Commentary on Psalm 46
“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” — the hymn, which according to Ulrich Leupold, “more than any other epitomizes Luther’s thought and personal experience” — is a rather free paraphrase of Psalm 46.1
For that reason, the psalm is assigned for Reformation Sunday. But as Leupold notes, Luther “did not write [the hymn] to express his own feelings, but to interpret and apply the 46th Psalm to the church of his own time and its struggles.”2 This is a fine summary of the preaching task — to interpret and apply the biblical text to our own time and struggles. So why not preach this Reformation Day on Psalm 46?
The Text of the Psalm
The psalm is tightly composed, with three, three-verse-long stanzas and two refrains:
Stanza 1 (verses 1-3)
Stanza 2 (verses 4-6)
Refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (verse 7)
Stanza 3 (verses 8-10)
Refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (verse 11)
An important note about the text of the psalm is necessary, because some recent modern editions of the Book of Psalm “restored” (a fancy scholarly term meaning “fussed with”) the text of the psalm to include the psalm’s refrain after the first stanza, too. The Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978 and The Book of Common Prayer of 1977 both used a version of this psalm with the refrain so restored.3
More recently, however, postmodern sensibilities have rightfully undermined scholarly confidence in the ability to fuss with the biblical text in these ways. So here is the point: Just be aware of which text your congregation is using. The commentary here does not supply the supposed missing verse. If you are still using a version that “restores” the refrain after the first stanza, adjust your interpretation accordingly.
Stanza One — The Roaring of Creation and God “Our Refuge”
In the first stanza, the hymn juxtaposes the steady and secure image of God as “refuge” with the image of the earth and seas in uproar. (For more on the key Hebrew term “refuge,” see the commentary on Psalm 91:9-16.) The image of “earth” shaking and “sea” roaring is an image of creation itself in rebellion against God’s creative order. This image is a reminder that the fallen condition of creation goes beyond mere human disobedience. The fallen condition encompasses all of creation, all of nature. Thus, the “law” that the psalm names is the reality that creation itself is broken and in rebellion against the Creator. Earthquakes and tsunamis cause destruction. Disease and disability strike. Death awaits all. And the “gospel” that the psalm names is the one trustworthy source of security that can be relied upon in the midst of this roaring rebellion: God is our refuge, “therefore we will not fear.” Notice that similar to other poems of trust, such as Psalm 23, the strategy of the psalm is to name the very real reasons there are for fear, and then to confess trust in God in the midst of those fears.
Stanza Two — The Roaring of the Nations and the River of God
The second stanza of the poem intensifies both the threat that is named and the promise that is proffered. The first stanza remained at the more universal level, naming the universal threat of creation in rebellion and offering the general promise of God (using the generic term elohim) as refuge. The second stanza focuses in more specifically on the national identity of God’s chosen people. It refers to the nations (Hebrew: goyim) that threaten “the city of God” (also known as Jerusalem) and the refrain employs both the personal name of “the Lord” as well as the epithet “God of Jacob” — a reference to the nation’s ancestral patriarch.
All of which is to say that in the second stanza the poem intensifies the sense of threat by naming the national threat that empires such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and many smaller nations posed to the descendants of Jacob throughout Israel’s existence. This intensification of the naming of the threat also balances the first stanza by naming a second, more particular and more direct way in which the fallen condition of sin affects human — through human sin.
Yes, all of creation is fallen and in rebellion, but human sin and rebellion is more nefarious, or at least more potent — if only because the combination of human intelligence and will make evils such as genocide and war possible. Thus, “the nations are in an uproar” (the Hebrew verb hamah is used both for the nations in verse 6 and the sea in verse 3) summarizes the intensification of the rebellious threat.
The corresponding promise that the second stanza offers is the presence of God with the people. Here, God’s presence is metaphorically described as “a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” There was and is no river in Jerusalem, of course, but that is not the point of the poetic flourish. The point is rather the powerful promise resident in the stark image of the refreshing and life-sustaining river to a city and people in an arid climate under siege by an invading army. The image of the river flowing from the throne or habitation of God was, moreover, a metaphor known throughout the ancient Near East and one that found its way into the promises of the New Testament (Revelation 22:1-2).4
The promise of the presence of God with the people in the city was a key element of the theology of the southern kingdom of Judah. The city, and in particular its Temple, was “the holy habitation of the most high.” According to this theology, God had chosen both the Davidic monarchs and the City of David, Jerusalem. This “dual election” included the promise of protection for both (see Psalm 89; Isaiah 7:1-17; 2 Samuel 7:1-7). In the refrain, which we can imagine the entire congregation singing, the words of trust become almost a creedal confession of confidence: “The Lord of hosts is with us.”
In the New Testament, this theology modulates to a new key, with Jesus coming as both the presence and habitation of God and as the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah (the royal descendant of David) — who is present wherever two or three gather in his name, to the end of the age.
Stanza Three — Be Still and Know that I am God
The psalm’s final stanza culminates with a statement of trust that is cloaked as an invitation and then with a promise. The invitation is the imperative cry, “Come!” which occurs in Psalms 95 and 66 in calls to come, see what God has done, and therefore to praise God. Here, the call is not so much to praise God, but to come and be silent — to witness God’s powerful ability to crush rebellion and then to be silent.
In the end, God even speaks the promise: “Be still, and know that I am God.” To know, in Hebrew, does not mean just to acknowledge something intellectually, but to internalize or to embody the truth fully. And then God’s voice closes the psalm by asserting God’s exaltation over both spheres of creation that have been in rebellion against God in stanzas 1 and 2 of the poem: “I am exalted among the nations” (stanza 2) and “I am exalted in the earth” (stanza 1).
That is the promise of both the psalm, and in a larger sense, of the entire Bible. That the God of Jacob and the Lord of Israel will, in the end of all things, prove a faithful refuge for those who are caught in the fallen condition of creation and humanity.
The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.
1Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 30, 2011.
2In Luther’s Works 53: 283.
3This restoration to the psalm can be found in such important scholars as Hans-Joachim Kraus [Psalms 1-59 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988) 458-9]. The argument is entirely internal, assuming that because the Hebrew word selah follows each of the three stanzas, the refrain should follow also. But there is no external textual support, either in ancient Hebrew manuscripts or among the ancient versions, for such a change to the psalm. If you read this footnote, you can now impress your colleagues in your text study. What does selah mean? Glad you asked. Nobody knows, but the best guess is that it was a musical or liturgical direction calling for some now unknown action to take place.
4For what it is worth, certain psalm scholars have argued that this psalm must have originated in some other city, since the mention of the river does not fit Jerusalem, and that the psalm was only “adopted” by Jerusalem. This argument misses the poetic power of the image of river and betrays a way of interpreting the Bible that is, in my view, hopelessly enslaved to a literalistic hermeneutic.