A Mighty Fortress is Our God (Psalm 46:1–11)

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As a church, we were recently privileged once again to host John Blanchard, who spoke this time on the subject “Dealing with Dawkins.” He detailed some of atheist Richard Dawkins’ arguments against the existence of God, and stated quite plainly, “He is wrong.” I appreciated Blanchard’s candour, and I agree with him one hundred percent. Richard Dawkins is absolutely wrong. We have no need to be ashamed of the gospel. Like Noah, we must stand in spite of any stigma the world seeks to foist upon us.

Every era in the history of the world presents the church with a particular challenge—not necessarily a unique challenge, but rather with a particular opposition.

For example, the first century church faced challenges from corrupt Judaism. In fact, God considered Judaism so corrupt that on two occasions in Revelation He identified the Jewish synagogues as synagogues of Satan (2:9; 3:9)!

The third and fourth century church faced the challenge of Arianism and the battle for the doctrine of the person of Christ.

The sixteenth century church faced the challenge of what seemed to be a monolithic Roman Catholic Church, and the true church was faced with defending the gospel truth of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

The eighteenth and nineteenth century church faced challenges to the doctrines of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.

In each instance, the church was being threatened, both from without and from within. Her enemies assumed that her demise was imminent. They were ready to throw the last shovel full of dirt on her grave—but, in each instance, God had the last word and the last laugh. The enemies of God and therefore of His people, the church, were forced to confess the truth that God is the church’s mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing.

François-Marie Arouet, more commonly known as Voltaire (1694–1778), was a deist who harboured a deep hatred for Christianity. He considered Christianity “assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world.” In a 1767 letter to the King of Prussia, Voltaire urged the monarch:

Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think…. My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise, the finest and most respectable which the human mind can point out.1

Of the Bible, Voltaire said,

It is characteristic of fanatics who read the holy scriptures to tell themselves: God killed, so I must kill; Abraham lied, Jacob deceived, Rachel stole: so I must steal, deceive, lie. But, wretch, you are neither Rachel, nor Jacob, nor Abraham, nor God; you are just a mad fool, and the popes who forbade the reading of the Bible were extremely wise.2

It is somewhat ironic that the home in which Voltaire once lived in Geneva, before being expelled by John Calvin, is now owned by the Geneva Bible Society. Bibles are once printed from the very house in which Voltaire lived.

In our day, a particular challenge is that of what has been termed “militant atheism,” championed by the likes of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Bill Maher and other lesser known people and organisations. This philosophy is characterised by in-your-face attacks against the church, such as a campaign in London recently where signs were plastered on public buses reading, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

But what men like Dawkins and company are promoting today is really old news, and it is the same old lie that Sennacherib’s ambassadors once shouted to King Hezekiah and the city of Jerusalem (see Isaiah 36–37; 2 Kings 18–19). Their message to Jerusalem might be summarised as follows: “Stop believing all of that nonsense about God being Yahweh; stop believing that you are a special city; stop believing that this ‘phantom God’ will deliver you. Stop with this God delusion and start believing that your destruction is imminent if you do not surrender to me and my army.”

Thankfully, there were at least two people in the city who refused to get on the bus of unbelief: King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah preached to the king, the king prayed to the King, and at the end of the day 185,000 Assyrian soldiers lost their lives and Sennacherib lost his following and was later murdered worshipping a god of his imagination. Professor Dawkins, think again.

Most commentators believe that Psalms 46–48 have this historical account as their backdrop. These three psalms form a trilogy of encouragement for the beleaguered believer as they sound forth praise to God who loves and cares for His people. William Kirkpatrick notes,

They form a trilogy of praise, in which some signal deliverance of Jerusalem from foreign enemies is celebrated. In Ps. 46 the leading idea is the Presence of Jehovah in the midst of His city and people as the ground of their confidence; in Ps. 47 it is the universal Sovereignty of Jehovah as the King of all the earth, of which the recent defeat of Zion’s enemies is an illustration; in Ps. 48 it is the Safety of Zion, the result and the proof of God’s presence in her midst….

