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    Be Still and Know

    Psalm 46 is no cozy comfort – it’s a radical call to turn to the way of peace.

    By Israel Steinmetz

    October 18, 2023
    • Lonna Grabham

      Good article

    • Michael Nacrelli

      This is one of the most sloppy and strained biblical arguments for pacifism that I've ever read.

    Wars and Rumors of Wars

    In July of this year, Christopher Nolan released Oppenheimer, a biopic of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” Oppenheimer helped create the devastation dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

    Conservative estimates place the death toll at 214,000, with generations impacted by cancers and other diseases to this day. Most of the victims were civilians. Those who did not die instantly suffered terribly with no care as the bombs killed 90 percent of all medical personnel and rendered forty-two hospitals inoperative.footnote

    In his first public statement regarding the bombing, President Harry Truman, a devout Baptist, thanked “Providence” that the Americans had developed the bomb before the Germans. He concluded his speech with a pledge to pursue ways that “atomic power can become a powerful and forceful influence towards the maintenance of world peace.”footnote

    Instead, a Cold War ensued with global fears of nuclear destruction.

    The fascination with Oppenheimer no doubt owes in part to the revival of these fears stoked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ongoing tensions between the United States and other nuclear powers.

    Jesus warned his followers of impending “wars and rumors of wars” (Matt 24:6). Did anyone expect that people claiming to be his followers would end up being responsible for so many of them?

    In a recent interview, Russell Moore, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, says American Christianity is in crisis. He describes how he came to this conclusion:

    It was the result of having multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount, parenthetically, in their preaching – “turn the other cheek” – [and] to have someone come up after to say, “Where did you get those liberal talking points?”

    And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, “I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,” the response would not be, “I apologize.” The response would be, “Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.”footnote

    Be Still and Know

    In our grasping for control and domination, American Christians have often demonstrated a far greater commitment to waging war than making peace. We need to hear and heed this unexpected call to peace: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

    I grew up hearing sermons and devotional reflections on this verse. I saw it on everything from T-shirts to bumper stickers to throw pillows. I received it as a word of comfort in various trials, and often used it in this way, offering it to others as encouragement as they faced situations requiring divine intervention. It seemed like the perfect response to our constant striving for control. It was a word that so many of us need to hear to remind us of God’s sovereignty and our limitations.

    Yet even as I’ve grounded my commitment to nonviolence in scripture for years, it never occurred to me that this verse is one of the Bible’s most powerful words in support of peace. Recently I found myself mesmerized by the preceding verse: “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.” God makes wars cease to the ends of the earth! He breaks the weapons of war! What an incredible promise of peace! No wonder Jesus blessed the peacemakers as children of God (Matt. 5:9); in making peace they are behaving like their heavenly Father.

    Yet I still failed to see the connection to the following verse of the Psalm. I kept reading “be still” out of context as an invitation to passive trust, rather than a call to active peacemaking. More recently I was studying the Hebrew text and discovered that the phrase translated “be still” conveys the image of loosening one’s grip. In this context, Robert Alter says, it can be read here as “an injunction to cease and desist from armed struggle, to unclench the warrior’s fist.”footnote

    So here “be still” could be translated: “Drop your weapons in recognition of God’s victory!” Interestingly, the command applies to both God’s people and their opponents. The enemies are told to surrender; God’s people are told to trust.footnote Both are commanded to stop making war by the God who makes all wars cease.

    A Psalm of War and Peace

    The command to stop making war is best understood in the broader context of the psalm in which it is found, which Bible scholar Gerald H. Wilson calls “a psalm of radical trust in the face of overwhelming threat.”footnote The poem looks to God as deliverer from both natural disasters and military foes. It demonstrates a trust in God in the face of both societal and personal calamity.

    The Israelites looked to God as Creator, but chaos and conflict threatened their very existence. In the face of these threats, “the psalmist claims a confident trust in Yahweh that allows contemplation of the ultimate destruction of creation without fear.”footnote We may look into the face of the worst imaginable disaster without fear but with quiet confidence in God, our refuge and strength.

    What does this have to do with peace?

    While war is clearly the topic at the end of the psalm, Konrad Schaefer sees references to war in each of the poem’s three stanzas: “the primeval war against chaos (verses 1–3), international strife (verses 4–6), and the eschaton of all wars (verses 8–10).” footnote Most importantly, “God, who conquered the primeval and historical adversaries, will conquer war itself.”footnoteThis psalm confronts the existential angst we all experience as we face ecological disaster and armed aggression. We wonder: Can the God who created all things save us from this? Psalm 46 answers with a resounding, “Yes!”

