By Liz Kanoy
We live in a culture of beautiful verse graphics and products with single verses printed or sewn on, and there is nothing wrong with this—but if we never look at the full passage that a verse is part of we can lose the original context in our interpretation and application.
“Be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10, is a popular verse for comforting ourselves and others—many people tend to think this verse means to rest or relax in who God is. This verse does encourage believers to reflect on who God is, but there is more to this psalm than one verse—and verse 10 is actually more of a wake-up call to be in awe than a gentle call to rest. Taking time out of our day to meditate on Scripture and be silent with listening ears toward God is mentioned in other sections of Scripture (Psalm 119:15, Joshua 1:8, Luke 5:16, and others). But this command—“Be still…”—is written in the context of a time of trouble and war; therefore, we should consider the verse with that context in mind.
Instead of interpreting “be still” as a gentle suggestion, the meaning in this psalm lends itself more to: “cease striving” or “stop” and more specifically in this context “stop fighting,” which is directed toward the enemies of the people of God. The people of God should interpret the command for themselves to read more like: ‘snap out of it,’ ‘wake up,’ ‘stop fearing’—acknowledge who your God is—be in awe! However, it is good to note that there’s nothing wrong with the words in the translation “be still;” those words are not incorrect, it is simply helpful to note the context of the phrase. Verse 10 has something to say to both the enemies of God and the people of God, but it is the people of God the psalm is written to. Verse 1 starts, “God is our refuge and strength” (emphasis added). The Psalms are for God’s people.
“To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
The Biblical Background of Psalm 46
The first thing we learn is that this psalm is a song for the choirmaster or director of music, of the sons of Korah according to Alamoth. What does this mean—who are these people and what are these terms? Well-known pastor and author, Charles H. Spurgeon wrote a commentary, a seven-volume “magnum opus,” over a twenty-year span in the London Metropolitan Tabernacle’s periodical called The Sword and the Trowel. Once the seventh volume was completed in 1885, the commentary has been known as The Treasury of David, which you can access in full on BibleStudyTools.com. Concerning the heading of Psalm 46, Spurgeon explained:
“To the Chief Musician. He who could sing other Psalms so well was fitly entrusted with this noble ode. Trifles may be left to commoner songsters, but the most skilful musician in Israel must be charged with the due performance of this song, with the most harmonious voices and choicest music. For the Sons of Korah. One alone cannot fulfil the praise, there must be picked choristers under him, whose joyful privilege it shall be to celebrate the service of song in the house of the Lord. As to why the sons of Korah were selected, see our remarks at the head of Psalm 42. It may be well to add that they were a division of the Levites who took their turn in serving at the temple. All the works of holy service ought not to be monopolised by one order of talent, each company of believers should in due course enjoy the privilege. None ought to be without a share in the service of God.
A Song upon Alamoth. Which may denote that the music was to be pitched high for the treble or soprano voices of the Hebrew virgins. … Or the word Alamoth may refer to shrill sounding instruments, as in 1 Chronicles 15:20 , where we read that Zechariah, and Eliab, and Benaiah were to praise the Lord ‘with psalteries on Alamoth.’ We are not always, in a slovenly manner, to fall into one key, but with intelligence are to modulate our praises and make them fittingly expressive of the occasion and the joy it creates in our souls. These old musical terms cannot be interpreted with certainty, but they are still useful because they show that care and skill should be used in our sacred music.”
A Summary of Psalm 46:
Psalm 46 is a song for Zion, God’s holy city where his people dwell with him—the city is holy because God dwells in it. This psalm is all about security with God that God is our true home. It’s mostly written in third-person, but at verse 10 there’s a change and God speaks directly. Throughout the 11 verses, we also read several descriptions about God—his characteristics and attributes: he is our refuge, he is strong, present, and a great help to those who are weak. God is higher than all else and able to rule above all. At his voice the earth melts.
We read this is the God of Jacob, he is with believers, and he is exalted among the nations and in the earth. He is a fortress and protects the weak that belong to him. The psalmist is probably living through some sort of turmoil or war as he mentions the phrases: trouble, the nations rage, the kingdoms totter, war, the spear, bow, and chariots—though the psalm is also pointing forward to a future time when wars will cease. It is clear by the end of the psalm that waring against God is always in vain, and the people of God who are protected by their Mighty Fortress have nothing to fear.
