Have you ever had a time in your life that you would call “a crisis”? Some in this room might be in a time of crisis right now. I suspect that most of us — if we’ve lived long enough — can look back on some moment in our lives, some time, some season (if not many!) that we would identify as a crisis.
We might say that it felt like the very ground beneath our feet was shaking. We might describe it as our world being turned upside down. We reach for catastrophic language, as Psalm 46:2–3 does, to put words and concrete images to the tumult in our own souls.
It could be a national crisis. That can indeed whip up our anxieties. It may have been a national crisis that inspired Psalm 46. But a national crisis in the modern world — playing out far away, in the news and on our screens — can be a far cry from a personal crisis.
Psalm 46 was composed in a time of crisis, and it is preserved for us today for our crises. This psalm gives us a crisis-ready vision of God. The particular crisis that gave rise to these verses is left unidentified. This may not satisfy our curiosities, but it does show us the timelessness of our God. These words were not written for only one crisis, but many. And they are ready-made for our crises today.
Confident in Crisis
Psalm 46 casts the crisis in two life-or-death threats. The first and perhaps original threat is hostile nations, threatening Jerusalem. Verse 6 says that “the nations rage, the kingdoms totter,” and then in verse 9 we hear of war, bows, spears, and war chariots (or perhaps carts for making siegeworks against the city).
The second threat is nature. The earth and mountains, typically images of stability, are shifting. Verses 2–3 mention how “the earth gives way,” “the mountains [are] moved into the heart of the sea [and] its waters roar and foam,” and “the mountains tremble at [the sea’s] swelling.” The stable, secure earth and mountains are being overtaken by the restless, raging, unstable, dangerous sea. It’s a picture of natural cataclysm, perhaps even of end-times catastrophe.
“If God’s people can be without panic when the ground shifts, and the seas rage, and the nations rage, then we can face any crisis with confidence.”
And into this particular chaos, this crisis, these life-or-death threats to the city of Jerusalem, Psalm 46:2 says, amazingly, “We will not fear.” That’s how God means to help us with this psalm — to displace fear with confidence, to give us stable ground under our feet even in crisis. If God’s people can be without panic when the ground shifts, and the seas rage, and the nations rage, then we can face any crisis with confidence.
God of All Help
Whatever trouble comes, Psalm 46 tells us, with its first word, where to turn. Not to a change in circumstances. Not to our best efforts to fix the problem. Not to our anxious strategies to avoid pain and loss. But rather, to God.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1)
The entire psalm rings with the name of God. Verse 4: “the city of God.” Verse 5: “God is in her midst.” Verse 5: “God will help.” Verses 7 and 11: “the God of Jacob.” His covenant name, “the Lord,” appears in verses 7, 8, and 11. And then there’s the all-important verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
That’s where we’re headed: Stop raging and scurrying and plotting. Cease your frantic efforts. Be still, and bow to God. But don’t just bow; know. Know him. Know for the first time, or learn afresh, that he is God, and that as Jacob had him as his covenant God, so do we, and all the more, in Christ.
If God can handle the world’s ultimate undoing, and the nations raging against his own chosen people, he can handle your crisis. He can help in your trouble, however catastrophic it seems. This psalm will always be ready, because our God is always ready — which leads to what specifically this psalm tells us about our God. The power in this psalm is in its vision of God. It gives us God, so that we might not fear, but have real peace of soul in crisis by knowing him. Three main pillars uphold this vision of God in Psalm 46.
1. He Is Infinitely Strong
One of the overwhelming effects of Psalm 46 — perhaps the chief effect of the psalm — is that it communicates to our souls: “Your God is strong, with infinite strength.” Some call this a “psalm of confidence.” By rehearsing God’s strength, his people displace their fears, based on lies, with confidence in him, based on remembering who he is.
Which is why Martin Luther loved this psalm, and took this psalm as the inspiration for his great “battle hymn” of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” In the face of proverbial raging seas, and literal raging enemies outside the gates, God’s people have Strength himself on our side, however quick we can be to forget that.
If you were to try depict God’s infinite strength and power to a weary soul, how would you do it? It’s one thing to say “God is strong”; it’s another to show it, to make it concrete and tangible. How do you quantify divine strength? How do you provide glimpses of infinite power? I see at least four here.
