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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 46

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



The title here is that which is assigned in the American Standard Version superscription, where it is also stated that the Psalm is for the Chief Musician, a Psalm of the Sons of Korah, a Song set to Alamoth, that latter word probably referring to the particular tune to be used for this psalm.

For once, we find scholars of widely divergent views in full agreement as to the occasion when this psalm was probably composed. The radical critic Addis, the conservative Leupold, and the current Dummelow all agree that the occasion was shortly after the destruction of Sennacherib’s army before the walls of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. Here is what these scholars wrote:

“Psalms 46-48 form a group of three which we may assign with little doubt to the reign of Hezekiah, when Sennacherib’s army was suddenly destroyed (2 Kings 19:35). They all three strike the same note of gratitude, confidence and praise, which is found in Isaiah’s references to the same event (Isaiah 29-31; Isaiah 33; Isaiah 37).(F1) “This Psalm looks back to the deliverance from Sennacherib. Compare Psalms 46:5, “God shall help her at the dawning of the morning,” with Isaiah 37:36, “Early in the morning they (i.e., Sennacherib’s army) were all dead men”!(F2)
“Leupold reviewed a number of other suggestions regarding the great deliverance of Israel which is celebrated in this psalm, and then stated that: `Nothing meets the needs of the case quite so well as does the great deliverance that took place in the days of Hezekiah (701 B.C.) when Sennacherib’s forces were disastrously destroyed after having directly threatened the city of Jerusalem, and when the omnipotence of the God of Israel was underscored as it was on but few other occasions.’“(F3)

This psalm is famous for the very first line of it, which was made the theme of Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” People of all religious convictions still sing this mighty hymn all over the world. Halley called it the “Song of the Reformation.”(F4) And Spurgeon tells this story:

“There were times when Martin Luther was threatened with discouragement; but he would say, “Come, Philip, let us sing the 46th Psalm”; and they would sing it in Luther’s own version, translated by Thomas Carlyle: `A sure stronghold our God is He,
A timely shield and weapon;
Our help He’ll be, and set us free
From every ill can happen.
And were the world with devils filled,
All eager to devour us,
Our souls to fear shall little yield,
They cannot overpower us.’“(F5)

P. H. Hodge translated the Luther Hymn for Great Songs of the Church, as follows:

“A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing; Our helper he amid the flood Of mortal ills prevailing.
And though this world with demons filled, Should threaten to undo us
We will not fear, for God has willed His truth to triumph through us.’“(F6)

“This psalm is both historical and prophetic. It refers to things that happened in Israel; and it is a prophecy concerning the New Testament Church.”(F7)

Kidner gave the organization of this psalm as follows: (1) The Most High’s ascendancy over nature (Psalms 46:1-3); (2) His ascendancy over the attackers of His city (Psalms 46:4-7); and (3) His ascendancy over the whole warring world (Psalms 46:8-11).(F8)

Verses 1-3


“God is our refuge and strength. A very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, Though the earth do change, And though the mountains be shaken into the heart of the seas; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, Though the mountains tremble with the swelling thereof. (Selah)”

Psalms 46:2-3 here are considered to be figurative, standing for all kinds of political commotion and turbulent conflict among nations. Rawlinson identified these terrible political upheavals as, “Probably those caused by the Assyrian career of conquest.”(F9)

However, the language here is very similar to that which is used prophetically of the Day of Judgment and the end of human probation, in a number of Biblical references. Those cosmic disturbances include earthquakes, the removal of islands and mountains out of their places, the failing of the sun’s light, etc. From this, some have interpreted this heavenly refuge in God as a safe haven, even at that time. “When the elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the heavens and the earth shall pass away in that final great conflagration,”(F10) at which time God will, “Wipe this Adam off the face of the earth” (Zephaniah 1:2-3).

To be sure, this is a valid understanding of these verses. Even in the cataclysmic scenes that shall mark the end of God’s Dispensation of Grace, “God is the refuge and the strength of those who love him.”

The primary meaning of these verses (Psalms 46:2-3) “Is figurative, standing for stress and trouble.”(F11)

Verses 4-7


“There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God, The holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God will help her, and that right early. The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved: He uttered his voice, the earth melted. Jehovah of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. (Selah)”

“There is a river, etc.” The text seems to identify this river as the tabernacles of the Most High, God’s dwelling place; but the actual meaning might be, “The river of God’s presence and favor,”(F12) The tabernacles of the Most High typically represent, “God’s favor, like a river, is distributed to all the Church.”(F13) “It was the river of God’s life-giving presence.”(F14) “This river is the perennial fountain of God’s grace.”(F15)

Yes indeed, these views are acceptable; but there seems also to be a prophecy of that Eternal City of God that cometh down out of heaven, the New Jerusalem, described in the last chapters of Revelation. The River of Life flows out of the throne of God in that City; and the Tree of Life grows on either side of it, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations.

There is also something else that fits very beautifully into these wonderful verses. From Isaiah 8, we have this:

“Forasmuch as this people have refused the waters of Shiloah that go softly… now therefore, behold the Lord bringeth upon them the waters of the (Euphrates) River, strong and mighty, even the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it shall come up over all its channels, and go over all its banks; and it shall sweep onward into Judah… and overflow (Isaiah 8:6-8).”

