Psalm 46 A Mighty Fortress

Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany. Photo by Robert Scarth shared under creative commons 2.0

Psalm 46

<To the leader. Of the Korahites. According to Alamoth. A Song.>
1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Sometimes the impact of a psalm is extended by the interpretations it spawns and the stories that have been told around its process of being handed on. Psalm 46 has a unique story within both my denominational heritage and my linguistic heritage. When Martin Luther penned his famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress” he was reflecting on Psalm 46 and so Luther’s paraphrase and commentary from this psalm have echoed among the worship of Lutheran and other protestant congregations for almost five hundred years. There is also a story that, when the King James Version of the Bible was being translated in 1604-11, William Shakespeare was asked to transform the poetic portions of the Old Testament, especially the book of Psalms, from Hebrew and Latin into English. Shakespeare, reportedly, reached this psalm on his 46th birthday and decided to leave his mark on the translation: 46 words from the beginning of the psalm is the work ‘shake’ and 46 words from the end is ‘spear’ in the King James Version. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, pp. 425-426) Even apart from the power of the song ‘a Mighty Fortress’ and the story of the psalm’s famous translator, the words of the psalm are incredibly powerful and evocative.

God is metaphorically referred to as the place of refuge and strength. God is the one who shelters the faithful one in both the times of peace and struggle, but here the trouble around is the counterpoint to the refuge and strength of God. Poetically everything in creation seems to be in chaos: the earth, the mountains and the waters all are unstable in contrast to the stability that God provides for the faithful. The presence of God moves the world from the shaking of the mountains and the roaring of the waters to a river and streams that make glad and a city that is not moved. God’s presence in the city creates this transformation for the faithful people.

The city is at peace even as the nations around it are in turmoil. Israel and Judah were always threatened by the military might of other nations. Yet, the faithful people were never intended to rely on their own military might. God would be the warrior that fought on their behalf. Just as the elements of the earth were moved from chaos to peace so are the nations that are in an uproar moved away from conflict. We are introduced to the title LORD of hosts which occurs frequently throughout the Hebrew Scriptures but only occasionally in the book of Psalms. The word translated hosts literally means armies and relates to military undertakings in both the worldly and cosmic realm. God as a warrior has destroyed the weapons of war, the LORD of hosts has eliminated the work of the armies of the nations. If God can cease the quaking of the mountains and the roar of the seas, then God can make wars to cease and eliminate the weaponry of warfare throughout the earth.

Throughout the psalm the poetry has moved from chaos to peace among the elements and warfare to peace among the nations and ends with a command for the faithful also to cease their movement and be still. The faithful community’s refuge and identity comes from their knowledge of God’s presence in their midst. Yet, the praise of God extends beyond the boundary of the community. The LORD of hosts is exalted among the nations that saw the weapons of war turned into fuel for the fire. The God of Jacob is honored by the creation whose seas are quieted and mountains are stilled. The psalmist boldly imagines a God who can be the refuge and strength not only for the chosen people but for the people and elements of the entire earth.

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