Commentary on Psalm 46
Psalm 46 is a community hymn that is more specifically classified as a “Song of Zion.”1
While it never specifically mentions the city of Jerusalem or Zion, its content and structure suggest that it may have been sung liturgically by the community of Israelites as a confirmation that God was enthroned in Jerusalem/Zion and would protect the city and the people from all threats. Zion theology did not intend to confine God to Zion, but it viewed Zion as God’s special place. In Psalm 46 and in other “Songs of Zion” (see Psalms 48, 76, and 87), “the city of God” is symbolic of God’s presence.
The psalm consists of three sections: verses 1-3; verses 4-7; and verses 8-11. The second and third sections each end with the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge (verses 7 and 11, NRSV).” The first section is missing the refrain, and because of the very well-formed structure of the psalm some scholars suggest inserting the refrain at the end of verse 3. The omitted refrain may be a rhetorical device, though, that moves the reader/hearer from the opening verses of the psalm into the heart of the psalm’s message in verses 4-5: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.”
The focus of verses 1-3 is God. In verse 1, the psalm singer characterizes God as a “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” God as “refuge” (mahseh) is a common designation for God in the Psalter, occurring twelve times (see, for example, Psalms 14:6; 62:9; and 94:22) and best understood as a physical place of safety. It is often paired with “strength” (‘oz, see Psalms 61:4 and 71:7 and especially Isaiah 25:4). Verses 2-3 provides assurance that there is no need to fear even if, as the Common English Bible says, “the world falls apart.” The shaking and trembling of the mountains most likely depicts an earthquake, a common but unsettling phenomenon for the inhabitants of ancient Syria and Palestine. Water, described as roaring and foaming, is a common metaphor for chaos in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.
The scene changes in verses 4-7, focusing on “the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.” The roaring and foaming waters of verse 3 are transformed in verse 4 to a river whose streams make the city of God glad. God dwells in the midst of the city, and the shaking and the trembling of the mountains have ceased. Even though the nations are in an uproar and kingdoms totter, God utters his voice and the earth melts. All of the geographic elements (the earth, mountains, and waters) and two of the verbs (mot—translated as “”shake” in verse 2, “move” in verse 5, and “totter” in verse 6 and hamah—translated as “roar” in verse 3 and “uproar” in verse 6) used in verses 1-3 are present in verses 4-7, but in the latter verses, the chaotic elements have been transformed to peaceful symbols of the presence of God.
The water imagery used in Psalm 46 may be compared with that used in Psalm 42. In Psalm 42, the singer begins with calm images of water—flowing streams of water and tears in verses 1-3—and moves to chaotic images—thundering cataracts, waves, and billows in verses 7-8. In Psalm 46, in contrast, the imagery moves in the opposite direction, from chaos—mountains shaking in the heart of the seas and roaring and foaming waters—to calm—a river with streams. In each instance, the presence of God signals calm and order, while God’s absence or distance from the psalmist elicits images of chaos.
The second section of Psalm 46 ends with the refrain in verse 7, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (verse 7). The phrase “the Lord of hosts” (yhwh seba’ot) occurs some 285 times in the Hebrew Bible, but only fifteen times in the Psalter (see, for instance, Psalms 24:10; 59:5; 80:7; and 89:8). “Hosts” is a word often connected with military undertakings, in both the human and cosmic realms. Many commentators understand the phrase “the LORD of hosts” as descriptive of the God who commands the heavenly army; others view it as an epithet for the God who rules over a heavenly council (see Job 1:6). Whatever its meaning, the phrase “LORD of hosts” most likely has its origin in the cultic life of Jerusalem, and refers to the God who sits enthroned upon the cherubim in the inner sanctuary of the temple.
The final section of Psalm 46, verses 8-11, is a call “Come, behold the works of the Lord’” (verse 8). The God who instills trust in the midst of the fear of earthquakes, floods, and a changing earth and who sits enthroned in the city of God will also cause wars to cease by breaking bows, shattering spears, and burning shields with fire. The words of the second half of verse 8—“see what desolations (sammah) he has brought on the earth”—are disturbing at first glance. One commentator writes, “The ‘desolations’ that God brings, in contrast to human efforts, involve the cessation of war and the destruction of all human implements of destruction.”2 The image of God as warrior provided the ancient Israelites with a powerful picture of protection and defense in the midst of the chaos of the natural and political world in which they lived.
Verse 10 issues a simple imperative: “Be still and know that I am God.” In the midst of the changing earth, the shaking and trembling mountains, and the roaring and foaming waters of the world in which we live, to heed the words of verse 10 is difficult. In the midst of campus shootings, houses of worship targeted for hate, the exploitation of the weak by those in power, the unimaginable neglect of the most vulnerable of our populations, sometimes we need to “Be still” and know that God is still there, in Zion, with “a river whose streams make the city glad.” Be still for a while, regain confidence in the goodness of God and then move back into the world to do what we can to stop the change, the shaking and trembling, and the roaring and foaming.
- Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 27, 2019. Incidentally, Psalm 46 was the inspiration for Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Luther wrote both the words and the music sometime between 1527 and 1529.
- J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 866.