If not written by Isaiah himself, as some commentators have thought, they must have at least been written by one of Isaiah’s disciples who was deeply penetrated with the spirit and language of his master’s prophecies.3

Psalm 46 was the basis of Martin Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” which is one of the best loved hymns in Lutheran and Protestant traditions. He wrote the words and composed the melody sometime between 1527 and 1529. It has been translated into English at least seventy times and also into many other languages. It has been called “the Battle Hymn of the Reformation” for the effect it had in increasing the support for the Reformers’ cause. It has been suggested by some historians that Luther and his companions sang it as they entered Worms on 16 April 1521 for the famous Diet where Luther made his historic stand for the gospel before the king of Saxony and the representative of the pope.

We need to recapture the spirit of men like Luther, Isaiah and Hezekiah. May we come away from this study with greater faith and deeper confidence that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” May this be our conviction as we face the condition of the contemporary church, the onslaught of Islam, the march of secularism, opposition at home to our faith, opposition in workplace and university, and family discord as you seek to obey Scripture. This Psalm has great encouragement for you: Learn it and pray it!

A Proven Peace

In vv. 1–3, we learn that the God of the Bible provides a proven peace.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah

(Psalm 46:1–3)

The God of the Bible is our place of safety and our place of security. As Solomon put it, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10).

The psalmist considered God to be “a very present help in trouble.” The language speaks of a proven help in tight places. It expresses God’s readiness to be found. Leupold describes this as “a well-proved help in troubles.”4 The psalmist had personally experienced the reality of this. For him, as for us, trials were providential teachers.

There is a sense in which God is inviting us to prove Him in our trials. As we experience trials, He is inviting us to learn that He really is a strong refuge. The writer of this psalm is reflecting on what had happened in his experience in the past in order to give him peace in the present.

A Powerful Protector

In v. 1, the psalmist paints God as a powerful protector. He is the psalmist’s “refuge.” The word speaks of a place to which we can go quietly for protection. When the bombs of life drop, Yahweh is the Christian’s bomb shelter.

Sennacherib sorely misunderstood this principle. In fact, he misunderstood the character of God entirely. According to Isaiah 36:7, Sennacherib believed that the Jews had lost Yahweh’s promise of protection because Hezekiah had destroyed all His altars. Of course, Hezekiah had removed the altars of false gods from Israel, not of the true God, and Sennacherib soon learned his lesson. Those who so oppose God, without even understanding the true nature of His character, had best remain silent.

Luther’s hymn begins, “A mighty fortress is our God.” God is the mighty fortress of a community of people. Are you part of the “our”? And is your fortress the God of the Bible? This matters a great deal, for He alone is a proven help in times of trouble.

But not only is God “our refuge,” He is also our “strength.” The term speaks of power. James Montgomery Boice notes, “The emphasis is on God himself, the point being that God alone is our refuge, he and no other. Nothing in the universe can be a comparable refuge.”5 God, then, says Boice, is “a stronghold into which we can flee” and “a source of inner strength by which we can face calamities.”6

A Peaceful Perspective

In the fact of great “trouble,” the psalmist was able to maintain a peaceful perspective because he knew that God was his “refuge and strength.” He writes, “Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah” (Psalm 46:2–3).

The psalmist was in a tight spot, and his outlook was frightening. To him, it appeared that he was about to be overcome by a powerful tsunami. The earth was about to be removed, the foundations destroyed (cf. Psalm 11:3). And yet he was able to trust, because He knew that God had in the past proven Himself to be a refuge and strength. As Kirkpatrick notes, “Secure under His protection God’s people have nothing to fear, even though the solid earth were convulsed, and rent asunder…. In the extremity of their distress, God has proved Himself the refuge and strength of His people.”7

Importantly, this is not only an encouragement for physical safety, for, as Leupold notes, “He who thus safeguards His own against harm in physical distresses can guard them equally well from all other assaults that may threaten their safety.”8

We must not miss the fact that the psalmist was leaning on God’s covenantal commitments. He was not merely appealing to some form of protection that God had in fact never promised. Over the years, I have seen many cars with bumper stickers proclaiming, “This car is protected by Psalm 91.” I wonder how many of those cars end up being stolen, and how many of those bumpers end up in chop shops. Psalm 91 affords us no guarantee that our car will not be stolen. But the psalmist here is clinging to God’s revealed promises, which is another matter entirely.