Zondervan’s Handbook to the Bible 5th ed., edited by David and Pat Alexander, notes:
“This psalm [Psalm 46] – the one on which Luther based a famous hymn [A Mighty Fortress is Our God] – may have been written following King Sennacherib of Assyria’s attack on Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 32), some natural disaster, or in anticipation of the events heralding the Messiah’s coming. Verses 4-5 have a parallel in Revelation 22:1-5, where the ideal is perfectly realized. The psalmist glories in God’s presence with his people (1, 4-5, 7, 11), and his real and unassailable protection.”
A big takeaway from Psalm 46 is that the people of God are always secure no matter what environment they may be living in on earth—turmoil, war, destruction, etc.—God has secured the souls of believers through his Son Jesus Christ.
7 Bible Translations of Psalm 46:10
English Standard Version
“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
New American Standard Bible
“Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
King James Version
“Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.”
New King James Version
“Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
Christian Standard Version
“Stop [your fighting]-and know that I am God, exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth.”
New International Version
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
New Living Translation
“Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honored by every nation. I will be honored throughout the world.”
The key commands we read in these various translations are “be still,” “cease striving,” and “stop.” The next command “know” is the same in all the above translations, which lends itself in this context to mean “acknowledge” and “be in awe.” God will make sure his name is glorified among the nations and in all the earth.
Digging Deeper into This Verse – What Do the Commentaries Say?
Some commentaries differ on whether to interpret verse 10 as God speaking directly to the enemies of the people of God, God speaking to his people, or God speaking to both his enemies and the people of God in different ways. Let’s take a look at a few.
The ESV Study Bible comments:
“Since the address in v. 10, be still, and know, is plural, readers should imagine God speaking these words to the nations, among whom he will eventually be exalted. This is the meaning of the LORD of hosts being with his people (v. 11; cf. Matt. 28:20): he will indeed see to it that the mission of Gen. 12:1–3 is accomplished.”
There is certainly a shift from third-person to first-person, and the ESV points out the grammar of the phrase “be still, and know.” They interpret the phrase as being spoken to the nations.
Zondervan’s Expositor’s Bible Commentary explains verse 10,
“The psalmist goes on to encourage the godly to ‘know’ that the Lord is God. Though it was tempting to ally themselves with foreign powers, to rely on military strength, or to give themselves over to idolatry and pagan ways, the godly must learn to persevere to the end. The exhortation ‘be still’ calls on them to stop doing one thing in favor of something else.What their temptation was may be implied from v. 2: ‘Therefore we will not fear.’ Throughout the history of Israel and Judah, severe national distress brought the temptation to abandon true religion for the ephemeral security of political alliances, military strength, and worldly paganism. Instead of choosing a negative option, the people of God distinguish themselves by the pursuit of godliness: ‘Know that I am God.’ The knowledge of God includes factual knowledge about him, his past acts, and his promises. But in this context, the psalmist calls on them to commit themselves to the Lord and to seek his ‘refuge,’ ‘strength,’ and ‘fortress’ (vv. 1, 7, 11). The life of faith is lived continually in commitment to God’s sovereignty, rule, and ultimate exaltation over all the nations (cf. Hab 2:13–14).” (Bold emphasis added).
Knowing God in this context means acknowledging and committing to the fact that God is the only refuge worth running toward—the only refuge that will stand strong through every circumstance.
Commentators from the Past:
John Calvin, French theologian during the Protestant Reformation, wrote:
“V.10 Be still, and know that I am God. The Psalmist seems now to turn his discourse to the enemies of the people of God, who indulge their lust of mischief and revenge upon them: for in doing injury to the saints they do not consider that they are making war against God. Imagining that they have only to do with men, they presumptuously assail them, and therefore the prophet here represses their insolence; and that his address may have the more weight, he introduces God himself as speaking to them. In the first place, he bids them be still, that they may know that he is God; for we see that when men are carried away without consideration, they go beyond all bounds and measure. Accordingly, the prophet justly requires the enemies of the Church to be still and hold their peace, so that when their anger is appeased they may perceive that they are fighting against God.
…In short, the Psalmist exhorts the world to subdue and restrain their turbulent affections, and to yield to the God of Israel the glory which he deserves; and he warns them, that if they proceed to act like madmen, his power is not enclosed within the narrow limits of Judea, and that it will be no difficult matter for him to stretch forth his arm afar to the Gentiles and heathen nations, that he may glorify himself in every land. In conclusion, he repeats what he had already said, that God has more than enough, both of weapons and of strength, to preserve and defend his Church which he has adopted.” (Bold emphasis added).
Calvin is pointing out the shift in the psalmist’s voice toward the enemies of the people of God, but that it is also a directive to the whole world. God will bring glory to his name by any means and any people he chooses.
