Twenty years ago Judith and I were living three short blocks south of the Twin Towers in Downtown Manhattan. We had awakened that Tuesday morning to clear blue skies and the sparkling waters of New York Harbor. But it was not to last.
We felt the shock when the first tower was hit from the north. We heard the scream of the second jet flying low overhead and what sounded like a sonic boom when the south tower was hit. We experienced the shaking of our apartment building, similar to that of an earthquake, and the midnight darkness when the first tower collapsed. We saw the dust, the ash and the paper on the streets and felt the eerie silence when we were later able to leave our building. Lower Manhattan was like a moonscape. A great evil occurred that day.
Twenty years on it is easy to put aside the hideous acts that cut short the lives of people going about their daily affairs. It is easy to forget that commercial airliners were used as missiles to crash into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. A further flight intended for more destruction was thwarted by the selfless heroic efforts of passengers. People on that flight prayed the Lord’s Prayer as the plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Over three thousand men and women died that day.
In his address to the nation that evening, George W. Bush, then President, called for prayers for all who had lost loved ones. He continued: And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”
In the Wall Street Bible talks I was giving at the time, I spoke on Psalm 46 which begins: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
Creation in turmoil. It can never be said that the Bible knows nothing about catastrophic events – and not least human evil and its devastating effects on this world. Indeed, the Psalm introduces a theme we overlook today – namely, the ultimate dissolution of the present world order by its Creator. God continues his work even in the midst of the chaos. God’s supremacy and presence with his people is never thwarted. He alone is our security and our strength.
The larger biblical epic records the intrusion of evil into God’s good creation (Genesis 3). God didn’t create evil but, because he didn’t make us robots, he allowed it. However, as the biblical narrative unfolds, we become aware of the reality and the depth of wickedness.
As a side note, if we insist we’re here by chance and are nothing but atoms in an ordered cohesion bumping around in time and space, evil and suffering have no meaning for there is no transcendental moral compass.
The opening lines of Psalm 46 speak of the unchanging God who is our refuge and strength. In him alone we find a secure shelter and the power within to address any situation. Indeed, verses 2 and 3 exhort us not to fear, even if the world around us is undone, for God remains supreme over every facet of his creation – the earth, the mountains, and the seas.
Humanity in turmoil. Psalm 46 moves from the upheaval of the material world to human turmoil. There is a river, whose streams make glad the city of God….God is the midst of the city; it will not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
Derek Kidner comments that ‘the city of God is one of the great themes of the Old Testament … God’s choice of Zion, or Jerusalem, had been as striking as his choice of David, and the wonder of if keeps breaking through’ (Kidner, Psalms, Vol.1, p.175). We also find glimpses anticipating the New Testament vision of the heavenly Jerusalem as the community of God’s people rather than as a place (Ps.48:2).
Verse 6 speaks of the instability of evil and human tumult: The nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter… However, God has the last word for when he utters his voice, the earth melts. Verse 7 is so reassuring: The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
The Lord of hosts points to the mighty armies of heaven to which Jesus alluded when he was arrested (Matthew 26:53). Refuge, a different to word to verse 1, speaks of an ‘inaccessible height’ which the New English Bible translates as our high stronghold.
Be still! Verses 8 and 9 are an invitation to catch the vision of God’s ultimate intention – to make wars to cease to the end of the earth. It is a picture of the perfect peace that will follow on the other side of God’s judgement – the accounting that precedes the perfect righteousness of the new heaven and the new earth (2 Peter 3:12f).
The command “Be still” is not so much a word of comfort to the beleaguered but a command to all the nations. Jesus’ word to the turbulent winds and waters, “Peace. Be still” display the power of God’s Word. Mind-bending though the idea is, at God’s command the nations will be called to order, confronted by God’s glorious power: “Know that I am God! I will be exalted among the nations … and in the earth” (46:10).
In the closing words, the confidence in God in verse 1 returns with greater power: The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge – our high stronghold! The death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ confirm the truth and trustworthiness of these words.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 twenty years ago, churches were filled as many looked for comfort and hope. Some came to the risen Lord Jesus Christ for the first time. As we reflect on these events twenty years on, will you join with me in praying for the nations, especially that God might open blind eyes and unstop deaf ears, turning hard hearts towards their true home in Christ?
Let me encourage you to join us via the net to discover how you can turn the pages of John’s Gospel with your friends through Word121 (www.word121.com):
- Friday morning, October 22 for ministers and ministry staff;
- Saturday morning, October 23 for lay-leaders and church members.
Details to come this week.
Prayer. We commend to your fatherly care, merciful God, all those who in this passing world are in any kind of trouble, sorrow, sickness, anxiety or need, especially we pray for… Give them patience and confidence in your goodness, and in your mercy provide their every need. Father, hear our prayer, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We praise your name for all your servants in whose life and death Christ has been honored. Grant that, encouraged by the good examples of their lives, we may run the race that is set before us, and with them share the fullness of joy at your right hand; through Christ who is the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Amen.