God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear . . . (Psalm 46)
In ancient Israel strong fortifications offered security against the inevitable sweep of vast armies attacking from the North. For hundreds of years Israel knew a succession of invaders: Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans. Years or even decades of peace could not erase the memories of long generations who knew what it meant to suffer at the hands of an invading army, or the fear that attends such memories.
Around 700 B.C. King Hezekiah of Judah created an alliance among his fortified cities with the help of Phoenician, Philistine and South Syrians states to stand up to the Assyrian King Sennacherib. In preparation for the inevitable response Hezekiah beefed up his fortifications and even drilled a tunnel for the stream of Siloam to bring water to Jerusalem in case of a siege.
When Sennacherib did finally come in 701 the coastal cities fell quickly to his powerful army and he was soon able to bring the full power of his wrath to bear on Jerusalem. This was during the time of the Prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem and you can read about this episode in the first part of the Book of Isaiah and also in the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of the Book of Kings.
At the worst hour Jerusalem was completely surrounded by the enemy and the people were full of fear. Their official spokesman, standing on the wall talking to the Assyrian emissaries, begged them to speak in Aramaic rather than in the Hebrew that could be understood so as not to demoralize the doomed people within the walls. It was dawning on many of them that their strong towers had failed to provide the security that had been promised.
But when morning dawned the Assyrian army was gone, vanished, leaving only thousands of their dead at the camp. How they died remains a mystery. Somehow, by the grace of God, Jerusalem had been saved just as Isaiah had prophesied. “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.” (Psalm 46:5)
This event has traditionally been thought to be the original setting for Psalm 46, although it is always tricky to try to reconstruct a genuine historical setting from a psalm, “as if one could write the history of England on the basis of the Methodist hymn book!” (Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture,Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979, 509.)
Whatever its original setting this psalm speaks to our perennial human inclination to rely on strong towers of our own making rather than on God, who is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” No one builds a tower without counting the cost, said Jesus, but, O, the cost of these towers we build, from the tower of Babel to the tower of Siloam that fell and killed eighteen men. (Genesis 11:4–5; Luke 14:28; Luke 13:4) So Hezekiah was neither the first nor the last to attempt to secure himself from harm by fortifying his defenses, as booming gun sales will confirm in our day.
That his provisions failed Israel but that God’s did not, may or may not have been the occasion for Psalm 46, but such an event is typical of Israel’s experience of the living God who provides the only real security they ever knew. Many Psalms reflect this faith. Gerhard Van Rad called his work on the Psalms Israel’s Answer to indicate that the Psalter is the community of faith’s response to it’s ongoing relationship to the living God.
The setting of the Psalm is a world turned upside down:
“Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
This is not just trouble, this is TROUBLE! The language is the language of cosmic upheaval. The waters above and the waters below that God pushed back on the third day of creation threaten to flood back in. “Water,” writes Karl Barth,
has a part in all the force of the human world which is hostile to Israel and therefore opposes the interests and glory of Israel’s God, but which is nevertheless ruled and guided and used by Him.”. . . [The existence of the waters of the upper as well as the lower cosmos] “demonstrates that the will of God will be fulfilled in a history which takes place in the sphere of His creation, and that what God does with the waters is no more and no less than a preliminary indication, indeed an anticipation of this history in its character as a divine triumph.” (Church Dogmatics,3.1, 149)
The roaring and foaming waters are more than a storm, they are chaos, a sign of all that threatens God’s order.
Likewise the mountains that shake in the heart of the sea are not just any mountains but the mountains which hold up the world, the foundations which are being shaken. This mythologized cosmic TROUBLE is of a kind with all the trouble that “flesh is heir to”: the test reports come back positive; an earthquake or riot shakes your neighborhood; you lose your job, or your spouse, or your faith, or your self–respect; Sennacherib and all his army waits outside your gates.
Trouble is often the beginning of faith in God who is our refuge and strength, for only when we have the “props of self–assertion” (Barth) knocked out from under us are we ready for the Word of God. The therefore that comes before “we will not fear” refers to God our refuge and strength. Our lack of fear is conditional; it is trust in God alone, rather than some easy calm of our own devising. Hear Calvin on this, in his commentary on Psalm 46:
It is an easy matter to manifest the appearance of great confidence, so long as we are not placed in imminent danger: but if, in the midst of a general crash of the whole world, our minds continue undisturbed and free of trouble, this is an evident proof that we attribute to the power of God the honor which belongs to him. When the sacred poet says, “We will not fear”, he is not to be understood as meaning that the minds of the godly are exempt from all solicitude or fear, as if they were destitute of feeling, for there is a great difference between insensibility and the confidence of faith. John Calvin, “Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Volume 2”, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 5, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,1979, 196.