    As Alter writes, “Even when the whole world around us falls apart, we trust in God’s help and do not fear.”footnote Does our confidence rest in our ability to conquer all our enemies by force? No. God will bring an end to war. God will destroy the weapons of war. Our role is to be still and know that he is God.


    Yoshida Hiroshi, Rapid Stream, Oil on canvas, 1936

    Ellen T. Charry calls this psalm an “antiwar poem.” It “counsels Israel to desist from military action and to wait for God to deal with its foreign enemies. Trust in God is more important and perhaps more powerful than trust in military might.”footnote

    In this way the psalm picks up on an important theme throughout the Hebrew scriptures, summarized in Psalm 20:7: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” People may rely on their own strength or on God’s, but not both. “Only when they stop their struggles can they acknowledge that Yahweh is God.”footnote

    Another Bible scholar, James Luther Mays, writes of Psalm 46:

    War is self-defeating; it brings about the destruction of those who practice it…. In a prophetic word from God, the psalm concludes by turning the vision into exhortation to the nations: “Cease your warring! Stop your attacks! Leave off your vain attempts to subject history to your power. There is but one power exalted over the earth and nations. Only one is God – the one whose work is the destruction of weapons and whose help is the refuge of those who recognize that he is God.”footnote

    To “be still” is thus “not an invitation to tranquil meditation but a command to allow God to be God, to do his work of abolishing the weapons of war.”footnote The reverse is also true. Taking up weapons of war undermines God’s sovereignty. Paul says as much in Romans 12:17–19:

    Do not repay anyone evil for evil…. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

    He Makes Wars Cease

    Despite the claims of some commentators that this psalm portrays God as the ultimate warrior, it says nothing of the sort. While God destroys the weapons of destruction, there is no mention of him destroying the people wielding these weapons.

    Rather, it seems to be God’s voice that brings an end to global conflict. The God who created with a word (Gen. 1) will recreate with his word (Rev. 21). He conquers war with peace.

    Jesus inaugurated this new creation in his refusal to take up arms or allow his followers to do so. Rather, he accomplished God’s victory through words and actions that make peace on earth.

    “Be still …” is a command to be at peace. Stop fighting. Stop striving. Stop waging war. Embrace the peace that comes in God’s eschatological victory. Live into a future world in which wars cease.

    Originally, this psalm called the children of Israel to reject the perennial “temptation to abandon true religion for the ephemeral security of political alliances, military strength, and worldly paganism.”footnoteHow desperately do Christians today need to reject these same temptations?

    In light of Christ’s teachings, this psalm is a call to Christians to abandon warfare in trust that God is truly God. Acknowledging God begins with dropping our weapons of war.

    In his commentary on Psalm 46, Charles Spurgeon writes:

    How mighty is a word from God! How mighty the Incarnate Word. O that such a word would come from the excellent glory even now to melt all hearts in love to Jesus, and to end forever all the persecutions, wars, and rebellions of men!footnote

    That Word has already come. His name is Jesus, and his command is clear. Be still and know that he is God.


    1. International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings,” accessed August 25, 2023.
    2. Atomic Heritage Foundation, “Truman Statement on Hiroshima,” accessed August 25, 2023.
    3. Scott Detrow, Gabriel J. Sánchez, and Sarah Handel, “He was a top church official who criticized Trump. He says Christianity is in crisis,” National Public Radio, August 8, 2023. 
    4. Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 165.
    5. Samuel Terrien, The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 374.
    6. Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms: Volume 1, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 714.
    7. Wilson, 716.
    8. Konrad Schaefer, Psalms, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 116.
    9. Schaefer, 116.
    10. Alter, 162.
    11. Ellen T. Charry, Psalms 1–50: Sighs and Songs of Israel (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), 237.
    12. Wilson, 718.
    13. James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 184.
    14. Craig C. Broyles, Psalms, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 210.
    15. Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 5 (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1991), 354.
    16. Charles Spurgeon, Psalms: Volume 1, The Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 194.
    Contributed By IsraelSteinmetz Israel Steinmetz

    Dr. Israel Steinmetz is Dean of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of Practical Theology at The Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas.

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