As the fires of the 16thcentury Reformation ebbed and flowed in those first years, Martin Luther often faced hardship, danger, distress, and persecution of all kinds. In his more honest moments he would confess that he feared the cause would die out. On one occasion his confidence broke through his fears in a tide of hope and he said to his friend Philip Melancthon, “If we perish, Christ must fall too, for He is in the midst of us, and if it must be so, be it so. I had rather perish with Christ…than prosper with Caesar. Come Philip, let us sing the 46th, and let our enemies do their worst!”Of course what he meant by ‘singing the 46th’ was singing the hymn he had written based on Psalm 46 called A Mighty Fortress is Our God. This hymn was so deeply loved it became then and is still widely held today to be the anthem of the Reformation.
And a brief look at Psalm 46 will tell you why Luther’s song is so moving. In this Psalm many threats are presented to God’s people that would dash their hopes and raise their fears. Yet, in the midst of these seemingly cataclysmic events we see that God isn’t moved. And this God who isn’t moved is the Lord of Hosts, therefore He is a mighty refuge for His people, stronger than any threat of nature and stronger than any threat the nations may bring. In Him then, whatever the world may bring, His people are ever secure.
So after seeing the wisdom of Psalm 1, the lament of Psalm 13, and the confidence of Psalm 23, we come to a grand song of triumph in Psalm 46. Psalms of triumph lie somewhere between Psalms of confidence and Psalms of thanksgiving. They’re surely very confident and they’re truly filled with thankfulness to God. But these Psalms in general tend to mainly display God’s power for His people in the midst of threat and danger. And from seeing God’s power for His people, these Psalms boast and exult in Him.
In Psalm 46 particularly we see three movements, each ending with the call to pause and/or meditate, Selah.
The Threat of Natural Chaos (v1-3)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah”
The first word of Psalm 46 sets the tone and presents the main subject to us, “God.” God, the LORD, Yahweh, He is our refuge and strength. Others may trust in armies, chariots, horses, wealth, castles, their own strength, their own wisdom, or their own abilities. Not so with God’s people. They trust in God. He alone is their help in trouble. And because their trust is in Him, and because He is who He is, they will not fear. How beautiful is this ‘therefore?’ The poetry of the sons of Korah is not without reason and order, it is as logical as a mathematic equation.Yet it’s still poetic and not just a cold formula. So God’s people conclude, “A fortress firm and steadfast rock, is God in time of danger. A shield and sword in every shock, from foe well-known or stranger.”Notice this isn’t individual language here? From the very outset Psalm 46 has the community in view. This means this Psalm was used for public worship gatherings in Israel throughout their history. But it also encompasses the whole community of faith because the threat in view in v2-3 encompasses the entire created order.The language used here takes us back to Genesis 1. There we saw God speak into darkness and create light, speak into disorder and bring order, and speak into chaos and bring calm. Yet here after God has so ordered creation these threats of natural disaster seem to lead the people to believe the world is going through the process of uncreation, or that it’s returning to a chaotic state of disorder once again. The earth giving way, the mountains falling down into the sea, and the waters roaring and foaming in wrath or swelling pride causing the remaining mountains still standing to tremble in fear. This is nothing less than a description of utter catastrophe, such that we might be tempted to conclude that even God can’t handle such a violent upheaval. But, we return to v1 and remember God. Though the Alps and the Andes fall into the sea, though a fierce hurricane smashes into Florida, our God is greater. Therefore our fears flee and our feeble hearts are made firm.
See that in the midst of these natural threats we come to our first Selah at the end of v3.This word is used often throughout the Psalms and it indicates a pause either to give the original singers a breath, or a pause to allow the hearers a moment to meditate on these things, or perhaps both of these at once! Learn, the placement of this pause teaches that the children of God are in no hurry even while the earth itself seems to be undone. Ours is a calm courage in the face of fury. Ours is a deep rest in the midst of disarray. Why? Because we’re so strong? Because we’re so mighty? Because we’re so confident in our own selves? No. Only because God is God, and if He is for us, nothing can come against us! Or as Jeremiah 32:27 says, “The Lord is the God of all flesh, nothing is too hard for Him.”
We now shift to the next movement of the Psalm. We’ve seen the threat of natural chaos in v1-3, now in v4-7 we see the threat of national chaos.