The first two are verse 1: “God is our refuge and strength.” That is, he both protects and empowers his people. “Refuge” is defensive, a place of protection and safety. Like Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, a refuge is a place to flee to for protection when an enemy is approaching. “Strength,” then, is God’s providing his people with the inner power to keep going. Energy and hope to keep breathing, keep walking, keep fighting. So “refuge and strength,” are outward and inward, defensive and offensive, the first two depictions of God’s strength, to help his people.
Third, then, is the last part of verse 6: “He utters his voice, the earth melts.” God doesn’t need fire to melt the earth. He doesn’t even need hands and arms. He doesn’t need a tool or laser. He only needs his voice. He only says the word, and the earth melts. The power of our God is seen in the power of his word. All he has to do is say it and it happens. Just as he spoke the world into being, and then into order, so he can dissolve it into chaos and out of existence, simply with his voice, if he so chooses. And with his voice, with his word, he can dispel fear from the hearts of his people and give them confidence in him.
Fourth, and related, is verse 9: “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.” In other words, God defeats the enemies of his people. No matter how fierce and strong and weaponized and terrible the army, when he’s ready, he says, “Enough!” And in the end, even as he now endures war and evil with patience, war will cease. There will be a full and enduring final peace. God, in his infinite strength, will see to it — and do it with his word.
So, the first pillar that upholds this crisis-ready vision of God is his strength.
2. He Is Attentively Present.
That is amazing, given his strength. That is amazing if you’re on his side, if he’s your God. And it is horrifying if you’re against him. Which is the second part of verse 1:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
He is not only strong, with infinite strength, but he’s present to help in trouble. And not just present, but “very present,” attentively present. In other words, he is ready and eager to help. He is not only able to help when he chooses; he is eager to help. And he’s near, he’s present, he’s accessible.
Verses 4–5 expand for us what it means that God is “a very present help”:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns. (Psalm 46:4–5)
The river in verse 4 is not the first mention of water in Psalm 46. What was the other water? The sea — the restless, raging, unstable, dangerous sea. The sea is threatening water. But now we have very different water: a river. That is, water that is predictable and life-giving. Water that keeps a city alive when cut off from the outside by the siege of a foreign army. This river, in the city of God, while it’s in crisis, is so precious that it doesn’t just keep the city alive, it “makes [the people] glad.” Even in the midst of crisis, there is gladness. There is joy, even in pain and threat. Because this life-giving river, who is God himself, is present with his people to sustain them in their crisis. Our God, as our refuge and strength, doesn’t only get us through crisis, but even gives us joy in crisis.
“God’s help does not mean that his people are kept from crisis, but that he keeps us through crisis.”
But this river and city raises an important question: where? This is a particular city which God makes glad with the water of life and the river of his presence. This is not any city. It’s Zion, the city of Jerusalem, the place God chose to be “in the midst of her,” so that “she shall not be moved” (Psalm 46:1), which is significant for us reading Psalm 46 as Christians. No longer is there a particular physical place where God has pledged his special favor and presence. Now, there is a particular person, God’s own Son.
Christians do not rally to a particular city; we rally to a particular person for refuge, strength, and very present help in trouble. And we do so together — to form a people. Which means the church is a critical context for finding joy in crisis. And this place, where God chooses to be present, in all his strength — once in ancient Jerusalem, and now in Jesus Christ, and his body — verse 5 says “shall not be moved.” Verse 2 spoke of mountains being moved into the sea. Verse 6 speaks of kingdoms tottering, that is, literally, being moved. Nature is moved, nations are moved, and verse 5 says God’s people, then in his chosen city, and now in his beloved Son, by faith, “shall not be moved" (Psalm 46:5).
Which doesn’t mean that God’s people never enter into any trouble. This psalm, with all its confidence in the strength and nearness and eagerness of God, never promises that we will be spared crisis. In fact, it assumes crisis. It readies us for crisis. And in the crisis, it promises God’s help, but not on our timetable. Verse 5: “God will help her when morning dawns.”
When Morning Dawns
In Exodus 14, as God’s people seek to escape from slavery in Egypt, with their backs against the Red Sea, and the Egyptians bearing down on them with “six hundred chosen chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt” (Exodus 14:7), the people panic. This is a crisis indeed, with no walled city, and no river of fresh water. And into this crisis, Moses, prompted by God, speaks these words his people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today” (Exodus 14:13). Then he lifts his staff, the sea parts, and God’s people walk through on dry land. The Egyptians follow, and so, at God’s command,
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the Lord threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. (Exodus 14:27)
“For every crisis we face in Christ, and all its darkness, God has a dawn designed.”
