Friday, January 10, 2020
Be still and know, the Lord is on thy side!
Sometimes life can be a real battlefield, and I need encouraging words like these. They’re the hymn paraphrase of Psalm 46, which hundreds of years ago inspired a little-known, devout German woman. We know the hymn by its tune from Sibelius’ second symphony celebrating his homeland, Finland, which was written 150 years later.
I play violin, and in high school and college was privileged to be in chamber or symphony orchestras. Of all the symphonies in my musical experience, this one by Sibelius is my favorite. I appreciate the agitation and rolling power of its early sections, which suggested Finland’s battle against Russian oppression. But then comes this mellow, hymn-like movement. First performed around 1900, it soon proved a good musical match for the English translation of a poem written probably 150 years earlier, about 1752, by a devout German woman named Katharina van Schlegel (1697-?after 1768).
Little is known about her other than she lived during times of the German pietist movement, which arose to restore spiritual vigor as century-old Reformation fires waned. It paralleled the Wesleyan revival across the channel in England. Apparently, she never married but lived in a facility for single Lutheran women in Cothen, the same city where Bach wrote his Brandenburg concertos. She is believed to have written about 20 hymn poems, and this is the only to survive in widespread use. It was translated into English a century after it was penned, appearing first in a British hymnal in 1927 and an American Presbyterian one in 1933.
Psalm 46 is an old friend. When the late Billy Graham was asked to address the nation after the 9-11 tragedies, he used that for his Biblical text. How appropriate: “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. The LORD Almighty is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalm 46:7). I was privileged to speak at a women’s retreat not long after 9-11, and chose to teach from that passage. I’d have to dig in my files to recall what I shared, but I know I tried to emphasize the command “Be still!” (v. 10). Literally, “cease striving.”
We all have our personal battles. I’ve had my share of praying over people and situations that left me bruised and bewildered. When I come to a time of prayer and have no words, just sighing, for what seems a hopeless situation, I am reminded: “Be still, my soul! The Lord is on thy side!” And as the hymn ends:
Be still, my soul! When change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.