The Shelter of God’s Peace

| Psalm 46:1-11

The Point:  God is the source of peace in the midst of turmoil.

God is Our Refuge and Strength: Psalm 46:1-11.

[1]  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. [2]  Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, [3]  though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah [4]  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. [5]  God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. [6]  The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. [7]  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah [8]  Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. [9]  He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. [10]  "Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!" [11]  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah  [ESV]

Introduction. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Martin Luther is one of the key figures in church history, a man mightily used by God to bring reformation to the church. The year 1527 was the most difficult of his life. After ten demanding years of leading the Reformation, a dizzy spell overcame him in the middle of a sermon on April 22 of that year, forcing him to stop preaching. Luther feared for his life. On July 6, while eating dinner with friends, he felt an acute buzzing in his ear and lay down, again convinced he was at the end of his life. He partially regained his strength, but a debilitating discouragement set in as a result. In addition, heart problems and severe intestinal complications escalated the pangs of death. Of this ordeal, Luther wrote, “I spent more than a week in death and hell. My entire body was in pain, and I still tremble. Completely abandoned by Christ, I labored under the vacillations and storms of desperation and blasphemy against God.” What was worse, the dreaded black plague had entered Germany and spread into Wittenberg. Many people fled, fearing for their lives. Yet Luther and his wife Katy remained, believing it was their duty to care for the sick and dying. Although Katy was pregnant with their second child, Luther’s house was transformed into a hospital where he watched many friends die. Then without warning Luther’s one-year-old son Hans became desperately ill. With death surrounding him on every side, Luther was driven to seek refuge in God as never before. Psalm 46 became the strength of his soul. As a result, Luther expanded its truths into the hymn for which he is most famous, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Its majestic and thunderous proclamation of God who is our all-sufficient refuge in our weakest moments has become the enduring symbol of the Reformation. Like Martin Luther, the author of Psalm 46 found solace and refuge in God during difficult times. The background for this song of praise is unknown, but it was probably written after a military victory over a foreign power that attempted a siege against Jerusalem. It may have been written after the destruction of the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir [2 Chron. 20:1-30]. Of perhaps it was recorded after the destruction of King Sennacherib and the Assyrian army during the reign of Hezekiah [2 Kings 18-19]. According to the superscription, it was written by one of the Sons of Korah and was for the Choirmaster. Alamoth may refer to the pitch of the music, denoting that it was to be high for the treble and soprano voices.”  [Lawson, pp. 242-244].

