|God is our refuge and our strength,||Ps. 46:1|
|our ever-present aid,||Deut. 4:7|
|and therefore though the earth remove,||Ps. 46:2|
|we will not be afraid;|
|though hills amidst the sea be cast,||Is. 54:10; Jer. 4:24|
|though foaming waters roar,||Ps. 46:3|
|yea, though the mighty billows shake||Gen. 7:19; Hab. 3:10|
|the mountains on the shore.|
|A river flows whose streams make glad||Ps. 46:4; Ezek. 47:1–12; John 7:37; 9:7|
|the city of our God,||Rev. 22:1–2|
|the holy place wherein the Lord||Ps. 43:3|
|Most High has his abode.||Ex. 15:13; Rev. 21:3|
|Since God is in the midst of her,||Ps. 46:5; Deut. 23:14; Joel 2:27|
|unmoved her walls shall stand,||Heb. 11:10; Rom. 8:31; Rev. 21:14|
|for God will be her early help,||Ps. 119:147|
|when trouble is at hand.|
|The nations raged, the kingdoms moved,||Ps. 46:6; 2:1; Is. 17:13|
|but when his voice was heard,||Ps. 76:8|
|the troubled earth was stilled to peace||Is. 2:1–4|
|before his mighty word.|
|The Lord of Hosts is on our side,||Ps. 46:7; 2 Kings 6:16|
|our safety to secure;|
|the God of Jacob is for us||Gen. 28:15|
|a refuge strong and sure.|
|Oh, come, behold what wondrous works||Ps. 46:8|
|Jehovah’s hand has wrought;|
|come, see what desolation great||Is. 13:9|
|he on the earth has brought.|
|To utmost ends of all the earth||Ps. 46:9|
|he causes war to cease;||Mic. 4:3|
|the weapons of the strong destroyed,||Ps. 76:3|
|he makes abiding peace.||Is. 9:7|
|“Be still and know that I am God,||Ps. 46:10; Is. 40:28|
|o’er all exalted high;|
|the subject nations of the earth||Neh. 6:16; Ps. 86:9|
|my name shall magnify.”|
|The Lord of Hosts is on our side,||Ps. 46:11|
|our safety to secure;|
|the God of Jacob is for us|
|a refuge strong and sure.|
On a Tuesday morning one of us was in his office preparing to teach Beethoven’s Third Symphony when a student came with wide eyes to the door and said, “Have you heard? Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and there are reports of another hitting the Pentagon.” The navy base where her dad worked was on lockdown. Our university delayed classes so all could meet in the chapel. Walking there I could see, for the first time in years of watching the heavens, no planes in a clear sky. The chapel was crowded but hushed. The campus minister simply stepped to the microphone and read Psalm 46 into the stillness: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble . . .” Then we prayed. Six years later, when I visited our pastor and his wife in the big-city hospital shortly after a viciously-malignant, ruptured, grapefruit-sized tumor was discovered and removed from their three-year-old’s abdomen, we read Psalm 46.
It is a Scripture Christians need to hear when the world turns upside down. Verses 2–3 describe trouble so cataclysmic that it is as though the third day of creation were reversed. (One of the merits of the paraphrase above is the way it preserves the vividness of that description. We can see the foam and hear the roar and feel the shaking.) God tells us to “be still” and know that he is God. To the unbeliever, it is a command to surrender; to the believer, an implicit promise of security.
When tumultuous circumstances upset a congregation, it’s good to hear the minister read this command and promise. But it’s also good to sing it. When a congregation sings the hymn above, every member finds himself actively ministering to those around him with the word of Christ. We remind one another of the refuge and strength we have in God. He, and he alone, is our refuge and strength. We have no other. And what other do we need?
Stanza 2 introduces the city of our God by way of contrast with the tumult. Stable verbs (“make glad,” “has his abode,” “is in the midst,” “shall stand,” “will be,” “is at hand”) replace the volatile ones of stanza 1 (“remove,” “be cast,” “roar,” “shake”). Instead of a sea of foaming waters and mighty billows, we have the streams of a flowing river. Instead of an earth that can be moved and hills that can be cast, we have walls that stand unmoved. It is some of the most important imagery in Christianity. The Bible ends with it in Revelation 21–22. Our Lord taught that the river is his Spirit (John 7:38–39). And the hymn’s main theme, that “the Lord Most High has his abode” with us, is the main theme of all Scripture, what O. P. Robertson called the Immanuel principle.
Stanza 3 makes clear that the tumult is not just atmospheric or geologic but human. Nations rage and kingdoms move. But the word of the Lord (preached from Zion?) subdues them; by the end of the hymn they are magnifying his name. Stanza 4 comforts us by asserting God’s sovereignty over the tumult. He purposes through it to bring peace. After his command to surrender and the implicit promise of security, cited in quotation marks in stanza 5, we repeat the second half of stanza 3 as a refrain, and the hymn ends with the same pair of concepts with which it began: refuge and strength.
BETHLEHEM/SERAPH (FINK) is perhaps not a great tune. It has moments that are melodically awkward (the plodding beginning, for example) and others that are physically awkward (consecutive leaps to different parts of the voice in measures 9–10). But, even if not great, it is a good tune, which congregations can make their own and by which they can heartily proclaim the truths of this hymn. The difficulties of measures 9–10 prove to be entirely physical and not musical. The low pitch in every leap remains the same, a sure footing for our vocal gymnastics. And the leaps really are just an exciting contraction of all that comes before, revealing the broad stepwise ascent (Bb–C–D) that lies behind the many stepwise descents of measures 1–8.
If the leaps initially fit the image of hills being cast amidst the sea, the strain on the voice feels right when thinking about the immensities that fall on this line in subsequent stanzas (“utmost ends of all the earth” and “Lord of Hosts”). In measure 11 the melody pushes past the highest pitch so far (D) to a high E-flat for “foaming” in stanza 1, “unmoved” in stanza 2, and “safety” in stanza 3.
One may rightly ask whether the expansive BETHLEHEM would have sung well on September 11th or in the surgery waiting room of a pediatric hospital. The idiom of a rousing anthem with foursquare strides and leaps is hardly natural in the first throes of a crisis. But next day, gathered in the sanctuary to trust God in the midst of grief and fear, it’s just the thing. A more somber or delicate tune would allow us to tremble and shake along with the mountains, when we should rather have perfect confidence.