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

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Doug Van Meter - 11 January 2009

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

A Trilogy of Encouragement

What many (militant) atheists are promoting today is old news and it is the same old lie that has been promoted since time immemorial. It is just like the lie that Sennacherib shouted to King Hezekiah and the city of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 18-19: “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 this: your destruction is imminent if you do not surrender to me and my army.”

From Series: "A Trilogy of Encouragement"

A brief mini-series preached by Doug Van Meter from Psalms 46–48.

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I recently read of advertisements that have appeared on the side of London buses, which read, “There probably is no God. So stop worrying and start enjoying life.”

What many (militant) atheists are promoting today is old news and it is the same old lie that has been promoted since time immemorial. It is just like the lie that Sennacherib shouted to King Hezekiah and the city of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 18-19: “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 this: 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 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, Sennacherib lost his following and was later murdered worshipping the god of his imagination.

The result of Yahweh’s wonderful and powerful intervention was the penning of Psalms 46, 47 & 48. These three psalms form a trilogy of encouragement for beleaguered believers as they sound forth praise to God who loves and cares for His people. A. F. Kirkpatrick writes of these psalms:

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. 46 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.

Commenting on the authorship of these psalms, Kirkpatrick notes, “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.” I believe personally that Isaiah was in all likelihood the author of these psalms himself.

This study will be the first of a three part series. As we study this trilogy of psalms together, may we be encouraged in the Lord our God.

The Situation from which the Psalm Arose

Though the text itself does not say so, it does appear that the background to this trilogy of psalms is Isaiah 36-37 and 2 Kings 18-19. These two sections of Scripture record the same events.

During the reign of Hezekiah, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, attacked the city of Jerusalem. Initially, he accepted a bribe from Hezekiah to keep the peace, but he later changed his mind and surrounded the city again.

As an intimidation tactic, Sennacherib sent representatives to stand outside the city walls and shout threats to those guarding the gates. Of course, the walls of the city were open to the public, so many residents of the city heard these threats. The Assyrians boasted of the many nations that they had already conquered, and assured the Jews that their God, Yahweh, was no match for the Assyrian forces. So intimidating were their warnings that the city guards asked them to speak in a language less commonly known by the people so that the citizens of the city did not grow too disheartened. The Assyrians, of course, laughed at this suggestion, for intimidation was precisely their intention.

Instead of taking matters again into his own hands and offering Sennacherib another bribe, King Hezekiah turned to the Lord in prayer. God sent His reply to Hezekiah by Isaiah the prophet, who assured the king that he had no reason to fear. That night, an angel of the Lord slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers, so that when Sennacherib awoke the following morning it was to a soundly defeated army. He returned in shame to his own land, where he was assassinated.

As noted above, the close parallels between the account in Isaiah and the psalms themselves lead me to believe that Isaiah penned these three psalms as a response to the work of God against the Assyrians. With that background in mind, let us see what we can learn from Psalm 46.

A Proven Peace

The psalmist begins with some of the more well-known words in any of the psalms: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.”

Before we begin gleaning any principles from this text, we must first understand precisely what it is saying. The phrase “a very present help in trouble” speaks of “a proven help in tight places.” Commentator Leupold defines it as “a well-proved help in troubles.” God’s ability to “help in trouble” was proven in trouble. The trial that the author faced proved to be a most providential teacher. Trials always are. The writer reflects on past events to give him present peace. Let us notice three things about this peace.

A Powerful Protector

First, we note that the peace is the result of a powerful protector. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

In Isaiah 36:7 Sennacherib set forth this challenge to Hezekiah: “But if thou say to me, We trust in the LORD our God: is it not he, whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah hath taken away, and said to Judah and to Jerusalem, Ye shall worship before this altar?” Of course, Sennacherib was mistaken in thinking that the altars that Hezekiah destroyed during his reforms were sanctioned by Yahweh; nevertheless, he knew immediately that Hezekiah would place his “trust in the LORD.” This trust is clearly reflected in the opening verse of Psalm 46.

The concept of God as our “refuge” speaks of Him as “a place to which to go quietly for protection.” Bomb shelters are designed as places of refuge when devastating explosions are expected. As long as a person is in the bomb shelter he is safe from the devastation outside. Similarly, God is pictured here as a place in which we can find refuge from the potential devastation of our trials. Martin Luther pictured this powerfully in his great hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe—
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is He—
Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same—
And He must win the battle.

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.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure—
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs—no thanks to them—abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still—
His kingdom is forever.

As James Montgomery Boice puts it, “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.”

But the psalmist also describes God as his “strength.” If “refuge” describes God as “a stronghold into which we can flee,” then “strength” describes Him as “a source of inner strength by which we can face calamities” (Boice).

A Peaceful Perspective

Having just described God as our “refuge and strength,” the writer now draws some logical conclusions: “Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah” (vv. 2-3).

From our perspective, the trials we face seem to be overwhelming. They appear to be less like little waves and more like huge tsunamis. The very foundations on we have built our lives seem to crumble.

