Psalms 46, 47, and 48 depict the progressively glorious pathway of the Lord Jesus Christ to defend His city and sit on David’s throne. In doing so, they inspire confidence in the incomparable security that God’s people of every dispensation enjoy. Psalm 46 particularly presents the Almighty as our all-powerful defence in the face of surrounding calamities. It was a particular favourite of Luther, who based his great hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ on it. As he explained, ‘We sing this Psalm to the praise of God, because God is with us, and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends His church and His word, against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh and sin’.1 It was also encouraging to the British General Sir William Dobbie during the harrowing Second World War siege of Malta.2 Believers of any time-period find solace in this comforting song.
The psalm breaks down into three stanzas, each concluded by ‘Selah’, the Hebrew musical term for pausing for consideration. Morgan outlines it thus:
My outline is:
The psalm was obviously composed at a time of national distress. The reference to ‘the sea[s]’ in verse 2 probably indicates Gentile threats, such as occurred when Sennacherib came against Jerusalem in 701 BC during King Hezekiah’s reign. There are also verbal and conceptual commonalities between Isaiah chapters 8 and 33 and this psalm, likely alluding to the Assyrian threat. Whatever the occasion, it demonstrates that temporal and eternal security is God-centred. The psalm is filled with divine titles and pronouns that refer to our Redeemer.
‘God’ - Elohim - occurs seven times -twice as the ‘God of Jacob’.
‘Lord’ - YHWH/Jehovah - occurs once. ‘Lord of hosts’ - occurs twice.
‘Most High’ - Elyon - occurs once. ‘I/he/him/who’ referring to God -occurs seven times.
The superscription identifies it as one of the eleven psalms that are addressed to the sons of Korah, people whose personal history would particularly incline them to revel in the Lord’s protecting mercies, Num. 16. It is also said to be ‘For Alamoth’ NKJV, a derivative of the Hebrew word for women, and is thought to be a musical term for soprano voices. Women, like Miriam and Mary, could rejoice in divine redemption and praise the Lord for His redemption, Exod. 15. 20, 21; Luke 1. 46-55. As a contemporary author observes, ‘This is the language of faith. It is faith’s assertion in a time of trouble when the foundations of life seem to be collapsing all around. When we feel fear, when the securities of life are in danger, when we face trouble in the shape of potential persecution then let us do what the psalmist does, let us assert that God is our refuge and strength. Let us trust in Him … The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous run into it and are safe, Ps. 18. 10. As the disciples did, let us ask the Lord to increase our faith, Luke 17. 4’.4
The opening verse identifies God as ‘our refuge and strength’.5 Kelly remarks, ‘This is the calm but joyful answer to the taunts of all their foes without who asked, Where is thy God? Their refuge and strength, their refuge in distress very readily found, God is owned Most High and Jehovah of hosts, the God of Jacob, but God as He is in His own nature exalted among the nations and in the earth as He will be’.6 Faced with external threats and internal fears, Israel is exhorted to remember His work of salvation and security. That He is ‘a very present help in [times of] trouble’ reminds one that He is never late and is always with His people, Heb. 13. 5, 6. The psalmist concludes, ‘Therefore we will not fear’ NKJV in the midst of seeming chaos and cataclysm. Theology must lead one to daily trust in the Almighty’s unassailable protection, whatever one’s circumstances.7
Men think that mountains are solid, yet they may shake under seismic activity. Israel might tremble in the face of its foes, but the Lord is the great mover of mountains, Matt. 21. 21, who also has an unshakeable kingdom, Heb. 12. 18-29.8 The Bible often uses the seas to depict the tumultuous Gentile nations, Isa. 17. 12, 13. Like their physical counterpart, the Almighty sets a limit on the nations’ progress, Ps. 104. 9; Dan. 4. 31, 32; 5. 28. Many nations have tried - and will try during the future tribulation - to destroy Israel; nevertheless, God will preserve her from all her enemies; nor shall ‘the gates of hell’ prevail against His church, Matt. 16. 18.
In contrast to the raging sea waves, there is a river - a well-ordered water course bounded by shores - ‘whose streams shall make glad the city of God’, Ps. 46. 4 NKJV. It reminds one of the peaceful flowing rivers of Shiloah, Isa. 8. 6, and the renewing river from the millennial temple, Ezek. 47. 1-12. Spiritual refreshment proceeds from God’s dwelling place, called here ‘the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High’, Ps. 46. 4; cp. Rev. 22. 1, 2. This fallen world is full of ‘change and decay’, but the Lord offers peace and confidence.9
His people are safe because He is in their midst. At the breaking of the dawn - immediately after the dark night - He brings forth deliverance, v. 5. The nations will be moved, but God’s people remain steadfast. Verses 7 and 11 further assure them of His perpetual presence. He is ‘Lord of hosts’ declaring His omnipotence and capacity to help when His people are weak.10 He is also ‘the God of Jacob’ - not ‘Israel’, meaning a prince with God - but the historic name that refers to His infamous past as a trickster.11 The Saviour rescues man because of grace, not because of human merit. Even at our weakest, He is the faithful fortress of His people.
