Psalm 46
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Psalms 46, 47, 48, are closely connected. They form a trilogy of praise, in which some signal deliverance of Jerusalem from foreign enemies is celebrated. In Psalms 46 the leading idea is the Presence of Jehovah in the midst of His city and people as the ground of their confidence: in Psalms 47 it is the universal Sovereignty of Jehovah as the King of all the earth, of which the recent defeat of Zion’s enemies is an illustration: in Psalms 48 it is the Safety of Zion, the result and the proof of God’s presence in her midst.

These Psalms cannot be merely general expressions of confidence in Jehovah as the protector of Zion. They plainly owe their origin to some definite historical event. The Psalmist writes as the representative of those who have recently passed through some terrible crisis of anxiety, who have seen with their own eyes a signal manifestation of God’s power on behalf of His people, comparable to His mighty works of old time, and who have recognised in the course of events the proof not only of Jehovah’s love for His own people but of His universal sovereignty.

The miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from the army of Sennacherib in the reign of Hezekiah (b.c. 701) may be assigned as the occasion of these Psalms, with a probability which approaches certainty.

Hezekiah had asserted his independence of Assyria, and Sennacherib had come to chastise his rebellious vassal. The exact course of events is obscure, but it appears that Sennacherib after ravaging Judah compelled Hezekiah to make a humble submission and pay a heavy indemnity, without however requiring the surrender of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:13-16). But reflection quickly convinced him that it would be imprudent to leave behind him such a strong fortress as Jerusalem in the hands of a vassal of such doubtful loyalty as Hezekiah, while he marched on into Egypt, and therefore while he was besieging Lachish with the main body of his army, he sent a force under the command of his chief officers, the Tartan and the Rabsaris and the Rabshakeh, to demand the surrender of Jerusalem. It was an anxious moment. A refusal seemed certain to ensure condign chastisement when Sennacherib returned victorious from his Egyptian campaign. Jerusalem would share the fate which had befallen Samaria twenty-one years before. But relying upon Jehovah’s promise to defend His city, communicated through the prophet Isaiah, Hezekiah refused the demand, and Sennacherib’s envoys returned to their master, who was now besieging Libnah. Gladly no doubt he would have inflicted a summary vengeance on his defiant vassal. But Tirhakah’s army was already on the march, and all that Sennacherib could do was to threaten. His letter to Hezekiah was a contemptuous denial of Jehovah’s power to defend Jerusalem. Hezekiah took it to the Temple, and “spread it before Jehovah,” appealing to Him to confute these blasphemies, and vindicate His claim to be the living God. Then it was that Isaiah uttered that sublime prophecy in which he declared that Sennacherib’s pride was doomed to be humbled, and that Jerusalem would be preserved inviolate.

And so it came to pass. A sudden and mysterious visitation destroyed Sennacherib’s army. Unable to face Tirhakah, he returned to Assyria, leaving Jerusalem unharmed.

A deliverance so marvellous, so strikingly verifying Isaiah’s prophecy, and so visibly demonstrating the will and power of Jehovah to defend His people, could not fail to make a deep impression, and must have evoked the most heartfelt expressions of thanksgiving and praise (cp. Isaiah 30:29). And when we mark the numerous coincidences of thought and language between these Psalms and the prophecies of Isaiah, we can scarcely doubt that some of the noblest of these thanksgivings have been preserved to us in these Psalms.

Details will be found in the notes: here it may be sufficient to call attention to some of the broader features of resemblance. The leading thought of Psalms 46, expressed in the refrain (Psalm 46:7; Psalm 46:11), is the echo of Isaiah’s great watchword Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 8:8; Isaiah 8:10; cp. Micah 3:11). The truth of the universal sovereignty of Jehovah, the assurance that God ‘our King’ is the King of all the earth, which is the prominent idea of Psalms 47 (cp. Psalm 48:2), is implicitly contained, if not so explicitly expressed, in the teaching of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5; Isaiah 37:22 ff.). The inviolability of Zion, the dwelling-place of Jehovah, which is the theme of Psalms 48, is a fundamental principle of Isaiah’s message in the reign of Hezekiah (Psalm 29:3 ff.; Psalm 31:5; &c).

Proof is of course impossible, but these Psalms will gain vastly in vividness and reality if they are studied in close connexion with the prophecies of Isaiah, as the expression of the gratitude and the hopes which animated the noblest spirits in Jerusalem at that critical moment of the nation’s history. If not written by Isaiah himself, as some commentators have thought, they must at least have been written by one of Isaiah’s disciples who was deeply penetrated with the spirit and language of his master’s prophecies.

Psalms 75, 76 in the Asaphite collection probably refer to the same event, and should be compared.

