Psalm 46 is a well-known and well-loved psalm. Martin Luther, the great reformer, used Psalm 46 as the basis of his hymn:
A mighty fortress is our God
a bulwark never failing;
Our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
We often sing a version written by Richard Bewes which begins with the words:
God is our strength and refuge,
our present help in trouble,
and we therefore will not fear
though the earth should change!
We love to sing that hymn and we love to read this psalm because it’s a psalm of confidence. When troubles surround us, when difficulties arise, this psalm reminds us that we don’t need to be afraid, because the Lord our God is with us to help us. As the psalmist says:
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
The psalm can be divided into three parts: verses 1 to 3; verses 4 to 7; and verses 8 to 11. In the first part, the psalmist refers to what one commentator calls a cosmic collapse: when the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the sea. In the second part, the psalmist refers to national turmoil: Jerusalem is under siege. And in the third part, the psalmist refers to God’s intervention and how he makes wars cease. While there’s no way of knowing the historical background to this psalm, or the occasion which prompted the psalmist to write it, it seems clear that the background to the psalm is a time when God’s people in the city of Jerusalem were under threat. An enemy nation has come to attack the city. And no doubt the people inside were tempted to be afraid. No doubt some of them were in a panic and others were in despair. And so, we can imagine someone going around, among the people, to reassure them and to remind them that there’s no need to be afraid, because God is with them and the Lord Almighty is able to protect them. You don’t need to be afraid, even if the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, and the world is turned upside down. You don’t need to be afraid, because God is our refuge and strength.
God’s people in every generation need to be reminded of this constantly, because God’s people in every generation face all kinds of troubles and trials and dangers. And so, let’s study this psalm together, because we too need to be reminded that God is with us to help us.
Verses 1 to 3
And so, the psalm begins with this marvellous confession of faith and confidence in the Lord:
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
A refuge is a place of shelter. When there’s a storm outside, and the wind threatens to blow everything down, we look for somewhere to shelter from the storm. Or when someone is being pursued by enemies, they want someone to take them in and to keep them safe until the threat has gone. Well, God is a refuge for his people. He’s the one who shelters them when they’re in trouble and they can look to him to protect them.
And not only is he our refuge, but he’s our strength as well, because he’s the one who gives his people the strength they need to stand firm and not to give up or give in under pressure. In the days of the Old Testament, when the Israelites faced their enemies who were attacking them, they needed the Lord to give them physical strength on the battle field. And he gives strength to his people in every generation to stand up to all the pressures we face from Satan who comes at us with his wicked schemes and his temptations; and he gives strength to his people in every generation to stand up to all the pressures we face from an unbelieving world who hates and despises us for our faith. He gives us the strength we need to stand firm in the faith.
And look: he’s an ever-present help in trouble. He’s an ever-present or very present help. So, whenever we face troubles and trials, he’s present with us to help us. He’ll never leave us or forsake us. So, we do not face troubles on our own, because the Lord is with his people; and he’s able to help us. By ourselves, we are helpless, because we don’t have the strength we need, or the resources, or the ability we need to keep going on our own. But he comes to our aid and he comes to help us. God is our refuge and our strength and he’s an ever-present help in trouble.
And since this is true, therefore we will not fear. So, you can imagine someone going around the walls of Jerusalem, which is under attack from enemy nations, and the people of Jerusalem are tempted to be afraid. But this person is going around, saying to each person: ‘We will not fear. We will not fear. We will not fear.’ Why will we not fear? Because — don’t you remember? — God is our refuge and strength and he’s an ever-present help in trouble. And since that’s true, we will not fear though the very worst thing happens. So, even if the earth gives way, and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, and though the waters roar and foam and though the mountain quake, we won’t be afraid. We won’t be afraid of even that.
The commentators discuss whether the psalmist is describing an actual event, like an earthquake or tidal wave; or whether he’s using the imagery of an earthquake or tidal wave to describe the threat posed by the enemy nations who are attacking Jerusalem. I tend to think he’s simply using hyperbolic language to make clear that there’s never a reason for us to be afraid. Hyperbolic language is exaggerated language. He’s exaggerating. He’s imagining the worst possible scenario. What’s the worst thing that can happen? This is the worst thing that can happen: the world around us gives way and the dry land falls into the sea. Can you imagine anything worse? Well, even if that happened, we still have no reason to be afraid, because God is our refuge and strength and if ever the world collapsed, he would still be our ever-present help. He would still be with us to help us. So, if we don’t need to be afraid when the worst thing happens, then we don’t need to be afraid now.
Verses 4 to 7
What is happening now? Well, that’s what verses 4 to 7 are about, where the psalmist describes how God’s people are in Jerusalem and they’re under attack from their enemies. And the psalmist refers first of all to this river and its streams which make glad the city of God. The city of God is Jerusalem, because Jerusalem was the city God chose as his own and where he chose to dwell among his people. As the psalmist goes on to say in the second line of verse 4, this city of God is the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is the Most High God, because he reigns supreme over all. And though he is present everywhere all at once, he chose to dwell among his people in the temple in Jerusalem. And the historians tell us that the Gihon spring flowed into Jerusalem and the water from the spring filled the pool of Siloam and other pools within the city. And, of course, that meant there was always a steady supply of water for the residents in Jerusalem. So, even when enemies attacked, and the city was put under siege, they were never short of water. And so, the river which the psalmist refers to in verse 4 made the people glad, because it meant they always had enough water to drink.
