Theme: The Context of Psalm 46
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
Yesterday we said that God’s city has two points of reference. The first is to the earthly city of Jerusalem, and the second is to the safety of God’s people throughout history, culminating in the new Jerusalem, which is a symbol of heaven.
What earthly circumstances lay behind this account of God’s defense of Jerusalem? There are two main theories.
The destruction of the armies of Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir during the reign of Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 20:1-30). When Jehoshaphat was told that armies from the east were coming against him, he appealed to God for help and God answered, saying that he would deliver the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The people were not to fight the invading armies but were to station themselves at a high vantage point to see what would happen. When they did, they saw the soldiers of Ammon and Moab turn against the soldiers from Mount Seir. That is, the armies fought each other and destroyed themselves. The text says, “When the men of Judah came to the place that overlooks the desert and looked toward the vast army, they saw only dead bodies on the ground; no one had escaped” (v. 24).
The great German scholar Franz Delitzsch believed that this is what lies behind Psalm 46.4 The best argument for it is the mention of the Sons of Korah in the account and their celebration of God’s promise of deliverance. Since Psalm 46 is ascribed to the Sons of Korah, it is easy to see it as their own personal praise of God for his deliverance on this occasion.
The destruction of the army of the Assyrian King Sennacherib during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18, 19). This is the best known of the two incidents. On this occasion Sennacherib’s field commander stood before the walls of Jerusalem and called on the people to surrender, boasting that none of the gods of the nations had been able to stand against the Assyrian armies. He then sent a letter to Hezekiah, boasting of the same thing. When Hezekiah received it he went into the temple and spread it before the Lord and God answered him through the great prophet Isaiah, who said that God would defend the city and that Sennacherib would return to Nineveh and perish there. That night God sent an angel through the camp of the Assyrians, killing one hundred and eighty-five thousand soldiers. This account says, “When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there” (2 Chron. 19:35, 36).
The nineteenth century romantic poet Lord Byron wrote a poem about this event, called “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” beginning with the well-known lines:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold—
With the exception of Delitzsch, most of the major commentators believe this is the deliverance lying behind Psalm 46. The best evidence is the appearance of Isaiah in the story and the similarity between his prophecies and the chief ideas of the psalm, such as the quiet river that makes glad the city of God (Isa. 8:6; 66:12), the shaking of the mountains (Isa. 8:7, 8; 54:10) and Immanuel who is “God with us” (Isa. 7:14; 8:8).
I find insufficient evidence to decide between the two theories. But it does not matter since the point of the psalm does not depend on the identification. Whatever the original circumstances, it is true that God alone is our defense and that our ultimate security does not rest in any earthly city, but in the heavenly city prepared for us by God.
What are the two main biblical stories that are thought to lay behind Psalm 46?
What is the best argument for each one? What does each account teach you about the Lord?
Key Point: Whatever the original circumstances [of Psalm 46], it is true that God alone is our defense and that our ultimate security does not rest in any earthly city, but in the heavenly city prepared for us by God.
4Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 2, trans. Francis Bolton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), pp. 91, 92.