The waters of Shiloah here are the same as those of the Pool of Siloam in the New Testament. “The spring of Gihon, whose waters Hezekiah brought into Jerusalem by a tunnel (2 Chronicles 32:30) are here used as a symbol of God’s refreshing presence.”(F16) These waters emptied into Siloam from underneath; hence the statement that “they went softly.” Isaiah certainly used this humble little river as a symbol of God’s government and protection, as contrasted with the terrible waters of the Euphrates at flood stage; and it is likely that the psalmist does the same thing here. This little stream is certainly a river that made glad the city of God, whether or not it was the river that did so.

Delitzsch combined in one paragraph the multiple spiritual intimations of these verses:

“When the city of God is threatened and encompassed by foes, still she shall not hunger and thirst, nor fear and despair; for the river of grace and of God’s ordinances and promises flows with its rippling waves through the holy place, where the dwelling-place, or tabernacle, of the Most High is pitched.”(F17)

“God will help her, and that quite early” The marginal reference or the last phrase here is, “At the dawn of morning”; and significantly, Isaiah stated that, “When men arose early in the morning, these (the whole army of Sennacherib) were all dead bodies” (Isaiah 37:36). This is a very strong link in the chain of evidence that binds these words to that great deliverance in 701 B.C.

“The nations raged, etc.” “This means that in the past the thing that has regularly happened is that the “heathen have raged,” etc.; but God had only to utter his voice, and as a result, men and nations have collapsed before Him. God controls all the raging of the nations and their tumults.”(F18)

“Jehovah of hosts is with us” “If God be for us, who can be against us,” is the New Testament echo of this confidence. The great security is in God. Just as the coneys, a little animal often mentioned in the Old Testament, are very weak, but occupy impregnable dwelling places in the rocks; just so men also are weak, vulnerable, insecure apart from God; but “in Him,” they are secure, safe, invincible, and unconquerable.

“The God of Jacob is our refuge” According to Kidner, this refrain probably should also have been inserted at the end of Psalms 46:3, thus marking the three divisions of the psalm as a refrain. He also noted that, “The word `refuge’ in this refrain, here and in Psalms 46:11, is distinct from the word so rendered in Psalms 46:1. Here it implies inaccessible height; hence the New English Bible rendition, `Our high stronghold’“(F19)

Verses 8-11

“Come, behold the works of Jehovah, What desolations he hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; He breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; He burneth the chariot in the fire. Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Jehovah of hosts is with me, The God of Jacob is our refuge. (Selah)”

“Come, behold the works of Jehovah” This, in context, was an invitation to the citizens of Jerusalem to behold the devastation of the army of Sennacherib, which the angel of God slaughtered in one night to the extent of 185,000 men. Cleaning up a mess like that required bonfires that lasted a long time, the war chariots, spears, arrows, shields and other military equipment providing fuel for the disposition of the dead.

Lord Byron’s great poem catches the terrible magnificence of this Divine interposition upon behalf of God’s people. There is an economy in God’s wonders; he never intervenes unless it is absolutely necessary for the achievement of his eternal purpose. In this case, Jerusalem was surely doomed to destruction without Divine aid; therefore God came to the rescue.

“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And their cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.
The sheen on their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue waves roll nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset was seen,
Like the leaves of the forest when autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay scattered and strewn.
For the angel of death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the might of the Gentile unsmote by the sword
Was melted like snow in the glance of the Lord.”
- Lord Byron, The Destruction of Sennacherib

This incredibly impressive destruction of Sennacherib’s army was a judgment of God so powerful, so effective, and so dramatic, that everyone on earth knew about it. Here was tangible, physical evidence of the most astounding kind that witnessed God’s oversight of Israel. This mighty miracle was not done in some secluded corner of the world, but at the crossroads of all nations and of all history. This was one of the most amazing things that ever happened on this earth.

“What desolations he hath made” When this psalm was written, the smoke was probably still rising from the funeral of Sennacherib’s destroyed host. All Jerusalem could see it, either from the walls of their city, or by a short journey to the battlefield where the army had been deployed (perhaps near Lachish). “If this does not prove that the Lord controls the destinies of wars, what does? If this is not a sufficient token that `God is our refuge,’ what is?”(F20)

“He maketh wars to cease to the end of the earth” Of course, the first meaning here is that God has the power to terminate any war at any time; but there seems to be here a prophecy of a time when wars shall be no more. It appears that we may not look for the fulfilment of this in the present dispensation, because Jesus cautions us about expecting “wars and rumors of wars.” Nevertheless, we believe there will come a time when God in righteous wrath shall rise up and cast evil out of his universe; and then wars shall cease.

“He burneth the chariots in the fire” The word here rendered chariots actually means any two-wheeled contraption and would also include baggage wagons and other military devices as well as chariots. All such things were needed as fuel to help burn up the dead.

“Be still, and know that I am God” Dahood interpreted this to mean that Israel, “Should not enter into alliances with other nations.”(F21) Many times it is God’s will for his people to work with all their might; but, now and then, when all human endeavor is of no avail, and where there seems to be no hope at all, it may be time to “Stand still!” Thus it was before the Red Sea, when Moses commanded Israel, “Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:23).

For comment on Psalms 46:11, see under Psalms 46:7, above.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 46". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-46.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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