“Historical insecurity” and “cosmic instability” are the ingredients of existential fear that inspire this Psalm of Trust, according to James Mays in his Interpretation Commentary series on the Psalms.
We can relate, can’t we?
One major military conflict in Europe, a cup of pandemic and post-pandemic pandemonium, a dash of energy and climate crises, and three tablespoons of inflation makes for one nauseating table spread.
We all need a reminder of the God who protects us.
Cosmic Instability (vv. 1-3)
Psalm 46 addresses the cataclysmic phenomenon of the cosmos, particularly, the shaky ground on which we walk. The earth was a scary place for the ancients. The land which arose from the primordial waters was plagued with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and frightful storms. The sea and all that was within it represented chaos. Chaos was a recipe for personal and corporate disaster; but, the Psalmist reminds the congregation that, “God is our refuge and present help in time of trouble” (v. 1).
Psalm 91:4 uses the same word of refuge, Hebrew מַחֲסֶ֣ה to describe a place of protection under God’s wings comparing God to a mothering bird. The Reformer, Martin Luther, in the first line of what has become his Battle Hymn of the Reformation, quotes Psalm 46, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” A mighty fortress is our God. A “Burg” was a medieval castle in Luther’s day and represented the most high, firm, and secure refuge one could find. It was a place for protection from hostile onslaught.
God is a wing-covering, high castle refuge for us when the ground beneath us shakes and the waters around us roar and foam, but he is also our present help in these periods of trouble.
There is a slight distinction between the God who protects and the God who helps. The idea of God as a refuge is one of a firm foundation that tethers and secures us. It is the fixed storm shelter and bunker to which we flee to ride out the natural disaster. However, the idea of God being a help in periods of trouble is a bit more personal and messy. The Hebrew word for help, עֶזְרָ֥ה, is the same noun used in Genesis 2:20 and applied to Eve after God cannot find a suitable helper for Adam among the beasts of the field.
The Psalmist assures the congregation that God enters our trouble whenever and wherever that may be found, to help us, to rescue us, to bring us to a place of security and protection. God gets his hands messy in pulling us from the heart of the sea that threatens to drown us.
A City Oasis (vv. 4-5)
An interesting feature of Psalm 46 is its emphasis upon the city of God. It is a not-so-subtle reference to Jerusalem as God’s chosen location for his presence. It would have been obvious to the original hearers of this Psalm that God favors Israel. In the imagination of the Psalmist and his contemporaries, Jerusalem represents the dwelling place of the deity and within its bounds there is water flowing life and security, even though there are no rivers flowing through the city.
Jerusalem is the holy dwelling place of God as the religious seat of worship. It is an oasis from both the cosmic and communal chaos that rages around God’s people as they find refuge within its walls.
Of course, there are limits to this reference because Jerusalem and its temple cannot contain an all-powerful God. As Mays says, “The song does not invite trust in a place but in a Presence who [desires to] dwell with people,” (Mays, 185).
Historical Insecurity (v. 6-7)
Psalm 46 also tackles the chaos brought about by so-called civilized communities that rage and war with one another.
It is easy to fear the brinkmanship of world political leaders, the threats of nuclear weapons, the saber rattling of naval fleets and flyovers, armed conflicts, civil wars, coups, and their like. Just mentioning these things sets my own pulse to running in the knowledge that we live in an unpredictable and insecure world. The fear around the creation’s return to chaos, as referred to in the first three verses of the Psalm, naturally turns to the devolution of the creation in the spheres of power and politics, in these verses.
The Psalmist’s answer to this fear comes in a reassuring refrain in verse 7 which will again be repeated in verse 11, “The God of Jacob is our fortress.” The English translation, fortress, is derived from a Hebrew verb שְׂגָּֽב which means to be high, exalted, inaccessible. That last idea is the key. With God as our fortress, the raging nations and tottering kingdoms ultimately have no access to us because we are secure in God.
An Invitation (vv. 8-11)
Many of us still doubt, don’t we? We experience the earthquake, we watch the troops march, and we feel like ingredients tossed in a salad of disaster. Where do we see God in the chaos?
