"Be still, and know that I am God . . ." (Psalm 46:10). Those promoting contemplative or "listening" prayer refer to this Scripture as a biblical endorsement for pursuing this spiritual discipline. As a precondition for experiencing Soul-to-soul communication from God, contemplative Christians advocate cultivating quietude for the purpose of creating a spiritual tabula rasa (i.e., Latin for blank slate) in which personal communication from God can be received. Influential Christian leaders and spiritual directors encourage listening prayer (praying without words) as a means to experience "God's guidance in everyday life." At face value, Psalm 46 verse 10 appears to endorse this increasingly popular but ancient and mystical way to pray.
A major Christian magazine once devoted a full page advertisement promoting a DVD titled "Be Still." The DVD case bears the inscription of Psalm 46:10 and a promotion which reads, "In Today's Fast-Paced, Hectic Life, Be Still Is an Important Tool that Keeps You in Touch with Yourself, Your Family and God." The magazine's advertisement of the DVD stated:
BE STILL . . . demonstrates how contemplative, or 'listening,' prayer can be be a vital way to find peace in the midst of a frenzied, fast-paced, modern world. BE STILL examines the importance of silence and reflective prayer as a way to receive God's guidance in everyday life. BE STILL . . . features a useful 'how to' section that shows how contemplative prayer can be used to return to a more simple life and reaffirm that which is truly important.
As advocated by some of today's most notable Christian communicators, what should Bible believers think about this DVD advocating contemplative prayer?
Bible Interpretation 101 teaches that every text without a context is pretext. Extracting Psalm 46:10 to be an endorsement of meditative-listening prayer is just such a pretext. Here's why.
First, the injunction to "Be still" must be understood in the milieu it was uttered. The Psalmist addressed a cosmos in crisis. The crisis imperiled the creation (vv. 1-3); threatened the city (vv. 4-7); and besieged the country (vv. 8-11). In the crisis with their world falling apart, the people were afraid (v. 2).
Second, the verb "Be still" (Hebrew, rapah) is used 46 times in the Old Testament with meanings everywhere from describing laziness to ordering relaxation. Though the majority of versions translate the injunction "Be still", other meanings are "Cease striving " (NASB), "Be quiet" (NCV), "Desist" (Young's), or "Calm down" (CEV). In no biblical usage or context does the Hebrew verb enjoin God's people to meditate or contemplate. Rather, believers are to rest and trust in God.
Third, verse 10 contains two co-ordinate imperatives, with the emphasis being on the second command, to "know that I am God," not the first, to "Be still." With the first imperative functioning as an adverb, the verse might read, "Calmly (or quietly) know that I am God . . ." Thus by their focusing upon the initial command, to Be still, contemplative spiritualists ignore the greater command, and that is, to know that I am God.
The command "know" primarily means, "to know by observing and reflecting (thinking) . . ." As such, believers are encouraged to find comfort of soul by reflecting upon the saving works that God has both performed and promised. The meditation the psalm envisions is therefore objective, not subjective. "Be still" does not call persons to induce within their consciousness a wordless void or incubator in which state a mystical experience or word can be hatched. The cognitive command to "know" cancels that notion. In the light of God's mighty works and providence, the psalm exhorts believers to reverence Him. As the prophet Habakkuk wrote, " . . . the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him" (Habakkuk 2:20).
Fourth, the command to "Be still" (v. 10) is specifically addressed to the survivors of a war torn nation, people that on all sides continued to feel threatened. To those scared to death by what was going on all around them (v. 2), the sovereign Lord encourages them to stop their trembling. As one commentator observed, "In this explosive context, 'be still' is not an invitation to tranquil meditation but a command to allow God to be God, to do his work of abolishing the weapons of war."
And finally, in the third section the Psalmist looks forward to a new order when God will impose his peace plan upon the world (See Isaiah 2:4.). As He will have ended conflicts and destroyed the weapons of war (vv. 8-9), the Lord affirms that in the coming kingdom age he "will be exalted among the nations" (v. 10). In view of this prospect, the sovereign Lord encourages his covenant people to, "Be still, and know that I am God . . .." In the end, the sovereign God will defeat war and end terrorism.
There resides a potential danger in mystical practices. It is this: In their journey into the "higher consciousness," contemplator/meditators may forget that God is the object and they are the subjects. As the theologian Warfield noted almost a century ago, "The history of mysticism only too clearly shows that he who begins by seeking God within himself may end by confusing himself with God." Thus by fixating upon the secondary imperative "Be still," contemplators may like eastern mystics and New Age devotees, forget they are not God!
A friend of mine, devoted to the pursuit and practice of alternative spirituality for some of his adult life, related how one New Age class adapted this verse for use. At each session's beginning, participants were told to relax and say to themselves, "Be still and know (pause) . . . I am God." Thus by using the psalmist's words to affirm their own divinity, New Age practitioners turned God's word outside in and upside down!
To those who misuse Psalm 46:10 to endorse contemplative spirituality I say, "Nice try!" In no sense does "Be still" call believers to meditate. One study Bible states, "This is not a call for 'silent' worship." Rather, in light of the prospect that the sovereign God will one day institute and enforce his peace plan in the world, the psalm calls believers to serenity of heart and to "know" when that peace comes, then God "will be exalted among the nations." (Source: Guarding His Flock Ministries; used with permission.)