Speaker : Tony Fowler
If you’ve ever stood and watched the waves crash over the high wall that protects Dysart Harbour from an easterly storm, you’ll know how violent the sea can be. And that’s in the comparative shelter that an estuary provides! Imagine what the full force of an ocean can do! It’s one of the reasons why the people of ancient Israel feared the sea. They saw it as a threat, a bringer of chaos and disaster. Israel’s poetry frequently uses the image of catastrophic storms to describe other forms of disaster. Look no further than across the page to Psalm 48:7, where the God-given victory over attacking kings and armies is described in these terms: ‘You destroyed them like ships of Tarshish shattered by an east wind.’ Something very similar is true of the psalm before us this morning; and yet every section of the psalm includes an expression of tremendous confidence in the Lord. Three headings will help us share the psalmist’s solid assurance: The Turmoil that Surrounds Us; The Peace that Sustains Us and The Victory that Surprises Us.
1. The turmoil that surrounds us (Verses 1-3)
The psalm begins in confident mood. Yet we all know how destructive the sea can be. I remember watching a TV programme about the East Coast of England, where houses that were once a long way from the shore have fallen victim to coastal erosion. People watched in tears as their homes collapsed into the waters below – devastated that all they’d worked for over the years had gone. In a similar way, the Israelite poet writing this psalm pictures the collapse of life as he knows it. Yet he can face this calamitous trial without being afraid. Is Jerusalem under attack? It might well be. But the psalmist’s confidence is undimmed. Is that how we face the turmoil that surrounds us? The first draft of this sermon went on at this point to highlight many of the issues that seem, to me, to be tearing modern society apart. Attitudes and behaviour that undermine the very structure of life today. Yet faced with some of the things that distress me most, many people will simply shrug their shoulders and say, ‘So what? That’s not what keeps me awake at night!’
The problems that cause our lives to collapse around us are so personal, aren’t they? For some of us, it’s a single event that pulls the rug from under our feet. For others, it’s a continuous stream of circumstances that bring us down – like the constant battering of waves against the seashore. We could have coped with one, or even two or three of them; but eventually our defences have been breached, and we’re crumbling in face of the onslaught. Some of us here this morning, or watching online, are in precisely this situation. We feel as if the earth is giving way beneath our feet, and we’re beginning to fall. What can we do to help ourselves? We need, perhaps desperately, to hear the truth of this Psalm: ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…’ (Psalm 46:1-2)
2. The peace that sustains us (Verses 4-7)
Jerusalem is almost certainly under siege. Perhaps it’s the Assyrian attack during the reign of King Hezekiah, described in 2 Kings 18-19 – though we can’t be sure. The Assyrian army is besieging the city. Its commander constantly mocks the Lord, saying so that everyone can hear, Don’t let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, ‘Jerusalem will not be handed over to the king of Assyria.’ (2 Kings 19:10) During this siege, Jerusalem was sustained by water from the Gihon Spring, channelled into the city via a tunnel that King Hezekiah had hurriedly constructed when he heard of Assyria’s victories elsewhere. Is this the ‘river whose streams make glad the city of God’ in Psalm 46:4? But, of course, it’s not just the water that sustains the city and her people, as verse 5 makes clear. It’s the Lord’s presence that keeps them going.
That the psalmist uses the image of water in this context shouldn’t surprise us. Listen to these words of the Lord Jesus in John 7:38, ‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ John adds the helpful comment: ‘By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.’ It’s God’s presence with us, by His Spirit, that enables us to cope with the turmoil that surrounds us. We aren’t alone. And, as the psalmist reminds us, the Lord has the power to transform any and every situation. God’s power is also stressed in the refrain that concludes the final two sections of the psalm. Older versions used to speak of ‘the Lord of hosts’, the heavenly hosts, the angels that do His bidding. With the Lord on our side, we can face anything with peace in our hearts. It’s reported that this verse formed the final spoken words of John Wesley, the great evangelist, as he lay on his deathbed. Yes, even ‘the last enemy’, as Paul describes death in 1 Corinthians 15:26, can be faced with confidence when the Lord is at our side.
