Doug Van Meter - 29 Mar 2020
Shaken but Singing (Psalm 46:1–11)
Martin Luther deeply loved Psalm 46, particularly as he faced dark days of persecution from the powers of the Roman Catholic Church. One can only imagine the sense of distress and loneliness that must have at times must engulfed him as he sought to rescue people from the clutches of a perverse and corrupt monolithic religious organisation misleading people away from the gospel.
It is said that, when he was tempted to despair, he would often say to his friend and erstwhile co-worker, Philip Melanchthon, “Come, let us sing the forty-sixth Psalm and let the devil do his worst!” I imagine that he gave the same counsel when he and his countrymen were facing the Bubonic plague, which would take the life of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Magdalena. If he were with us today, he would give us the same advice. It is advice we should heed.
We don’t know when Psalm 46 was written. As with many of the psalms, we don’t know the circumstances surrounding it. We do, however, know from the superscription that it was written by the sons of Korah, who, of course, were of the Levitical priesthood. As those responsible for corporate worship, this song reflects our need to trust the Lord in all circumstances of life. When our world is shaken, we need to sing this song.
The word “Alamoth” refers to women. Perhaps this was a group of singing women. If so, this psalm, dominated by a militant tone, should remind us that women of God, as much as men of God, are called to fight the good fight of faith. Thinking about this, I am sure that Luther’s spiritually strong wife Katerina (“My Katy,” as he fondly called her) would have been a passionate soprano section as their family sang this song.
This is a helpful psalm to commit to memory during trying times, such as those in which we currently find ourselves. No doubt, it will help us immensely as we face these strange and at times unsettling days.
Many feel shaken as the cases of viral infection increase and as our own numbers as a nation have jumped almost exponentially in the past week. Perhaps you have been shaken in these days. You are not alone.
On the eve of our national lockdown, I was awakened by the sound of what was clearly a military helicopter flying over our neighbourhood. The clock as it read 23:54. I realised the seriousness of the situation as I considered the South African National Defence Force getting into place to assist with the lockdown. It was surreal, if not a bit unsettling.
It is for those like me, who are tempted to be shaken by events outside of our control, that Psalm 46 was written. It was written to be sung by God’s people in the midst of a world shaken by his power. And, make no mistake, it is God who is shaking our world.
In his commentary on Psalm 46, Philip Eveson writes,
From time to time horrific things happen to stop us in our tracks and make us think of God and eternity. When people are not prepared to stop and listen to what God has to say through his revealed word, the Bible, he will use world events—an earthquake, a tsunami, an atrocious terrorist attack—or some tragedy closer to home to challenge us in our busy lives to consider the living God our Creator.
I don’t claim to know all the reasons for the nefarious march of COVID-19. Unlike some of the false prophets of our day, I do not claim to know when its scourge will end. But I do know—and, Christian, you know—that God is at work. Psalm 46 helps us to understand something of what God is up to. Equally so, it reveals how we should respond.
May our time together equip us and empower us to sing, even though we may be shaken.
Remember, There is a Refuge
In the opening three verses, we are reminded that there is a refuge.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
The psalm opens with a bold confession of faith, followed by what we might call a fearless consequence. The sons of Korah wanted the congregation to rest in God as their refuge in the midst of a tumultuous scene. They wanted them to be calm. So it should be—so it can be—for you and me.
The Confession of Faith
The opening verse and a half make quite a claim: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (vv. 1–2). This is a very bold claim. It is a claim—a confession of faith—that every child of God should be able to make. In fact, it is our birthright. Its is the expected confession of everyone who belongs to Elohim. But though it is easy to confess, it is often difficult to live out, as we will see.
The word translated “God” is Elohim. It can refer to rulers, judges, or even false gods (Exodus 20:3). “Refuge” means “shelter” and was used to describe a place of safety from rain, storms, and from any kind of danger. “Strength” speaks of might, majesty, and force.
But these qualities are made more personal by the description that God is a “very present help in trouble.” He is not far off. Elohim is near—ready and able to help. In fact, the word “very” implies a vehemence, revealing that God is passionate about providing aid to his people as they face various distresses, adversities, and adversaries.