But “God is our refuge and strength.” Writes Kirkpatrick, “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.” Or as Leupold writes, “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.”

Of course, we do not live in Jerusalem, surrounded by Assyrian forces, who pronounce threatening words shouted at us from outside the wall. But this text speaks to us just as powerfully as it did to its original readers. We might face different circumstances, but the truth remains. “We will not fear despite newspapers, the sirens, the empty bank account, broken relationships, mistreatment, unemployment, disease, or death. We will not fear despite war, regardless of mocking rulers, and despite what appears to be the world falling apart.” No matter what trials we face, we will not fear, for “God is our refuge and strength.”

A Peaceful Pause

The psalmist ends with the word “selah,” which is found no fewer than three times in these 11 verses. The word “selah” seems to have been a musical/poetic term used to exhort the reader to pause and think carefully about what has just been said. “What do you think about that?” we might say in colloquial English. (This is how J. B. Phillips in fact paraphrases it.)

We need to think when we face times of trial. I recently had a most blessed conversation with a saint who is undergoing tremendous difficulties. She has been diagnosed with a particular health problem that will potentially shorten her life drastically. When I called I assured her that I wouldn’t speak long because I was sure she was tired of talking about her condition. She assured me that she did not mind speaking about it at all, and we proceeded to have a wonderful conversation. I phoned hoping to be a blessing to her; she ended up being a blessing to me!

She spoke of how she had desired for a long time to have a walker close with Christ, and how she had prayed that God would so work in her life as to accomplish this. Though her present condition is certainly not a joyous one, she rejoices that in it God has accomplished precisely what she had prayed for. Her walk with Christ has suddenly come alive. By her own testimony, she is able not to fear as she clings to the promises of God in Scripture.

A Place of Peace

The proven peace that Jerusalem experienced after its incredible deliverance from the Assyrian forces can be ours. But notice that the ones who experienced this wonderful deliverance were those who were in the right place. They were in Jerusalem, “the place of peace.”

There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early. The heathen 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

Verses 2-3 portrayed the Assyrian army outside Jerusalem as a raging, stormy sea. Things were calamitous, unsettled. But within the city, within God’s chosen place, there was “a river.” The mention of the “river” and the “streams” has a calming effect. In fact, Isaiah often uses water in his prophecy to picture God’s comforting sustenance of His people. Those who were within the city, God’s chosen place, were safe from the (perceived) calamity outside.

A Comfortable Place

In Old Testament times, the surest way to secure the eventual conquest of a city during a siege was to reroute all rivers leading into the city thus cutting off its water supply. Hezekiah, however, was a brilliant strategist, and had compensated for just such an eventuality. Phillips explains:

Our history books tell us to which river the psalmist refers. The word means “constantly flowing river,” not just a creek which carries a flash flood and then dries up to nothing. Knowing that sooner or later the Assyrian army would besiege Jerusalem, Hezekiah had taken wise and practical steps to insure that Jerusalem had an unfailing water supply, no matter how long the siege. The spring of Gihon, located below the steep eastern hill of Ophel in the deep Kidron Valley, Jerusalem’s most ancient water supply, was exposed to enemy attack. Hezekiah diverted the spring through a conduit, 1777 feet long and hewn out of solid rock, into a reservoir inside the city’s walls. He then completely covered the ancient spring so that the enemy would not know it was there. Throughout the fearful siege there was “a river, the streams whereof made glad the city of God.” The psalmist tells us of this river, how impassive was its flow (46:4) and how impotent was its foe (45:5-7).

The biblical record of this feat can be found in 2 Chronicles 32:1-4, with an added allusion in 2 Kings 20:20. Thus, although Jerusalem was surrounded by arguably the most powerful army in the world at the time, those within the walls were well cared for.

The point is simply this: God will nourish His people in the midst of troubles. Their calamity will be changed to calmness; God will take care of His city. Whilst the waters of the world are against us, God sends streams both to us and through us.

The adequate water supply within the city of Jerusalem may initially have appeared somewhat insignificant compared to the threat that lay outside the walls, but it would prove to be more than enough. Similarly, the rivers of God’s provision in our life are adequate, even though they seem initially to be insignificant compared to the trials that we face.

A Confident Place

The author next tells us that believers enjoy God’s presence (“God is in the midst of her”), which gives us access to God’s promises (“she shall not be moved”) and helps us to trust His providences (“God shall help her, and that right early”).

The phrase “and that right early” translates a word which means “in the morning” or “at dawn.” Thus, writes Kirkpatrick, the believer enjoys God’s assistance “when the dawn of deliverance succeeds the night of distress.” There is an important lesson here, as MacLaren states: “The ‘appearing of the morning” He determines; not you or I.” Our trust is in God, but ultimately He is the one who decides when the trials have run their course. It was not Hezekiah or Isaiah who determined the end of the siege. “Then the angel of the LORD went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses” (Isaiah 37:36).

