“If you were running for your life, would it matter?” That was General Odum’s motto; he learned to put everyday problems into perspective, weighing them against his World War II experiences. Captured by Rommel’s infamous Afrika Korps, Odum later escaped when the German plane transporting him and other prisoners of war was shot down by Allied Forces over France. After a month of hiding and dodging Nazis, the skin-and-bones Odum finally met up with friendly troops. He learned what few things really matter when you’re running for your life.
Where do you run to when you need a safe place to hide? I’ve never had to hide like General (this was his name, not his rank); most of us haven’t. But whether we realize it or not, a greater threat is here. Life in the flesh is a perilous time, because greater than any physical danger is the demoralizing presence of our adversary, the devil. Remember Peter’s warning: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). [All Scripture references are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.]
In addition to the sin-danger with which men flirt to the point of madness, one’s world can fall apart instantly. The English poet Alfred Tennyson felt the common plight when he wrote, “Never morning wore to evening, but some heart did not break.” If your world falls apart, to whom shall you go? As the steady North Star provides orientation in darkness, so the forty-sixth Psalm is higher ground for the worn soul seeking refuge.
The Psalm Introduced
Psalm 46 divides into three sections as indicated by the contemplative selah after each group of verses. In the first section (vv. 1-3), there is an opening declaration that God is our refuge and strength; therefore, the Lord’s people need not fear even in the bleakest of circumstances, illustrated by a crumbling earth and turbulent sea that surrounds and threatens God’s people. In the second part (vv. 4-7), the city of God is the calm in the storm. The nations surge, hostilities rage, but the voice of Jehovah subdues them.
The refrain expresses the rationale for hope when there is none: “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (v. 7). The last part (vv. 8-11) invites the people of God to consider God’s past interventions in the affairs of men as solid evidence of his abiding presence, again concluding with the encouraging affirmation, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (v. 11). He marshals the armies (i.e., “hosts”) of heaven to do his bidding; he is the true God who involved himself in Jacob’s life, providing gracious blessings and protection to the fulfillment of his promises. Thus, he is the God who is willing to use his power on behalf of his people to fulfill the gracious promises that he has made. He is with us!
The Psalm Investigated
If you love Psalm 23, you’ll love Psalm 46. J. Clinton McCann Jr. noted the similarities between these psalms—a soul-stirring thread—when he wrote: “Like Psalm 23, the fundamental affirmation of Psalm 46 is the assurance of God’s presence” (1993, 136). How we cherish the knowledge of his presence; many of our hymns reflect the treasured thought, “God with us” (“A Wonderful Savior,” “A Mighty Fortress,” “Rock of Ages,” etc.).
The reader should understand much of the Old Testament language and background of this psalm, and an extensive line-by-line consideration of such will have to remain unexplored in this present study. Such a neglect here does not reflect a lack of appreciation for the general historical context and rich Hebrew poetry that characterizes this psalm. However, this ancient poem, given and preserved by God, fittingly describes issues that transcend the dispensations and are relevant to men of every age. This study will focus upon such matters. Just as the prophet announced for God, “For I, Jehovah, change not; therefore ye, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6, ASV), we realize that the God of Jacob is with us—Christians. Rather than alter our view on Psalm 46, the New Testament enhances our appreciation of the vivid truths revealed in this great psalm.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (v. 1, ASV). He, and he alone, is the ultimate security. He is exceedingly ready and available for us in trouble—in practice, not in mere theory. Paul motivated Christians to pursue heavenly things: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). There is no other place like it; nothing comes close. Trouble will find you, so flee to the fortress of souls.
Since God is the one to whom we can flee—who protects us without and strengthens us within—we will not fear. The defiance of faith in uncertainty and peril is justified, because God is with us: “Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth do change, and though the mountains be shaken into the heart of the seas; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains tremble with the swelling thereof” (vv. 2-3, ASV).
