Three Hebrew Handholds in a Spinning Crisis
Long ago, the people of Israel began to sing words of encouragement to each other in times of distress. In their songs, the psalms, are three Hebrew words that provide stability for us. They are more than just words—each one encapsulates the way of God with his people. They serve as helpful handholds in times of stress and upheaval. The words are these: רָפָה (be still), קָוָה (wait), and שָׁמַר (watch).
Like many of you, my family feels like we’re on a very un-fun carnival ride right now—the kind that makes you lose your lunch. My wife and several members of our family have been laid off work. We fear for the health of our elderly parents. Our children’s lives have also been thrown into confusion by school closures and more job losses.
Our little worlds are spinning right now. And we’re all grasping for a handhold.
What I find myself returning to, again and again, are small things. There is wisdom here. No manhandling the world. No wrestling with the cosmos. The bigger and more looming the crisis, the more we need something sure and stable and small. Something ancient and profound. Something that anchors us to what cannot change.
Long ago, the people of Israel began to sing words of encouragement to each other. In their songs, the psalms, are three small Hebrew words that provide stability for us. They are more than just words—each one encapsulates the way of God with his people. They serve as helpful handholds in times of stress and upheaval. The words are these: רָפָה (be still), קָוָה (wait), and שָׁמַר (watch).
רָפָה Be Still
Things are falling apart in Psalm 46. Nations are raging. Kingdoms tottering. The earth gives way. The mountains fall into the heart of the sea. If there were ever a time to explode with action and tackle this spinning world, it would be now. Hurry up and do something!
God, however, has other plans. He says, “Rapha, and know that I am God.” The verb, rapha, means to let something grow slack or hang down (like your hands). Thus, in this verse, it’s translated “Be still” (ESV), “cease striving” (NASB), or “desist” (JPS).
Colloquially, we might say, “Relax.”
“Yes,” God is saying, “I know that your lives are in a tailspin. All around you, turmoil threatens. But I am your refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. I am with you. I am your fortress. This current crisis is not my first rodeo. I’ve been handling these for my people from the beginning of time. So, relax. Rapha. And know this: I am God—and not just God, but your God."
There are two kinds of waiting: interminable waiting and terminable waiting. Interminable waiting has no clear terminus—no clear end or goal. It’s like a couple who want to conceive children, but so far have not. They’re waiting for that to happen. Maybe it will, or maybe it won’t. Their waiting is uncertain. Terminable waiting, on the other hand, is waiting in hope for the terminus, the end or goal, to arrive. This is like the same couple, who have conceived a child, waiting for that child to be born. They know it will happen.
In Psalm 27, God’s people express a terminable waiting, “Qavah for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; qavah for the LORD!” To qavah is to wait in hope. Now this is no easy task, given the circumstances. David says evildoers are like cannibals, trying to “eat up my flesh,” (v. 2). Armies encamp against Israel. False witnesses accuse him. Even his parents have forsaken him. But, David says, “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!” (v. 13). Therefore, he qavahs, he waits to reach that goal.
As do we. No, we cannot pinpoint a date when, finally, we will go back to work or resume lives of normality. Indeed, we suspect that our future lives might not be quite the same—or even close to the same—as they were before. But we do not qavah on normality; we qavah on the Lord. We await his rescue, his grace, his action on our behalf. For our Lord, the Messiah, is the stronghold of our lives.
Life may be changing rapidly around us, but he remains the same Lord of mercy, yesterday, today, and forever. We qavah for him.
While we rapha (relax) and qavah (wait), what is the Lord doing? He is engaging in the work of being our Shomer—our Guardian, Watcher, Gatekeeper. A Shomer is doing the verb shamar, which means to keep, guard, observe, protect, watch over. In ancient cities, the Shomer was the guardian of a city, stationed upon its walls or at its gates, to ensure no enemy got near. While others slept, he stayed awake.
In Psalm 121, shamar is all over the place, occurring six times in this eight-verse poem. I’ve added the Hebrew to let you see where it occurs: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? 2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. 3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who SHAMARS you will not slumber. 4 Behold, he who SHAMARS Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 5 The LORD is your SHOMER; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. 6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. 7 The LORD will SHAMAR you from all evil; he will SHAMAR your life. 8 The LORD will SHAMAR your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
Our good and gracious God is no heavy-eyed, yawning novice of a Shomer. He who made heaven and earth (v. 2) has been doing this from creation’s dawn. He will not sleep or slumber. When we pray, “Deliver us from evil,” our Shomer replies, “I will shamar you from all evil” (v. 7). By day, by night, 24/7, the Lord who has given his very life for ours, will keep our lives in safety (v. 7).
These three Hebrew words summarize our life now and in the future. Let the world spin as wildly as it might, these handholds will not be shaken or removed. For now, we relax. We wait. And we trust in our Savior, Jesus the Messiah, who is our Guardian, Friend, and King.