The Threat of National Chaos (v4-7)
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; He utters His voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah”
As v3 gives way to v4 there’s an increasing tide of distress as the people encounter a new enemy. The people of this city had been attacked by a chaotic nature, but now they face the attacks of chaotic nations. The waters roared in v3, now the nations rage against them in v6. The mountains shook in v2, now the kingdoms of the earth shake in v6. Even so, as they wouldn’t fear in v2 because of God their refuge in v1, so too they won’t be moved in v5 because God is with them to help them in v5, and though the threats of their enemies can shake the earth, when God speaks against them they will melt away in fear in v6.Notice the power of God as v4 begins. The waters that were once surging against creation are now serving the gladness of God’s people. The stormy waters of chaos bringing ruin and disaster are now making glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. How did these waters change? Why is this city glad? Both of these questions are answered with one answer: God is in her midst! And because God is in her midst she won’t be moved! So when night gives way to the morning dawn all the inhabitants of this city will then see it was God holding them firm in the darkness of the night.
All of this imagery might be distant for us today but for Israel this image was immediately compelling. Because in this time a city’s fear in times of war was that their water supply would be cut off. If an enemy wanted to bring a city to ruin, all they needed to do was find the main supply, cut it off, and wait a short time until the city was lost. But here see a city. Not just any city, but the very city of God filled with the people of God under siege from chaos yet remaining safe and secure and stable because of the endless flow of a divine stream. Lesson? In seasons of threat and trial God will always provide for His people, causing them to endure to the end through the ever flowing stream of His strong grace.Or as the notes in the Gospel Transformation Study Bible say, like a secret aqueduct to a besieged city, God’s grace ensures that God’s people will not only survive any threat, but thrive in joy before any threat.So yes we not only have a God stronger than the threats of creation, we have a God stronger than the threats of the nations.
And as we saw the pattern in v1-3 of a God’s power displayed followed by an encouragement to pause and meditate in the first Selah of the Psalm, we see the same pattern here as well in v4-7. After the display of God’s power in v4-7 we find the second encouragement to pause and meditate in the Selah at the end of v7. This time though the Selah comes after something new. “The LORD of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah” The Psalmist desires us to see the big idea of the text once again. The reason the people of God stand safe and secure in the midst of chaos isn’t because we’re strong, mighty, or confident in ourselves. No, the reason couldn’t be plainer, The LORD of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress.” This phrase LORD of hosts means God is the General and Commander of heavens armies, an army so vast and so strong that the strongest army of this world looks as small as a drop of water before the ocean. That God is called the “God of Jacob who is our fortress” reminds us of the moment God wrestled Jacob down and turned him into humbled Israel. Which implies that God not only will wrestle down our enemies but that He’ll also wrestle us down to teach who is strong and who is not. That these Selah’s come where they do prompts us to learn and linger over this lesson at the end of v3, the end of v7, and at the end of v11. Why so many reminders to stop and pause and learn this afresh? Because we’re so prone to forget it.
This reminds me my experience of elementary school dodgeball. I remember it well, lining up against the back wall of the gym preparing to launch out and grab a ball or two at center court before my enemies could do the same. But in our grade there were two boys, twins actually, who nobody could beat. I’m not sure what they were fed at home but they were bigger and stronger and taller than everyone else in the whole school. They actually both went on after high school to play football in college and one of them made it to the NFL, but back to dodgeball. If they were on the same team and you weren’t on their team it really didn’t matter how hard you tried to win. They could throw their dodgeball and not only knock your ball out of your hand, they could also throw so hard they could knock you over. For some reason they were rarely put on different teams so when we all lined up everyone made sure to notice whose team they were on. If they were on yours you rejoiced in knowing a quick victory was about to happen. But if they weren’t, you’d despair knowing a quick defeat was soon to come.
In a much greater manner, God’s presence is described here to be with His people. He dwells with them, and that He dwells in the midst of His people leads to two conclusions. On one hand it brought a flood of gladness and security and praise for those within this city. On the other hand, it brought all the hopes of their enemies in defeating and capturing this city to nothing. Their battle cries might shake the hearts of many, but when the Lord raises His voice, nothing in all creation, whether nature or nations can stand before Him. Why? Because the Lord’s presence with His people causes His people to dwell securely.
Now we come to the third and final movement of the Psalm. We’ve seen the threat of natural chaos in v1-3, we’ve seen the threat of national chaos in v4-7. Now see in v8-11, the end of chaos.
