“Be still and know that I am God.” – Psalm 46:10a
Be still here is the Hebrew term raphah. It has several meanings which we will explore in three installments. I have tried to group twelve different nuances of raphah into subsets of four related meanings.
Raphah: Respite, Relax, Wait, Be Still
The central thrust of the verse above is toward the idea of resting. While it may pertain to both physical and mental activity, perhaps of greater importance is the release of anguish. We often think that a person who is grieving the loss of a loved one should “get some rest,” by which we mean, “go to sleep.” We know that deep rest rejuvenates the body. How often we set aside a problem until the morning and while the problem has not disappeared or diminished, when we are fresh and re-energized, we are more able to deal with it without the same levels of frustration or fear.
We are told of times when Jesus, feeling pressed by the crowds and the depth of their needs, slipped away, into the desert, across the water, or into a garden, to pray. He took a break to be rejuvenated by the Holy Spirit, and strengthened by an angel of God (Luke 22:43).
Western culture, and increasingly global culture, seems always to be speeding up but consistently we hear the sentiment of Psalm 46:10 reflected in Scripture but perhaps most importantly in Matthew 11:28-30:
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.”
When I reflect on my surrounding culture here in North Atlanta, which is one of the busiest commercial centers in the U.S., I am reminded of Thomas Gray’s description, in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, of the busy-ness of modern society, even in 1751, as the madding crowd’s ignoble strife. The frenzy of life easily makes us anxious, harried, and tired but Jesus says “Come away, rest.” It is as if He in himself is a place of escape from the insanity of the striving world, even in its midst.
When we can “get away from it all,” whether to a sunny summer hillside, or an overstuffed chair in a quiet corner, or a favorite secluded chapel, it is there that we can be still, and in our stillness wait to hear the voice of God, not in the rending of the earth, the roaring wind, or raging fire, but coming in the quiet moment, as it did for Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-12).
We often recognize the intense tiredness that comes after a long day of solving work problems or interacting with others in troubled relationships. Our bodies respond to the weariness of our minds. Getting away to clear our heads, especially in prayer or reflecting on ministering passages of the Bible, or perhaps to listen to favorite worship songs, re-sets our agendas, restores weakening faith, encourages the heart and gives us the opportunity to begin again, re-focused on Christ and the importance of pressing “on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” – Philippians 3:14.
In stillness, forcing ourselves to set aside all the intrusions and worries that life throws our way, we can commune with God, knowing that “those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength” – Isaiah 40:31.
Raphah – Abandon, Cease, Let Go, Fall Limp
The second grouping of meanings we impute to raphah leans toward reaching an end, especially of our own strength to accomplish something, or moving beyond performance expectations. Perhaps it is best summed up when Jesus says, “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it” – Matthew 16:25.
When Adam and Eve fell from grace it was essentially due to the sin of self-determination. But self-determination, which is a product of pride, has a deeper cause. They chose to disobey God because they questioned whether what God had told them about eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was true. In essence, they removed the authority from God to decide what was best for them, taking upon themselves the mantel of moral authority. But that action was merely symptomatic of their loss of faith in the integrity of God. They distrusted Him. They stopped believing God.
Ever since the Fall and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, humankind, in one way or another, has striven to “re-gain” the lost intimacy with God, or pursued a variety of panaceas to replace His presence, whether through wealth, power, alcohol, drugs, sex, or fame. All those, without a relationship with God, end in the desperation of trying to fill the void left by His absence from our lives. Often those pursuits will bring us to a crash, recognizing enough is never enough, whether it is in the diminishing psychological returns of increasing wealth or the dissatisfaction and emptiness wrought from deeper and deeper addictive behaviors.
Unfortunately, we sometimes also strive after religion, which is nothing more than trying to achieve righteousness by our own actions, as one of those panaceas. We get in our heads that if we can be good enough, to discipline ourselves to perform the right way every day, we will be good enough to go to heaven, good enough to earn God’s love that saves us.
Even if we have turned from overtly sinful behaviors, we often put on religion as a new addiction and find we are drawn toward legalism, following the checklist of God’s commands to justify ourselves. God proved by giving Israel the Ten Commandments that they were a fallen people. We seldom think about the fact that He gave Adam only one law . . . and Adam broke it!