This confession seems to be made out of personal and past experience since it can be translated “a well-proved help in trouble.” God had been tested and had proven faithful.
In times like these, our confession of faith is being put to the test. In Christ Jesus, God has proven himself to be our refuge. The question is, do we believe him?
This confession of faith needs to be seen as a confession of a fact. It is a fact for every one of God’s people. The sons of Korah were not merely suggesting this. They were stating a fact: God is the refuge and strength for those who belong to him. The question however is, do you belong to him? Is the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ your refuge, or is a false god—a mere elohim—your refuge?
Be careful. There are many elohims that are vehemently present. There are plenty of offers to be your refuge: sex, drugs, alcohol, money, things, academic success, career success, investments, health, man-centred psychologies and philosophies, political ideologies and systems. But all of these will ultimately fail. God, as we will see, will see that that.
Because God is our refuge, we can be calm. We see this in the words, “Therefore we will not fear” (v. 2). While others are full of dread, those who belong to the Lord need not be afraid. As in Exodus 14:13, we can stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.
There is a lot of fear in our nation and throughout the world. I find myself thinking what it must have been like during the Great Depression, which commenced the year my father was born. I think a lot about what life was like during World War II and what must have been a time of great temptation to fear. We are in a similar situation.
In spite of the government’s assurance, and the assurance of corporations, people did a whole lot of panic buying—fear-induced grocery shopping—in the days before shutdown. I heard of one family that spent R30,000 on groceries. Wow. That’s a whole lot of toilet paper!
I was speaking to one of our church members recently. We were talking about how needless the hoarding is. After all, I said, the government has given assurance about the supply chain to stores. He said something far better: He was not concerned about provision because the one who supplies what we need has promised us. He was preaching my own sermon to me, and I needed that very helpful reminder.
Brothers and sisters, if God truly is our refuge, if he truly is our strength, if he truly is our very present help in trouble, we will not fear. We will not fear regardless of the calamity. And, if you haven’t noticed, we are facing a calamity.
We need to be deeply honest with ourselves. We need to be honest before the Lord. Is there integrity to our confession of faith (v. 1)? The way to answer that is to honestly consider v. 2: Are we fearful? If so, of what, or of whom? Who or what is determining our disposition? Who or what is determining the direction of our life? Who or what is determining the decisions of our life? This present calamity is a mirror revealing our true condition. How we respond—where and to whom we run for refuge—reveals the object of our trust.
Having made such a bold claim, having published such a declaration of faith, the writer(s) seek to show just how strong their confidence is: “Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah” (vv. 2–3).
Even though earth-shaking, earth-shattering events happen, the sons of Korah express that their confession, their confidence, and their calmness will continue.
Some commentators suggest that the psalmist is describing a particular natural disaster: the calamitous catastrophe of Noahic proportion. This may be true, but I think the entire psalm is describing geo-political calamity: the fall of nations, the toppling of world powers, the falling apart of societies. I believe this for several reasons.
First, the language used here is used in other places in scripture to describe the conquest, judgement, and destruction of kingdoms (see Isaiah 13; Haggai 2; etc.).
Second, the rest of the psalm seems to have this in view. The psalmist does not seem to be describing physical destruction and then geo-political destruction. His theme remains consistent all the way through.
Regardless, the picture is a dire one. It pictures a world in which it seems that the foundations are being destroyed. It pictures a calamity that is tumultuous and seemingly out of control—at least, out of our control. In a very real sense, it pictures a situation like we are facing: economies tanking; unemployment a very real threat for multitudes; a plague of massive proportions; a virus that knows no discrimination.
And yet, with all this tumult, in the midst of the calamity, our disposition must be that of the sons of Korah: “We will not fear.” Even if the earth gives way, we know our Refuge will not give way.
I recently saw a video clip shot in Rio de Janiero of self-isolating individuals, from balconies, singing “Because He Lives” to one another. That is the kind of hopeful trust that this psalm calls for. I don’t know how many of those singers truly know the Lord as their refuge, but it was a great challenge to me.
