“Refuge” in the Psalms

While reading through the Psalms recently, one word caught my attention: refuge. In the ESV its noun and verb forms occur again and again—more than 40 times in all, as in “take refuge in him,” “the LORD is his refuge,” “he is the saving refuge of his anointed,” “be a rock of refuge for me,” etc. (If you use another translation, the verb form might be rendered “put trust in” or “find protection in,” and the noun could also be translated “protection” or “stronghold.”) Since it seemed like an important word, I looked up its Hebrew root (hasah) in a lexicon. What I found reminded me that in the Bible individual words are important. In this case God loaded a single word with life-changing value.

“Refuge” calls our attention first of all to sin and the wreckage it causes. When the Old Testament speaks of refuge, it is always in the context of a threat, something wrong or dangerous in the world. Sometimes the threat is physical, as in seeking refuge from a rain storm (Job 24:8; Isaiah 4:6), shade from hot sun (Judges 9:15), or protection from adversaries (Psalm 61:3). In other instances, the threat is spiritual or emotional, as in a refuge from shame (Psalm 31:1; 71:1) or loneliness (Psalm 142:4). But in all these cases, the Bible’s use of “refuge” reminds us that we live in a world wrecked by sin—a world of dangers around us and brokenness inside us. We cannot avoid these realities, only seek shelter from them.

Yet the word “refuge” also calls our attention to God’s power to save us from sin and its consequences. Many times, it references His ability to protect us from the dangers just described. He provides shelter in a storm, vindication in the face of shame, and friendship in times of loneliness. Even more significantly, the Lord is our refuge in the Day of Judgment. Though He will bring a day of reckoning for sin, He grants His people forgiveness and gives them refuge from His wrath (Nahum 1:7; Deuteronomy 32:37). Indeed, the greatest need of all men and women is shelter from the horrible consequences of sin, and this word in Scripture reminds us that God offers such shelter.

Not everyone receives this shelter though. The Hebrew verb “to seek refuge” implies placing one’s trust in the source of shelter in order to receive its benefits. Job 24:8 speaks of people clinging to rocks in a rain storm to find refuge, and in Psalm 104:18 badgers find protection from danger by seeking refuge under rocks. Most of the time, however, the trusting implied by this word is spiritual in nature, especially in the Psalms. Those who seek protection from ruin and judgment by trusting idols are foolish (Deuteronomy 32:37). Those who seek shelter from the consequences of their sin by lying about it will be destroyed (Isaiah 28:15-17). Those who depend on their riches for deliverance from sin’s curse likewise will be ruined (Psalm 52:7). Only those who seek refuge from judgment by trusting God and following Him will be sheltered from eternal ruin. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

The Old Testament’s use of “refuge” is, in a sense, an old covenant rendering of John 3:16, calling to mind the fact that clinging to Jesus as our Lord and Savior is the only way to find shelter from God’s judgment—“. . . whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Of course, every instance of “refuge” doesn’t imply all of this meaning. Sometimes badgers are simply seeking protection under a rock. The specific meaning is determined by context. Still, the depth of meaning in this one Hebrew word reminds us that every single word in Scripture is inspired by God, powerful to change our lives, and worthy of careful study. Just try paying attention to “refuge” next time you read through the Psalms.

1 thought on ““Refuge” in the Psalms”

  1. It is interesting, as well, to consider the word “refuge” in the light of Christ’s (God’s) status as shelterless and as”refugee” upon entering history in the Incarnation. God; both refuge, and refugee.
    I wrote (with Malcolm Guite) a song that teases out a bit of what that might mean:
    lyric by Malcolm Guite and Steve Bell / music by Steve Bell
    We think of him as safe beneath the steeple
    Or cosy in a crib beside the font
    But he is with a million displaced people
    On the long road of weariness and want
    For even as we sing our final carol
    The hounded child is up and on that road
    Fleeing from the wrath of someone else’s quarrel
    Glancing behind and shouldering their load
    While Herod rages still from his dark tower
    Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled
    The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power
    And death squads spread their curse across the world
    How terrible, how just and how ironic
    That every Herod dies and comes alone
    Defenseless as the naked embryonic
    To stand before the Lamb upon the throne
    I can’t resist the burning urge for turning
    This song into a cautionary tale
    The Savior whom this song has been discerning
    Once occupied, the belly of a whale
    To reach as deep as love could ever fathom
    To rescue from the tentacles of hell
    The wretched, the beleaguered and forgotten
    Surprisingly, their enemies as well

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