Psalm 46 is classified as one of the Psalms of Zion. The others include Psalm 48, 84, 87, and 122. These songs of Zion celebrate Jerusalem as the place where God dwells with His people (i.e., the city of God). Psalm 46 focuses on God as the refuge and strength of His people when they turn to Him in a time of distress. This psalm is very personal. God is declared to be “our refuge and strength” (Psa 46:1b), and “is with us” and “is our refuge” (Psa 46:7, 11). This theme is repeated throughout the psalms where the Lord is the source of His people’s strength (Psa 29:11; 68:35), their refuge (Psa 14:6; 61:3; 62:7-8; 71:7; 73:28; 91:2; 142:5), and their stronghold (Psa 9:9; 18:2; 48:3; 59:9, 16-17). The wise seek Him because they are a people in need (Psa 22:19; 27:9; 40:13; 44:26; 63:7). Psalm 46 is constructed in three parts.
- For God’s faithful people, He is their refuge and strength, even though the world around them is chaotic (Psa 46:1-3).
- God is among His faithful people and will protect them when the enemy invades (Psa 46:4-7).
- God calls His people to witness the defeat of the Gentile nations (Psa 46:8-11).
This Psalm inspired Martin Luther to write his hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
Occasion & Date
The historical background of the psalm is likely God’s deliverance of His people, under the leadership of King Hezekiah, when the Assyrians besieged the city of Jerusalem in 701 BC (2 Ki 18:1—19:37; Isa 36:1—37:38).
The psalm opens with a superscription, which reads, “For the choir director. A Psalm of the sons of Korah, set to Alamoth. A Song” (Psa 46:1a). The sons of Korah are somewhat of a mystery. They are mentioned several times in the psalms (Psa 42:1; 44:1; 45:1; 46:1; 47:1; 48:1; 49:1; 84:1; 85:1; 87:1; 88:1), but not much is said about them. According to Allen Ross, “In the superscription there are a few introductory notes. It was for the sons of Korah, a Levitical group that performed the psalm at times.” The term Alamoth (עַלְמָה) refers to a young girl of marriageable age. According to Peter Craigie, “Alamoth (lit. ‘maidens, young women’) might be the name of the tune or musical setting to which the psalm was sung. More probably, it may indicate a high musical setting, or being sung by soprano voices.”
Psalm 46 was a song of confidence in God, in which the people sang, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psa 46:1b). Here, the psalmist pictures God as a refuge (מַחֲסֶה machaseh), a place where His people can run for protection from the storms of life (cf., Isa 25:4). He also says that God is their strength (עֹז oz), which means He fortifies their souls in troubling times. Because God is omnipresent, He is always near to those who call upon Him and is a help (עֶזְרָה ezrah) in difficult times. Without God’s help, His people would surely be destroyed when the storms of life arise. The word trouble (צָרָה tsarah) means one is experiencing “need, distress, anxiety.” It speaks of the psychological disequilibrium one experiences when threatened by a rising force. The good news is that God is a strong refuge and help during times of calamity, and by faith, His people run to Him for shelter.
Turning to God in turbulent times produces confidence that stabilizes the stressed-out soul. The psalmist states, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. Selah” (Psa 46:2-3). Here, the psalmist pictures a worst-case scenario in which the earth, mountains, and sea change and behave in radically disruptive ways. Though ecological calamities are the natural reading of these verses (and certainly does not exclude them), the later mention of nations (vs 6) and wars (vs 9) tells us he is speaking metaphorically. According to Tremper Longman, “The psalmist utilizes the well-known images of mountains and waters to communicate the most formidable trouble possible. While mountains are images of security and permanence, the waters are forces of chaos. Thus, to envision the mountains being overwhelmed by the waters is a metaphor that points to the ultimate nightmare, or, as we might say today, ‘All hell is breaking loose!’” Adversity in life is inevitable, but stress in the soul is optional, depending how God’s people handle it. If God’s people hold to the theology of the first verse, that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psa 46:1b), the benefit is that they will not fear when everything comes crashing down around them. It’s natural that a believer’s initial response be that of concern; however, if God’s people can quickly adjust their thinking and align it with Him and His Word, it will produce stability in their souls.