In The Treasury of David commentary, Charles Spurgeon noted verse 10 as:
“Be still, and know that I am God. Hold off your hands, ye enemies! Sit down and wait in patience, ye believers! Acknowledge that Jehovah is God, ye who feel the terrors of his wrath! Adore him, and him only, ye who partake in the protection of his grace. Since none can worthily proclaim his nature, let ‘expressive silence muse his praise.’ The boasts of the ungodly and the timorous forebodings of the saints should certainly be hushed by a sight of what the Lord has done in past ages. I will be exalted among the heathen. They forget God, they worship idols, but Jehovah will yet be honoured by them.”
The enemies of the people of God and the people of God will see God exalted in all the earth. The people of God should not fear because their God is with them and he will triumph over the world.
Ligonier Ministries has a great article about Martin Luther and his work with the Psalms; in trying times during his life, Luther often sung Psalm 46 and even wrote a hymn (A Mighty Fortress is Our God) about it:
“With unshakable confidence in God, Luther reflected upon and drew
strength from this choice psalm:
We sing this psalm to the praise of God, because He is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends His church and His word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh, and sin.” (Bold emphasis added)
That is the most remarkable takeaway from Psalm 46 in my opinion—that God is the defender of his own name, his people, and his Word. He alone is our protector, the sovereign ruler, and the everlasting refuge. His actions are not hindered by our fear and worrying or our distracted minds. God is God alone and he will protect those who believe in his name and trust in him.
- Ligon Duncan, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church and professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Mississippi, wisely summarizes:
“And this is a picture of the aftermath of God’s judgment against His enemies, His war against His enemies. ‘He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth,’ not through negotiation, not through the Department of State, but through obliterating everyone who stands in His ways. God speaks to the opposition. Look at verse 10: ‘Cease striving and know that I am God.’ This is not like God’s word for Moses to the children of Israel at the Red Sea, ‘You stand still and watch what God is going to do to you.’ This is God speaking to His enemies, ‘Silence! I will reign.’ This is God’s announcement of His rule and judgment against them. ‘Knock it off!’ He says. ‘I will reign on earth.’
And the city of God doesn’t make this happen. The people of God don’t make this happen. We’re simply called to trust and to be faithful. God does this. This informs our whole approach to the Christian life. You see, the world thinks that God’s word is so weak. How can God’s word overthrow the world? You just watch it. ‘Be silenced! I will reign.’ God, by His word, accomplishes His victory. All we’re called to do is trust in that word and be faithful in walking in its way. And we stand still, and we, as His people, behold Him bring about the salvation that He has promised. May God enable us in the midst of our own troubles to trust in Him, even as the Psalmist did.” (Bold emphasis added)
How amazing is this reminder! That God’s voice has power over all. God used his voice to create the universe, the earth, and everything in it including us. He uses his voice to accomplish his glory and protect his people victoriously. He will put an end to all wars at the end of the age by using his voice. This is something to be still and stand in awe of.
Stephen J. Cole, Senior Pastor of Flagstaff Christian Fellowship and contributor to Bible.org, reminds us that the application of the verse is for us (the believers):
“Bow to His ways (46:10). He is God. The command to cease striving is God speaking to the nations who are fighting against His people and His purpose. ‘You won’t win, so quit while you can!’ But we can also apply it to ourselves. When trouble hits, don’t strive against God. Know that He is the sovereign God, even over your crisis. As God, He will be exalted and glorified in the earth. He wants you to exalt Him by submitting joyfully to Him through your trouble. The chief end of man is not to live a happy, trouble‑free life. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We glorify Him when we defer to Him as our ruler in times of trouble.” (Bold emphasis added)
Bart Gingerich, Managing Editor of the Evangelical Channel at Patheos.com and Pastor at St. Jude’s Reformed Episcopal Church, concludes this about verse 10 [Be still and know that I am God]:
“In a sense, it’s a declaration to both. It is news about Who God is—what He does and His character. That’s a warning to the wicked/His enemies, but, looking at the wider context of the Psalm, it’s a comfort and good news to His beleaguered people. The important thing to remember is that God’s judgment is good news.”
How often do we think about judgment as good news? Judgment means there will be an end to all the wars and fighting; one day God will end this cursed world with the sound of his voice and the new heaven and earth will begin.
Steve Moulson, Associate Pastor at All Saints Reformed Presbyterian Church, relays:
“The New American Standard translates ‘Be still’ as ‘cease striving.’ I think the focus of the message in this case is the people of God, since the Psalm begins ‘God is our refuge and strength…’ The goal is to point the Israelites to a knowledge that even though the nations may be powerful, that God is more so. Even the rage of nations only causes kingdoms to totter, but when God speaks the whole earth just melts! The Israelites are not ultimately responsible for their own protection, God is.”
