Many Psalms look inward at our personal righteousness in the face of God’s holiness (like Psalm 1), Others, such as the one we turn to now, focus outwardly on God’s strength and power and His dealings with the nations of the earth.
One of the great themes of the book that emerges very clearly in Psalm 46 is God’s power over and desire for praise from every nation, not just the Israelites.
Looking back from the perspective of the modern West, as inheritors of the work of faithful believers through the centuries to bring the Gospel to far shores, it is easy to see such messages in the words of the psalmists and “connect the dots” to the New Testament reality of God’s love poured out for all people. When we read a passage like Psalm 67:3-4, “Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; for You will judge the peoples with uprightness and guide the nations on the earth,” it is for us wrapped in the warm joy of the Church around the world praising God and yearning for the day when we will do so together in His presence.
For the Israelites under the Old Covenant, however, the notion of God’s love for the nations would have sounded like a haunting prophecy, a departure from the status quo, and (for some, at least) a threat to their special status with God. Of course, God’s plan was always for redemption of the whole world through Israel (as we see in the promise to Abram in Genesis 12, Solomon’s dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8, and many other places), but most of the Israelites were blind to this truth. It was not until after the death and resurrection of Christ that this message broke forth under the influence of the Holy Spirit (as we see in Acts 2) and spread like wildfire.
With that context in mind, let’s dive in. The heading tells us that this is a song of the “sons of Korah”, a group to whom 12 Psalms (42-49, 84-85) are attributed. Many scholars believe that they were a specific clan of Levites given the role of leading the nation in worship. Ironically, they were descended from Korah, who rebelled against God and Moses and was swallowed up by the earth in Numbers 16. His sons were spared (cf. Num. 26:11), however, apparently for the purpose of leading praise to God. If that is indeed the origin of this group, it is a testament to God’s sovereignty and desire to redeem.
The psalm begins, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride” (46:1-3).
God as a refuge for those who trust in Him is a recurring theme through the Psalms and through the Bible as a whole. The writers of Scripture understood that God, though His plans are not always (or even often) grasped by us, abounds with love for His servants and will protect them. Christ reiterates this truth in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 10:29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are numbered. So do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows.” God will protect us here until He is finished using us for His glory on earth, and in death we are brought into the ultimate refuge of His dwelling place. It is interesting that He doesn’t provide a refuge, but He is the refuge. Our refuge is found in relationship with Him—He will hold us and protect us Himself.
More than just a refuge, the psalmists here describe God as our strength. Not only does He protect His people, He empowers them to do His will; He sustains us in everything we do for Him. They also write that God is “a very present help in trouble.” The image I’ve always carried with that verse is one of God standing right behind me, always ready to reach out and carry me if I would only ask. There is a sense in which that is exactly the case, as God is present everywhere at all times (see Ps. 139). No situation we encounter escapes His notice, and He delights in showing His power by rescuing His servants from the most improbable binds (as in Dan. 3; Acts 12; etc.). Even in the face of the cataclysm imagined in these verses, God is our sure hope. The man who trusts in the Lord need not fear even if the whole order of the universe were to collapse. The Lord, who created the world, commands and controls the forces of nature to serve His plan and bring Him glory (as we see in Ex. 14; Josh. 10; Ps. 107; Mark 4; etc.).
The psalmists praise God for being, of Himself, a refuge for His people, but also for carving out a place of rest for them: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy dwelling places of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved; God will help her when the morning dawns” (46:4-5). Streams and rivers in the Psalms usually allude to the nourishment and help that God provides (as in Ps. 1; Ps. 23; etc.). The city of God, where He dwells with His people, would have been understood by the first hearers of this psalm to mean Jerusalem. There is, however, a further picture of the kingdom to come, when God will bring the New Jerusalem to establish His dwelling with His people for eternity (Rev. 21:2-4).
Just as God is over and in control of the natural world, so He is over all the affairs of men. “The nations made an uproar, the kingdoms tottered; He raised His voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. Come, behold the works of the Lord, Who has wrought desolations in the earth. He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariots with fire” (46:6-9). Though the nations of the world rise up against God and one another, He is the fortress of His people. He beckons us to see how he sets up kingdoms and tears them down, and how He will ultimately bring His peace on the earth.
As the prophet writes, “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales…. It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers…. He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, who makes the judges of the earth meaningless” (Is. 40:15, 22-23). The Lord will use whom He will use to accomplish His plans.
The Lord makes a declaration to the world: “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (46:10). He will be acknowledged by all men in the end as the sovereign of the earth. For all their effort, the nations cannot overcome His plan. He beckons them to lay aside their pointless trying and follow after His way. His triumph is not contingent on their cooperation, but He offers them the opportunity to join His people and to have peace in Him instead of being brought to destruction by resisting Him. This foreshadows the sacrifice of Christ which makes possible the entrance of people “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9) into His kingdom—the invitation can be sent because Christ has paid the price.
The psalm concludes with a repetition of verse 7, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” The people of God have the utmost confidence if they trust in Him—He is our God! In Him alone we boast. He enables the boldness of believers to proclaim His name to the ends of the earth; He calls us to step out in faith to get into situations where we need His “very present help” to deliver us. The Lord desires to be the strength and stronghold of all men, and it is for this that He has made us “a people for His own possession” to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).