Our Mighty Fortress (Psalm 46)

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Imagine that your nation is in social, political, and religious turmoil. Multitudes around you are dropping dead daily from an epidemic. In fact, your home has become a hospital for the sick, and a place in which you watch your own friends die. Your one-year-old son has come close to death just as your wife is pregnant with your second child. To top it off, you yourself are suffering from heart problems and intestinal complications that cause debilitating pain throughout your body.[1]

What do you do?

Well, if your name is Martin Luther, you read Psalm 46, contemplate the perfections of God, and compose one of the greatest hymns in the history of the church: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."[2]

Speaking from one of his lowest points in life, Luther said, “I spent more than a week in death and hell. My entire body was in pain, and I still tremble. Completely abandoned by Christ, I labored under the vacillations and storms of desperation and blasphemy against God.” Of course, these words of despair were spoken during a time of his life that was unimaginably horrific. Thus, while he may have felt abandoned by Christ, the reality was that it was Christ—and Christ alone—who was there the whole time, pulling him through. It only makes sense, then, that the beginning lines of Luther’s hymn reads, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

While Luther’s situation represents the fact that the truths of Psalm 46 transcend all times and situations, the historical basis of the psalm is understood to be the Lord’s victory over the Assyrian army that had encircled Jerusalem during the time of King Hezekiah. Sennacherib, king of Assyria, had dominated nation after nation in the expansion of his empire, as the Lord sovereignly used him and his army for judgment like an ax in the divine lumberjack’s hand (cf. Isa. 10:15). By 701 BC, the Assyrians had finally set their sights on Jerusalem, planning their siege of the city. With nowhere to hide, and no one to help, Hezekiah was finally humbled in the presence of his attackers and sought the Lord’s help through the prophet Isaiah (cf. Isa. 37:14-20). In a miraculous event reminiscent of the destruction of the Egyptian army during the Israelite exodus centuries prior, the Lord struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a single night. He kept His covenant promises to His people while ensuring that His name would not be defamed by the taunts of His enemies (cf. Isa. 37:23).

Thus, Psalm 46 captures the praise of a rescued people who realize that God’s protection has no limit, God’s power has no equal, and God’s preeminence has no end.

God’s Protection Has No Limit (Psalm 46:1-3)

God is our refuge and strength.
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change
And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.
Selah.

The superscription of this Psalm is similar to others, with one unique phrase occurring in no other heading: “set to Alamoth.” A plural of the Hebrew word almah which means “young woman” or “maiden” (cf. Psa. 68:25), this musical notation likely refers to the pitch of the music, that it is intended for a high-pitched voice or instrument.[3] In leading God’s people to praise Him for His mighty work, it was apparently the sopranos who would best leverage this tune. A superscription such as this serves as a warm reminder that the Psalms are not fanciful poems meant for mystical meditation, but tangible testaments to the reality that God has used them, and continues to use them, for leading His people in corporate worship.

The Psalm begins by describing God’s protection amidst the worst life could possibly offer. God is said to be a “refuge,” meaning a strong shelter, unconquerable fortress, or walled city, which is precisely what the Israelites needed at the time they were attacked. God is also said to be “strength,” empowering weak and fallen men with the necessary power to survive. Furthermore, God is described to be a “very present help in trouble.” This phrase, meaning “well-proven,” indicates that God has not acted only once for His people, only to sit back and watch them flounder at whatever life throws at them next, but that His help is very present—tried and true over and over again. Of course, what this also presupposes is that God’s people will continue to have troubles in life. In fact, it was the Apostle Paul who said, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

But, lest we get too far ahead of ourselves, we must remember the fact that, historically speaking, the Assyrian army had been sent by God as a judgment upon the nation of Judah on account of its wickedness. Thus, when the Lord defeated them in a single miraculous work, it was representative of God’s redemptive work. This reminds us that when God is said to be our refuge and strength, we ought not think in terms of our own man-centered prerogatives. God is not a divine butler who strengthens us to accomplish our own prideful ambitions. This passage, like Philippians 4:13, has nothing to do with narcissistic aspirations. In reality, we are all born as enemies of God, deserving of His wrath. Hence, the most urgent refuge we need is not from a dwindling bank account, a floundering career, or a stagnant dating life; the most urgent refuge we need is from the judgment of God. And only God can provide safety from Himself.