“Some people think they will be secure if only they have enough money. So they lay it up in bank accounts, stocks, and other tangible assets. Like the rich man of Jesus’ parable they say, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry [Luke 12:19]. Jesus called a person who does that a fool, since in the end death comes and he or she must stand before God at His final judgment. Money cannot protect us from judgment. It cannot even shield us against heartbreak, failure, sin, disease, or disaster in this world. Other people think they will be secure because of their specialized training, skills, or personal talents. But even the best-educated and highly skilled people suffer sudden reversals of fortune. Still others expect security from their families, friends, or business connections. But these are all only human supports. They are uncertain at best, and at times they are suddenly swept away. The Reformers knew how unstable and uncertain these things could be. They knew that God is unshakable and trustworthy. Verse 1 looks to God for two kinds of help, indicating that He is: (1) a stronghold into which we can flee and (2) a source of inner strength by which we can face calamities. Sometimes God shields us from what is going on around us and it can be said of us, quoting the later psalmist, A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked [Ps. 91:7-8]. In such times God is our fortress. At other times we are afflicted and do suffer. Then we find that God is our help. We are able to say, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble [1]. God is our help even if the worst imaginable calamities should come upon us. This is what verses 2-3 are about, as the psalmist imagines the return of chaos, in which the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, thus reversing the work of God on the third day of creation. Sometimes life is like that. The foundations of our established worlds are shaken, and chaos seems to have come again. But, although all things seem to be shaken, one thing is not: God is not shaken. God is God whether we recognize it or not. But it comforts us and infuses strength into our faltering spirits to rest on that truth. Psalm 46 is divided into three stanzas, each ending with the word Selah, which probably indicates a pause in the music or a pause for contemplation. In addition, the second and third stanzas end with the refrain, The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Stanza one [1-3] is a general statement stressing that God alone is our refuge, even in the worst calamities. In the next stanza [4-6] the poet emphasizes the defense of God’s city. This has two points of reference. The first is the earthly city of Jerusalem. The immediate occasion of the psalm was probably some great intervention of God to destroy enemy armies that were marching against Jerusalem. In the time of danger those who resided in Jerusalem were secure, because God was in their midst. He was with them. In this setting the river of verse 4 is the stream of Siloam, the only natural supply of fresh water in Jerusalem. The holy habitation is the temple mount. Thus, with great poetic beauty, right against the picture of chaos in verses 2-3, comes the picture of the perfect peace and safety of Jerusalem in verse 4. This probably explains why the refrain following verses 7 and 11 is left out here, where it would otherwise belong. Quite a few psalms concern the city of Jerusalem, among them Psalms 48, 76, 84, 87, and 122. They are called ‘songs of Zion’. Yet no one can read this psalm perceptively without sensing that this earthly reference fails to exhaust its meaning. This is because the city of God, the theme of verses 4-6, is also a major theme of the whole of Scripture and concerns not only the security of earthly Jerusalem but also the nature and safety of the people of God throughout history. It has its culmination in the new spiritual Jerusalem, a symbol of heaven, which has been prepared by God as the final dwelling place of the saints. In this frame of reference the river of verse 4 is the river that flows from God’s throne [see Ezek. 47:1-12; Zech. 14:8; Rev. 22:1-2] and the holy habitation is the dwelling place of God in heaven. This is the city for which Abraham looked, not a mere earthly Jerusalem, but the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God [Heb. 11:10]. What earthly circumstances lie behind this account of God’s defense of Jerusalem? There are two main theories. (1) The destruction of the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir during the reign of Jehoshaphat [2 Chron. 20:1-20]. When Jehoshaphat was told that armies from the east were coming against him, he appealed to God for help and God answered, saying that He would deliver the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The people were not to fight the invading armies but were to station themselves at a high vantage point to see what would happen. When they did, they saw the soldiers of Ammon and Moab turn against the soldiers from Mount Seir. That is, the armies fought each other and destroyed themselves. (2) The destruction of the army of the Assyrian King Sennacherib during the reign of Hezekiah [2 Kings 18-19]. This is the better known of the two incidents. On this occasion Sennacherib’s field commander stood before the walls of Jerusalem and called on the people to surrender, boasting that none of the gods of the nations had been able to stand against the Assyrian armies. He then sent a letter to Hezekiah, boasting of the same thing. When Hezekiah received it he went into the temple and spread it before the Lord, and God answered him through the great prophet Isaiah, who said that God would defend the city and that Sennacherib would return to Nineveh and perish there. That night God sent an angel through the camp of the Assyrians, killing 185,000 soldiers. So Sennacherib broke camp and withdrew back to Nineveh. There is insufficient evidence to decide between the two theories. But it does not matter, since the point of the psalm does not depend on the identification. Whatever the original circumstances, it is true that God alone is our defense and that our ultimate security does not rest in any earthly city, but in the heavenly city prepared for us by God. We now come to the third stanza [8-10]. Although the language grows out of the earlier material – that is, the historical deliverance of the people from either the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir or Sennacherib – the stanza is not really looking to the past but ahead to the future when God shall defeat all armies and establish His eternal reign. In other words, the stanza is written along the same lines as Psalm 2 in which God mocks those who take arms against Him and His anointed. He tells the Son, I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel [2:8-9]. When 46:9 says, He makes wars cease to the end of the earth, it is not presenting God as a peace negotiator but as a conqueror. Therefore, in this setting, Be still, and know that I am God [10] is not advice to us to lead a contemplative life, however important that may be. It means rather, ‘Lay down your arms. Surrender, and acknowledge that I am the one and only victorious God’. The conclusion and proper application of this psalm is the response that has already appeared following stanza two [7] and now appears a second and final time in verse 11: The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Who is He, this God who is His people’s refuge? The answer is given in the two names of God in this refrain. First, He is the Lord of Hosts. Hosts refers to the armies of Israel, on the one hand, and to the angelic armies of God, on the other. This makes the name especially apt in this psalm, since the psalm is based on a historical deliverance of the people from earthly armies, whatever their origin, and also looks forward to a final deliverance when God will subdue the hostile forces of rebellious man forever. It is a particularly striking name in this psalm because the name Jehovah does not occur much in this second book of the psalms; the name is usually Elohim. We have a wonderful insight into the power of God’s hosts in the story of Elisha at Dothan. The city of Dothan had been surrounded by the armies of Ben-Hadad of Syria in an attempt to capture Elisha, and they were discovered early in the morning by Elisha’s young servant. When he saw the soldiers and chariots positioned around the city he rushed back inside and cried out to Elisha, saying, Alas, my master! What shall we do? [2 Kings 6:15]. Elisha prayed that God would open the eyes of his servant to see the heavenly hosts protecting him, and when God did, the servant saw that the hills were filled with horses and chariots of fire around Elisha. Elisha reminded his servant that those who are with us are more than those who are with them [2 Kings 6:16]. Second, God is the God of Jacob. Jacob was the third of the three Jewish patriarchs and the least outstanding of the three. He was a schemer, as his name implies. It took him a lifetime to learn to trust God. Yet the God of Abraham was his God no less than he was the God of Abraham. This is your God, too, if you have come to Him through faith in Jesus Christ. And if He is your God, then He is with you at all times, which is what this important couplet says.”  [Boice, pp. 387-393].

“Conclusion. In Life and in Death. Martin Luther, by the time of his death on February 18, 1546, was already recognized as a major reformer and one of the leading figures in the history of the church. As he lay on his deathbed in Eisleben, Germany, his last words were, “Our God is the God from whom comes salvation: God is the Lord by whom we escape death.” Firm until the end, Luther remained strong in his faith in the Lord. God was his mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing, both in life and in death. May He be so for God’s people as they trust Him completely in all their trials. God will guide in life; He will guard in death. An ever-present help in times of trouble, God alone must be the mighty fortress to whom believers run in their most tumultuous hours. Only through faith in God and His Son, Jesus Christ, will believers find eternal salvation from the coming fury of God’s wrath.”  [Lawson, p. 246].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         This psalm readily falls into three stanzas [1-3, 4-6 and 8-10] plus two refrains or chorus lines [7,11]. What themes emerge in each section? What images of a world falling apart do you see in these verses? What truth about God is conveyed here in contrast to the world? What effect does God’s triumph over the nations have on the people who draw their strength from him [8-10]? Where does one find stillness and security in the midst of violent forces unleashed all around [10-11]?  

2.         What in your life is threatening or pounding away at your sense of security in God? How can you remain still [10] and know God’s fortresslike strength [7,11] in the midst of a world falling apart?

References:

Psalms, volume 2, James Boice, Baker.

Psalms, volume 2, John Goldingay, Baker.

Psalms 1-75, Steven Lawson, Holman Reference.