The promise is that God reigns, regardless of what we read in the newspapers, regardless of the police sirens that wail in the middle of the night, regardless of the empty bank account, regardless of broken relationships, regardless of mistreatment, regardless of unemployment, regardless of disease, regardless of death. We will not fear despite war, despite mocking rulers (Isaiah 36:10; 37:6, 28–29); despite what appears to be the world falling apart. Our God reigns.

A Peaceful Pause

Verse 3 ends with the word “selah.” The word is a literary device, which instructs the reader to stop and reflect on what he has just read. It is as if the writer is saying to his readers in turmoil, “What do you think about that?”

The fact is, in times of difficulty, we need to think. We need to think right thoughts about God.

Several years ago I was in the United States for a conference. I had one day off, and so I flew to visit some friends of ours, former members of our church. The wife was in the late stages of a terrible form of cancer, which was ravaging her body. She was sick, in considerable pain, and death was certain. I stayed at their house one night, during which I came down with some sort of stomach bug. I will never forget her knocking on my door late that night, despite her own condition, and asking how I was feeling. When I asked her how she was managing with her condition, she replied, “I am remembering Scripture.”

But how can we experience this peaceful pause? Simply by being in the right place.

A Place of Peace

In the second major section of the psalm (vv. 4–7), we read of a place of peace.

There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God shall help her, just at the break of dawn. The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved; He uttered His voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

(Psalm 46:4–7)

A Chosen Place

The first thing to notice about the place of peace is that it is a chosen place (v. 4). The psalmist speaks of “the city of God,” God’s chosen city for His chosen people. In the Old Testament, it could rightly be asserted that Jerusalem was the city of God, but that is no longer the case. Today, the city of God is the church. The church is the place of peace, where we know that we are safe and secure with the people of God in Christ.

Jesus said to His disciples, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give you” (John 14:27). Again, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me, you may have peace” (John 16:33). And the reason we can have this peace is because “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1–3). Because we are in Christ, we can have peace when the storms rage.

A Cared for, and thus a, Calm Place

The second characteristic of the place of peace is that it is a cared for, and thus a calm, place. “There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God” (v. 4a).

Water is a major theme in Isaiah and it speaks to the issue of comfort and sustenance from God. For example, since the people of Israel “refused the waters of Shiloah that flow softly,” the Lord would “bring up over them the waters of the River, strong and mighty—the king of Assyria and all his glory” (8:6–7). They had opportunity to experience the comfort and sustenance of Yahweh, but they refused. Consequently, they would be flooded by the Assyrians.

In 7:1–3ff, the Lord had sent a comforting message to Ahaz by sending Isaiah to “the end of the aqueduct from the upper pool, on the highway to the Fuller’s Field.” Later, Sennacherib’s ambassadors went to the same place to threaten Jerusalem (36:1–2), but again the Lord delivered them.

Ezekiel portrays water in a similar fashion when, in 47:1–2, he speaks of healing waters flowing from the temple of God. This picture is picked up in Revelation 22:1–3, where a river of life is seen flowing from New Jerusalem.

Phillips is helpful at this point when he writes,

In a few bold strokes the psalmist sets before us a picture of a land in upheaval. Earthquakes rip it apart, the very mountains seem to stagger into the sea, and the sea responds by sending up massive tides and angry waves. It is a vivid, symbolic way of telling us not to fear even insurrections and invasions. Never ear. Our Refuge is safe no matter what upheavals may come. Neither natural nor national disaster can touch the refuge, the strength we have in God. Selah! “There, what do you think of that!”