The End of Chaos (v8-11)
“Come, behold the works of the LORD, how He has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; He burns the chariots with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah”
v8 is nothing less than an invitation to God’s people to come and see God’s might and power over all things. Specifically, this v8 an invitation for God’s people to come see how decisively God has defeated their enemies. In this culture kings who defeated their enemies and won great victories against other nations would display their might and power by making a large heap or pile of all the fallen warriors and all their weapons and armor and set it on fire to indicate their own complete victory over them. This custom remained for many years, even up to the Roman Empire where the Emperor Vespasian had a coin made with an image of peaceful leader setting fire to a pile of their enemies.See then what God is up to in v8-9. God has destroyed those who attempted to destroy His people, and has made desolate those who attempted to make His people desolate.All their enemies, and all their weapons: the bows, the spears, and the chariots, God piles up and burns to show His complete victory. The image is that God is not only the refuge and strength of His people, but that He is those things for His people because He is the King who protects and defends His people. Psalm 2 mentions this reality. The enemies come, make their threats, and might even make the people tremble and shake in fear. What is God doing? God sits in the heavens and laughs at His enemies who mock Him and His power, as if their threats really could overcome His defenses and defeat His people.
For this reason we have v10 in Psalm 46, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” As fierce as the threat may be, as chaotic as it may become, from anything in nature or from any nation around them, God’s people are to be still, know that God is God, and trust that however dark the situation looks, however severe the threat may be…what? God will be exalted in them and in all the earth! Or to say it another way: the certainty of knowing that God will, however bleak it looks, be glorified in and over all things, is what brings the restless heart of man to rest. Notice here in context, the reason we’re to ‘be still’ isn’t because we just need to calm down or back off. The reason we’re to ‘be still’ is because we know that at end of all things, when all the dust clears, and the battle is over, God will be glorified! No wonder then why we find the repetition of v11 after the reality of v10. In such triumph and stillness we once again pause and meditate on a truth too often forgotten, a precious privilege which cannot be too often considered.“The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah”
So Church, how do we bring this Psalm home to us today? Having already seen the Psalm in its meaning to the original audience, we now must see the fullest and richest meaning the text allows us to bring forth.Twice this Psalm calls us to pause and consider one grand reality. In v7 and v11 we read, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” As encouraging as the Lord’s very presence was to His people of old, how much more encouraging is it to us who have seen and welcomed by faith Immanuel, God with us, the Lord Jesus Christ. His presence with us His Church is the ultimate fulfillment of Psalm 46. It is Christ, who calms the chaos of all threats that come to us His people. As His disciples were terrified, with just a word He calmed the stormy sea. As He was being arrested in the garden, with just a word He knocked down 200 Roman soldiers. And then He, the very Word of God, took our place, bore our curse, and allowed Himself to descend into chaos in His death on the cross. But He didn’t stay dead, He rose (!) and decisively defeated the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Now we today, are attacked on all sides by the spiritual powers of darkness in this present world. And as our enemies come and make their threats, we often tremble and shake and fear. What is the ruling and reigning Christ doing as His bride is attacked? He sits in the heavens and laughs at the demons who mock our redemption, as though the besetting sins we struggle so hard with could really lessen His commitment to see our salvation through.
In Christ we have a mighty fortress and for this reason we must “Be still…” As fierce as the threat may be, as chaotic as it may become, we’re to be still, knowing that Christ is God, and trust that however dark the situation looks, however severe the threat may be…what? That Christ will be exalted in us and in all the earth! Or to say it another way: the certainty of knowing that Christ will, however bleak it looks, be glorified in and over all things, is what brings our restless hearts to rest. In such triumph and stillness we ought to pause and meditate on a truth too often forgotten, a precious privilege which cannot be too often considered.
“Christ is with us; Christ is our fortress. Selah”
So Church, as Luther said to Melancthon many years ago, I say to you today, “Come, let us sing the 46th, and let our enemies do their worst! The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, His Kingdom is forever!”
Martin Luther, quoted in Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David – vol. 1 (Mclean, Virginia: MacDonald Publishing) page 346.
Spurgeon, page 340.
Ibid., page 340.
Roger E. Van Harn & Brent A. Strawn, Psalms for Worship: A Lectionary Commentary(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009) page 158.
Spurgeon, page 340. This paragraph about the placement of Selah here at the end of v3 is stunning to meditate on.
Van Harn & Strawn, page 159.
William S. Plumer, Psalms (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, reprint 2016) page 526.
Gospel Transformation Study Bible, notes on Psalm 46, page 696.
Plumer, page 525.
Spurgeon, page 342.
Reggie Kidd, With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in Our Worship (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2005) page 45-46.
Spurgeon, page 343.
Plumer, page 524.
Kidd, page 45-46.
Spurgeon, page 343.