Whether you’re up or down, ecstatic with joy or depressed, calm or frustrated, disappointed or fulfilled, there’s a psalm to match your mood exactly.

The book of Psalms is a collection of poems reflecting the experiences of their writers. Who those writers were we don’t know in some cases; many of the psalms are anonymous. But David is the most distinguished of the known psalmists, writing almost half of the 150.[1] Other authors include Solomon, Asaph and the sons of Korah. Many of these were musicians, reminding us that the psalms were meant to be sung. They constituted, in fact, the Temple hymnbook, and many have musical instructions at the start.

The collection comprises five books, or sections, each ending with an ascription of praise to God: a doxology.[2] Some see these sections as reflecting the five books of Moses. Agreeing with that or not isn’t going to change your life, and neither is this general information, so let’s zoom in on one particular psalm and its life-changing truths.

We’ll go for Psalm 46. This is not one of David’s. The inscription tells us it is by the sons of Korah, who were Temple musicians. It expresses confidence in God’s protection and the safety he provides for ‘the city of God’, namely Zion, the city of Jerusalem. Today, of course, it is we believers who are ‘the city of God’, his community, the heavenly or New Jerusalem,[3] so we can apply this psalm to ourselves, and we will. Here we go…

(v1)  God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.

People will sometimes laugh at your Christian faith. ‘Ah, you poor thing!’ they jeer. ‘You can’t cope with life so you need a crutch. Still leaning on God, are you?’

Well, yes, of course you are! And you should admit without shame or hesitation that you do need a crutch, or as this psalm calls it, a ‘refuge’. When trouble comes the child runs to its mother’s skirts, the rabbit to its burrow, the seagull to its nest on the cliff—and you run to God. And because he is your ‘strength’ as well as your ‘refuge’, you can expect to run to him weak and emerge from his presence strong.

What’s more, God is always available, your ‘ever-present help’. You’ll never get a ‘busy’ signal when you call, never a ‘leave a message after the tone’. Unlike Baal and other false gods, your God is never out or away.[4] His constant help is especially welcome when you are ‘in trouble’. And notice the ‘in’. He doesn’t guarantee to save you from trouble but he will always help you when you’re in it.

That’s a good start. Let’s read on:

(v2-3)  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

Because God’s help is available ‘we will not fear’. He is a specialist at fear-calming. Time and time again Jesus, who came to reveal the Father’s heart, said, ‘Do not be afraid’. Why should you be afraid with God as your refuge? He is love, and ‘perfect love drives out fear’.[5] Why panic when ‘the eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms’?[6] Relax in his loving embrace!

Yes I know, sometimes that’s easier said than done, especially when circumstantial earthquakes rock your life. But the psalmist was determined not to fear even ‘though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.’ We talk about terra firma—solid ground—and most of the time you can rely on it to hold steady. When it does shake, though, you feel as if nothing is reliable, nothing can be trusted and the whole foundation of your life is giving way. Never fear. God is a rock that cannot be moved, and he’s there for you. He’s not a mountain like Vesuvius that can erupt, fall, change shape and devastate Pompeii. He’s solid.

In the Hebrew there’s the single word Selah at this point. It indicates a pause. ‘Before you read on,’ it suggests, ‘stop for a moment and think about this.’ So do it—right now.

(v4)  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.

In the psalmist’s day it was Jerusalem that was ‘the city of God’, so called because it housed the Temple where, in the Holy of Holies behind the curtain, God was pleased to place his localised presence. This was ‘the holy place where the Most High dwells’. But no river ever flowed through Jerusalem, at least no literal one. The city’s water came from the Pool of Siloam. So this is a figurative river symbolising God’s presence. Bringing refreshment and supply to the citizens, it was the ultimate amenity. Isaiah once prophesied this very thing about Zion: ‘There the LORD will be our Mighty One. It will be like a place of broad rivers and streams.’[7]

I once attended a bush conference in central Africa. Five thousand Christians gathered at a huge campsite among the trees for a week’s teaching and fellowship. With no permanent sanitation and no piped water on site, I realised for the first time how we in the West take these things for granted. The camp was situated next to a river, and that river was our lifeline.

Since the city of God today is the community of God’s people, the church, you can expect to find the river of God’s presence flowing through it still. That, in fact, is what makes its citizens ‘glad’, because, as David enthused to God: ‘In your presence there is fullness of joy.’[8] Or as the hymn puts it, ‘Solid joys and lasting treasure none but Zion’s children know.’[9] Is your local church a happy place? With God’s presence and help at its centre, it should be!

