Considering Context – Psalm 46:10

This week’s Considering Context looks at a popular meditation/peace verse.

Psalm 46:10  Be still and know that I am God.

The Perceived Meaning of the Text

I often hear this verse interpreted as a means for quiet meditation on God in order to bring peace to oneself. To be sure, a peaceful, quiet assurance of God is certainly thematic but that is only true, partially, as we will see by examining the full context of this Psalm.

The Text in its Original Context

There are are a lot of factors that need to be considered when we interpret the Psalms. The most important factor is the type of genre one is reading. Because the Psalms are poetry they must be interpreted within the poetic genre. And Hebrew poetry is much different from  English poetry.

Hebrew poetry typically uses parallelisms and structure rather than rhyme in its composition. This may seem a bit odd to us but in an ancient context this style greatly aided in memory since many of these psalms were used during the worship at the tabernacle. When interpreting the Psalms and any type of Hebrew poetry it is a good practice to understand some of the basics. Before moving on to the the interpretation we will spend a little time looking at the basics of Hebrew poetry. For more information I would highly recommend Dr. Mark Futato’s book Interpreting the Psalms.

Parallelism is the major defining factor in Hebrew poetry. Scholars have identified several, but the three major categories are synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic. Each will be briefly discussed: 

  1. Synonymous – this parallelism has two lines of text that mean the same thing but said in different ways. Psalm 33:2 is a good example

    Ⓐ Give thanks to the Lord Ⓑ with the lyre; Ⓐ make melody to him Ⓑ with the harp of ten strings!
  2. Antithetic – this is when two lines are contrasted, showing what one is or should be and what the other should not be. Psalm 1:6 illustrates this form of parallelism

    for Ⓐ the Lord knows Ⓑ the way of the righteous, but Ⓑ the way of the wicked Ⓐ will perish.
  3. Synthetic – often times the author will make a statement and then develop or further elaborate the point. This development is known as synthetic parallelism. Psalm 147:16-17 is synthetic in nature. The explanation of line B is that no one stands before His power, which is pictured as cold and snow. 

    Ⓐ He gives snow like wool; Ⓐ he scatters frost like ashes. Ⓐ He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; Ⓑ who can stand before his cold?

Structure is also an important theme in Hebrew poetry. Like parallelism the structure is usually categorized three different ways.

Acrostic – each new line or stroph begins with the next successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 119 is an excellent example of this style. As you can see the first eight verses begin with the letter Aleph and the next eight begin with the letter Bet. This pattern will follow until the end of the Hebrew alphabet has been reached.

Chiastic – the parallels in this structure branch out to a central theme. Then the parallels are reversed until reaching the conclusion. See the screenshot below for an example.

Strophic – this is more of a thematic type of poetry where the lines are grouped together by themes to conclude to a main theme. Note the the thematic elements of the grouped lines in the below Psalm. They culminate in the Lord being the Psalmist’s refuge.

Though it seems a bit much to review all of this it is necessary when interpreting the context for our Psalm. Now, we can look at it in its entirety and interpret it correctly.

The first thing to be noted is that the Psalm is usually not quoted in its entirety. The full text of the Psalm is, “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

As you see this verse is a little bit more than simply being still and meditating on God. Our Psalm is of the chiastic structure, paralleling ideas to a central theme and then reversing the parallels. To understand the structure more fully it would be helpful to see the entire Psalm laid out.

As you can see, the Psalm peaks at verse 6: the nations rage, the kingdoms tooter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The context of the Psalm can be found in 2Chron 20:1-30, when Jehoshaphat is king and the destruction of Jerusalem seems imminent. God gave His people a remarkable deliverance and this Psalm was written as the response. The culmination at verse 6 is God winning the victory for Jerusalem. This is the theme or central portion of the Psalm, not meditating on God.

Verse 10 falls in parallel to verse 2. Looking a little closer at these two verses helps us even more with the context. verses 2 and 10 state, respectively,

2 Therefore, we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea.

10 Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. 

Examining these two verses side-by-side we quickly see how they relate to one another. Jerusalem is in danger! But the God of Jacob is our refuge, and because He is we won’t be afraid. Be silent and watch God work. He will overthrow our enemies and His Name will be exalted over all the earth.

