This psalm formed the basis of Martin Luther’s great hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.’
deClaisse-Walford (NICOT) notes a legendary story that is told concerning this psalm. The translators of the Authorised Version (1604-1611) sought help from none other than William Shakespeare (born 1564) in rendering the psalms into good English. He agreed to their request, and happened to reach Psalm 46 on his 46th birthday. Curiously enough, we find that the 46th word from the beginning, in the AV, is ‘shake’ (‘tough the mountains shake’, v3), and the 46th word from the end is ‘spear’ (‘he cutteth the spear in sunder’, v9).
For the music director; by the Korahites; according to the alamoth style; a song.
46:1 God is our strong refuge;
he is truly our helper in times of trouble.
46:2 For this reason we do not fear when the earth shakes,
and the mountains tumble into the depths of the sea,
46:3 when its waves crash and foam,
and the mountains shake before the surging sea.
‘Did you ever hear any of the Devil’s children compose and ode, that the devil is “our refuge,” and the god of this world is a present help in time of trouble?’ (Whitefield)
‘God is not only a help, but a present help; the gates of the New Jerusalem stand open night and day.’ (Whitefield)
46:4 The river’s channels bring joy to the city of God,
the special, holy dwelling place of the sovereign One.
46:5 God lives within it, it cannot be moved.
God rescues it at the break of dawn.
46:6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms are overthrown.
God gives a shout, the earth dissolves.
46:7 The LORD who commands armies is on our side!
The God of Jacob is our protector!
There is a river – ‘Divine grace like a smoothly flowing, fertilising, full, and never failing river, yields refreshment and consolation to believers. This is the river of the water of life, of which the church above as well as the church below partakes evermore. It is no boisterous ocean, but a placid stream, it is not stayed in its course by earthquakes or crumbling mountains, it follows its serene course without disturbance. Happy are they who know from their own experience that there is such a river of God. The streams whereof in their various influences, for they are many, shall make glad the city of God, by assuring the citizens that Zion’s Lord will unfailingly supply all their needs. The streams are not transient like Cherith, nor muddy like the Nile, nor furious like Kishon, nor treacherous like Job’s deceitful brooks, neither are their waters “naught” like those of Jericho, they are clear, cool, fresh, abundant, and gladdening. The great fear of an Eastern city in time of war was lest the water supply should be cut off during a siege; if that were secured the city could hold out against attacks for an indefinite period. In this verse, Jerusalem, which represents the church of God, is described as well supplied with water, to set forth the fact that in seasons of trial all sufficient grace will be given to enable us to endure unto the end.’ (Spurgeon)
‘What is the river that makes glad the city of God? I answer, God himself is the river, as in the following verse, “God is in the midst of her.” 1. God the Father is the river: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Jer 2:13:2. God the Son is the river, the fountain of salvation: “In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness.” Zec 13:1:3. God the Spirit is the river: “He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” Jn 7:38; 4:14. What are the streams of this river? Answer-the perfections of God, the fulness of Christ, the operations of the Spirit, and these running in the channel of the covenant of promise.’ (Ralph Erskine)
‘In the church’s straitest siege, ‘there is a river which shall make glad this city of God,’ with seasonable succours from heaven. The saints’ fresh-springs are all from God, and it is as feasible for sorry man to stop the water-courses of the clouds, as to dam up those streams, which invisibly glide like veins of water in the earth, from the fountain-head of his mercy into the bosom of his people.’ (Gurnall)
The city of God –
‘The ship of the church may be tossed, because sin is in it, but it shall not be overwhelmed, because Christ is in it.’ (Thomas Watson)
The Lord Almighty is with us
‘There be three sorts of God’s special presence, all which may be justly accounted the church’s privilege. First, his glorious presence, or his presence testified by eminent glory, and the residence thereof. Thus God is said to be in heaven differentially, so as he is not anywhere else; and heaven is therefore called his throne or dwelling place 1 Kings 8:39; as a king is nowhere so majestically as upon his throne, or in his chair of state; and this is so great a privilege of the church as that she comes not to enjoy it, unless she be triumphant in heaven, and therefore is not the presence here intended. Secondly, his gracious presence, or his presence testified by tokens of his grace and favour toward a people, whether visible as in the temple where he chose to place his name, and wherein above all places he would be worshipped, in which respect he is said to dwell between the cherubim 2 Sam 6:2; or spiritual tokens of his grace, as assistance and acceptance in the duties of his worship, together with enjoyment and benefit of his ordinances. Thus he is present with his church and people in times of the gospel: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Mt 18:20. This kind of presence is a privilege of the church militant, that he will be with her in holy and spiritual administrations and ordinances; yet this is not the presence principally intended here. Thirdly, the providential presence, or his presence testified by acts of special providence, wherein the power, wisdom or any other of God’s attributes are eminently put forth, either by way of assistance or defence fro a people. Thus the Lord was present with Israel in the wilderness by the pillar of fore and of a cloud Ex 13:21 “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light.” And as this presence was intended for a guide, so was it also for a defence to his people against their enemies, and at which their enemies the Egyptians were troubled. Ex 15:20. By this kind of presence the Lord is with his church militant, in reference to her external regiment, and more especially in her warfare, standing up for her and with her against her enemies; and this is the church’s privilege in these words, The Lord of hosts is with us.’ John Strickland, B.D. (1601-1670), in a Sermon, entitled, ‘Immanuel,’ 1644. (Q in The Treasury of David)
46:8 Come! Witness the exploits of the LORD,
who brings devastation to the earth!