Because we cannot atone for our own sin, that is, to make right the wrongs we have committed against God, our striving after holiness outside of the finished work of Christ on the Cross will fall short. But until we come to the realization that we cannot save ourselves, we strive on and become increasingly anxious wondering if we are yet good enough to please God.
In a word, raphah in Psalm 46:10 speaks to abandoning any notion of our own righteousness or our ability to attain in. Be still tells us to release our agendas or false notions of our own holiness. Here raphah also encourages us to release the anxiety that comes from falling short of the glory of God . . . and we all fall short (Romans 3:23). It is not until we fall limp in our inability, in our weakness, to become holy, that God can manifest and we begin to understand how the power of Christ is “perfected in our weakness” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.
You see, it is not until we come to our own end, recognizing our utter lack of righteousness and ability to save ourselves, that we come to the recognition of our need of a Savior, one other than us who is able to atone for sin, one already holy and willing to sacrifice self completely, in the very character of God, for the sake of the one fallen. Only Christ can take that position in our lives and only as we collapse under the crush of our indebtedness to God and abandon our self-justifying ego. In that moment of our coming to terms with our brokenness, His strength comes into the middle of our relationship to God and is made perfect for our restoration into the Kingdom of God.
Raphah – Become Discouraged, Lose Courage, Fail, Become Helpless
By now, I hope that you are beginning to see the richness of the word raphah, and why I consider the first phrase of Psalm 46:10 as pivotal in our relationship to God. But the meaning is deeper still as we take this last look.
It may seem odd that we can “know that God is God” when we are discouraged, or back away from following Christ, seeing only the pressing and demoralizing circumstances of life or the depth of our weaknesses when we fail, stumbling in sin. Can we “know that God is God” when we become helpless?
In Western thought, we are driven by a sense of self-worth based in our ability to perform. Individualism and our standards of success compel us toward independently striving for success, pulling ourselves up “by the bootstraps,” so to speak, to be recognized by our peers and families as worthy of acclaim and respect. Our economic system is geared toward working harder and smarter to carve out our place in the world. As the saying goes, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone” (from Solitude by Ella Wheeler Cox).
When we fail or find ourselves discouraged, we also often find ourselves alone. It is easy to think that we are the only one suffering in such ways, that others in the church are surely more holy than we, or the folk down the street do not have the same depth of financial, career, or marriage struggles we face every day. Isolation deepens the darkness of our despair.
But we are not alone. Foremost, God is with us. When Isaiah prophesied of the coming Messiah, he said that the One would be called Immanuel, meaning God with us (Isaiah 7:14). A major component of the incarnational (in the flesh) presence of God in Jesus Christ was God condescending to share human experience with us. He faced the trials, tribulations, and temptations we all face. Life is hard and God knows it . . . firsthand.
So, when we are discouraged, or failing God, or recognize our helplessness to be holy, how is it we can “know that God is God?” Though Christ ascended back to heaven after the Resurrection, He did not leave us without resources, especially resources for the moments of our deepest spiritual needs. First and foremost is the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit within us. It is by the presence of the Holy Spirit that God helps and teaches us (John 14:26). The literal translation of helper (parakletos) is comforter. When we think of the gentleness of God, it is in the moments that the Holy Spirit invites us to look to God for our salvation and help rather than to self in the midst of our daily madness that we can perceive the comforting voice of God’s presence, calling to us, inviting our return, so “Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need” – Hebrews 4:16.
God has also given us the Bible. There have been many verses that have been soothing to me over the years of my walk with God. One of my favorites in the times when I am mostly acutely aware of my sinfulness is 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” When I read this verse, I am encouraged to be honest with God and myself about my weakness and my stumbling. There are a lot of promises in the Bible that encourage, such as Philippians 1:6: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” It reminds me to not try taking on God’s transformational work in my life and encourages me to reflect on times past when God has demonstrated His faithfulness in my life, and to think about His ability to save me when and where I am unable.
Finally, there is the church which is instructed to “come alongside each other daily for encouragement” (Hebrews 3:13). There have been countless times that I have feared the vulnerability of revealing my true self to others for fear of being rejected. We are created to live in community and fear being put out of fellowship with others. But inevitably, if I confide in those I trust in Christ, I find encouragement, sometimes exhortation, prayer, restoration, and forgiveness, all by the power of God’s grace, present in His church.
When we are hard pressed by the world or our own weakness, we should be still before God and know Him as our loving, Heavenly Father.