The second part of our interpretation must deal with the type of parallelism found in verse 10. Synthetic parallels state a single point and then develop or expound upon that idea. Verse 10 is synthetic and the parallel can be seen below.

The parallels are marked with the letters ‘a’ and ‘b.’ Since synthetics expound the meaning of the original statement we must then ask what it means to be still and know the He is God. The two following lines explain the meaning. It is God’s exaltation upon the earth, plain and simple.

The Application of the Text

This might seem to be a killjoy for some because they have clung to this verse during the chaotic times of their lives. While we cannot claim a meditative peace for Psalm 46:10 we can certainly know that God watches over His people and that His deliverance of them will bring greatness to His Name throughout the entire earth.

How To Properly Claim Scriptural Promises

In times of grief, temptation, trial, or any other life-altering event God’s Word can be a firm foundation and a comfort for Christians. The myriad of Biblical characters who have banked on God’s promises to them are plentiful and examples of how we too can call upon God in our time of need. Unfortunately, many Christians claim these promises without realizing that the promises they are clinging to is not actually a promise that is relevant for the situation. In other words, just as Scripture can be taken out of context and misused, so too, can certain promises remain null when taken out of its proper setting.

Philippians 4:13 is a prime example of faulty claim-promising: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Most Christians use this as their default promise when they find themselves in tight situation. But this verse was not written in a vacuum. It has a context and should not be claimed outside of its context. Claiming promises on faulty premises in reckless in the least and dangerous at the most. While God holds His word on the same level of His Name He does not honor promises that were not meant to be promises. Many people have no doubt shipwrecked their own faith claiming promises that they should not have tried to claim, usually as a result of a careless reading of the text, but most times because of blatant false teaching. In this post I hope to share some steps in correctly claiming a promise of God that is relevant to the current situation and that does not violate the hermeneutical process. We will use Philippians 4:13 as our example verse.

Step 1. Context

All Scriptural promises have a context and just as we interpret a passage according to its context, so too, must we apply a promise to its context. Our example verse has a context. When we read that we can do all things through Christ we must first understand that ‘all’ has its own context. There are four aspects of context that need to be examined: immediate context, the verses surrounding the passage, the book context, and the theme of the book. Examining the entire context of Philippians 4:13 we learn a few things.

  1. The immediate context of all things consist mainly of the state of contentment that Paul is in. He explains that he has been in every possible situation–hunger, fullness, poverty, abounding. His declaration of being able to thrive through them is his usage of ‘all things.’
  2. Paul’s plight and his learning to be content has come as a result of being a witness of the gospel. Verses 14 and following make this abundantly clear (remember, the context includes all the verses surrounding the passage). All of Paul’s situations were during his ministry and this is precisely how he applies the ‘all things.’
  3. Zooming out a little further we notice that the book of Philippians belongs to a group of epistles (church letters) categorized as the Prison Epistles. This means that when Paul wrote this he was in prison, probably much like the one pictured below or under house arrest. This is important as it can affect interpretation. When we apply the principle in the text we must take this into consideration.
  4. Finally, we must consider the reason for the epistle. By using his own circumstances and hardships Paul’s reason for writing seems to be a demonstration of a life lived worthy of the Gospel Calling, The theme of a book should always be kept at the front of the mind when reading. It can help shed light on a lot of cultural nuances.

Step 2. Piecing It Together

Now that we have the immediate context, the surrounding context, and the book context, we can begin to narrow things down,

For this phase it is best to start at the outer context of the spiral and work inward. This is a prison epistle and we must ask if there are situations in which a Christian not in prison for their faith can apply this verse. Since Paul is addressing ordinary Christians in the church, and not to pastors or other leaders he must of had in mind for his audience to put it into practice the things he was speaking to them about. The only influential people he mentions is Euodia and Syntyche, apparently two prominent women within the church that were having a dispute. He exhorts them to reconcile for the sake of the gospel.

We look then at next level on the spiral. It is ministry situational. That is, Paul’s context of ‘all things’ is placed within the context of his own ministry. Can this apply to those not in ministry? Again, considering the overall context and the theme of the book we must wait until the last step before we deem its applicability. But we also note that Paul’s comments are to the church at Philippi. Not everyone was a minister of the church. Most were common workers or slaves. All of this will come into play on the final step of application. But again, the running theme is living a life worthy of the gospel and forsaking worldly recognition as Paul states in 2:10, 3:12-14, 20-21.