For every crisis we face in Christ, and all its darkness, God has a dawn designed. He will help when morning dawns. Your dawn will come. God’s help does not mean that his people are kept from crisis, but that he keeps us through crisis. In his perfect timing, when the appointed morning dawns, he rescues his people from their trouble, having preserved them through the long night.
Which leads to a third and final pillar of this passage.
3. He Will Be Exalted.
Which might be surprising. If God’s infinitely strong, and attentively present and ready to help, isn’t that enough? What does God’s being exalted have to do with the help we need in crisis? Why, at the very height of Psalm 46, in verse 10, the climactic verse — the famous “be still and know” verse —why does God say here, “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”? How does God’s own declaration that he himself will be exalted feed our confidence?
To answer that, let’s get verse 10 in context. Verse 8 issues an invitation to the raging nations, those setting themselves up as enemies against God and his people. It’s almost a taunt, and also an invitation to any among God’s people who might be fearful:
Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth. (Psalm 46:8)
Remember, all God has to do is say the word. As we saw in verse 9, when he chooses, in his perfect timing, he makes wars cease, breaks bows, shatters shields, burns chariots and siege works with fire. In other words, it is a lost cause to set yourself against the living God.
Verse 10, then, issues another word of invitation, again both to raging nations and God’s fearful people. And this is the climactic statement of the psalm. Raging nations, fearful people, “Be still, and know that *I am God.”
Did you catch that change of voice? The first invitation, verse 8, is from the psalmist: “Come, behold the works of the Lord.” But now, in verse 10, God himself speaks. He issues the invitation. He utters his voice, to the raging nations and tottering kingdoms — and oh, do we still know tottering kingdoms and raging nations!
And he speaks into the chaos, into the raging and tottering, “Be still.” Lay down your weapons. Cease your warring and deconstruction. Cease your rage and disorder. Be still, which is first a rebuke to the raging nations, to our turbulent world.
Happy to Be Human
However, it is also a word to God’s people, who hear him say it to their foes, and read it in their Bibles. Be still, church. You need not be anxious. You need not fear. You don’t need to go into a frenzy to help yourself and save your family and take your country back to the 1950s. Be still, and look to me. Rest from all your horizontal diversions and distractions and discouragement, and look up. Be still, and in that stillness, own that you are not God, and can be happy about it. You are not infinitely strong. You are not attentively present. You dare not be self-exalting. But know that I am God.
And then follows the two great declarations from the mouth of God himself, of his own certain exaltation. As surely as he is God, “I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10).
Fortress Never Failing
For God’s covenant people in Israel back then, and for his covenant people today in Christ, our God’s exaltation is our salvation. His exaltation is our refuge and strength — and very present help in trouble. The surety of his exaltation is precious beyond words and gives us a place to stand when all around us seems unsure. The certainty that he will exalted is granite under our feet. It is the guarantee of our help. It is our fortress.
Psalm 46 ends with a powerful word. The word “fortress” in verse 7, and in the refrain in verse 11, the final word on which the psalm ends is an even stronger image of security than “refuge” in verse 1. This “fortress” is a picture of inaccessible height. Helm’s Deep is a refuge. Heaven in a fortress. Not just a strong bulwark but one never failing.
The refrain is beautiful in verse 7, but it comes with added force in verse 11, on the heels of God’s promise that he will be exalted. Not only is he infinitely strong, and attentively present, but he will be exalted. As surely as he is God, he will be exalted. And for his people, we have in this God, and his exaltation, an impenetrable fortress, come what may.
Stillness at the Table
As we come to the Table, we remember that Psalm 46 is not the last time the voice of the Lord uttered, “Be still.” God himself, in human flesh, slept in the middle of a raging storm. His disciples panicked. This seemed to be a life-or-death crisis. And when they woke him, Jesus was not frantic but spoke stillness into the crisis: “Peace. Be still.” And so, the calm of his own spirit settled over the raging sea: “the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39).
In Jesus Christ, we know the God of Psalm 46. And in him come together the saving strength and presence and exaltation of the one to whom we turn in crisis, and who speaks, “Peace, be still” into the raging storm of our soul.