3. The victory that surprises us (Verses 8-11)
Verse 5 had spoken of God’s help coming ‘at break of day’. That was certainly true of Hezekiah and his troops as they went out to face Sennacherib’s army. (See 2 Kings 19:35) No wonder the psalmist can only exclaim in grateful thanks. ‘Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.’ (Psalm 46:8-9)
Actually, although the victory that God gave His people is amazing, given the overwhelming odds they faced, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. God’s word had come to Hezekiah and the people through the prophet Isaiah in response to Hezekiah’s prayer. The prophecy takes up nearly half a chapter, but the crucial conclusion runs like this:
‘He will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here.
He will not come before it with shield or build a siege ramp against it.
By the way that he came he will return; he will not enter this city.’ declares the Lord.
‘I will defend this city and save it, for my sake and for the sake of David my servant.’ (2 Kings 19:32-34)
As we bring our turmoil to the Lord in prayer, and listen to what His Word says, we can have confidence that He will work all things for our good – yes even the worst things, the things that are now causing our world to collapse right in front of our eyes. Verse 10 is one of the most famous verses from the psalms. ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’
You may know the lovely, gentle chorus that repeats the first line several times. It’s been an encouragement to many to take time to still their hearts in God’s presence. It does, unfortunately, misunderstand the command to ‘be still’. Its force is more like that of a teacher coming into a rowdy classroom and shouting, ‘Silence!’ And in my days in school, more than 50 years ago, you could have heard a pin drop after he shouted. You knew exactly who was in charge; and what he might do to those who disobeyed. The Lord is making clear who’s in control.
‘I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ Perhaps in the midst of all our turmoil, we need to shut up and listen to that message. God’s very much aware of what we’re going through. He’s with us in it, as we’ve already seen. He knows the struggles we face. He understands how hard we’re finding it. He doesn’t underestimate the pain, anxiety and distress we’re enduring. But He also wants us to hear the truth. ‘I’m in control. I’m the boss here; and I know what I’m doing. It may be hard, harder than you think you can bear. But I’ll give you the strength you need. And one day, possibly only in the glory of my nearer presence, you will understand.’ For there will be a day, when the Lord Jesus returns, when all the dark powers that trouble us will be silenced. The final fulfilment of verse 9 is yet to come. Wars haven’t yet ceased ‘to the ends of the earth’. But there will be peace for the Lord’s disciples, as there was that day on Lake Galilee, when Jesus used the same words to still the storm that terrified them. But until that day comes, we simply need to trust Him, and repeat the psalm’s final verse with confidence. ‘The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.’
You might be thinking to yourself, ‘How can I know that the Lord will intervene and do what’s best for me in my situation? Does He love me enough to do that?’ To answer those questions, consider these two facts. The Lord Almighty is specifically described as ‘the God of Jacob’. If anybody had a messed-up life, with ups and downs more amazing than any you’ll find in the scripts of Eastenders or River City, it was Jacob. If God could bless and sustain a man like Jacob, and his crazy family, He’ll be willing to do it for anybody who trusts Him.
There’s something even more important than that, however. I’d like you to think back to an occasion when God didn’t intervene. His own Son was born into this sinful world, and lived a life of perfect fellowship with, and obedience to, His heavenly Father. Yet at the end, the Lord Jesus was betrayed by one of His closest followers. The rest of His friends present fled for their lives and left Him to the mob. Jesus’ enemies taunted and abused Him. They hauled Him through the mockery of a ‘show trial’. And, though the authorities knew He was innocent, they condemned Him to a cruel and barbarous execution. Yet, while He endured untold agonies, God did nothing! No, that’s not quite right: God turned His back on His Son. He withdrew from Him for the first, and only time, in all eternity. And all the darkness and horror of hell assailed Him. So, on that cross, the one and only perfect man, the one and only Son of God, bore the penalty of human sin. He died in the place of every sinner who will trust Him for forgiveness and salvation. If God could do that for us, He will do all we need. How did the apostle Paul put it in Romans 8:32? ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ Perhaps not all the things we want, because we often want the wrong thing, but certainly everything we need.