What is the Meaning Then of Psalm 46:10?
John Casteel, Senior Pastor of The Bridge in South Carolina and former pastor of mine, points out that “be still” is the same thing that Jesus says to the wind and the waves in Mark 4:39. The wind and the sea completely died down in silence, in awe and worship of the Creator. Casteel continues,
“There is a silence and stillness that should overtake us in the presence of someone that is so overwhelmingly holy and glorious. The call to all is to be still before our holy, awesome, and glorious God.”
In summarizing Casteel, as more knowledge and worship flow out of the city Zion—that is God’s message shared with the world—the more people will come to know him and understand his ultimate security and enjoy his presence. God’s goal in being with his people is so they can accomplish his purpose, to spread knowledge of him so more and more people can come to know him.
The people of God must stop what they are doing and acknowledge that God alone is the sovereign ruler of the universe and commit to following him. He will one day stop all wars and he will be exalted among the nations (the Gentiles and Jewish believers as one family, the Church) and all the earth. There will be no question of who God is and what he is doing.
At God’s voice the earth melts, the enemies cease fighting, and the people of God remember who their God is. God commands stillness and silence, but why is this important for the people of God? The people of God were prone to fear; they needed to remember who their God is. We don’t need to fear the end of our life—even in the midst of battle—because we’re going to that city; we’re going to Zion one day. We will dwell with God and there will be no more wars, no pain, and no end (See Rev. 21). We don’t need to fear what the world can do; we need to remember who our God is and we need to share that knowledge with others.
So, there’s nothing wrong with the translation “Be still” in Psalm 46:10 vs. “Stop fighting” or “Cease striving,” and there’s certainly nothing wrong with believers taking time to be still and quiet before the Lord in prayer. That’s something Christians should do every day, and we have Jesus as our example for that in Luke 5. But is the quiet, meditative interpretation of “be still” the best interpretation for Psalm 46:10 based on the context of the psalm as a whole? Maybe not, as it may take away from the intensity of the psalm—the way that God can command the earth and everything in it to be still before him and it is. But here’s what we need to remember about the application of this verse and the different views.
John Casteel, Senior Pastor of The Bridge, clarifies:
“My view is that, in some ways, it doesn’t really matter. All are called to stand in awe of God and, even if God is speaking to the nations, the Psalms are written to his people, for their encouragement. So even if God is speaking to the nations, it is for the benefit of Israel.”
Regardless of whether we interpret the “be still,” “cease striving,” or “stop” phrase of Psalm 46:10 to be God’s words toward the enemies of the people of God, his people, or both groups, there is great comfort in this psalm that extends past one verse. We should find immense comfort in the fact that our God is an impenetrable refuge, that he will bring glory to his name among the nations and all the earth, and that he will protect his people and bring them to everlasting peace. But God does call us to stop fearing, to be still and commit to him. In order to feel secure, we have to know that we have an impenetrable home with God. Casteel reminds us,
“In order to find security in God, we have to stop finding security in everything else. …Nothing in this world will offer you the security you have in God.”
May stand-alone verses that we see on graphics or read in posts, like Psalm 46:10 always inspire us to read more of God’s Word. When we see the same verses in the future we will remember the deeper context of the passage and be thankful for who God is in our lives and the incredible things he is doing. And we get to be a part of it! Our amazing God, who is so far above us, allows us and encourages us to carry out his purpose with him. If we take away nothing else from this psalm, let us remember the call to spread God’s Word so that others may find the same security we have.
“…My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?” ― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
God will make sure his glory is known. His Word reminds us who he is and calls us to worship in awe. Be still and remember who God is, be still and stop fearing, be still and see what God is doing, be still and acknowledge his greatness, be still and know God is with you…now spread the knowledge of who he is!
A Prayer after Reading Psalm 46
How majestic is your name in all the earth! You are our mighty fortress, our refuge in times of strife, and our protector no matter what circumstance we find ourselves in. Thank you that you do not leave us in the hands of our enemies; thank you that one day all fighting will stop and all wars will cease at the sound of your voice. That on that glorious day Lord your people will be with you, knowing that you are their God forever and ever. Holy Spirit please give us hope until that day, challenge us to live as your people, and grant us grace and forgiveness for our mistakes and wrongdoings. In your worthy name Jesus, by which all this is possible, amen.