What is it that is tearing us apart right now? What is it that is worrying us, making it hard to sleep, hard to settle down to anything? Take courage! God has not changed. “There, what do you think of that!”9

The point is simply this: God will nourish His people in the midst of troubles. He will care for His church. He can so water our calamity that we experience calmness. He will take care of His city. As Jesus promised, He will build His church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

While the world’s waters are against us, God will send streams both to and through us. The “river” of God’s comfort may at times seem to pale in significance compared to the mighty torrent of “Assyria,” but the fact is that it is more than sufficient.

A Confident Place

A third characteristic of the place of peace is that it is a confident place. The psalmist writes, “God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God shall help her, just at the break of dawn. The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved; He uttered His voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah” (vv. 5–7).

God’s presence (v. 5a) gives us access to God’s promises (v. 5b), which helps us to trust His providences (v. 5c). The night may be filled with distress, but deliverance comes in the morning. A helpful illustration of this is seen in Exodus 14, in the record of the crossing of the Red Sea. When the Israelites saw the approaching Egyptians, they panicked. God took them through the Red Sea—no doubt a frightening experience in itself—“and when the morning appeared, the sea returned to its full depth, while the Egyptians were fleeing into it. So the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea” (Exodus 14:27). The night of crossing the Red Sea was no doubt a terrifying time, but deliverance came with the dawn.

We need to trust the Lord who rules the universe. As Maclaren comments: “The ‘appearing of the morning’ He determines; not you or I.”10 If indeed the deliverance from Assyria in the time of Hezekiah is what prompted the penning of this psalm, the concept of the “morning” was indeed very significant, for “the angel of the LORD went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when the people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead” (Isaiah 37:36).

We learn also from these verses that God’s power (v. 6) is because of His preeminence (v. 7). He is “the LORD of hosts” (v. 7), and therefore we should be at peace. We have no reason to fear the end of the world. We have no reason to fear the many enemies of the gospel that assault us on a daily basis. Jesus promised that His church will succeed. Revelation doesn’t end with a mosque, it ends with a church.

Someone has said that “the history of the world is the judgement of the world.” There is some truth to that. When God wills it, the plains are covered and mountains disappear, but one rock stands fast: “The mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains” (Isaiah 2:2).

When everything is rocking and swaying in the tempests, here is our confidence: “She shall not be moved.” As Maclaren says, “because God is in her and she is safe, and where He dwells no evil can come.”11 Emmanuel—God is with us! This is not a promise to be restricted exclusively to the Christmas story. God is with His people, and we therefore have no reason to fear (cf. Exodus 6:6; Isaiah 7:4; 8:8, 10; Matthew 1:23; 2 Corinthians 6:15–18).

Pause and think about it: What is your relationship to your place of peace? That is, what is your relationship to the church universal and therefore to the church local? Your relationship to your local church reveals your relationship to the universal church. Are you in? Are you really in? Are you living in light of your privileges in the city of God?

To quote Maclaren once again, “These truths are nothing to us, brethren! Unless, like the Psalmist here, we make them our own, and losing the burden of self in the very act of grasping them by faith, unite ourselves with the great multitude who are joined together in Him, and say, ‘He is my God: He is our refuge.’”11

The Pledge of Peace

Finally, in vv. 8–11, we find the pledge of peace. That is, the past serves as a pledge for the future.

Come, behold the works of the Lord, who has made desolations in the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariot in the fire. Be still, 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 refuge. Selah

(Psalm 46:8–11)

Come and See

In vv. 8–9, the psalmist invites all to come and see the destruction that God has wrought in delivering His people. A staggering 185,000 corpses testified to the fact that God “makes wars cease to the end of the earth.” Witnessing this would have served to produce a healthy fear in the lives of the Israelites.

