This psalm is about how to be free from anxiety, even when facing ultimate worse case scenarios. There are all sorts of things we cling to for security in this life: national security, money, our jobs, homes, families, friends, our health, even our churches. If our security is built on these things we’ll fear their loss. We’ll become anxious they’ll be taken from us. We’ll worry about unstable political situations, financial losses, unemployment, homelessness, illness, helplessness, loneliness, etc.
The psalmist invites us to consider not only loosing these temporal props without worrying, but even facing disaster on an unprecedented scale. The language used is partly symbolic of social and political upheaval, but it’s also prophetic for the ‘end of the world’ ultimately described for us in Revelation: ‘there was a great earthquake, such as has not happened since there were men on the earth, so great an earthquake, and so mighty… Every island fled away, and the mountains were not found’(Revelation 16:18-20).
So what’s the secret of fearlessness when facing not only life’s little disasters but even the end of the world! The psalmist surrounds such trials by two great statements of faith, ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ and ‘There is a river, the streams of which make the city of God glad, the holy place of the tents of the Most High. God is in her midst.’
The first thing to note is that he acknowledges we will face trouble. It’s a common misconception that God promises the believer a trouble free life. Then when the inevitable strikes such ill-informed faith falters.
What He promises is not freedom from troubles but to be a ‘very present help in trouble’. God will be very close to us in our troubles, providing ‘refuge’ and ‘strength’. What better way to allay our fears than to realise that no-matter what befalls us, God is with us in the midst of it, protecting and supporting us by His power. Anxious children generally find reassurance from their father’s presence; how much more should we feel reassured and encouraged by our heavenly Father’s presence. Realise that God, no less, won’t let anything happen to us that’s outside His sovereign control and plan (which includes, of course, character building trials!).
But there’s a greater refuge yet: ‘There is a river, the streams of which make the city of God glad, the holy place of the tents of the Most High. God is in her midst’. The original author, and singers of this Psalm, would have had in mind their Jerusalem. But this psalm is also prophetic. It’s about our eternal refuge – the New Jerusalem.
Joel picks up this theme in his prophesy of the final judgement, ‘“the heavens and the earth will shake; but Yahweh will be a refuge to His people… you will know that I am Yahweh, your God, dwelling in Zion, my holy mountain. Then Jerusalem will be holy… and a fountain will flow out from Yahweh’s house, and will water the valley”’(Joel 3:16-18). Ezekiel uses similar imagery in his vision of the New Jerusalem, ‘waters flowed out from under the threshold of the house eastward… on the bank of the river were very many trees on the one side and on the other’(Ezekiel 47:1&7). But this prophetic thread finds its fullest expression in John’s Revelation, ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth… I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem… I heard a loud voice out of heaven saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with people, and He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God”… He showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On this side of the river and on that was the tree of life’(Revelation 21:1-3&22:1-2).
During life’s perilous journey we should lift our hearts and minds off from temporal anxieties, dwelling instead on our secure and certain refuge, looking to ‘a Kingdom that can’t be shaken’(Hebrews 12:28). No matter what, remember, ‘God is our refuge… There is a river…’