With that said, the Psalmist writes “therefore” in verse 2, indicating the cause and effect relationship between God’s attributes and our lives. Because God is such a mighty fortress for believers, “we will not fear.” Often times, we continue to fear situations in life until we think we have a good grasp on the outcome. Our stress is through the roof until we know that things will “turn out okay.” But our confidence and hope in life should be sought in a knowledge of God, not a knowledge of the future. When we become nervous or anxious, we need a healthy dose of theology, not astrology.

To emphasize the magnitude of God’s protection, the next few lines describe a world in absolute chaos. The Psalmist says that even if the entire world would collapse, complete with earthquakes and monsoons, we can remain calm and confident—again, not because of our circumstances (of which these kinds of cataclysmic disasters would be unparalleled), but because of our God. Whereas the earth is normally the greatest source of stability in our lives, serving as the very ground that upholds us, the Psalmists portrays the earth in geological collapse. The Psalmist’s reason for citing the absolute worst possible earthly danger (the destruction of the world itself) is to convey the reality that we can be sheltered from anything in life. Indeed, God is a refuge for both our salvation and our situation. This kind of argument is known as an a fortiori, or “greater-to-lesser” argument, in which a stronger case is cited in order to imply that lesser cases are included. What the Psalmist is saying is this: if God can grant us peace during a worldwide apocalypse, He can surely grant us peace when we face personal illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, an academic setback, the rejection of culture, a family emergency, or anything else in our daily lives. God’s protection has no limit.

God’s Power Has No Equal (Psalm 46:4-7)

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
The holy dwelling places of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations made an uproar, the kingdoms tottered;
He raised His voice, the earth melted.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Selah.

Having described the waters of the earth as “roaring” and “foaming,” depicting the raging uncertainty of a tidal wave, the Psalmist immediately interjects a contrast: “there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psa. 46:4). The “city of God” refers, of course to Jerusalem, and in a desert climate such as that found in the area surrounding Jerusalem, the cool, calm water of a running stream would be a welcome refreshment.

Yet, Jerusalem, as a city on a hill, does not have a river nor stream running through it. To what, then, could this “river” refer? The next line describes it: “the holy dwelling places of the Most High.” The refreshment that is offered to the city’s inhabitants comes on account of God dwelling there with His people: “God is in the midst of her” (verse 5). Whereas Adam forfeited the river running through Eden when He sinned (cf. Gen. 2:10), God will one day restore such a river in the New Jerusalem (cf. Rev. 22:1-2).[4] In the meantime, His presence among His people serves as a metaphorical river that commemorates the fellowship that once was, and anticipates the fellowship that is to come.

The Psalmist then discusses the mighty power of God in providing help “when morning dawns.” This expression indicates that God’s help is daily, just as sure as the sun rises each morning.[5] Hence, it can be said that God’s protection of His people and power over His enemies is unmatched in both degree and duration. Though mountains may “slip” (verse 2), and nations have “tottered” (verse 6), God will not be “moved” (verse 5)—the same Hebrew word is used in all three passages to show this stark contrast in power. Furthermore, if enemies were to attack God’s people at the break of day, when a city might be most vulnerable, God would be ready: “Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psa. 121:4). God holds His post, always ready for battle. In fact, this was put on full display in 701 BC when King Hezekiah and his fellow besieged citizens awoke to find 185,000 Assyrian troops dead outside the city walls (cf. Isa. 37:36). The Assyrian nation had blasphemed God, making an “uproar” just as all nations will do in the Day of the Lord (cf. Joel 3:9-14, Psa. 2:1-3), and yet simply by raising His voice—rather than raising a sword or spear—God can bring about devastation. Such power has never been, nor will ever be, rivaled in the entire universe. God’s power has no equal.

God’s Preeminence Has No End (Psalm 46:8-11)

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
Who has wrought desolations in the earth.
He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariots with fire.
“Cease striving 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 stronghold.
Selah.

