A Very Present Help
God is our refuge and strength. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message, "God is a safe place to hide." Chasah, or refuge, is a word that's needed when a nation finds itself shaking on the rock. The news of tragic events in our country and our world is enough to grab you by the neck and make you tremble. Several years ago, I found myself not sleeping very well due to some of these events—that is, until I remembered Psalm 46 and called to mind my chasah, "a very present help in trouble."
Charles Spurgeon writes, "As God is all-sufficient, our defense and our might are equal to all emergencies . . . . He is not as the swallows that leave us in the winter; He is a Friend in need, and a Friend indeed. When it is very dark with us, let brave spirits say, 'Come, let us sing the forty-sixth!'"
A fortress firm and steadfast rock,
Is God in time of danger;
A shield and sword in every shock,
From foe well-known or stranger.1
Let's look deeper into this psalm. It makes its summary statement at the beginning, then everything else hangs on that. Think of the first verse as the coat hanger, and all the clothing (verses 2–11) hangs on that hanger. The hanger, remember, is that God is our refuge and a very present help when war is declared. God is a refuge and very present help when terrorists strike. God is a refuge and very present help when the bridge falls, or the tunnel caves in, or the dam gives way, or the plane crashes. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help.
If you have a Bible handy, locate Psalm 46. Take a closer look at the structure of the psalm. You'll find the same word used three times. Let your eyes scan down through the words of the psalm and check the right margin. The end of verse three, Selah. The end of verse seven, Selah. And the end of the last verse, Selah. And so we find Selah. Selah. Selah.
The psalms were originally musical compositions. They provided the lyrics for inspired hymns. For years the church sang only from the Psalter. They literally sang the psalms—the songs of David, Moses, Korah, and others provided the first hymnal for God's people.
I have an old, old songbook, if you can call it that. It is comprised of just words of psalms that were sung in an old church so many, many years ago. In old English, it is simply called The Psalter.
God's people gathered and sang from The Psalter. This notation is written at the beginning of Psalm 46: "for the choir director. A Psalm of the sons of Korah, set to Alamoth. A Song." "Alma" is the original Hebrew term, translated "maiden" or "young woman." It probably means it was composed to be sung as a high-pitched song. It was reserved for the sopranos or for the stringed instruments that played in the upper part of the treble clef. It's not unlike Handel's opening recitative "Comfort ye, comfort ye My people" sung by a lyric tenor soloist, and that leads into, "Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked places straight and the rough places plain." It's a beautiful composition written for the high voices. So if you sing soprano, this psalm is for you especially.
But never forget, it is a psalm of God's chasah. He is our refuge, and what comfort that brings! He is your refuge even when you are all alone. He is your refuge when you awaken in the night filled with fear, and cold sweat breaks out. He is your refuge, your strength, a very present help when events transpire that you cannot understand. When your boy is on that aircraft carrier steaming toward the war zone, when your son or daughter is climbing aboard that fighter plane, pulling the cockpit closed and giving the "thumbs up" before takeoff, He is your very present help. When? "In trouble." When you read the next headline, and it tells of some event that you and I would call tragic, He is a very present help. Selah!
Meaning what? Well, as best we can tell, Selah was an ancient musical notation. Music scores today have unique notations or signs that musicians understand. Some look like arrowheads pointing left or right signifying to the musician to increase or diminish the volume. In biblical days selah probably meant "pause." I have a friend who, every time he reads the Psalms and comes across selah, he simply reads, "Pause and let that sink in." Not bad.
These three selahs give us the structure of the psalm. Verses two and three refer to times of physical catastrophe. Selah. Pause, and here's how to handle such things. Verses four through seven refer to the threat of warfare. Selah. "Pause, let that sink in. This is how to respond to that." And in verses eight through eleven, when the future seems uncertain, this is how you handle that. Selah. "Pause and let that sink in."
Don't panic; pause.
No need to fret and fear; pause.
And in place of worry and anxiety, pause. The foundation is firm. The Lord is our refuge. He is our present help in trouble.
Pause, let that sink in.
Worried and anxious? Our foundation is firm. The Lord is our refuge. Pause; let that sink in.
— Charles R. Swindol lTweet This
- Spurgeon, Charles. From a sermon, 1887.
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