Apart from the previous scenario of chaos, the psalmist provides a contrasting picture, saying, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy dwelling places of the Most High” (Psa 46:4). The city of God is Jerusalem (Psa 48:1-2; 87:2-3). In the city of God, the water is pictured differently. Rather than being a chaotic force that threatens to destroy, it is pictured as a calm river that makes glad the souls of those near its gentle flow. For ancient Israel, the source of water was the Gihon spring that was underneath the city of Jerusalem, and it was harnessed to flow into pools such as that of Siloam (John 9:7). God’s title of Most High (עֶלְיוֹן Elyon) pictures Him as the Ruler who is above all creation and able to protect those who turn to Him.
Furthermore, God’s people do not need to search far for Him, for “God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns” (Psa 46:5). The Lord is always with His people, in their midst, and the benefit is that they will not be moved, though all the world around them slips and slides in every imaginable way. It was God, not the city or its walls, that gave His people stability (cf., Zeph 3:15). The phrase, “God will help her when morning dawns”, speaks of a time when the darkness of night—and the troubles associated with it—has passed and a new day dawns.
The psalmist speaks of the trouble they’d been facing, saying, “The nations made an uproar, the kingdoms tottered; He raised His voice, the earth melted” (Psa 46:6). The earlier language (Psa 46:3) of the seas roaring (הָמָה hamah) is here applied to the nations which make an uproar (הָמָה hamah). And the picture of the mountains which slip (מוֹט mot) into the sea (Psa 46:2) here describe the kingdoms of men which tottered (מוֹט mot). At the mere raising of God’s voice, the nations, kingdoms, and the earth itself, all melt away when He speaks.
Then comes the first of two refrains. The psalmist states, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. Selah” (Psa 46:7). Here we observe one of God’s titles, the LORD of hosts (Yahweh Sabaoth) which literally means, the LORD of the armies. The picture is that of heaven’s Master, who commands His armies of angels to do His will. Remember, it was God who sent His angel to rescue His people during the Assyrian siege, where it was recorded, “Then it happened that night that the angel of the LORD went out and struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men rose early in the morning, behold, all of them were dead” (2 Ki 19:35). The refrain in Psalm 46:7 focuses attention on the Lord. God is with His people, and He is their stronghold. William VanGemeren states:
The great doctrine of the presence of God, even in the OT, affirms that the Great King has identified himself with his people; therefore they need not fear. God’s people will never fall. They will always be assured of his readiness to help them (v. 5). The help of God “at break of day” (cf. Ex 14:27) suggests that in the darkness of distress the people of God know that the Lord will not let them suffer unduly long (cf. Psa 30:6–7; 90:14). His acts of unfailing love are renewed each morning (cf. Lam 3:22–23).
The psalmist calls for God’s people to set their minds on the Lord, saying, “Come, behold the works of the LORD, Who has wrought desolations in the earth” (Psa 46:8). Operating from divine viewpoint allows God’s people to see His work in the earth and in their lives. And what events is the psalmist describing? Specifically, that “He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariots with fire” (Psa 46:9). That God makes wars to cease, not just in Israel, but “to the end of the earth”, connotes the Messianic age that will come when Jesus returns at His second coming (Rev 19:11-21), putting down rebellion and establishing His kingdom on earth (Rev 20:1-6), which kingdom will be global in nature (Isa 2:4). The reference to the bow and the spear is a synecdoche in which the parts are used to represent the whole (i.e., all the instruments of war). Furthermore, the chariots were the tanks of the ancient world and represented a nation’s military force at its greatest. But these He burns with fire, destroying and rendering them useless.