In fact, it still does. We need to take the words of Scripture and God’s works in history seriously. If it is true that “the story of history is the story of judgement,” then we need to keep in mind that this is God’s judgement (see Romans 1:18). When v. 9 says, “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth,” it is not presenting God as a peace negotiator but as a conqueror. He makes peace, He does not negotiate peace.

Come and Surrender

Verse 10 extends an offer to God’s enemies to surrender. It is, says Leupold, a “summons to ‘desist’ from all hostilities.”13

The story is told of Lord Nelson, commanded of the British navy, who, having defeated the French, sat down with the French admiral to sign a peace treaty. The French admiral boarded Lord Nelson’s ship to surrender and approached Lord Nelson in all of his regalia, with a sword swinging by his side. He extended his hand to the British commander, but Lord Nelson impassively said, “Your sword first, sir.”14

Psalm 2 paints a similar picture with regard to the enemies of Yahweh, who rage against Him. Ultimately, they will be thrown down, however, and so David invites them, “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little” (v. 10).

The church will succeed because this is the Lord’s plan! He will not fail, and therefore we need not compromise our message. As Luther believed and wrote, “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.”

One day, every knee will bow to Jesus Christ. As such, our evangelism is as much a command as it is an invitation. Yes, we invite people to receive the gospel, but we similarly command all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30–31).

Come and Sing!

Finally, the psalmist invites his readers to come and sing: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah” (v. 11).

We can take great heart from the fact that “the God of Jacob is our refuge.” As Maclaren notes, “If [God] cared for that huckstering man, as He did even in his earlier days, He will not put us away because He finds fault in us. ‘The God of Jacob,’ the [God of the] supplanter, the trickster, ‘is our Refuge.’”11

Indeed, “a mighty fortress is our God!” So be encouraged! Sing it! Let Psalm 46 fuel your passion to live, and if need be, to die with this confidence. Make it your passion to know Christ and to make Him known. May you experience Christ’s resurrection power, giving you peace for every storm, power for every sorrow, and praise in every situation.

When Martin Luther ended his trial with the words, “So help me God” he was on good footing, for “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

And you? Listen one last time to Alexander Maclaren as he exhorts:

Dear brethren! Make sure that you are in the refuge. Make sure that you have fled for “Refuge to the hope set before you in the Gospel.” The Lord of hosts is with us, but you may be parted from Him. He is our Refuge, but you may be standing outside the sanctuary, and so be exposed to all the storms. Flee thither, cast yourselves on Him, trust in that great Saviour who has given Himself for us, and who says to us, “Lo! I am with you always.” Take Christ for your hiding-place by simple faith in Him and loving obedience born of faith, and then the experience of our Psalmist will be yours.11

Show 16 footnotes

  1. Chris Mathews, Modern Satanism: Anatomy of a Radical Subculture (Portsmouth: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2009), 16.
  2. Nicholas Cronk, The Cambridge Companion to Voltaire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 199.
  3. A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Psalms (Cambridge: The University Press, n.d.), 253–54.
  4. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 363.
  5. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:388.
  6. Boice, Psalms, 389.
  7. Kirkpatrick, The Psalms, 255.
  8. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, 364.
  9. John Phillips, Exploring the Psalms, 2 vols. (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1988), 1:366.
  10. Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture: Psalms, http://goo.gl/IvZmbN, retrieved 12 October 2014.
  11. Maclaren, http://goo.gl/IvZmbN, retrieved 12 October 2014.
  12. Maclaren, http://goo.gl/IvZmbN, retrieved 12 October 2014.
  13. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 367.
  14. The account has variously been applied to Lord Nelson and the French admiral and General Douglas MacArthur and a Japanese admiral. Whether the account is true or apocryphal, it illustrates the point well.
  15. Maclaren, http://goo.gl/IvZmbN, retrieved 12 October 2014.
  16. Maclaren, http://goo.gl/IvZmbN, retrieved 12 October 2014.