The first stanza comes to an end with the use of a refrain: “Selah.” We are to pause and ponder on this. So I ask again, is God really your refuge? If so, then your refuge is real. If not, keep reading to discover how God can become your refuge,
Remember, There is a River
The second stanza reminds us that there is a river:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
It would seem that, in a context of destructive water, the last thing someone who needs refuge would want to hear about is more water. But this is precisely what the writer does in v. 4. In a word meant to encourage he writes, “There is a river.” “Oh my!” the reader might think. “More water?” But listen to the rest of the verse: This river “makes glad the city of God.”
We will discuss this river later, but for now we need to focus on this city. Let’s observe a few things about God’s appointed and established place of safety: our graciously provided “city of refuge.”
A Surrounded Place
The psalmist speaks of a city of God in contrast to what he has described in the verses before this. There, we saw kingdoms, including cities, being shaken. Here, we are given encouragement about a city that is stable. It is the city of God; the habitation of the Most High—that is, the one who is majestic over all and who reigns supreme.
We are also told that “God is in the midst of her.” He is present, yes, but, more, he actually upholds her, for we are told that “she shall not be moved.” In v. 6, we are encouraged that “the LORD of hosts is with us” in this city. The one who has an army of angels is on our side. Someone has noted that, when Satan fell from heaven, he took with him one third of the other angels. But that means that two-thirds of the angels remain on God’s side. Therefore we can rest assured that more are for us than those who are against us (see Matthew 18:10; cf. 4:6).
This truth can be illustrated in an event that many think may have inspired this psalm. In 2 Kings 18–19, we read of the Assyrian army attacking Jerusalem. The terrified Jews hunkered down in Jerusalem. King Hezekiah had diverted the Gihon River so that its water flowed into Jerusalem, thereby cutting off a supply of water to the Assyrians during the siege.
Sennacherib’s Assyrian general issued a challenge to Judah, eventually challenging Judah’s God directly. He boasted that, as none of the gods of the nations had delivered them from his hand, so Yahweh would prove impotent to deliver Judah from his power. He did not count on the fact that Yahweh is a living God!
Yahweh sent Isaiah to Hezekiah with a word of encouragement and, that night, send his angel to the Assyrian camp, where he killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers, thus putting an end to the Assyrian threat.
I don’t know for sure that this is the event that inspired the psalm, but it fits the context well. Hezekiah and the Jewish people at that time found God to be their refuge and found the city of God to be surrounded by God himself, thereby providing safety in a time of utter calamity.
“The God of Jacob is our fortress,” writes the psalmist. “Fortress” is a derivative of the word for “refuge” in v. 1. The word means something that is inaccessible: a high stronghold—like Table Mountain, or like God!
The point is that God’s people, amid all the turmoil of the earthly cities, dwell in a place of safety. We dwell in a safe place. I wonder if the writer of Hebrews was reflecting on Psalm 46 when he penned chapter 12.
It is helpful for us to remember that we are not the first generation of Christians who has faced the shaking of our world. The writer to the Hebrews was addressing those living in a time of deep distress. The Roman Empire was seemingly falling to pieces as it fought battles on every front. The result was that the economy was tanking, and the Jews found themselves on the receiving end of much persecution. But Jewish people in return persecuted fellow Jews, who were Christians. They were about to enter a time of great tribulation such as the world had never seen. Jerusalem and the Jewish nation would be cast into a sea of destruction. But God would deliver his true city, his “Jerusalem from above” (Galatians 4:26), his “Mount Zion… the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 11:22), his “holy city, the new Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2). That is, God delivered his church in the first century, and he will deliver his church in the 21st century. I don’t pretend to know exactly what that will look like, but I am sure that Jesus will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against her.
The writer perhaps had the Exodus on his mind, for, in v. 5, he writes, “God will help her when morning dawns.” We read the same words in Exodus 14:27. But note the entire passage:
And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the Lord threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.
Yes, weeping endured for the night but joy came in the morning. The city of God is able to be glad in the midst of tumult.
