A Mighty Fortress is our God (Psalm 46)
Ein feste burg ist unser Gott! Say what? Well, that’s how Martin Luther would have written it in his famous hymn:
“A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.”
There can be no doubt but that Luther’s sturdy, unshakeable, unflappable confidence in God as his refuge, his strength, his mighty, impenetrable fortress is what ultimately accounted for what he was able to accomplish in bringing about what we know as the Protestant Reformation.
The same could easily be said of Elijah, as he faced the treachery of Ahab and Jezebel and the prophets of Baal.
The same could be said of Daniel, as he fearlessly confronted the power and pressures that came from Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar.
And what was it that empowered the Apostle Paul as he stood in the presence of his Jewish persecutors or his Roman captors? The same God, who for all of these folk proved himself to be a mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing.
Don’t let the fame of these people suggest that God is any less a mighty fortress for you in the midst of your daily struggles or the minor trials that come your way. Psalm 46 is a powerful word of encouragement for the Christian troubled by the lingering memory of a moral lapse, or the parent in agony over the rebellion of a teenage son or daughter. This is a message of hope for the believer who lost his job because he refused to compromise his integrity, as well as the woman who lost her husband to cancer. This is a psalm for you, no less than for the OT Israelite, such that you can confidently declare:
“The Lord of hosts is with us [ME]; the God of Jacob is our [MY] fortress” (v. 7).
The structure of the psalm is simple, but important to note. It begins with a declaration of God as our refuge and protection in the midst of natural upheaval (vv. 1-3) and then turns to God as our security in the midst of national uproar (vv. 4-7). The psalmist concludes, appropriately, with a call to worship (vv. 8-11).
Note carefully the language of v. 2 - “We will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea.” There’s little doubt that the psalmist is describing, as best he can, an earthquake, a phenomenon which more than any other conveys a sense of instability and uncertainty. It’s one thing to feel the force of a destructive tornado or the raging waters of a flood. It’s another thing entirely when the ground under your feet begins to shake and convulse. Suddenly, all man-made props, all structures of support crumble and leave you helpless. There’s something psychologically unsettling about an earthquake that isn’t necessarily the case with other natural phenomena. All one’s moorings, one’s sense of balance, one’s physical and emotional stability are swept away. There’s nothing left to grab hold of. Or is there?
In spite of the worst possible scenarios, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (v. 1)! Though the basis of all things visible should convulse, though the most solid and stable of all things created should shake or fall headlong into the sea, our God remains steadfast and faithful. There is no earthquake of any sort, whether natural, moral, physical, financial, or spiritual, that can shake us out of his loving arms!
It’s hard to read this passage and not think back to Psalm 18 where David described God in similar language:
“I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps. 18:1-2).
From the upheavals of nature (vv. 1-3) to the uproar of nations (vv. 4-7), God is an ever present help and a source of safety for his people. Whether the roar of the waters in v. 3 or the roar of the nations in v. 6, God is greater! Whether the collapse of the mountains in vv. 2-3 or the tottering of the kingdoms in v. 6, God is greater! In all cases and scenarios, “the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (v. 7).
I suspect it is the rage and terror of the nations even more than the devastation of natural disasters that threatens the serenity of our souls. In the days of the psalmist it may have been the onslaught of Sennacherib or the attack of the Assyrians. In our day it is the threat of international terrorism, the lingering potential of a nuclear bomb, or the vicious release of a lethal nerve gas.
Whatever the circumstances, the city of God rests secure (vv. 4-5). Certainly in its original context this referred to historical Jerusalem, “made glad” by the “streams” that brought refreshment and provision (whereas today it must also encompass the heavenly Jerusalem; see Heb. 11:10; 12:22). In those days “the gentle Siloam ran from the Gihon spring and, at least from the time of Hezekiah’s tunneling work (2 Ki. 20:20; 2 Ch. 32:30), filled a pool inside the city walls” (Goldingay, 104).
Don’t miss the contrast here between “the destructive, roaring, seething waters of the sea, with its arrogant self-assertiveness, and the refreshment of a river with its streams, which remind us of the ones which watered the garden that God planted at the beginning of the human story (Gn. 2:10-13). They point us on also to the water flowing from the temple mount in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezk. 47) and the river of the water of life flowing from God’s throne in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:1-2)” (Goldingay, 104-05).
Whatever deprivation nature and nations may inflict, God will lavishly provide and gently refresh his people who are his eternal dwelling (v. 5). Whenever he speaks, the earth simply melts (v. 6).
And what is our response? “Come,” says the psalmist, “behold the works of the Lord” (v. 8) and worship! Behold his deliverance of his people from Egypt! Behold his defeat of Pharaoh at the Red Sea! Behold his humbling of the once powerful Nebuchadnezzar! Behold his salvation of your soul and his triumph over all your enemies!
The “nations” that formerly raged (v. 6) and the “earth” that once gave way (v. 2) are now together a platform on which God makes known his glory and power: “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (v. 10)! Whatever threat they once posed, they are now harnessed and subdued and brought into service of the God who is Lord over all.
This God, dear friend, “is with us [YOU]” (v. 11a). This God “is our [YOUR] fortress” (v. 11a).
Not even Martin Luther was immune to depression and frustration and fear. When he came face to face with his enemies, he would often turn to his young friend and co-worker, Philip Melancthon, and say: “Philip, let us sing forth the forty-sixth Psalm.” And this is how it sounded:
“A sure stronghold our God is He,
A timely shield and weapon;
Our help he’ll be, and set us free
From every ill can happen.
And were the world with devils filled,
All eager to devour us,
Our souls to fear shall little yield,
They cannot overpower us.”