46:9 He brings an end to wars throughout the earth;
he shatters the bow and breaks the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
46:10 He says, “Stop your striving and recognize that I am God!
I will be exalted over the nations! I will be exalted over the earth!”
46:11 The LORD who commands armies is on our side!
The God of Jacob is our protector!
Devastation – The language is striking: as Futato notes, ‘The destruction is the destruction of war and all its weaponry. The destruction is the establishment of worldwide peace.’
‘Although the outcome is peace, the process is judgement. The reassuring words, he makes wars to cease… are set in a context not of gentle persuasion but of a world devastated and forcibly disarmed. This sequence, with tranquillity on the far side of judgement, agrees with Old Testament prophecy and apocalypse, and with the New Testament.’ (e.g. Isa 6:10-13; 9:5; Dan 12:1; 2 Pet 3:12f) (Kidner)
“Stop your striving and recognize that I am God!” – NIV: ‘Be still and know that I am God’.
In popular piety and Christian song, this injunction is often (mis)understood to be somewhat soothing and comforting.
It is also a ‘go-to’ text for contemplative prayer. Richard Rohr recommends offering the following, either individually on in a group, taking a couple of breaths between each line:
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
But this is not exegesis, but exploitation, of the text.
The text ‘is not in the first place comfort for the harassed but a rebuke to a restless and turbulent world: “Quiet!” – in fact, “Leave off!”‘ (Kidner, who adds that it resembles the command to the raging sea). Cf. Hab 2:20; Zec 2:13.
Broyles: ‘In this explosive context, “be still” is not an invitation to tranquil meditation but a command to allow God to be God, to do his work of abolishing the weapons of war.’
Wilson: ‘God’s demand—“Cease! Desist!” (or perhaps the military counterpart, “Attention!”)—calls all combatants to stop their fighting and pay attention.’
Calvin: ‘The Psalmist exhorts the world to subdue and restrain their turbulent affections, and to yield to the God of Israel the glory which he deserves.’
Tull (Feasting on the Word, Vol 4): ‘The words are familiar; the setting, however, demands attention. “Be still, and know that I am God” can hardly be heard today without instantaneous association with robed choral voices concluding Sunday worship with a final plea for reverent contemplation…In their psalmic setting, however, the divine voice roars at warring nations: “Stop!”’
This knowledge of God is, first of all, ‘a factual knowledge about him, his past acts, and his promises’ (EBC). But this must lead to an experiential knowledge.
‘Faith gives the soul a view of the Great God. It teacheth the soul to set his almightiness against sin’s magnitude, and his infinitude against sin’s multitude; and so quenches the temptation. The reason why the presumptuous sinner fears so little, and the despairing soul so much, is for want of knowing God as great; therefore, to cure them both, the serious consideration of God, under this notion, is propounded: Be still, and know that I am God; as if he had said, Know, O ye wicked, that I am God, who can avenge myself when I please upon you, and cease to provoke me by your sins to your own confusion; and again, know, ye trembling souls, that I am God; and therefore able to pardon the greatest sins, and cease to dishonour me by your unbelieving thoughts of me.’ (Gurnall)
Matthew Henry applies this first to the wicked, and then to the godly: ‘Let his enemies be still, and threaten no more, but know it, to their terror, that he is God, one infinitely above them, and that will certainly be too hard for them; let them rage no more, for it is all in vain…Let his own people be still; let them be calm and sedate, and tremble no more, but know, to their comfort, that the Lord is God, he is God alone, and will be exalted above the heathen; let him alone to maintain his honour, to fulfil his own counsels and to support his own interest in the world.’
So does this verse remind us ‘of the necessity to take time to focus on the Lord’, and of realising that having ‘a “quiet time” is an essential part of each day—a time to read the Bible, pray, and consider the goodness and greatness of God’? Not really, even though such devotional habits are admirable, with support from other parts of Scripture.
Nor does this expression give much support for the use of periods of silence in worship, even though it is often appealed to for that purpose. Although such times of quiet reflection may well have a place in the public gatherings of the people of God (cf. Josh 1:8; Psa 119:15; Lk 5:16), they probably have less scriptural support than their advocates imagine. We should take special care that such advocacy is not allowed to minimise the place and importance of word-based ministry in such gatherings.
Psa 46:11 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah