In October of 2005, one of my first lengthy written Bible Studies (I wish I was able to find the notebook where I wrote it now) that I wrote was on Psalm 46. It was a dark and stormy night in Wildwood, New Jersey. I was holed up in my hotel room after having visited with my girlfriend at the time and her family, and a nor’easter that flooded out the only bridge to the mainland was overhead, blowing over tree limbs. Later, it would meet in the Atlantic Ocean with Hurricane Wilma, which had just damaged Miami International Airport and altered my travel plans, to make a “perfect storm” out in the ocean. Psalm 46, one of the most famous and recognized of the psalms of the Sons of Korah, was the chapter I read to help me calm down.
Popularity of Psalm 46
My use of this particular psalm as a comfort in the face of natural disaster is not unusual. After the 2001 attacks, the United Methodists urged their members to use Psalm 46 to help them find comfort in times of national tragedy . This psalm is well suited for comfort, in that it shows God as the place of refuge for His people, and the conqueror of the nations. Like most people, I learned this psalm first through the version that appears in the Scottish Psalter, set to the music of Este’s Psalter, the first four verses of which I have sung since childhood . This psalm is also a favorite of mine for having inspired Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Be Still And Know,” which has long been a staple of my own tenor repertoire.
Psalm 46 is organized in a very straightforward manner, with two verses and then a refrain, and then a third verse and the refrain again. This is actually a common organization in pop music (minus the bridge, which is missing in Psalm 46), interestingly enough. As the psalm has been set mostly to comforting and relaxing music (both Este’s Psalter and Steven Curtis Chapman’s arrangement), the meaning and music the psalm have generally worked together to make this particular psalm a very comforting one. Let us take some time and examine how exactly this psalm’s meaning serves to comfort believers in times of personal or national tragedies, and give some indication as to why this psalm succeeds so well at those purposes.
A Very Present Help In Trouble
Psalm 46 is divided really into three “verses” with two short and identical refrains. Even though the psalm is often used as a private comfort, it has a cosmic scope, as will shortly become obvious. The implication appears to be that God’s control over the universe and His rule over the earth is what allows Him to be a trustworthy refuge for believers in their time of trouble. Obviously, these implications show Psalm 46 is far deeper than merely a calming pastoral psalm, but offer insights into God’s behavior to bring about His will.
Psalm 46:1-3, the first “verse” of Psalm 46, reads as follows: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah.” These verses were the reason I chose to reflect on this psalm for comfort when the seas were and skies were troubled that October evening in 2005. The psalm opens with a categorical statement that God is our safe place and the source of our strength, and that he is abundantly and always available in times of trouble. After this comforting introduction, the psalmist states that even if the earth were removed (Revelation 21:1) or that the mountains were carried into the middle of the sea (Matthew 21:21) that God would be present for His believers. This is an immensely comforting thought, and one reason Psalm 46 has endured and been so widely recognized for its comforting purposes.
The second verse has often unrecognized cosmic implications, like Psalm 1, as it is written in Psalm 46:4-7: “There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God. The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she shall not moved; God shall help her, just at the break of dawn. The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved; He uttered His voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.” This verse has at least two possible prophetic fulfillments. The first possible fulfillment is that the Psalm is referring to the river that will spring from Jerusalem during the Millennium after the return of Christ (Ezekiel 47:1-12), bringing healing waters into Jerusalem. Likewise, this event occurs just after Jesus Christ destroys the armies of the wicked, establishing His kingdom and bringing judgment on the nations that rage against God (see Ezekiel 38 & 39, Revelation 19:17-21). Alternatively, the psalm could be talking about a later fulfillment, after God again delivers Jerusalem from the satanically inspired armies that threaten it (Revelation 20:7-10), and when the heavens and earth have passed away (Revelation 21:1). Of course, both meanings could be meant, as well.
In either case, this particular “verse” of the psalm has cosmic implications about God’s rule. The river that brings healing waters to the nations springing from Jerusalem is a symbol of the rule of God over the universe, a rule that will be recognized during Jesus Christ’s millennial reign as well as for all time in the new heavens and new earth. The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High refers to a temple, but that could either be a rebuilt physical “third temple,” as described in Ezekiel, or be the believers in the New Jerusalem. Likewise, the presence of God could either be through Jesus Christ or through the New Jerusalem being the home of God for all time. Whatever the nations plan and rage to preserve their power on this earth, it will ultimately be futile, for God is the rightful ruler of the universe and He will sit on His throne forevermore. The verse closes with the refrain, saying that God is with us and is our refuge.
The third part of Psalm 46, Psalm 46:8-11, reads: “Come, behold the works of the Lord, who has made desolations in the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariot in the fire. Be still, and know that I am the God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! The Lord of Hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.” Here we see what God’s authority and power really means, an end to wars on the earth by people fighting for power and selfishness (Micah 4:1-3, Isaiah 2:2-4). The power of Jesus Christ will not be won by God’s believers taking over the earth by force, but rather by Jesus Christ doing it Himself, and taking for Himself the honor and glory He deserves as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
There is an interesting note to this third part of Psalm 46 as well. Most often this part of the psalm has been quoted as a way of telling believers to stand still and accept power and not seek to do everything ourselves, and there is much truth in this view . That said, at the same time this verse is part of a larger cosmic importance that is often neglected. The statement to be still here is very similar to that of Exodus 14:13, where Moses tells the Israelites at the Red Sea to “stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.” In this case God is making a promise that it will be through His power that victory comes over the heathen armies and their trust in their own military strength. Will we prove ourselves to be more faithful than the cowardly ancient Israelites, whose bodies were strewn across the wilderness for their unbelief?
From this verse, we see that Psalm 46, while far from alone in presenting God as a refuge, is a powerful psalm because the fact that God is a refuge for His people, a place of safety in times of trial and tribulation has cosmic implications. No matter what political or natural disasters befall this troubled earth, as long as God wishes to protect us, He has the power to do so. Ultimately, Jesus Christ and God will rule over this world, regardless of the wishes of the present rulers of the nations, and there will be no more war nor any more threats to the peace and safety of God’s believers. Until that time, we must remain faithful in the midst of the tempests and storms that rage in this rebellious planet. Psalm 46 is a powerful representation of God’s power and ultimate victory, and a suitable reminder to all of us, in our personal and societal trials, on how to retain our faith in God’s providential care. Praise be to God, and to the Sons of Korah for writing this beautiful and majestic psalm.