One of the most profitable things a preacher can do in studying God’s Word is to engage in word studies of key words in a passage of Scripture. And I am talking about word studies not based on English words but on the Hebrew and Greek words. We can often gain surprising insights from such studies.
The first task, of course, is to isolate which Hebrew or Greek word to study, especially if your language skills are a bit rusty. You can find out the lexical form of a biblical word by using any of the high-end Bible study software packages that are available or by using an exhaustive concordance (Goodrick-Kohlenberger, Strong’s, or Young’s). Once you have located that word, there are a number of excellent theological dictionaries or word study books to gain insights (Zondervan, Eerdmans, and Moody Press each have multivolume theological dictionaries suitable for word studies).
A number of years ago I decided to do a word study on the imperative verb in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” I have lost count of the incidental references I have encountered in books or even entire devotions that have used this text to encourage the reader to withdraw from the hubbub of life and have a personal quiet time with God. Maybe go on a retreat or spend a few days in silence in a monastery. Take a long walk into nature and find a quiet place to reflect on God. Recharge your spiritual batteries.
Now, I have no question about the value of such ventures, but this is not what the verb “be still” is all about. The Hebrew verb is rapah (רפה ). This word is used 46 times in the Hebrew Bible. Its basic qal meaning is “to sink, slacken, drop;” in the hiphil form (the form used in Ps. 46:10), it means “to let drop (the hands), cease, abandon, forsake.” Some other occurrences of the hiphil imperative of rapah are translated “Enough!” (1 Sam. 15:16); “Leave her alone” (2 Kings 4:27); and “Withdraw your hand” (1 Chron. 21:15). Any of these phrases give a much better flavor of what is going on in Psalm 46.
Look at the context. Psalm 46::8–9 (also v. 6) speaks of the context of war. In the ancient world, all wars were religious wars. That is, not only were human soldiers fighting, but the gods were fighting as well. And the army that won the battle knew that their god was stronger than the god of the opposing army. Their god had won! (Think of the battle in 1 Samuel 4 or the David and Goliath story in 1 Samuel 17.)
Psalm 46 pictures the nations with their heathen gods pitting themselves against the Israelites, who have Yahweh as their God fighting for them. “Come and see … what desolations he as brought on the earth. He makes wars to cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (46:8–9). In other words, what nonsense! What stupidity for the nations to think that they can defeat the God of Israel! Then God himself enters the fray in verse 10: “Stop it! Know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” If we do want to use a word for “silence” in verse 10 (similar to “be still”), maybe we could translate, “Shut up! Know that I am God. You are wasting your time and energy trying to defeat me.”
Our comfort in midst of life’s struggles, then, comes from knowing the power of our God and the fact that “the LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (v. 11).