The psalmist speaks in v. 6 of God’s ultimate power, which is based on his pre-eminence. Verse 7 speaks of “the LORD of hosts,” a title which speaks of God’s absolute authority over all creation. Because He is “the LORD of hosts” he has ultimate power, and this should give us great peace.

Make no mistake: The church will succeed. The LORD of hosts will see to it! Revelation does not speak of a victorious mosque, but of the victorious church! The Lord “uttered his voice” and “the earth melted.” Let us take Him at His Word, utter His voice, and see the earth melt around us! Heed the words of MacLaren:

For “the history of the world is the judgment of the world.” When He wills the plains are covered and mountains disappear, but one rock stands fast—“The mountain of the Lord’s house is exalted above the top of the mountains”; and when everything is rocking and swaying in the tempests, here is fixity and tranquility. “She shall not be moved” … because God is n her and she is safe, and where He dwells no evil can come.

Let us never lose sight of the “Emmanuel principle.” God is with us (Exodus 6:6; Isaiah 7:4; 8:8, 10; Matthew 1:23; 2 Corinthians 6:15-18)!

Pause and evaluate honestly your relationship to the church, the place of peace. Are you in? Are you really in? Are you wholeheartedly committed to the church, or is church just something you do out of a sense of religious obligation? Do you believe in the power of the God of the church? If so, find your refuge in the place of peace! Again, hear MacLaren:

We must take a further step that will lead us far beyond the regions of barren intellectual apprehension of the great truths of God’s love and care. 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.”

The Pledge of Peace

In the final section of the psalm, the inspired author offers a pledge of peace. God’s providence in the past is meant to be an encouraging pledge for the future.

Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire. Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, 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)

Let us break this section into three imperatives

Come and See!

Just try to wrap your mind around the scene for a moment. One day, a threatening Assyrian presence surrounds the holy city. The next day, 185,000 corpses litter the ground! We are accustomed in our day to hearing on international newscasts about death tolls from disasters and wars, but can we even fathom 185,000 dead in one place in one night? The psalmist urges his readers to consider this:

Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

(Psalm 46:8-9)

Notice that the call is to “come, behold the works of the LORD.” The goal is that we might have a right fear object. The psalmist tells us further that “he maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth.” Notice that He does not negotiate peace; he makes peace! As Boice notes, “When verse 9 says, ‘He makes wars to cease to the ends of the earth,’ it is not presenting God as a peace negotiator but as a conqueror.”

And so we are exhorted, first of all, to come and see God’s past victories, which will encourage us in His ability to give us victory in the future.

Come and Surrender!

But the psalmist now issues a word of invitation to those who stand in opposition to the LORD of hosts: “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth” (v. 10). This verse is what Leupold has described as a “summons to desist from all hostilities.”

For as long as I can remember, I have approached this verse as one of contemplation, as if God was saying, “Be still and think about who I am.” Whilst that is a biblical and worthwhile exercise, it is not at all the intention of this verse. In fact, it is a verse calling for surrender. “Stop your war against God! Lay down your arms! Surrender, and know that He is God—He will win!” “Jehovah speaks,” writes Kirkpatrick, “admonishing the nations to desist from their vain endeavour to destroy His people, and bidding them recognize Him as the true God, who will manifest His absolute supremacy.”

When Lord Nelson won a particular battle the opposing leader came to him and offered his hand as a truce, Nelson wisely said, “Sir, first your sword and then your hand.” In other words, “Surrender first before we can be friends.” That is what is being called for here. Psalm 2 makes it quite clear that God will certainly triumph over all His enemies, and the only way to avoid destruction is to come to Him in absolute surrender.

The church faces many and varied trials, but she will ultimately succeed because that is the Lord’s plan! There is no need for us to compromise our message. We need not think that we will lose the war unless we resort to compromising tactics. The outcome is assured. As Luther stated it, “We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.”

Our evangelism is as much a command as it is an invitation. We call sinners to respond to God’s invitation to salvation (Matthew 11:28-30), but repentance is at the same time a command from the sovereign God. “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). The call is to surrender.

Come and Sing!

Finally, we see the invitation to come and sing. “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah” (v. 11).

The title “the LORD of hosts” ought rightly to strike awe into our hearts. It speaks of his absolute and ultimate authority over everyone and everything. But that awe-inspiring title is tempered with “the God of Jacob,” a title which offers us great encouragement. Who was Jacob? He was a sinner, just like us. He failed God time and again. He was a deceiver and a supplanter. He was not an ideal role model, and yet “the LORD of hosts” is not ashamed to be known as “the God of Jacob”! MacLaren states it well: “If He cared for that huckstering Jew, 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 supplanter, the trickster, ‘is our Refuge.’”

Indeed, “a mighty fortress is our God!” Let us be encouraged! At the outset of a new year, let us make it a fresh goal to sing the praises of the God of Jacob. May it be our passion to know Christ and to make Him known.  May this year be one of His resurrection power which will give us peace for every storm, and power for every sorrow and praise in every situation. But this can only be our experience if we personally know God as our refuge. Listen to MacLaren:

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.