God, who will bring all wars to an end, says, “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psa 46:10). The word cease translates the Hebrew verb רָפָה raphah, which means to “let alone, do nothing, be quiet.” And the form of the verb is causative (hiphil), which means those who are acting must relax their efforts. But to whom is the psalmist directing the command to cease? According to Allen Ross, the directive primarily speaks to the Gentile nations of the world, who are “exhorted to stop all their tumult and recognize that God is sovereign, and that only his authority and words matter.” Derek Kidner agrees, saying, “the injunction Be still … is not in the first place comfort for the harassed but a rebuke to a restless and turbulent world.” And Tremper Longman states, “In verse 10, the poet quotes God, who asserts his sovereignty not only over Israel, but over all the nations of the earth. He commands that their uproar be silenced and that they all recognize that he is God.” Though God is speaking to the hostile Gentile nations of the world, which are under His sovereign control (Psa 135:6; Dan 2:21; 4:35), the song itself was to be sung by His people, which would instill confidence in God and courage toward the circumstances of life. They were, like all God’s people, to live by faith (Heb 10:38; 11:6). The chief end of history will be to God’s glory, for He will make it so. What He promises, He will bring to pass (Isa 46:9-11). His people need only watch and wait for the Lord to act as He promises.
The psalmist closes out his song with the repeated refrain, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. Selah” (Psa 46:11). Here is a refrain to be heard over and over again, for it seats into the hearers consciousness the greatness of God who is with them. God is their stronghold in times of trouble, and by faith they trust Him and His promises and find rest for their souls. God will be exalted in all the earth. His Word declares it. The challenge for the hearers is to live by faith and not feelings, and to look to God more than to themselves or their circumstances.
Psalm 46 is about trusting God despite any difficulties that may arise. Whether in natural disaster or national crisis, God is always a refuge and strength for His people, and in His presence and promises they find rest for their souls. Allen Ross states, “In this psalm the believers are strong, being filled with confidence in the presence of the living God. And today the more that believers focus on the power of God, the presence of God, and the promises of God, the more they will find comfort and confidence to deal with the tragedies and troubles of the world.”
God continues to be a refuge and strength for His people during times of disaster or crisis. Though adversity is inevitable, the stress in our souls is optional. As God’s people, our mental stability is largely predicated on the biblical content and continuity of our thinking. When we learn to take in God’s Word on a regular basis, it creates a bank of theological information in our souls that we can draw upon when facing difficult times. But to benefit from God’s promises, we must take our thoughts captive so that His Word flows in the stream of our consciousness without disruption (2 Cor 10:5). If we fail to live by faith, then our knowledge of God and His promises are merely academic, and we forfeit the confidence that can be ours in troubling times. Faith in God and His promises means no fear; at least none that rises to such a level as to overwhelm the soul and create psychological and emotional instability.
Biblically, we know God permits us to be tested by difficulties. It is His will that we be in this hostile world (John 17:15), that we learn His Word (2 Tim 2:15; 3:16-17; 1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18), live by faith (2 Cor 5:7; Heb 10:38; 11:6), advance to spiritual maturity (1 Cor 14:20; Eph 4:11-13; Heb 6:1), and serve as lights to others (Eph 5:8-10). We also know the nations of the world are currently under Satan’s control (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), who operates by deception (Rev 12:9; 20:3, 8), that he might weaken them (Isa 14:12). And God permits this for a time. But a day is coming when the sovereign Lord of all the earth will silence the nations, quieting their hostilities, and will bring all wars to an end (Isa 2:4). At that time, our glorious King, the Lord Jesus, will execute His righteous reign on earth for a thousand years (Rev 20:4-6), and afterwards, will hand the kingdom over to the Father (1 Cor 15:24). As Christians living in this fallen world, we are to walk by faith, and are constantly “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” (Tit 2:13). Come Lord Jesus! We are ready for Your reign.
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- The Gospel Explained
- The Lord is My Shepherd – Psalm 23
- Choosing the Faithful Way – Psalm 119: 25-32
- God’s Word Sustains Us – Psalm 119:89-96
- Establish Our Footsteps – Psalm 119:129-136
- Seek Your Servant – Psalm 119:169-176
- A Song of Ascent – Psalm 123
- Bible Promises that Strengthen our Faith
- Walking with God
- Learning to Live by Faith
 Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms 1–89: Commentary, vol. 2, Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2011–2013), 85.
 Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50, vol. 19, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1983), 342.
 Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 1053.
 Tremper Longman III, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. David G. Firth, vol. 15–16, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2014), 204.
 Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Revised Edition), ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 405–406.
 Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 952.
 Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms 1–89: Commentary, vol. 2, 98.
 Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 194.
 Tremper Longman III, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. David G. Firth, vol. 15–16, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 205–206.
 Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 2, 101.