before God. Our spirituality has become one of “doing” rather than “being.” We feel ill at ease when we need to be in silence, and we try to avoid “the dead air” and somehow we feel the personal need to do something in prayer and worship. We need to learn to pause and gaze upon the beauty of God and enjoy His presence. We are not opposed to active participation, but we must not waste the forced “physical distancing” situation we are in to learn true contemplation. True worship is God-centered and not men-centered.
Thirdly, “be still” means “know that I am God.” “Knowing” is not just head knowledge, and in fact both in the Old Testament and New Testament, the verb is used to describe the most intimate of relationships, as in marriage relationships. “Knowing” is not just cognitive, but encompasses more than simply having knowledge of something or someone. “Knowing” is entering into the most sacred space and being consumed by each and every aspect of the relationship. True “knowing” is true “wisdom.” This is how Paul prayed for the Colossians: “…we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Col. 1:9-10) In fact “knowing God” is pre-requisite to “knowing ourselves.” (Packer)
For me, I have found that “being still” also means to wait in the presence of God with His word, study it day and night, in order to “know Him” personally and intimately more and more, and have the joy to share the insights with others. In that sense, “be still” is also very much an active spirituality. The true knowledge of God is the foundation of my peace and serenity.
Yours servant in Christ
Rev. Dr. Simon Lee