No doubt they looked upon that river as a sign of God’s blessing on them and his provision. And not only did the Lord supply them with water, but he was also within the city and with his people. And because God was within the city, the city would not fall to their enemies, because the Lord would protect them. The word translated ‘fall’ in verse 5 is the same word which was used in verse 2 to refer to the mountains falling into the sea. So, the mountains may fall, but the city of God will not fall. It will not fall, because God is within her.
And God will help her, the psalmist says, at break of day. There are two ways to interpret what he says about the break of day. Enemies would often attack a city at break of day, because the people inside are just waking up and they’re not always paying attention and they’re not always ready to defend themselves. So, the break of day was a time when the people were vulnerable. However, even if their enemies attack them when they’re vulnerable, God will be there to protect them. Or the break of day marked the end of the night and the beginning of a new day. And so, if the darkness of the night signifies the danger they’re in, then the breaking of the new day signifies the end of danger and the end of their trouble, because God has come to help them. In either case, the point the psalmist is making is that God is with his people to help them.
He goes on to refer to the uproar of the nations and to the fall of kingdoms. The word translated ‘uproar’ is the same word that was used in verse 3 to refer to the roaring of the waters. And the word translated ‘fall’ is that word which was used before to refer to mountains falling into the sea; and it was also used in verse 5 to make the point that Jerusalem will not fall. So, the nations may roar against Jerusalem, and may come against them like a great roaring and foaming tidal wave; but the nations will fall, whereas the city of God will not fall. The nations will fall, because the Lord will lift his voice and thunder against them. And when the Lord lifts his voice and thunders, the earth melts. In other words, their enemies will melt away. They will be dissolved. They will disappear and become as nothing.
That’s what will happen to the nations. But God’s people will remain secure, because the Lord Almighty is with us. The phrase ‘the Lord Almighty’ should really be translated: ‘The Lord of hosts.’ It means that God is the Lord of the armies of heaven. He commands angelic armies and he’s able to send them down from heaven to protect his people. Do you remember that story in 2 Kings 6, when the king of Aram was at war against the Israelites and he sent some of horses and chariots and strong force to capture Elisha the prophet. And when he saw all the horses and chariots, Elisha’s servant was afraid. ‘Don’t be afraid’, Elisha said to him. ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elisha prayed to the Lord to open the eyes of his servants to see what Elisha could see, because what Elisha could see was that the hills around them were filled with horses and chariots of fire. The Lord sent his angelic army to protect Elisha. And in the psalm, the psalmist says that the Lord of the armies of heaven is with them. And he refers to the Lord as the God of Jacob. By referring to God in that way, he’s reminding us of the covenant God made with Jacob and the promise God made to Jacob and his descendants to be their God and to take care of them. They can trust in the Lord, because he’s bound himself with a promise to protect them. And just as God protected Jacob and his sons when there was a famine in the land, so he will protect Jacob’s descendants who are under attack in Jerusalem. He is their fortress. The word for fortress refers to a high place. He’s a fortress for them in the sense that he’s able to lift them up high, well out of the reach of their enemies and out of harm’s way.
Verses 8 to 11
In the third part of the psalm, the psalmist is really addressing his comments to the enemy nations who are attacking Jerusalem. He’s calling on them to come and see the works of the Lord and to consider the desolations God has brought on the earth. He saying to the nations: Think about what God has done in the past and the way he has brought wars to an end. Think, for instance, of what he did to the Egyptians when he drowned them in the Red Sea. Think of what he did to Jericho, when he caused the walls of that great city to collapse. Think of the way he brought wars to an end in the past; and how he broke the bows and spears of Israel’s enemies. Think of how powerful he is. And be still.
Now, we often read the words ‘be still’ and we think about being still and quiet and calm. We think of pictures of sleeping kittens. But the psalmist is addressing the enemy nations and he’s telling them to be still. In other words, stop what you’re doing. Give up what you’re doing. Stop what you’re doing, because don’t you realise who the God of the Israelites is and how he’s with them to help them and to defend them. And he will be exalted among the nations in the earth. He will make clear that he alone is God and he rules over all the earth and all the nations of the earth. And so, instead of rebelling against him and attacking his people, you ought to humble yourself before him and acknowledge him as God and serve him and him alone.
And the psalm ends by repeating verse 7. God’s people who are under attack needn’t be afraid, because the Lord of the angelic armies is with them; and the God of Jacob, who has bound himself with a promise to take care of Jacob’s descendants, is their fortress.
So, in the first part, the psalmist is using this hyperbolic language to say to God’s people that even if the worst thing happens, and the world is turned upside down, you don’t need to be afraid, because God is our refuge and strength and he’s with us to help us.
