From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalm 46 is a song that reflects the great strength that flows to God’s people from their faith in the strength of God. The song celebrates God’s deliverance of his people and particularly his defense of Jerusalem, “the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High,” (v. 4). In this psalm, the theme of Book Two is developed quite fully. God displays kingship and strength in his Earthly kingdom and citadel. The central verse of this psalm stresses the powerful presence of God in Jerusalem: “The Lord of hosts is with us,” (v. 7a).
A particular historical incident may well have inspired this psalm. The most likely candidate is the Lord’s deliverance of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib, king of Assyria. The commander of the Assyrian army had attacked Jerusalem and insisted on the surrender of the city. He spoke to the defenders of the city:
And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand? (2 Kings 18:32b-35)
On hearing of these taunts, Hezekiah prayed to the Lord, pleading with the Lord to vindicate his name:
O Lord, the God of Israel, who is enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the Earth; you have made Heaven and Earth. Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood, and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. So now, O Lord, our God, save us please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the Earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone. (19:15-19)
In response to this prayer, the Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to reassure Hezekiah with these words addressed to Sennacherib:
Because you have raged against me and your complacency has come into my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake, and for the sake of my servant David. (19:28, 34)
And that very night the Lord sent his angel as the angel of death to destroy much of the Assyrian army, forcing the army to withdraw and leading to the assassination of Sennacherib by his sons, (19:35-37). By the dawn of the next morning, Jerusalem was safe.
The Lord saved Jerusalem and vindicated his purpose and his strength. Psalm 46 celebrates the Lord’s salvation in terms that apply well to the days of Hezekiah but that also apply to many occasions in the lives of the people of God. The vital message is that in times of great change and apparent disaster, God is the shelter for his people from their enemies and he is the strength for them to live for him.
God is a shelter from his people’s enemies and those enemies have a variety of forms. Forces of nature can be our enemy and this psalm reflects that we should 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,” (vv. 2-3). The worst of earthquakes or storms cannot finally touch the people of God. Neither can human foes. “Nations rage, the kingdoms totter,” (v. 6). He causes them: “Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the Earth,” (v. 8). But God is also the author of peace in the course of human history: “He makes wars cease to the end of the Earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots of fire,” (v. 9). He is in control of nature and history; we as his people need always to remember that.
In order to remember and believe, we must quiet our mouths and minds. We must think carefully about our God and who he is. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the Earth!” (v.10). When we have really come to know him, then we will not fear. Fear, too, can be a most serious enemy, immobilizing us in our service to God: “Therefore we will not fear,” (v. 2).
God is not only our defense, however. He is also our strength for living. He makes Jerusalem secure, peaceful, and strong. He makes her a place of joyful abundant life. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” (v. 4). In the arid climate of the Near East, water is one of the most obvious necessities and so becomes a symbol of life and of joyous prosperity. This river is not the angry, dangerous sea that may destroy, (v. 3), but a gentle, controlled waterway that ensures life. The prophet Isaiah also connects the well-being of Jerusalem with water. He wrote, “Behold Zion, the city of our appointed feasts! Your eyes will see Jerusalem, an untroubled habitation. But there the Lord in majesty will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams,” (Isaiah 33:20-21a). Later, he wrote, “And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail,” (Isaiah 58:11). God is the water of life for his people.
We have seen how God is both the refuge and the life of his people. He is both because “God is in the midst of her,” (v. 5). This promise of the presence of God with his people is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. He is Immanuel, God with us. Jesus is the water of life for us, as he promised: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water,’” (John 7:37-38).
When we know the strong God of Psalm 46, we can confess, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress,” (v. 11). “The Lord of hosts” (literally, the Lord of armies) refers to the power of God for his people. “The God of Jacob” refers to the covenant mercy of God even for his sinful people. Because God is powerful and merciful, we can have confidence that God is indeed “a very present help in trouble,” (v. 1). He is never far away and is always helping his own.
This psalm inspired the great Christian hymn of Martin Luther titled, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Luther saw his hymn as a paraphrase of Psalm 46 that made explicitly Christian what was already implicit in the psalm. He saw a deeper spiritual reality represented in the psalm: the contest between the demonic and Christ. Behind all the enemies listed in Psalm 46 stood “our ancient foe”: “For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on Earth is not his equal.” That ancient foe, Satan, is supported by his cohorts: “this word, with devils filled.” But the psalm’s call not to fear rings clearly in the hymn: “We will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure, one little Word shall fell him.” That Word gives us confidence: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.” Luther saw rightly that this psalm was Christ’s psalm and its promises were Christ’s promises for his people.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What historical incident likely inspired Psalm 46?
- How does this psalm celebrate the Lord’s salvation in terms that apply to the days of Hezekiah as well as to the lives of God’s people today?
- In what ways is God not only for our defense but also our strength for living? In what ways does Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” draw from Psalm 46? What promises in this psalm are comforting to you personally?