A Might Fortress Is Our God – Psalm 46

YouTube video sermon

PSALM 46:1-11

The year was 1527, Martin Luther had been leading the Reformation for ten demanding years, when a dizzy spell overcame him in the middle of a sermon forcing him to stop preaching.  He was genuinely concerned.  Two months later, while eating dinner with friends, he felt an acute buzzing in his ear and had to lay down.  Once again, he was convinced that he was at the end of his life.  He partially regained his strength, but a debilitating discouragement set in as a result of his recovery.  And if that wasn’t enough, he was also fighting heart problems and severe intestinal complications.

During this ordeal, Luther wrote, “I spent more that a week in death and hell.  My entire body was in pain, and I still tremble.  Completely abandoned by Christ, I labored under the vacillations and storms of desperation and blasphemy against God.”

What was worse, the dreaded black plague had entered Wittenberg, Germany.  Many people fled, fearing for the lives.  Yet Luther and his wife Katy remained, believing it was their duty to care for the sick and dying.  Katy was pregnant with their second child, and the Luther’s house was transformed into a hospital where he watched many friends die.  Then, without warning, Luther’s one-year-old son Hans became desperately ill.  With death surrounding him on every side, Luther was driven to seek refuge in God as never before.

That’s when Psalm 46 became the strength of his soul.  Psalm 46 became the impetus for his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  Like Martin Luther, perhaps what we need today is to be reminded that we have a refuge in the midst of a virus.  Perhaps we, too, can find comfort and protection in that psalm today.  Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word, or maybe your computer or tablet or smartphone and open to Psalm 46.

As you’re finding your spot, let me take just a moment and explain the first words that you’ll see when you get there.  Psalm 46 begins with a superscription.

It begins: For the director of music.  Now this tells us a few things.  It tells us that this was a song.  It was a piece of music.  But it also tells us that it was written for the director of music.

Next is: Of the Sons of Korah.  This psalm wasn’t written by David.  Many times we think or may say that David wrote the psalms, and while he wrote many of them he didn’t write them all.  That’s why you’ll hear pastors, teachers and theologians sometimes use a generic statement like, “The psalmist writes…” or “The psalmist describes…”  This little line here tells us that the descendants of a person named Korah wrote this psalm.  Psalms of this kind are often called Korahite psalms, for that very reason.

It concludes: According to alamoth.  Now nobody’s really sure what this means.  We don’t have the musical annotation to tell us what alamoth means.  It could be: do this with a reggae beat or something like that.  Some people think that because alamoth is spelled similarly to a lyre-type instrument that was played in the upper register or higher octave, then this song was supposed to be performed by females.  That’s why some of your Bibles might say something about sopranos.

What we do know is that this song was written around the 7th century BC.  That means that it was written about 200-300 years after King David, and we know a little bit about the environment in which it was written.  (If you want the detailed version you can read 2 Kings 18-20, but the short story is that the Assyrian Empire was the bully on the block.)  Geographically speaking, they were to the east and northeast of Israel and they were ruled by a king named Sennacherib (Sin-ak-er-ib).

It was Sennacherib’s plan to take 200,000 troops down to Jerusalem and take control of the city and thus capture all of Israel, and King Hezekiah and all of Israel was just a little stressed out by this news.

It’s in that environment that the Sons of Korah write this song – Psalm 46.  So, follow along with me.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.  God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.  Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  Selah

Come and see the works of the Lord, the desolations he has brought on the earth.  He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.  “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  Selah

Eleven verses form this nice, unified psalm; designed not only to get into our heads, but also into our hearts.  I want you to notice (if you missed them the first time) that the psalmist writes the word Selah three times.

It seems that this word is some sort of musical marker – maybe designating three different verses of the song, or maybe indicating a musical interlude between passages, we’re not real sure what it was for.  But we’re going to take those queues as section markers and look at Psalm 46 in three parts.

Our Immovable Refuge

The first thing we learn from this psalm is that help from God is immediately and constantly available.

We’ve discussed this before, but one of the characteristics of the psalms is that their authors are “real.”  They’re honest; transparent, people like you and me.  And in the opening verse of Psalm 46 once again we’re reminded that life’s full of trouble.  There’s nobody that’s on a path that doesn’t have potholes in it.