Observe the words “change,” “shaken,” “roar,” “troubled,” and “tremble.” The situation is desperate since the earth appears to be on the brink of destruction. The figures describe the worst-case scenario; the most dreaded thing is happening. Even if the world should crumble beneath our feet, we will not wonder: “Has God forsaken us?” In fact, we will not fear; he is with us. The psalm admits that the Lord’s own are not immune from trouble (cf. Hebrews 5:8-9). We live in an unstable world, an environment hazarded by sin’s curse. He sustains us in the midst of trouble, and that is what a person needs to know as he lives with a view toward better days.
Abruptly, a surreal tranquility is painted by words of calmness and confidence: “There is a river, the streams wherefore make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High” (v. 4, ASV). In contrast to the chaos, there is the calm, pure river, which is the source from which the streams (i.e., canals) irrigate, bring life, and add beauty in the very city of God—the place of his tabernacles (note the plural “dwelling places”). His presence is like the river—life-giving and sustaining. Naturally, since he is the Most High (cf. 97:9).
Those who reside in God’s city (i.e., in a covenant, saved relationship with God) are blessed because he is there: “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God will help her, and that right early” (v. 5). Or to express the thought in another way, “No water can swallow the ship where lies the Master of ocean and earth and skies.”
Unparalleled stability results from the abiding presence of God. Therefore, gladness characterizes God’s city, even though nations topple around her because of foreign aggression. If she trusts in him, if she is faithful to him, she shall not be moved. What can he do? “He uttered his voice, the earth melted” (v. 6).
The psalmist’s confidence may stem from recent manifestations of God’s awesome presence and intervention. A. F. Kirkpatrick was convinced that Psalm 46 celebrates the delivery of Jerusalem when 185,000 Assyrian corpses littered the environs of Jerusalem—thanks to the Angel of Jehovah. He wrote, “The miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from the army of Sennacherib in the reign of Hezekiah (B.C. 701) may be assigned as the occasion of these Psalms [i.e., 46, 47, 48], with a probability which approaches certainty” (1906, 253).
Albert Barnes appeared equally convinced, but less emphatic (1950, 40). In actuality, the Bible relates many interventions of the Lord on behalf of his people, including 2 Kings 19. These “intrusions” reveal that the true and living God has made his presence felt for his people; accordingly, the point that he is not far from us has been substantiated on numerous occasions since the beginning of time (cf. Acts 17:27-28; Romans 15:1-5). We may not know with certainty the immediate circumstances behind this psalm, but we do know, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
Psalm 46 not only affirms the reality of God’s presence, it also invites men to behold the evidence: “Come, behold the works of Jehovah, what desolations he hath made in the earth” (v. 8). He has broken the weapons of war; he rules in the kingdoms of men. The plagues of Egypt, the walls of Jericho, the victories of Gideon, the defeat of Goliath, the fiery furnace, Daniel’s lions, and scores of other divine manifestations are a testimony to the fact that God, who does not change, has the same concern for us today as he had for his children of former days.
Our most important consideration, however, is not our skin—it’s our soul. More important than our biological life is our spiritual life (cf. Matthew 10:28). This world is not all there is nor all that matters. When sin takes hold of us, or circumstances overwhelm us, it is God to whom we must flee. Run to him in your heart and mind—what you know of God, heaven, eternity, and judgment. Hope will sustain you in the darkest hour.
The Psalm Incorporated
If we adopt the thinking of Psalm 46, should we expect a miraculous deliverance from trouble? No. First, God does not need to work a miracle to help us in trouble. Second, the miracles of the past continue to teach us (cf. John 20:30-31); their repetition is unnecessary for the accomplishment of his will. Trust in him, believe in him, for the Lord has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Do you believe him?
You also must “come, behold the works of the Lord” (v. 8). Come, behold the baby of a virgin; come, behold the daughter of Jairus; come to the tomb of Lazarus; come to Gethsemane; come, behold the crown of thorns; behold the empty tomb. Jesus Christ has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). "So we can confidently say, "