Theme: “His Kingdom Is Forever”
In this week’s lessons on Psalm 46, on which Luther’s great hymn is based, we are reminded that our complete confidence and trust rests in the Lord, who promises to be with his people forever.
Scripture: Psalm 46:1-11
Verse 1 looks to God for two kinds of help, indicating that he is: 1) a stronghold into which we can flee; and 2) a source of inner strength by which we can face calamities.
Sometimes God shields us from what is going on around us and, “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked” (Ps. 91:7, 8). In such times God is our fortress. However, at other times we are afflicted and we suffer. Then we find that God is our help. We are able to say, “God is my ‘strength,’ my ‘ever present help in trouble.'”
God is our help even if the worst imaginable calamities should come upon us. This is what verses 2 and 3 are about, as the psalmist imagines the return of chaos, in which the “earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,” thus reversing the work of God on the third day of creation. Sometimes life is like that. The foundations of our established worlds are shaken, and chaos seems to have come again.
I seldom read these verses without thinking of Elisabeth Elliot. She suffered the loss of two husbands. The first, Jim Elliot, was killed by Auca Indians in Ecuador while trying to reach them with the gospel. The second, Addison Leitch, was slowly consumed by cancer. In relating what these experiences were like, she referred to this psalm, saying that in the first shock of death “everything that has seemed most dependable has given way. Mountains are falling, earth is reeling. In such a time it is a profound comfort to know that although all things seem to be shaken, one thing is not: God is not shaken.”3 She added that the thing that is most needful is to do what the psalmist does later, to “be still” and know that God is God. God is God whether we recognize it or not. It comforts us and infuses strength into our faltering spirits to rest on that truth.
Psalm 46 is divided into three stanzas, each ending with the word selah, which probably indicates a pause in the music or a pause for contemplation. In addition, the second and third stanzas end with the refrain, “The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” We have looked at stanza one (vv. 1-3). It is a general statement, stressing that God alone is our refuge, even in the worse calamities. In the next stanza (vv. 4-6) the poet emphasizes the defense of God’s city.
This has two points of reference. The first is the earthly city of Jerusalem. The immediate occasion of the psalm was probably some great intervention of God to destroy enemy armies that were marching against Jerusalem. In this time of danger those who resided in Jerusalem were secure, because God was in their midst. He was with them. In this setting the “river” of verse 4 is the stream of Siloam, the only natural supply of fresh water in Jerusalem. The “holy place” is the temple mount. Thus, with great poetic beauty, right against the picture of chaos in verses 2 and 3, comes the picture of the perfect peace and safety of Jerusalem in verse 4.
Yet no one can read this psalm perceptively without sensing that this earthly reference fails to exhaust its meaning. This is because the “city of God,” the theme of verses 4-6, is also a major theme of the whole of Scripture and concerns not only the security of earthly Jerusalem, but also the nature and safety of the people of God throughout history. It has its culmination in the new spiritual Jerusalem, a symbol of heaven, which has been prepared by God as the final dwelling place of the saints. In this frame of reference the “river” of verse 4 is the river that flows from God’s throne (see Ezek. 47:1-12; Zech. 14:8; Rev. 22:1, 2) and the “holy place” is the dwelling place of God in heaven. This is the city for which Abraham looked, not a mere earthly Jerusalem but “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
What function does the word selah serve when found in the Psalms?
Describe the double meaning in verses 4-6.
Reflection: What kind of calamity or chaos have you experienced in the past, or perhaps are experiencing right now? How did the Lord carry you through it? What did he teach you from it? And if you are enduring it now, read and prayerfully reflect on Psalm 46 and claim its promises for your own life because of God’s unfailing love for you in the Lord Jesus Christ.
3Elisabeth Elliot, Facing the Death of Someone You Love (Westchester, IL: Good News Publishers, 1980), p. 8. This material was first published as an article in Christianity Today in 1973.