Having recounted the supremacy of God over nature and nations, the Psalm ends with a challenge to the hearer: “Come, behold the works of the Lord.” At this point we’re called to think about all that God is capable of: protection amidst worldwide chaos and power over all enemy combatants. In light of that reality, the Psalm further challenges us by saying, “Cease striving and know that I am God.” Some versions of Scripture, such as the King James Version, render this phrase as “Be still, and know that I am God,” which has unfortunately led many to think of this as a call to monastic inaction, or a hyper-introspective devotional life. For example, it’s not uncommon to see a photo of this phrase plastered against the backdrop of a starry sky and sold in a calendar or daily planner. But that is not really what is being described here. After all, the verses immediately prior to this speak of shattered weapons and inflamed chariots—hardly the kind of setting that fits in with the “rocking chair” theology of sentimental paper products! As expositor Steve Lawson explains, “This is not a contemplative call for reflection but a redemptive call to surrender and know God personally and intimately before his swift judgment is unleashed (Hab. 2:20; Zeph. 1:7; Zech. 2:13).”[6]

In other words, in light of who God is, the wise course of action for the unbeliever is to repent. If horses and chariots are futile against God, certainly all fist-shaking from offended unbelievers is futile as well. On the other hand, in light of who God is, the wise course of action for the believer is to rest. No matter what ails you in life, you can rest assured that the Lord will safely bring you either through it, or out of it. Knowing death was imminent, the Apostle Paul said, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:18).

Of course, the reason for all of this is the manifestation of God’s glory. Speaking in first person, the Lord says, “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psa. 46:10). The passage doesn’t say that God may be exalted, pending sinful man’s permission. It doesn’t say that God will attempt to be exalted, provided He can overcome man’s supposedly free will. No—He will be exalted. All of creation exists for the purpose of manifesting God’s glory, and God has so ordained all of reality such that this purpose will be accomplished as planned. As the “Lord of hosts” (“Yahweh Sabaoth”), God orchestrates the actions of all armies and all warfare, accomplishing exactly what He intends when He intends it. At no point does God shrug His shoulders and say, “Ah well, I tried.” Men predestined for wrath and men predestined for mercy will both be used to demonstrate the glory of God, albeit in different ways (cf. Rom. 9:22-23).

Psalm 46 ends with the same refrain as in verse 7: “The God of Jacob is our stronghold.” God’s incomparable protection and power serve as both a caution and a comfort—it simply depends which side of the cross you’re on.[7] Therefore, with the Psalm’s call to “cease striving,” know this: you will either come in faith now to the Lord Jesus Christ and find Him to be a mighty fortress, or stand in sin later before the Lord Jesus Christ and find Him to be a consuming fire. In either case—deliverance or destruction—He will be exalted, and your life will be used to manifest His greatness throughout eternity. His preeminence has no end.

Based on these three supreme truths of God—protection, power, and preeminence—that were demonstrated in 701 BC, it only makes sense that the people of Israel would respond with such a psalm of praise. When they were at their lowest, God pulled them up out of their own sin-wrought situation, defended them against their enemies, and instilled in them a confidence of His ongoing protection amidst whatever else would happen in life.

Likewise, it only makes sense that Martin Luther found such solace in the magnificent words of this Psalm. It is said that during the darkest and most discouraging periods of his life, Luther would often turn to his co-worker, Philip Melanchthon, and say, “Come, Philip, let us sing the forty-sixth Psalm.”[8]

We should join them in song.


References:

Cover photo courtesy of Robert Scarth (https://www.flickr.com/photos/18222776@N00/241708183)

[1] Steven J. Lawson, Holman Old Testament Commentary: Psalms 1-75 (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), 243.

[2] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary: Unleashing God's Truth, One Verse at a Time (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 629.

[3] Robert Davidson, The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 151.

[4] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary: Unleashing God's Truth, One Verse at a Time (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 629.

[5] https://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/psalms/46.htm

[6] Steven J. Lawson, Holman Old Testament Commentary: Psalms 1-75 (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), 246.

[7] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary: Unleashing God's Truth, One Verse at a Time (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 630.

[8] https://www.ligonier.org/blog/luther-and-psalms-his-solace-and-strength/