Commentary on Psalm 46
Type “Psalm 46” in the Working Preacher search box and you’ll discover that there are eleven other scholars whose commentaries on this psalm have been posted (or re-posted) a total of nineteen times! We are indeed “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Their insights into the language, contexts, and message of the psalm provide a firm foundation for our exposition of a classic Reformation Day scripture, making it difficult to imagine adding anything new to their discussion.
That said, I was struck by the fact that the other commentaries were composed prior to 2020. Of course, God’s word does not change and its history of interpretation carries forward, but the last three years have brought enormous grief, anxiety, and uncertainty. I think of the continually morphing Covid pandemic with over 6 million deaths worldwide. Political strife divides many nations, evidenced most painfully by an attack on the U.S. Capitol. In the U. S., we are beset by never-ending gun violence, especially mass shootings in schools. There have been acts of racial injustice too numerous to count. We wage a desperate and contentious struggle with global climate change. A brazen Russian invasion of Ukraine destabilizes the world’s economy and brings the world to the brink of war. Then I turn back to Psalm 46’s defiant profession on behalf of Israel, “We will not fear” (verse 2). Can we say the same today?
Psalm 46 does not provide us with a similarly specific list of historical crises. To be sure, the psalm is realistic, referring to a particular city (Jerusalem) and assuming a tragic history of natural and national disasters. Underlying this poetic realism is an ancient, symbolic world of chaotic elements that can “shake” and “totter” the earth’s very foundations.1 Far from eliciting fear, however, these varied circumstances gave Israel an occasion to celebrate God’s presence, strength, and help in this psalm. Israel can joyfully trust YHWH to be with them and declare what Clinton McCann calls, “a proclamation of God’s universal reign.”2
I’d like to explore the challenge of connecting that abiding theological truth to our historical and cultural moment. Is there a way for our congregations to name the angst that besets our age and interrogate the fear and dread that weakens our faith and work in the world? We can begin by addressing Psalm 46’s conceptual distinction between God’s relationship with nature and God’s relationship to the nations within human history. In verses 2-4, natural features (for example, earth, waters, mountains, river) are the subject of verbs. But in verses 5-11, God’s agency dominates the psalm: God is present, speaks, and acts, especially to stop the violence of war. The psalm does not suggest that God causes the natural events or intervenes to stop them. Yes, “[God] utters his voice, the earth melts” (verse 6b), but commentators typically identify a structure for Psalm 46 that links that expression with the “nations” and “kingdoms” of verse 6a.3
The overall rhetoric of Psalm 46 is to declare God’s presence and refuge, not to explain cosmic tumult. When beset by fear in the face of tragedies and disasters, it is tempting to jump to some immediate, divine causation. Although the Bible frequently describes God sovereignly acting in the natural order, Genesis 1 clearly teaches that God intended for the created order to have its own laws and mechanisms. To be sure, we are increasingly aware of the profound impact the human community has had on the created order, and it is now difficult to separate the sphere of human history from the workings of nature.4
But what about massive natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, responsible for the loss of a quarter of a million people? It is completely normal to ask the question, “Where was God in the Tsunami?” as David Bentley Hart does in the subtitle of his compelling theological essay, “The Doors of the Sea”. This topic is, of course, part of a much larger exploration of the existence of evil and efforts to explain it in light of the goodness and power of God. Hart wrestles with various theological responses to the tsunami, and while he rejects connecting every event with “a positive determination of God’s will,” he maintains the classic doctrine of providence.5 Hart believes that “all Christians must affirm God’s transcendent governance of everything, even fallen history and nature, and must believe that by that governance he will defeat evil and bring the final good of all things out of the darkness of ‘this age’.” In conversation with Psalm 46, a doctrine of providence moves us from a state of fear to one of deeper faith, which itself begets a profound hope for the future.
As I write this in July of 2022, a war rages in Ukraine. Looking at Psalm 46:9-10, it is difficult not to wonder when God will cause that war to “cease,” to “shatter” and “break” the weapons of the aggressor. Some recent commentaries caution applying Psalm 46 to modern nation states and “their own martial actions against other people.”6 Ellen Charry states that, far from encouraging violence, “this antiwar poem counsels Israel to desist from military action and to wait for God to deal with foreign enemies.”7 Indeed, YHWH commands the nations, “Be still, and know that I am God!” (verse 10a). The Hebrew root for “still” (rph) in this instance likely means to “stop” or “refrain from.” Another Hebrew root (dmm), however, speaks a similar word to us: “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).
- For pertinent ancient Near Eastern references, see Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “Psalm 46,” The Book of Psalms, (Eerdmans, 2014), 422-423.
- J. Clinton McCann, “Commentary on Psalm 46,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/reformation-day/commentary-on-psalm-46-3
- See Rolf Jacobson for a careful discussion: “Psalm 46: Translation, Structure, and Theology,” Word and World 40 (2020):308-320.
- A readable, journalistic account based on the latest climate science is David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Duggan Books, 2019).
- David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? (Eerdmans, 2005), 85.
- Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (Cambridge, 2014), 219.
- Ellen Charry, Psalms 1-50 (Brazos, 2015), 237.