Foundations: No.78 Spring 2020

“God is Our Refuge and Strength”
(Psalm 46:1)

We live in days when the foundations of society are being shaken. We are experiencing tragic loss of life, and financial hardship with accompanying worry, concern and fear have gripped many. Places of work are empty; centres of entertainment are shut; schools are closed, exams are cancelled – and places of worship are silent. Not since the World Wars have Britain and the world known such challenges.

What is our response to all this to be? As Christians how are we to live in the days of Covid-19? Obviously, there are many answers to this. We must care for one another, and for the world. We must look out for one another, and for our neighbours, so that we don’t become isolated or run out of food and other necessities. We must care for one another spiritually, and use the gospel opportunities this time might bring. But more fundamentally, what is the response of our soul to be? How should believing in the God of the Bible affect us in a time of crisis?

We find an answer to this in Psalm 46. Quite when or in what circumstances this psalm was written, we don’t know. But evidently it was written in a time of great distress, with the purpose to give God’s people perspective through great tumultuous events of history. And they have found great comfort in this psalm over the centuries. Luther would often say to his friend in times of distress, “Come Philip let us sing the Forty-Sixth Psalm, and let them do their worst.”[1] The Scottish covenanters, as they worshipped on the moors and in caves in fear of their lives in the seventeenth century, would often sing this psalm, and in doing so find the strength to go on. And we today can find in this psalm the same strength and comfort.

Even just the first three verses, which make up its first section, are so full of consolation.[2]

1. They tell us that times of trial and distress are not unexpected

We are not to be surprised that disasters and pandemics will come upon the earth. And nor are we to be surprised that God’s people are caught up in their impact. At the end of verse 1 the psalmist speaks of being “in trouble”. And the word is really plural – he is in “troubles”.

The picture in vv2-3 reveals how bad these troubles can become. Here the world is being turned upside down: The earth appears to be giving way, the mountains which stand so tall are cast into the depths of the sea, reduced to trembling by the raging waves. The image is of the undoing of creation. On the third day of creation God said, Genesis 1:9-10, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear… And God saw that it was good.” But now, what God in his goodness separated is being mixed into confusion. The creation order is reduced to disarray.

And this is, in a sense, the situation we face today: A pandemic is turning our society upside down, removing social contact, disrupting work patterns, causing ill health and in some cases death. But God has told us here and elsewhere that times of trial will come. And so, however else we respond, we should not be surprised that we live in a time where we have to say:

Mine are tears in times of sorrow
Darkness not yet understood
Through the valley I must travel
Where I see no earthly good.[3]

But more than just warning us that times of sorrow would come; Psalm 46 tells us how to respond. It calls us to behold our God (Isa. 40:9). And in beholding our God to find, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (verse 1).

2. So, in times of distress, as we look to God, we find first a refuge

When you are in a storm you need a refuge, a shelter. In the Scottish Highlands the weather can turn wild almost at any moment. If you are out hillwalking and are suddenly caught in a storm, it can quickly become life threatening. But scattered through the Highlands are a series of bothies, essentially little cottages, always open for anyone to use. And when you find one of these in the middle of a storm, the cold, wind and snow that have been sapping your strength can no longer affect you. You get through the bothy door, close it behind you, and all becomes calm; you are safe. And that is what God is for us in times of trouble; running to him we find security, shelter and calm.

God is that refuge because while the earth quakes, while the mountains fall, while the sea rages, God sits above it all. Among all the troubles he alone remains secure. He cannot be overwhelmed; he cannot be reduced to trembling. And so, the psalmist says, when the world is falling apart, find security in the God who can never fall apart.

3. As well as a refuge, God is also our strength

Times of difficulty and trial make us realise our own weakness and insufficiency. Our health under strain reminds us of our own mortality; our lack of understanding about how to respond shows us the inadequacy of our own wisdom. Trials bring us to an end of ourselves – and that is no bad thing, because in looking out from ourselves to God we find the strength we lack. When we feel we cannot go on, then we find that God’s strength will carry us. Deuteronomy 1:31 records, “in the wilderness”, in time of trial and distress, “you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son”. And it will be so for us. God may not remove the trial; he may not immediately remove the affliction. But he will always be our strength. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.” Three times Paul prayed for his affliction to be taken away. It wasn’t. However, he goes on: “But he said to me, my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Our strength, like Paul’s, is found in renouncing our own reserves and fleeing to God’s strength.

4. In trials, God is our refuge, he is our strength and, wonderfully, he is our “very present help”

The NIV translates this as our “ever present” help. And what a comfort is it to know that God is no absentee in our troubles! He is with us; he is not far off, remote. He is here with his people, and he is here to help. In times of isolation and social distancing, what a comfort to know that, however absent others are, God is with us. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” (Isa. 43:2); “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them.” (Isa. 63:9. However it seems to the eye of sight, by faith we know he is always ever present with us to help us.

5. And what does this mean for us?

What does it mean in earth-shattering times that God is a refuge, a strength and a present help? Well, it simply means this: “Therefore we will not fear” (v2a). The great Christian calling today is to trust in our God, to sink ourselves into the truth that he is the strength of Israel, that he is our help and our refuge. And so, as the earth trembles, “we will not fear”. Now this does not mean we are turned into lumps of stone. Calvin says, “The psalm is not to be understood as meaning that the minds of the godly are exempt from all… fear, as if they were destitute of feeling.”[4] But it does mean that as we look to God we can face into our fears with the confidence of faith. And if we have this confidence of faith, we will be enabled to do all the other things we need to do – to support, to practically help, to show compassion.

And so, as Covid-19 reduces the world to turmoil, “Behold your God”. Realise, yes, we have to say,

Mine are tears in times of sorrow
Darkness not yet understood
Through the valley I must travel
Where I see no earthly good.

But go on as the hymn does,

But mine is peace that flows from heaven
And the strength in times of need
I know my pain will not be wasted
Christ completes his work in me.[5]

God does not waste trials. He uses them for good. Painful though they are, at the end our ever-present help will use them to complete the work of forming Christ in us. He will use the upheaval of Covid-19, as he uses all other things, for the good of his people.

 

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