This confidence of God is captured in Martin Luther’s marvelous hymn based on Psalm 46: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” which was then put into English by Thomas Carlyle as “A safe stronghold our God is still” and, better known in America, as “A Mighty Fortress is our God” by Frederick Hedge. In any version of the hymn God the fortress stands in contrast to all strongholds built with hands.
We see in the Psalm another contrast, that between the roaring, tumultuous waters of chaos and the “river whose streams make glad the city of God.” Where before God restrains the water, here God sends the water for a life–giving purpose. Like Ezekiel 47:1-12, where a river is described that encircles the temple and gets deeper and deeper, bringing forth trees “whose leaves do not fade nor fruits fail” till finally it reaches the Dead Sea and desalinates it, here in Psalm 46 is a river of life. These passages “speak of a river of life which first blesses the earthly sanctuary chosen and established by God, and then the whole face of the earth, fructifying it, quenching its thirst, healing its wounds, refreshing and renewing all creation. This is what has become of the universally destructive chaos–element of water in the second creation saga. This is what it now attests and signifies. It is no longer the water averted and restrained but the water summoned forth by God. It is no longer now the suppressed enemy of man but his most intimate friend. It is no longer his destruction but his salvation. It is not a principle of death, but of life.” (Barth, CD 3.1,280)
This river of life is now no longer geographically localized in Jerusalem, just as God’s dwelling place gets unfixed from the earthly Zion. The statements in the Psalms about the dwelling place or throne of God are made of the place which can not be found on any map.
So where can God, who is our refuge and strength, be found? In the Old Testament there is, of course, always a dwelling place that can be found on a map, but the freedom of God prohibits a simple equation of God with any place. This is the point of Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:20), when she notes that the Jews worship in Jerusalem and the Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim. Jesus’s declaration to her that God is to be worshipped “in Spirit and in truth” and that he himself is the expected Messiah who will “tell us all things” shows us where God has now chosen to reside:
“The opposite of Jerusalem and Gerizim and all temples made with hands—and we can apply it and say the opposite of Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, and Canterbury—is not the universe at large, which is the superficial interpretation of Liberalism, but Jesus.” (Barth, CD, 2.1, 481)
What Israel once looked for in Zion is now found in Jesus Christ, the one Word of God. The God who speaks this Word in the flesh of Jesus is the One who calls back the waters of chaos and calls forth the waters of life; who conquers the forces of evil, the sources of trouble (“one little word shall fell him”, Luther says of the devil”) who “makes wars to cease to the end of the earth”
John the Divine’s vision of the river of life describes it as flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” (Revelation 22:1,2a)
Although the heavenly city can not be strictly identified with any earthly city, those who pray daily, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” do well to practice its life–giving imperatives in every earthly city, even the contemporary cities of wrath where the enemy lies not without the walls but within. The one who piles up the weapons for burning (Psalm 46:9) reminds us to “Be still, and know that I an God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
Commentator J. Clinton McCann, Jr. suggests that “Be still, and know that I am God!” is not a good translation. “Contemporary readers almost inevitably hear it as a call to meditation or relaxation, when it should be heard in light of verse 9 as something like ‘Stop!’ or ‘Throw down your weapons!’ In other words, depend on your God instead of yourselves.”
Depend on God, our refuge and strength, a fortress never failing. A strong tower, God causes the towers built by our hands to fall, as in this Easter poem by Arnold Kenseth:
On Easter the great tower of me falls.
I had built it well; my mind had planned it
After being schooled; my will had special wit
To dig me deep foundations, solid walls,
Blocks of moral toughness, windows to see
The enemy, the friend; large rooms, I thought
For light; and storey upon storey me
I raised, and famously my fame I sought.
So driven to prove the world with my estate.
I had not heard Christ on Good Friday die,
His body crooked, broke, and all friends fled.
I had not wept his cause in my carouse.
But now bold bells scatter against the sky,
And Christ is shattering my death, my pride;
As walls, blocks, windows, rooms, my silly penthouse
Spill into the dust I am, my narrow fate.
At last set free from virtue, knowledge, strife,
I mourn, then praise my God, and enter life.
“Easter” by Arnold Kenseth
The Ritual Year, Amherst Writers and Artists Press, 1993
I preached this on April 8, 1994 at First Church of Christ (UCC) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts 01201.