The Hebrew word for “trouble” means to be in a tight place, to be restricted, to be tied up, to be in a narrow, cramped place.  We might say self-quarantined.  The psalmist was describing being between a rock and a hard place with no way out.  When that happens, when life gets tight and crowded with little or no room to move and breathe God is ALWAYS available.

I heard an interesting description of stress recently.  It was described using a drawing; almost like a line graph.  Think about the visual depiction of Wall Street recently.  Each of our lives is represented by the graph paper or the black digital background.  On each of our lives there’s a line that represents our capacity – the wisdom, knowledge, skill, intellect, physical ability – all of those things that help us deal with life.  And that line usually grows or moves upward on the graph as we grow.

But, at some point in life, our capacity begins to level off.  Now set against that line is another line that represents our responsibilities and demands, those things in life that seek to upset our capacity.  For most of us, we generally do a good job of keeping the responsibilities and demands line below our capacity line.  And that’s a good thing, because it means that we have more than enough capacity to handle the day-to-day demands.  But every now and then those two lines swap places on the graph and now all of a sudden, we find that our responsibilities and demands exceed our capacity.

Let me see if I can give you some quick illustrations.  You have some business to attend to overseas.  You and your spouse have been planning this trip for several months.  This isn’t a last-minute thing; but the day before your flight is scheduled to leave you receive word that a family member is going to the hospital.  Did you see those two lines cross on the graph paper?  The demands and responsibilities put on your life just exceeded your capacity.

Or let’s assume you’ve scheduled a full Spring and early Summer.  The family and friends have been packed in along with the other social and vocational responsibilities and everything looks good and will go smoothly as long as no one hiccups, but then one day you’re doing a little work around the house and you slip and fall and break your ankle.  Well now it’s not the demands and responsibilities that have jumped – those stayed the same – your capacity has been messed up.  And because your capacity has decreased, your demands and responsibilities line just exceeded your capacity.

Sometimes life has a way of pushing those lines closer together than we’d prefer, and what Psalm 46 says is that when we experience those two lines merging and coming into contact with each other there’s help available immediately from God.

Now it’s interesting to ask people what they do when they get stressed because you get all sorts of answers.  One person might say, “I’ll have another chocolate chip cookie, please.”  Another person might say, “Pour me a stiff drink.”  All kinds of statistics are available.  40% of us play video games, watch TV or take a nap.  1/3 of us eat in a way we shouldn’t.  Many of us drink, gamble, and turn to inappropriate relationships.

Most of us know that when we get in over our heads we call on someone to help us.  We do this when our computers crash or when we’re in the middle of a project or if we don’t understand something.  But the writers of Psalm 46 would say DO NOT FORGET the Great God of the Universe; this Mighty Fortress; this Rock and Strong Refuge.  He’s ALWAYS available.

Most of us forget that there’s a God who’s bigger than mountains crashing into the sea, bigger than the sea that’s flooding beyond its assigned boundaries.  We just forget about God…  That is, until COVID-19 hits.  So, Psalm 46 is a good reminder that we have an immovable refuge.

Our Inexhaustible River

The second stanza describes the manner in which God makes His resources available.  Often, God’s resources are unseen and yet they’re very real.  Just because you can’t see them don’t discount them.

Some of us get cynical and we think, “Yeah, right, what good will calling on God do?”  And the truth is, He can do a lot.  A lot more than we give Him credit for, that’s for sure.  The problem is with us.  We’re thinking of solutions in a linear fashion.  Our responses and solutions are formed from an earthly perspective.  We’re thinking this or that, yet God’s answers are often not what we’re expecting.

Let me see if I can show this to you.  Look at verse 4 again, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.”  This is great language.  This is what poets do.  They paint pictures in order to tell us something.  Think about rivers for a minute.  They’re refreshing.  They’re cool on a hot day.  They quench your thirst.  They’re needed for life to exist.  And this is what I want to show you (this is so cool).

Think of the major cities of the world: Cairo, London, Paris, New York, Chicago.  Where did they put those cities?  Right next to a river, right?  Every major city of the world is next to a river.  Now ask yourself where Jerusalem is located?  Do you know where God put that city?  On top of a mountain – no river.