It may sound harsh, but the Psalmist entertains the idea that God ends war by allowing war. He is described as the Lord of Armies who brings desolations on the earth. Instead of preventing it, God seems to permit a scorched earth policy. Though, in doing so, he exposes its insanity. Mays’ comments are helpful, “War is self-defeating; it brings about the destruction of those who practice it. In its terrible futility it is a revelation of the power of the Lord who seeks order and opposes chaos,” (Mays, 184).
We are given an invitation to come and see the works of the Lord who cleans up the mess that human authorities have made in their raging battles.
The current desolations in the Ukraine are enough for many of us to recognize the senseless futility of war and to turn and trust the Lord of Armies whose mission it is to make wars cease to the end of the earth and to break the artillery, shatter the rocket launchers, and burn the armed vehicles to the ground.
Finally, the Psalmist issues God’s personal invitation in verse 10, “Be still and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Our fears make us unsettled, loud and noisy like a toddler in meltdown mode. They cause us to think we are in control of our own fate. God beckons us to stop trying to wrest control from his hand. הַרְפּ֣וּ the command to “be still” derives from a Hebrew verb which means to let alone, to desist. We need to stop our striving to control only what God can. We need to desist, to abstain, from our idolatrous attempts to order life. In doing so, we can recognize the truth about God. Only he is exalted, only he is sovereign. We are not. Without taking that 30 seconds to breathe in and breathe out and stop struggling, we ourselves will continue to rage in fear and fright. When we actively stop our striving, we will know that God is above all that plagues us.
The Psalmist repeats the refrain, “The God of Jacob is our fortress,” not an impersonal deity but one known, associated with a person, who despite his transcendence is immanent and intimately known to us.
Luther says it well of God in Christ his living abiding Word present with us in his fourth stanza,
That word above all earthly powers, 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.
Let the preaching of this Psalm be an opportunity for you to remind your congregation of God’s power to provide and protect them through whatever storms the cosmos and community may bring. On this Christ Our King Sunday, we declare God’s reign with Christ at his right hand over all dominions, authorities, wars, disasters, financial, health, and personal woes. Christ is King!
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
The Presence of God calms the soul, and gives it quiet and repose.
Fear of the Lord: Comfort in Uncertain Times
We’re afraid when we’re suddenly caught off our guard and don’t know what to do. We’re afraid when our presuppositions and assumptions no longer account for what we’re up against, and we don’t know what will happen to us. We’re afraid when reality, without warning, is shown to be either more or other than we thought it was. …
In the Hebrew culture and the Hebrew Scriptures … the word *fear* is frequently used in a way that means far more than simply being scared. … *Fear-of-the-Lord* is the stock biblical term for this either sudden or cultivated awareness that the presence or revelation of God introduces into our lives. We are not the center of our existence. We are not the sum total of what matters.
We don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Fear-of-the-Lord keeps us on our toes with our eyes open. Something is going on around here, and we don’t want to miss it. Fear-of-the-Lord prevents us from thinking that we know it all. And it therefore prevents us from closing off our minds or our perceptions from what is new. Fear-of-the-Lord prevents us from acting presumptuously and therefore destroying or violating some aspect of beauty, truth, or goodness that we don’t recognize or don’t understand.
Fear-of-the-Lord is fear with the scary element deleted.
Additional Sermon Resources
Call to Worship
Adapted from Psalm 20:6-7
Now this I know:
The Lord gives victory to his anointed.
He answers from his heavenly sanctuary
With the victorious power of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
But we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
God, we proclaim our faith in you as we worship you today.
Submitted by Austin D. Hill
Prayer of Confession
Lord God, we confess to You that our spiritual lives are often dry. At times we feel abandoned or unworthy. We have moments when we doubt Your presence. We even question Your reliability. And yet, You steadfastly offer us refreshing Living Water. Forgive our unfaithfulness, Lord. Truly You are a merciful and gracious God who is ready to restore us. Only You through Christ can give us the abundance we crave. We thank You and praise You for satisfying us when we need You most. We freely drink this water of forgiveness and healing in the Name of Jesus, our Savior. Amen.
Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church
Assurance of Pardon
The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting. May the God of mercy, who forgives us all our sins, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.