A Secured Place
We are told in v. 5 that the city of God “shall not be moved.” This is really good news to someone observing the world around them being shaken to its foundation. While other cities are being moved, and even destroyed, the city of God remains secure and unshaken.
While the cities and kingdoms of the world totter and are in tumultuous trouble, there is a city that is stable. There is a city on earth that is able to stand and to withstand, for its security is in God. God Most High secures this city. It is preserved by the LORD of hosts. It is secured by the God of Jacob. In contrast to the kingdoms of this world, which are, and will be, cast into the sea, we are the recipients of “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). Our city stands because ours is the city of God.
What is this “city”? It is the place where God dwells with his people. It was the tabernacle; it was then the temple; for nearly two thousand years, it has been the church.
As the sons of Korah considered the geo-political crisis around them; as they perhaps observed, first-hand, surrounding nations opposing the nation of Israel, they took comfort in knowing that God was with them. And we should too.
Jesus said that he is with us, even until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). That means he is with us now.
The writer to the beleaguered Hebrew Christians of the first century reminds us that God will never leave us or forsake us (see Hebrews 13:5–6). What was true of them then, remains true for us now. It remains true today. Rejoice and be glad in that!
This does not mean that things will be easy for the people of God. In fact, the same Bible that assures us that the church is a safe and secure place also reveals that it is a suffering place.
A Sustained Place
Because of Psalm-46esque tumult, the writer to the Hebrews points his readers to God’s kingdom, which can never be moved. God sustains his city in the midst of flood waters of judgement with the waters of his grace. This is the picture before us. In other words, there is a river that sustains us in our city of refuge. Derek Kidner says that this river is a “picture of God’s help as the quiet water-supply of the besieged.” This river that sustains us is the rivers of God’s grace to us.
When God created Eden, he sustained it with a river (Genesis 2:10). This river of God’s kindness to his creation, with special reference to his people, runs all through the Bible and all through human history—right up until the end.
Revelation 22:1–2 informs us,
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
The point is that God cares for his new creation, God cares for his people. He sustains us by the river and the streams of his grace. The psalmist understood this and, for this reason, mentions a title that calls to memory the grace of God. He writes, “The God of Jacob is our fortress.”
This is a rich statement, which the writer will state twice within these eleven verses (see v. 12). What is its significance? It reminds us that our fortress is the real fortress.
There are many people who speak religiously at times like this. You can see it in the messages and in the memes that bombard our phones from well-meaning neighbours, work colleagues, family members, and friends. It’s what we might call Pinterest theology: pretty but superficial.
For many people, any god—any elohim—will do. As long as you “believe.” But this, of course, is folly. After all, “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12; cf. 16:25). Figments of imagination can never be a real refuge. We need reality if we will overcome reality. The God of Jacob is that reality.
It was the God of Jacob who fulfilled his promise to bring Jacob’s very extended family out of Egypt after four hundred years of slavery (Exodus 3:6–15). It was the God of Jacob who cared for them in the wilderness. It was the God of Jacob who preserved them until Jesus Christ, the ultimate son of Jacob, came to earth.
It is this God of Jacob whom you need to trust. For though there are plenty of gods, there is only one true God who can help us. There is one God who can make us happy:
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free.
Remember, There is a Reason
The final stanza serves as a reminder that there is a reason for all the calamity:
Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with 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 fortress. Selah
This stanza serves as an invitation: “Come and see my purpose in all of this.”
The Sight We Need
When you are faced with the tumult of life, when it seems like your world is falling apart, more than ever you need to behold the sovereignty of God. This is the message—the invitation, if you will—of vv. 8–9.
“Come” literally means “to walk” (see Genesis 2:14; 3:8; 5:22–24; 6:9; etc.). God is telling us to come to him, to walk with him, while he lets us in on what he is doing behind the curtain of the chaos. If we heed his call to walk with him we will be in a position from which we can “behold the works of the LORD.”
The word translated “behold” means “to gaze upon.” It implies mental perception or contemplation. Perhaps, more literally, it can be translated as “have a vision of.” It was a word used of the experience of prophets and seers.
