Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 46

Verses 1-11

Psalms 46:1-11

THERE are two events, one or other of which probably supplies the historical basis of this and the two following psalms. One is Jehoshaphat’s deliverance from the combined forces of the bordering nations. [2 Chronicles 20:1-37] Delitzsch adopts this as the occasion of the psalm. But the other more usually accepted reference to the destruction of Sennacherib’s army is more probable. Psalms 46:1-11; Psalms 48:1-14 have remarkable parallelisms with Isaiah. The noble contrast of the quiet river which makes glad the city of God with a tossing, earth-shaking sea resembles the prophet’s threatening that the effect of refusing the "waters of Shiloah which go softly" would be inundation by the strong and mighty river, the Assyrian power. And the emblem is expanded in the striking language of Isaiah 33:21 : "The glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars." Encircled by the flashing links of that broad moat, Jerusalem sits secure. Again, the central thought of the refrain in the psalm, "The Lord of hosts is with us," is closely allied to the symbolic name which Isaiah gave as a pledge of deliverance, "Immanuel, God with us."

The structure is simple. The three strophes into which the psalm falls set forth substantially the same thought, that God’s presence is safety and peace, whatever storms may roar. This general theme is exhibited in the first strophe (Psalms 46:1-3) in reference to natural convulsions; in the second (Psalms 46:4-7) in reference to the rage of hostile kingdoms; and in the third (Psalms 46:8-11) men are summoned to behold a recent example of God’s delivering might, which establishes the truth of the preceding utterances and has occasioned the psalm. The grand refrain which closes the second and third strophes should probably be restored at the end of Psalms 46:3.

In the first strophe the psalmist paints chaos come again, by the familiar figures of a changed earth, tottering mountains sinking in the raging sea from which they rose at creation, and a wild ocean with thunderous dash appalling the ear and yeasty foam terrifying the eye, sweeping in triumphant insolence over all the fair earth. It is prosaic to insist on an allegorical meaning for the picture. It is rather a vivid sketch of utter confusion, dashed in with three or four bold strokes, an impossible case supposed in order to bring out the unshaken calm of those who have God for ark in such a deluge. He is not only a sure refuge and stronghold, but one easy of access when troubles come. There is little good in a fortress, however impregnable, if it is so difficult to reach that a fugitive might be slain a hundred times before he was safe in it. But this high tower, which no foe can scale, can be climbed at a thought, and a wish lifts us within its mighty walls. The psalmist speaks a deep truth, verified in the spiritual life of all ages, when he celebrates the refuge of the devout soul as "most readily to be found."

As the text stands, this strophe is a verse too short, and Psalms 46:3 drags if connected with "will not we fear." The restoration of the refrain removes the anomaly in the length of the strophe, and enables us to detach Psalms 46:3 from the preceding. Its sense is then completed, if we regard it as the protasis of a sentence of which the refrain is the apodosis, or if, with Cheyne and others, we take Psalms 46:3, "Let its waters roar," etc.-what of that? "Jehovah of hosts is with us." If the strophe is thus completed, it conforms to file other two, in each of which may be traced a division into two pairs of verses. These two verse pairs of the first strophe would then be inverted parallelism, -the former putting security in God first, and surrounding trouble second; the latter dealing with the same two subjects, but in reversed sequence.

The second strophe brings a new picture to view with impressive suddenness, which is even more vividly dramatic if the refrain is not supplied. Right against the vision of confusion comes one of peace. The abrupt introduction of "a river" as an isolated noun, which dislocates grammatical structure, is almost an exclamation. "There is a river" enfeebles the swing of the original. We might almost translate, "Lo! a river!" Jerusalem was unique among historical cities in that it had no great river. It had one tiny thread of water, of which perhaps the psalmist is thinking. But whether there is here the same contrast between Siloam’s gentle flow and the surging waters of hostile powers as Isaiah sets forth in the passage already referred to, [Isaiah 8:6] the meaning of this gladdening stream is the ever-flowing communication of God Himself in His grace. The stream is the fountain in flow. In the former strophe we hear the roar of the troubled waters, and see the firm hills toppling into their depths. Now we behold the gentle flow of the river, gliding through the city, with music in its ripples and sunshine in its flash and refreshment in its waters, parting into many arms and yet one in diversity, and bringing life and gladness wherever it comes. Not with noise nor tumult, but in silent communication, God’s grace and peace refresh the soul. Power is loud, but omnipotence is silent. The roar of all the billows is weak when compared with the quiet sliding onwards of that still stream. It has its divisions. As in old days each man’s bit of garden was irrigated by a branch led from the stream, so in endless diversity, corresponding to the infinite greatness of the source and the innumerable variety of men’s needs, God’s grace comes. "All these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally." The streams gladden the city of God with the gladness of satisfied thirsts, with the gladness which comes from the contact of the human spirit with Divine completeness. So supplied, the city may laugh at besiegers. It has unfailing supplies within itself, and the enemy may cut off all surface streams, but its "water shall be sure."

