Commentary on Psalm 46
Psalm 46 is a song of trust in Yahweh.1
Its three major sections (verses 1-3, 4-7, 8-11) describe Yahweh’s defense of the people against cosmic and geopolitical threats. In the face of these dangers, the community reiterates its fundamental claim: Yahweh is with us (verses 1, 7, 11).
“Though the Earth Should Change”
The first section of the psalm (verses 1-3) testifies to the people’s confidence in Yahweh in the midst of cosmic turmoil. Verses 2-3 depict creation in utter disarray: earthquakes, storms, floods, even a tsunami.
Ancient peoples understood all of these natural phenomena as forces of chaos. As such, they convey an anxiety that the world is slipping out of control.
The roaring sea is one of the stock motifs for chaos throughout the Psalter. Elsewhere, we read of God founding the world amidst or on top of this watery chaos (see Psalm 24:1-2; 104:5-9). In the first verses of this psalm, the churning water threatens to overwhelm the order that God established at creation.
However, in the city of God, where peace and order reigns, the waters run in well-marked channels, nourishing the city (verses 4-5). Yahweh tames the watery chaos.
The psalm evokes another element of nature, the sun, to describe the order that God brings to the city (46:5b). The constant, unyielding movement of the sun across the sky provides the perfect picture of order.
Thus, throughout the ancient Near East, sun gods were understood to be gods of order and righteousness. That tradition lies in the background of this psalm, which contends: as sure as the sun rises at dawn, so certain is God’s rule.
The Roaring Nations
Two types of the threats seem to challenge God’s rule: cosmic disorder, epitomized by the roaring waters (verses 2-3), and political ones, those nations who seek to destroy God’s people (verses 6-7).
These forces are simply different manifestations of the chaos God has already conquered at creation and continues to keep at bay. As such the psalmist uses the similar vocabulary to describe the threats.
As the waters roar (Hebrew hmh, verse 3), so “the nations are in an uproar (hmh)” (verse 6), and as the mountains totter (mwt, verse 2), so “the kingdoms totter” (mwt, verse 6) when they encounter the voice of God. Through all this tumult, the holy city will not totter (mwt, verse 5), for Yahweh is in her midst.
The Reign of Yahweh
In the final section of the psalm (verses 8-11), the faithful community exalts Yahweh and declares God’s dominion. Yahweh exercises power to such an extent that Yahweh obliterates war itself and unbuilds the technology of combat (verse 9).
Following the community’s testimony of Yahweh’s universal disarmament program, the psalm introduces the very voice of God with the command “be still, and know” (verse 10). The audience for God’s words is open and includes both the faithful and the forces of chaos that threaten them. As such, God’s command reminds us of Christ’s words to the raging sea (Mark 4:39).
The psalm ends with the refrain that also appeared in verse 7: “Yahweh of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.” This refrain echoes verse 1 in describing God’s strength and his ability to afford protection. While verse 1 highlights God’s protecting presence, the refrain in verses 7 and 11 place the accent on God’s identity.
Two titles appear in the refrains. The first, “Yahweh of hosts,” signifies Yahweh’s control of the heavenly armies and refers to God as the supremely powerful deity (cf. 1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; Isaiah 37:16). The second, “the God of Jacob,” recalls Yahweh’s history with a particular people.
Thus, the psalm asserts that the god of the patriarchs and matriarchs is none other than the god who commands the hosts of heaven. The people have had a long history with this God-a history that reminds them that God is trustworthy.
The True Source of Our Trust
The particular name of the “city of God” (verses 4-5) does not appear in this psalm, lest the readers confuse the source of the protection with an easily identifiable location. To tie Yahweh’s protective power to a specific locale, risks the vanity of trusting in human power.
This psalm exhorts its earliest audience not to base its confidence on high, thick walls and expert archers manning the balustrades. It is only God’s presence that promotes security.
Today we can hear the psalm’s message clearly, but many find it difficult to believe. We much prefer to trust in that which we can see: a strong military and a robust economy. or full savings accounts and solid resumes. But these “defenses” ultimately prove unreliable.
God is the only sure defense. On Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, the Church reminds itself once again of God’s ultimate power over all. Our salvation comes not through military, economic, or physical strength, but through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Indeed, this psalm has been an anthem of the faithful throughout Christian history. In the turmoil of the Reformation, Martin Luther turned to Psalm 46 for courage and comfort. His robust melody and stirring lyrics became the definitive hymn of the Reformed tradition, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (Ein’ feste Burg, ca. 1529).
Today, when faced with difficult situations, all Christians—both Protestants and Catholics—do well to remember the central message of the psalm. We are inclined to place our trust in our own resources or in the world’s mighty institutions. Yet these cannot remedy our fear, for they are unable to match the power of God.
The psalm guides us to faith and encourages us to claim: “A mighty fortress is our God.”
1. This commentary first published on this site on Nov. 21, 2010.