When we are surrounded by a world that is shaking, we need to see that even the shaking is a work of the Lord. We need to see his sovereign power and control. We need to see that he has a sovereign reason for catastrophe.
We are told that “he has brought desolations on the earth”—the very “desolations” of vv. 2–3: the tottering of kingdoms and the melting of the earth (v. 6) through his breaking of the bow and shattering of the spear. This is his work.
COVID-19 is his work. The crashing economy is his work. The shutting down of the country is his work. The sooner we see this—the sooner our vision is adjusted to see God’s sovereignty—the sooner we will rest in his place of safety and experience God as a mighty fortress and a bulwark never failing.
God is not the author of evil but nothing happens apart from his allowance. Brothers and sisters, one of our biggest temptations is that of control. During our national lockdown, government has banned running in the streets. I recently ran 5km around my yard. Afterwards, I commented to my wife that I’m not sure why I did so. She astutely replied, “Because you like to be in control.” She was right.
We like to think that we are masters of our own fate. But then something like a coronavirus enters to disrupt our illusion of autonomy. We can adapt, and we can attempt to overcome challenges, but, ultimately, we run into the brick wall of God’s sovereign control. Whether it is Napoleon on the verge of conquering Moscow and then being turned back by an awful winter, or whether it is Saul seeking to wipe out the church, sooner or later we are forced to see the one we cannot see is doing his work and he will prevail.
We are in this position now. Will we see? God is inviting us to come and behold his works. He is at work. Ask him to help us to see. The sooner we do, the sooner we will rest in him.
The Silence We Need
Verse 10 is often put on posters and used to promote religious retreats: “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” In point of fact, it has little to do with a tranquil setting. It is rather an admonition of God to the nations. It is a loud wake-up call rather than a gentle invitation to rest. It is “a rebuke to a restless and turbulent world” (Kidner).
This verse loudly proclaims the reason behind all the tumult: “I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth!” And he will do whatever is necessary to bring this about, including the seeming irresistible spread a virus, economic collapse, and a nationwide lockdown.
What we are experiencing with COVID-19, and whatever other trial we are experiencing, is for the purpose that God be exalted and glorified. God’s purpose has not changed. The great commandment and the Great Commission remain his priority, perhaps more so now for us than ever before. Who knows but that God will use this to bring many to their knees that they might be still and know that he is God?
The word translated “still” is the word for sabbath. “Know” is related to the word “hand.” When we truly come to see God for who he is, we cease from our self-sufficiency and let go of whatever else is in our hands and surrender all to him. Certainly God is emptying our hands. With those empty hands, embrace him by embracing his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Saviour We Need
Verses 9–10 are soberingly scary. But thankfully the psalm doesn’t end there. It ends by pointing us to Emmanuel, “The LORD of host is with us.”
Psalm 46 is about the Lord being our refuge (vv. 1, 4, 7, 11). God is a refuge from the catastrophes in the world, which result from the exercise of his wrath. In other words, God is our refuge to protect us from himself. God, who was against us (with good reason!), is now for us (Romans 8:31). This required that God be with us. He was, and he is, in Jesus Christ his Son. That is good news!
God became man. We call him Jesus. He lived perfectly sinless every moment of his 33 years on earth. He ministered to people in their catastrophes. He did so to point them to their need for deliverance from the greatest threat: the wrath of God. But to do so Jesus would need to suffer desolation.
There was a day when the earth trembled, and people were afraid as the sun was darkened at three o’ clock on a Friday afternoon. Two godless nations conspired kill God’s Son, Jesus Christ. If ever a godly person needed a refuge it was on that day. But, strangely and inexplicably, the holiest human to ever live did not experience v. 1 of this psalm. Rather, he experienced the opposite. For three dark hours on the cross, Jesus found no refuge so that we could have refuge. He forfeited v. 1 so that we might have the reality of v. 11. His resurrection secured it. Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
Brothers and sisters, our world is being shaken. But if we pause to reflect, remembering that Jesus Christ has saved us, we will sing, “The LORD God of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” With Luther, we will sing the forty-sixth psalm and allow the devil to do his worst. After all, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” To God be the glory.