Substantially the same thought is next stated in plain words: "God is in the midst of her." And therefore two things follow. One is unshaken stability, and another is help at the right time-"at the turn of the morning." "The Lord is in the midst of her"-that is a perennial fact. "The Lord shall help her"-that is the "grace for seasonable help." He, not we, determines when the night shall thin away its blackness into morning twilight. But we may be sure that the presence which is the pledge of stability and calm even in storm and darkness will flash into energy of help at the moment when He wills. The same expression is used to mark the time of His looking from the pillar of cloud and troubling the Egyptians, and there may be an allusion to that standing instance of His help here. "It is not for you to know the times and the seasons"; but this we may know-that the Lord of all times will always help at the right time; He will not come so quickly as to anticipate our consciousness of need, nor delay so long as to let us be irrevocably engulfed in the bog. "Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When He heard therefore that he was sick, He abode two days still in the same place where He was." Yet He came in time.

With what vigour the short, crashing clauses of Psalms 46:6 describe the wrath and turbulence of the nations, and the instantaneous dissolving of their strength into weakness at a word from those awful lips! The verse may be taken as hypothetical or as historical. In either case we see the sequence of events as by a succession of lightning flashes. The hurry of the style, marked by the omission of connecting particles, reflects the swiftness of incident, like Veni, vidi, vici. The utterance of God’s will conquers all. At the sound of that voice stillness and a pause of dread fall on the "roar" (same word as in Psalms 46:3) of the nations, like the hush in the woods when thunder rolls. He speaks, and all meaner sounds cease. "The lion hath roared, who shall not fear?" No material vehicle is needed. To every believer in God there is an incomprehensible action of the Divine Will on material things; and no explanations bridge the gulf recognised in the psalmist’s broken utterances, which declare sequence and not mode of operation: "He uttered His voice, the earth melted."

Again the triumph of the refrain peals forth, with its musical accompaniment prolonging the impression. In it the psalmist gives voice, for himself and his fellows, to their making their own of the general truths which the psalm has been declaring. The two names of God set forth a twofold ground for confidence. "Jehovah of hosts" is all the more emphatic here since the Second Book of the Psalter is usually Elohistic. It proclaims God’s eternal, self-existent Being, and His covenant relation as well as His absolute authority over the ranked forces of the universe, personal or impersonal, spiritual or material. The Lord of all these legions is with us. When we say "The God of Jacob," we reach back into the past and lay hold of the Helper of the men of old as ours. What He has been, He is: what He did, He is doing still. The river is full today, though the van of the army did long ago drink and were satisfied. The bright waters are still as pellucid and abundant as then, and the last of the rearguard will find them the same.

The third strophe summons to contemplate with fixed attention the "desolations" made by some great manifestation of God’s delivering power. It is presupposed that these are still visible. Broken bows, splintered spears, half-charred chariots, strew the ground, and Israel can go forth without fear and feast their eyes on these tokens of what God has done for them. The language is naturally applied to the relics of Sennacherib’s annihilated force. In any case it points to a recent act of God’s, the glad surprise of which palpitates all through the psalm. The field of history is littered with broken, abandoned weapons, once flourished in hands long since turned to dust; and the city and throne of God against which they were lifted remain unharmed. The voice which melted the earth speaks at the close of the psalm; not now with destructive energy, but in warning, through which tones of tenderness can be caught. God desires that foes would cease their vain strife before it proves fatal. "Desist" is here an elliptical expression, of which the full form is "Let your hands drop"; or, as we say, "Ground your weapons," and learn how vain is a contest with Him who is God, and whose fixed purpose is that all nations shall know and exalt Him. The prospect hinted at in the last words, of a world submissive to its King. softens the terrors of His destructive manifestations, reveals their inmost purpose, and opens to foes the possibility of passing, not as conquerors, but as subjects, and therefore fellow citizens, through the gate into the city.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 46". "Expositor's Bible Commentary".