(v5-6)  God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The church is very precious.[10] I wish all Christians would treat it with the love and respect that its Lord shows towards it: ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’.[11] God will stand by his church so that ‘she will not fall’ but will emerge, as Christ’s return approaches, as the biggest, the best and the most glorious entity in world society. Meanwhile, when the church is in trouble ‘God will help her’. You can press F1 at any time for context-sensitive help.

‘God will help her at break of day.’ Here’s a reminder that, with God, there’s always a new dawn, that ‘weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.’[12] When you are ill or depressed the hours of the night seem endless. Just the arrival of daybreak, even though the circumstances remain unchanged, brings some relief. God is a ‘break of day’ God. He takes no pleasure in prolonging your hours of darkness, so trust him and watch for the dawn. Deliverance will come!

The background to this psalm is important for understanding this. It was an incident in King Hezekiah’s day, when Sennacherib, king of Assyria, brought a vast army to Jerusalem and besieged it with a view to starving its inhabitants before breaking through its walls and conquering the city.[13] The people of Jerusalem were terrified, but the prophet Isaiah brought a clear word from God: the Assyrian king would never enter the city, because God himself would defend and save it. During the night, as the people trembled in their beds, the angel of the Lord put to death 185,000 soldiers in the Assyrian camp. And the Scripture records that ‘when the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!’[14] Sennacherib withdrew the rest of his troops and left the city of God unscathed.

Be encouraged; God is still the same. You can rise above the terrifying chaos outside, where society is often in confusion. Worldwide terrorism, political upheaval, moral turpitude—it’s a deeply unsettling scene, well described by the psalmist: ‘Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall.’

But God speaks his word to protect his church: ‘He lifts his voice, the earth melts’. It’s wonderfully calming when an authoritative voice breaks into a yelling free-for-all and commands attention. I once attended a public meeting called to discuss a controversial civic project in my town. There were strong interests involved and the arguments quickly descended into an uncontrolled shouting match in spite of the chair’s best efforts to call people to order. I sat there feeling very uncomfortable. Then our local MP stood up. She was a slightly-built woman, but no stranger to such situations and well versed in managing them. By the time she had spoken half a dozen words the uproar had subsided and the combatants were slowly sitting down. It was great. After that, the meeting made some real progress.

That’s exactly what God does for us: he speaks into the world’s chaos for the benefit of his people. His is the voice that ordered, ‘Let there be light’; that commanded the storm on Galilee, ‘Peace! Be still!’; that shouted in a graveyard, ‘Lazarus, come out!’; that said to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’. When he speaks ‘the earth melts’. He’s the one speaking into today’s chaos to ensure that you, and the worldwide church to which you belong, come through victorious, your enemies slinking off, as did Sennacherib, like a dog with its tail between its legs. ‘As snow before the sun, or fat cast into the fire, so they are consumed.’[15]

(v7)  The LORD Almighty is with us;
The God of Jacob is our fortress.

Jacob was a twister and a villain, in moral terms a nobody. But he met God and experienced a complete turnaround. He became a somebody, entirely due to God’s intervention. It’s interesting that ‘Jacob’ in the Old Testament became a synonym for ‘Israel’, God’s people. Listen to what God said to them: ‘“Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob, little Israel, do not fear, for I myself will help you.” declares the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.’[16]

Today ‘Jacob, little Israel’ is you and your fellow-believers in Jesus. You may feel pathetically small and often ashamed of the petty goings-on that seem to figure high on the church’s agenda. God’s people appear a weedy bunch compared with the powerful political, social and military lobbies that steer the world. But we can nevertheless assert with full confidence, ‘The Lord Almighty is with us’, of all people, and you can’t get mightier than All-mighty! Yes, our refuge is ‘the God of Jacob’, the God who turns worms into world-changers.

There’s another Selah at this point, so you know what to do before reading on.

(v8-9)  Come and see what the LORD has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

This is what the people of Jerusalem must have said as they looked down from the city walls in the morning. The opposition had been completely vanquished by the LORD. And the same God is still at work on his people’s behalf. When I’m preaching in my own church I sometimes look out at my fellow-Christians and rejoice at the divine triumphs that so many lives represent. I hear the psalmist invite me to ‘come and see what the LORD has done’, and I look on in joy and gratitude. Addictions broken. Marriages mended and sustained. Parents and children reconciled. Empty philosophies replaced by faith in Christ the Lord. Brill!

What God has done in those lives he can do in others—and he will, as we faithfully declare and live out the gospel. In the chaos of world society Jesus reigns now! Satan is a defeated foe, so don’t build him up by giving him too much attention. Focus instead on Christ. Just as Joseph once ruled Egypt for Israel’s benefit, so Christ now rules the nations for the church’s benefit: ‘God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body…’[17] He can rout the opposition whenever he wants. Just trust him—he knows best.