The last stanza shows the Lord as the coming conqueror, who will pacify the earth by vanquishing His impenitent foes. Verse 8 invites the reader to ‘behold the works of the Lord’. He who worked in creation and redemption, now displays His future work of judgement. At His second coming to earth, the Lord Jesus will destroy the weapons of the rebellious nations and forcibly cause wars to cease, v. 9. Prophetic schemes that envision the world getting progressively better and better are both naive and unbiblical. This psalm shows that the Lord’s longsuffering will end, and He will establish His rule by force over unbelievers, Rev. 19. As Bellett says, ‘righteousness will link itself with power, and then evil will be judged; and afterwards the whole earth will be governed in peace. Righteousness will take the sword first, and then the sceptre‘.12
To Christians, ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ conjures up thoughts of confident rest and trust in the Lord.13 Yet this word translated ‘be still’ has the thought of ceasing from rebellion and opposition. The New English Translation renders it, ‘“Stop your striving and recognize that I am God”’.14 It is a call for sinners to lay down their arms and surrender to God before the day of salvation expires. The human depredations that are described in vivid detail in the psalm’s first three verses will end, and divine righteousness will prevail. As someone wrote, ‘When Israel trusts in the Lord and enjoys deliverance in that day, she will be able to employ the words of Psalm 46 as never before’.15 Similarly, believers in the church age will rejoice in the accomplishment of full salvation through God, our refuge and strength. The psalm concludes with the confident declaration that we must keep in mind daily, ‘The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge’.
Martin Luther, in C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol. 2, Marshall, n.d., pg. 344.
See Lt. General Sir William Dobbie, ‘The Bible A Book For Today‘, reprinted in Precious Seed 4. 8, 1952; accessed here: https://www.preciousseed.org/articles/the-bible-a-book-for-today/.
G. C. Morgan, in William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 1995, pg. 621 [Italics original].
John Thomson, ‘Preparing For Persecution‘, 28/7/20, on the blog, Cave Adullam; accessed here: https://johngreenview.wordpress.com/2020/07/28/preparing-for-persecution/.
An alternate rendering: ‘Elohim is unto us a refuge and safe retreat, as a help in distresses He is thoroughly proved’. Franz Delitzsch, in Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 5, Hendrickson, 1996, pg. 336.
William Kelly, Notes on Psalms, Weston, 1904, pg. 200.
‘Confessing what we should believe is easy; bringing our hearts to feel that confessed security is monumental’, R. L. Hubbard, Jr. and R. K. Johnston, Psalms, Baker, 2012, pg. 209.
‘Alps and Andes may tremble, but faith rests on a firmer basis, and is not to be moved by swelling seas. Evil may ferment, wrath may boil, and pride may foam, but the brave heart of holy confidence trembles not. Great men who are like mountains may quake for fear in times of great calamity, but the man whose trust is in God needs never be dismayed’. C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol. 2, Marshall, n.d., pg. 340.
Henry’s comment is appropriate: ‘The spiritual comforts which are conveyed to the saints by soft and silent whispers, and which come not with observation, are sufficient to counterbalance the most loud and noisy threatenings of an angry and malicious world’, Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Hendrickson, 1994, pg. 809.
For example, the name first occurs in 1 Samuel chapter 1, a time of great spiritual declension in Israel. It is also prominent in the post-exilic prophets, who were ministering to a weakened remnant of the people. Those three books account for 37% of Old Testament appearances. It occurs fourteen times in Haggai, fifty-three times in Zechariah, and twenty-four times in Malachi.
Jacob means ‘supplanter’; see Gen. 27. 35, 36.
J. G. Bellett, Short Meditations on the Psalms, Broom, 1876, pg. 52 [Italics original].
Of course, the Lord Jesus did promise: ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’, Matt. 11. 28, 29 NKJV. Salvation rest flows from faith in Him.
More recently, the Christian Standard Bible translates it ‘Stop fighting, and know that I am God’.
Anon., ‘Hope Of His People’, 19/5/22, in Precious Seed; accessed here: https://www.preciousseed.org/daily_thought/hope-of-his-people/.