So, let’s go back to the context of this psalm.  Remember Sennacherib?  He’s going to come in and surround Jerusalem with the goal of taking them captive, and so all he has to do is surround the city and wait.  They’ll have to come out for food and water eventually.  And when they do, he’ll go in and take the city.  No big deal.

Now go back to Psalm 46.  What’s going on here?  Well, turns out, there’s a resource that Sennacherib and his army didn’t see.  If you go to Israel – north of Jerusalem – in the hills, there’s a spring called the Spring of Gihon.  Turns out, Hezekiah built a 1,500-foot aqueduct underground from the spring right through the city of Jerusalem until it gets to the south side and empties into the Pool of Siloam (maybe you remember reading about the Pool of Siloam).  As long as the Spring of Gihon flows, Jerusalem has all the water it needs.  But Sennacherib didn’t know that.  So here, in the city of God, where the Most High dwells, there’s an unseen resource to help His people.

But that’s not all.  Notice that this psalm says God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds an awful lot like the Holy Spirit.  Jesus said the Holy Spirit has been WITH you, now He will be IN you.  How about the promises of God?  Jesus says do not be afraid, I will never leave you nor will I forsake you; that’s true.  All of these resources are unseen from a physical perspective but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

God is present and His resources are real and available, even if you can’t see them.

Before we move to the third and final chorus of this psalm there’s one final note I want to share with you from this second stanza and it’s found in verse 7.  It says, “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  Did you see it?  The God of who?  Jacob.  Who was Jacob?  Do you remember him?

Probably one of the most memorable things about Jacob is that he had a name change.  God changed his name from Jacob to Israel.  His family and 12 sons are where we get the 12 tribes of Israel.  But there’s another thing you might remember about Jacob; it comes from his childhood.  He was a deceiver, a scammer, a liar, a cheat.  He made a deal with his older brother Esau in exchange for his brother’s birthright.  Then later, when his father Isaac was about to die, Jacob deceived his father by pretending to be Esau so that he could inherit his dad’s blessing.  Remember that?

“Why is that so important,” you ask?  Well, see, if verse 7 referred to God as the God of Abraham, then you and I wouldn’t have thought twice.  “Yeah, look at Abraham, that’s a no-brainer.”  If God was described as being the God of Moses; again, we would’ve been okay with that.  “Hey, he’s Moses, look at how great he was.”  But Psalm 46 says God is the God of Jacob too.  And that’s important for you and me, because when we’re in the midst of trouble we sometimes think God won’t have anything to do with us or help us because of who we are.  And yet this psalm says that God is the God of people even like Jacob.  God is our inexhaustible river – giving life and health and peace – even when the enemy seems to be closing in.

Our Invincible Ruler

Finally, we’re encouraged to exalt God in the midst of trial.  The first response is an invitation to come and see.  God understands that the things He is doing will never get the same kind of press, the same air time, or publicity that other things are getting.  And while He never demands that we see them, he issues an invitation for us to slow down and behold what He’s doing.  Everything’s noisier than what God is doing.  And for those of us that live in an activity addicted culture, who want one more piece of stimulation after another, this invitation still stands with all of its power – come and see what God is doing.

God is moving in the midst of this pandemic.  He’s using His church and people just like you to serve, to love, to care, to encourage, and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.  During this difficult season of life, He’s taking your financial gifts and allowing us to help pay people’s utility bills, and rent, and continue the support of gospel-centered ministries that would otherwise fail.  These types of stories don’t make headlines in the evening news, but they make headlines in individual’s lives.

The second invitation is much like the first and that is to be still and know that I am God.  That phrase – “to be still” – is actually one word in the Hebrew and it means to put your hands down.  It kind of reminds me of the response that Job had when God finally answered him.  Do you remember that (in Job 38)?  “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me.”  You can almost see Job’s hand going down, like when the teacher calls for someone to answer in class.

I think that’s a great picture to consider in the midst of frustration and fear and confusion and chaos and uncertainty.  Psalm 46 essentially says surrender.  “Being still” is connected to knowing who God is.  Focusing on our problems…  Watching too much news…  Playing the what-if-game breeds fear.  But looking to God…  Being still…  Fixing our eyes on God during this season increases our faith and brings peace and comfort.  At the end of the day and at the end of this dreaded virus, it’s only through faith in God and His Son, Jesus Christ, that people find eternal salvation from the coming fury of God’s wrath.