And in the second part of the psalm, the psalmist depicts God’s people in Jerusalem and they’re under attack. But God is with them, so the city will not fall; and when God speaks, their enemies will melt away.
And in the third part of the psalm, the psalmist addresses their enemies and says to them: Be still. Stop what you’re doing. Stop what you’re doing, because the Lord God who rules and reigns over all will only destroy you unless you stop.
I’ve said before that right through the Bible we see the conflict between the church and the world, between those who belong to God and those who belong to Satan, between those who believe and those who do not. So, Cain killed righteous Abel; Pharaoh and the Egyptians oppressed Moses and the Israelites; Goliath and the Philistines wanted to kill David and the Israelites; or think of how King Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus; and think how an unbelieving world persecuted the apostles and early church. So, whenever the enemy nations attacked Israel and tried to destroy God’s people, it was a manifestation of this deep spiritual conflict between the Lord and Satan and between the church and the unbelieving world. And that conflict is still happening today, because the Devil still hates the Lord and his people and he does what he can to destroy the church. And an unbelieving world will always oppose the church and trouble us, because an unbelieving world hates the church, because we are the church, and it despises us for believing in the Lord and for trying to walk in his ways. So, God’s people today are like God’s people in the days of the psalmist. We too face attacks from Satan and opposition from an unbelieving world.
But there’s no need to be afraid, because God is still our refuge and strength and an ever-present help in trouble. So, no matter what happens to the church in these days, we don’t need to be anxious or worried, because God is with us. And we can count on God to help us, because the Lord Jesus Christ gave up his life on the cross to pay for our sins in full and to make peace for us with God. Whereas we were once God’s enemies, because of our sins, we have now been reconciled to God through faith in his Son who loved us and who gave up his life to bring us to God. And so, God is no longer our enemy, but he’s our God who is with us to help us. The Apostle Peter tells us in his first letter that God shields us by his power. who shields us by his power. He says that through faith we are shielded by God’s power until the coming of Christ. Right now, we have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials, Peter said. But nevertheless, we’re shielded by God’s power.
God is still our refuge and our strength. And he is always with us by his Son. Didn’t the Lord Jesus promise to be with his church always, to the every end of the age? Right before he ascended to heaven, he declared to the Apostles that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. He therefore rules over all things; and everything is under his authority. And he promised to be with his people always. So, he’s with his church in every generation, using his great power and authority, to protect his people and to keep us. He’s watching over us from his throne in heaven and he’s present with us by his Spirit, whom he sends into our lives to live with us.
And so, we’re never on our own, because God is with us. And he’s with us always. And when the church is under pressure, we can look to God to protect us and to strengthen us. So, think of that time when the Lord Jesus warned Peter that Satan wanted to sift him like wheat. He meant that Satan wanted to crush Peter. ‘But I have prayed for you’, the Lord Jesus went on to say. ‘I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail’. The Lord Jesus Christ, Peter’s Saviour, asked his Father in heaven to strengthen Peter’s faith so that he would not fall.
And when the Devil comes to sift us like wheat, when he tries to crush us, we know that our Saviour is with us and that he will strengthen us, just as he strengthened Peter and just as he strengthened the people in this psalm. God is our refuge and strength; an ever-present help in trouble. The Lord is with us. He is our fortress.
But before we finish, let me point out how this psalm anticipates the future. So, God helped his people in the past, in the days when this psalm was written. And God helps his people in the present and we can count on him today. And God will also help his people in the future.
Although the psalmist uses this hyperbolic language in the first part to describe the worst thing that can happen, there are parts of the Bible which describe how the earth will give way in the future. Peter, in his second letter, describes the day when Christ the Lord will come again; and the heavens will disappear with a roar; and the elements will be destroyed be fire; and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. And in Revelation 6, John sees into the future and to the coming of the Lord. And he describes it this way:
There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig-tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
So, there’s a day coming when the worst thing will happen; and the earth will give way and be destroyed. But those who belong to Christ by faith won’t be afraid of that day, because when Christ comes again, he will gather his people to live with him forever as members of the new Jerusalem in the new heavens and earth. And there, in the new Jerusalem, there will be a river, flowing down the middle of the city, and all of Christ’s people will be invited to come and to drink from the water of life and live forever. And there will be no one to threaten God’s people or to hurt them. And God will be with his people and he will dwell with them forever.
But all those who never believed, all of God’s enemies, who refused to believe in Christ and who did not yield their lives to him, will be sent away to be punished forever.
And since this is what will happen, since this is what the future holds, what is our message to the world? Our message is: Be still. In other words: Stop what you’re doing. Give up your rebellion against God. Give up your fight against the church. Give up your unbelief. Submit your life to Christ; trust in him for forgiveness; live your life, no longer for yourself, but for him. And when the Lord comes in glory and with power to bring this fallen world to an end, you will not be among those who are destroyed, but you will be among those who are saved and who will live forever with God in the new Jerusalem, that Holy City, in the new heavens and earth.