Underneath are the everlasting arms

Barney Zwartz on what the Bible has to offer us in times of uncertainty, anxiety and change.

“The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

This promise to the Hebrews given by Moses is for me one of the loveliest verses in the Bible. We live in times of uncertainty, anxiety and change – as most times have been for most people – and this verse is the promise that we need not and do not face them alone.

So often popular pictures of God are trite caricatures that mislead. One is the stern unapproachable judge, recording every misdemeanour, a kill-joy scowling at human happiness.

Just as inaccurate is the modern concept of God as our buddy or best friend, who requires nothing of us and whose purpose is our self-actualisation. This God apparently wants nothing more than to smooth our path, and his motto is “Don’t worry, be happy”!

Another misconception is that the God of the Old Testament is angry and vengeful, whereas the God of the New Testament is all love and acceptance.

Marcion in the second century invented a heresy about there being different Gods in each volume. In fact, there is love aplenty in the Old Testament, and warnings and strictures in the New Testament.

Moses is one of the most important figures in the Old Testament, the man who received God’s commandments and announced his covenant of love with his people, the Bible tells us.

It also says he was a man who saw God’s glory and spoke to him face to face, not in dreams and visions, and was the most humble man on earth. He was familiar with trials, failure, a level of distrust among his people that makes modern political cynicism mild, and also with triumph and exaltation.

He makes the promise above as the Israelites are about to enter the promised land, in Deuteronomy, chapter 33, verse 27.

The “arms underneath” is an image to show that God will hold up, support and tenderly care for those who turn to him.

God as our refuge is a common theme in the Bible, and a comforting one. It is linked to the idea of dwelling place – in God we find our home, our safety and our repose. As the Apostle Paul told the Athenians, “in him we live and move and have our being”.

It is not a promise that no harm will befall us – both experience and theology confirm that it can and does – but it is a promise that we are not bereft in our suffering.

The “arms underneath” is an image to show that God will hold up, support and tenderly care for those who turn to him. I say him, because that is our convention, but the phrase proves again that God is beyond gender – it is one of many maternal images and metaphors in the Bible, alongside the paternal language.

It’s a wonderful vision, to be guaranteed a refuge in any circumstance, and unfailing tenderness.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.