(v10)  Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.

God himself now speaks, and he says, ‘Be still’.

What? With Sennacherib’s troops all around? With our world seemingly collapsing beneath us? With global warming, a threatened world food crisis, maniac rulers with atomic weapons and every city a potential target for bombers? Yes: ‘Be still’.

It’s not easy. Even if you put those threats to the back of  your mind there’s still the frantic routine of going to work, paying the mortgage, shoving a trolley round the supermarket, keeping on top of the kids, balancing the budget—and all the other everyday pressures. Peace in all that? Yes: ‘Be still’.

The insecure can never keep still. But how can we remain insecure when ‘the God of Jacob is our fortress’? That’s why, to the ‘Be still…’, the Lord adds, ‘…and know that I am God.’ Well of course you knew that already. Yes, but there’s knowing and there’s knowing. It’s one thing to have your doctrine right; it’s another to rest in the security of his love and provision when everything around you is in turmoil—and that’s the knowing that matters most.

You can’t go wrong trusting him, because in the end all his enemies will be defeated and he will reign supreme. As this psalm winds down he declares, ‘I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ In the meantime he invites you to nail your colours to the mast and stand for him today, playing your small but vital part in promoting his ultimate triumph. And if you feel too weak for that, observe how, as the psalm winds to a close, the final verse repeats the crucial truth introduced back in verse 7:

(v11)  The LORD Almighty is with us;
The God of Jacob is our fortress.

God will stand by you. You can trust him implicitly. The city of God will endure—and will triumph.

Another, final Selah.

This psalm inspired Martin Luther to write his famous hymn, Ein’ feste burg ist unser Gott, at the height of the Reformation in 1529. Thomas Carlyle translated it into English in 1831 and here it is to summarise the meditation above and to inspire you again:

A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trusty shield and weapon;
He’ll help us clear from all the ill
That hath us now o’ertaken.
The ancient prince of hell
Hath risen with purpose fell;
[18]
Strong mail[19] of craft and power
He weareth in this hour;
On earth is not his fellow.
[20]

With force of arms we nothing can,
Full soon were we down-ridden;
But for us fights the proper Man,
Whom God himself hath bidden.
Ask ye, Who is this same?
Christ Jesus is his name,
The Lord Sabaoth’s
[21] Son;
He, and no other one,
Shall conquer in the battle.

And were this world all devils o’er,[22]
And watching to devour us,
We lay it not to heart so sore;
Not they can overpower us.
And let the prince of ill
Look grim as e’er
[23] he will,
He harms us not a whit;[24]
For why? — His doom is writ;
A word shall quickly slay him.

God’s Word, for all their craft and force,
One moment will not linger,
But, spite of hell, shall have its course;
’Tis written by his finger.
And though they take our life,
Goods, honour, children, wife,
Yet is their profit small;
These things shall vanish all:
The City of God remaineth!

Copyright © David Matthew 2009

 

PSALMS

A Safe Stronghold - Psalm 46

 

This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

 

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Psalms

The gist of this article

Here we take a look at Psalm 46. God’s people are under enormous pressure from their enemies, but they rejoice in the amazing deliverance God provides, and take courage from that to believe him for deliverance in the future.

1. 73 to be exact.

2. The divisions are: Book 1, Psalms 1-41; Book 2, Psalms 42-72; Book 3, Psalms 73-89; Book 4, Psalms 90-106; Book 5, Psalms 107-150.

3. Hebrews 12:22. See also Galatians 4:25-26.

4. See 1 Kings 18:27

5. 1 John 4:18

6. Deuteronomy 33:27

7. Isaiah 33:21

8. Psalm 16:11 ESV

9. From the hymn Glorious things of thee are spoken by John Newton, 1779.

10. The church as people, that is. The NT has no conception of the church as a material building.

11. Ephesians 5:25

12. Psalm 30:5

13. You can read the account in Isaiah 37 and 2 Chronicles 32.

14. Isaiah 37:36

15. David Dickson, Commentary On The Psalms, Banner of Truth Trust, 1965 (first published 1653).

16. Isaiah 41:14

17. Ephesians 1:22-23

18. Fell: ‘deadly’ – as ‘in one fell swoop’ like, for instance, an eagle swooping to grab its prey.

19. Mail: armour – as in ‘chain-mail’.

20. Fellow: ‘equal’, ‘match’.

21. Lord Sabaoth: ‘Lord of hosts’, i.e. of armies.

22. O’er: ‘over’.

23. E’er: ‘ever’.

24. Whit: ‘slightest bit’.