We are now at the last part of the spiral. Contentment in all things is the immediate context and this is applied to an individual Christian in particular circumstances. We will look at different ways of application in our last step.

Step 3. Applying the Scripture

Applying the passage personally begins with yet another reading of the context. The natural flow of thought seems to begin at verse 8. I will start at verse 10 because the conjunction ‘but’ (Greek, δέ) provides a transition between the two thoughts.

Philippians 4:10–19 (NKJV)

As we apply Scripture we want to begin to take note of key themes and words which help us to remember the context of the passage. I’ve marked some of them in my own style. The two biggest things we see are the Philippians’ care for Paul during his ministry, and more importantly we see the context and content of ‘all things.’ As Paul recalls ministry hardships he praises the Philippians for sending him aid time and time again. He concludes this section by declaring that God will also supply the Philippians’ needs just as they cared for his. This last verse is also a verse that is taken out of context many times. Despite popular belief, it is not a claim-all promise for God to pay your rent or your credit card bill. This promise is grounded in the context of the gospel ministry and therefore must be applied as such.

Since we are dealing with two separate promises we will have to apply both of them. Starting with the first we remember,

  • ‘All things’ has its own context
  • the context is contentment in all situations
  • the situations include having much, having little, being healthy, being sick
  • Paul’s determination to continue comes from Christ’s own strength, not his

I see two different applications for this verse One for those in a pastoral ministry related occupation and one for those who are in their everyday trades and jobs.

Application 1 (v.13)

As a pastor/teacher you face many challenges day-to-day. More than likely, you are bi-vocational, as many pastors are today. You have the concern to provide for you own family but at the same time you know God has called you to under shepherd a local congregation. The added burden of taking on other people’s problems is taking its toll. You struggle financially because it’s a small congregation. Bills are late, debtors are calling, and inter-congregational fighting has you pulling your hair out. But God has not left you desolate. There are people in the congregation always encouraging you to move forward. Even though you believe you’re at the end of your strength you claim Philippians 4:13, as it is Christ’s strength, not your own, that will allow you to navigate any circumstance in ministry that may face you.

Application 2 (v. 13)

Our daily work should always be considered as ministry because of the command for us to live a life worthy of the gospel. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves and this includes doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, not to please man but to please God. You know most of your coworkers are lost. You begin sharing the gospel with one of them when your supervisor pulls you aside. He warns you that there’s no room at this job for “playing.’ You respectfully address him, explaining that your work quota is met and that you were on your break when you talked to your coworker. He shakes his head and gives you a final warning. The next day at break he overhears you talking again. He decides to give you a “crap” job in order to keep you away from your coworkers. The job is hard and laborious. Over time it begins to take a toll on your body and health. You really want to quit and get out from under the supervisor’s thumb. You’re praying at work one day and Philippians 4:13 comes to mind. You become convinced that this is where the Lord has placed you, and by His strength you will continue to share the gospel with anyone who will listen.

Application (v. 19)

The application here is ministry specific. Most of us have claimed this promise as a means for God to help us in a financial situation. Though it can be applied that way, the promise is rooted in the ministry of giving. Paul recounts in verse 15 at the beginning of his ministry the Philippians were the only church to supply him with his needs. In fact, it wasn’t just his initial need but they sent him gifts over and over. In verse 18 he prays that God will cause them to abound in fruit as their giving is a sweet aroma to God. The language is reminiscent of the Old Testament sacrifices, which when offered in the prescribed way, God saw as pleasing in His sight and in His nostrils as something sweet and precious. It would be proper for us to apply as we are loving our neighbors, pastors, and other Christians by selflessly giving as they have need. In turn, God has promised to supply your need according to His own riches,

Conclusion

Applying Scripture correctly is just as important as interpreting correctly. When we approach the application step in a cavalier manner without considering how it would have applied to the original audience we may find disappointment when that promise is not fulfilled. Always take the time to consider the full context before applying Scripture. If you are practicing regular hermeneutics with the Observation, Interpretation, Application process this step will be a little less tedious, as you will already have the necessary background and context information.

May God bless you richly as you study His word.