A brief mention of two rival theories is all that is necessary. (1) Delitzsch adopts the view that the occasion of these Psalms was the discomfiture of the confederate forces of the Moabites Ammonites and Edomites, who invaded Judah in the reign of Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20). Jahaziel, an Asaphite Levite, foretold their defeat. The army marched out with Korahite singers at its head. The arms of the invaders were turned against one another, and in the neighbourhood of Tekoa their forces were annihilated. The victory was celebrated first in the valley of Beracah, and then by a triumphal thanksgiving procession to the Temple. A deep impression was produced upon surrounding nations by the report of the victory. This view however is improbable, for (a) upon that occasion Jerusalem was not directly threatened, and (b) it fails to account for the connexion of the Psalms with Isaiah’s prophecies. That the prophet is copying the Psalmist is unlikely.

(2) Others have found an appropriate occasion in the attack of the confederate forces of Pekah and Rezin upon Judah in the reign of Ahaz, mainly on the ground of resemblances to Isaiah’s prophecies of that period. But inasmuch as Ahaz had refused to trust Jehovah and faithlessly appealed to Assyria for help, the retreat of the invaders can have been no occasion for thanksgivings like these Psalms, which ascribe Judah’s deliverance wholly to the goodness of Jehovah.

Psalms 46 consists of three equal stanzas, each followed by a Selah. The second and third end with a refrain (Psalm 46:7; Psalm 46:11), which may perhaps have originally stood at the close of the first also. Comp. Psalms 42, 43. In the first stanza the primary truth that God is the refuge of His people is presented as the truest ground for fearless confidence (Psalm 46:1-3): the second refers to the specific illustration of this truth exhibited in the recent deliverance of Zion (Psalm 46:4-7): the third treats this manifestation of Jehovah’s power as the earnest and pledge of His final supremacy over all the nations (Psalm 46:8-11).

Luther’s famous hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, “the battle-song of the Reformation,” is based upon this Psalm. See Winkworth’s Christian Singers of Germany, p. 110.

The title should be rendered as in R.V., For the Chief Musician; (a Psalm) of the sons of Korah; set to Alamoth. A song. Alâmôth means damsels (Psalm 68:25), and the phrase set to Alâmôth, which is applied in 1 Chronicles 15:20 to instruments, probably denotes that the music of the Ps. was intended for women’s voices (cp. Psalm 68:11, note). The Ancient Versions were entirely at fault as to the meaning. The LXX renders ὑπὲρ τῶν κρυφίων, ‘concerning secret things,’ Vulg. Proverbs occultis: Symm. ὑπὲρ τῶν αἰωνίων, ‘concerning eternal things’: Aq. ἐπὶ νεανιοτήτων, and similarly Jer., Proverbs iuventutibus, ‘for youth.’

To the chief Musician for the sons of Korah, A Song upon Alamoth. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
1. The prayer of Isaiah 33:2, “Be thou their arm every morning, our salvation also in the time of trouble,” has been answered. In the extremity of their distress, God has proved Himself the refuge and strength of His people. He has verified the prophecies of Isaiah, who bade them trust in Him alone, and denounced the popular policy of an alliance with Egypt as “a refuge of lies.” Cp. Isaiah 28:15; Isaiah 28:17; Isaiah 30:2.

a very present help in trouble] Lit., a help in distresses hath he let himself be found exceedingly. The words are not merely a general statement, but an appeal to recent experience. For ‘let himself be found’ cp. 2 Chronicles 15:2; 2 Chronicles 15:4; 2 Chronicles 15:15; Jeremiah 29:14.

1–3. Secure under His protection God’s people have nothing to fear, even though the solid earth were convulsed, and rent asunder.

Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
2. Therefore will we not fear, though earth should change,

And the mountains be moved into the heart of the seas.

Cp. Horace’s description of the dauntlessness of the just man (Odes iii. 3. 7),

Si fractus illabatur orbis,

Impavidum ferient ruinae.

The words are to be understood literally (Isaiah 54:10), and not metaphorically, as “a vivid sketch of utter confusion, dashed in with three or four bold strokes, an impossible case supposed in order to bring out the unshaken calm of those who have God for ark in such a deluge” (Maclaren). At the same time they suggest the thought of the upheaval and commotion of the nations, and (Psalm 46:3) the flood of invasion beating against mount Zion and threatening to overwhelm it. Cp. Psalm 46:6; Isaiah 17:12-13.

Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
3. As the text stands this verse must be treated, as in the A.V. and R.V., as a continuation of Psalm 46:2. But the symmetrical structure of the Ps., resembling that of Psalms 42-43, makes it probable that the refrain (Psalm 46:7; Psalm 46:11) has been lost. If it is restored, we may render:

Let the waters thereof rage and foam I

Let the mountains quake at the proud swelling thereof!

Jehovah of hosts is with us,

The God of Jacob is our high fortress.

Be all around us never so threatening, we are secure in the presence and protection of Jehovah. For the ‘proud swelling’ of the sea cp. Psalm 89:9.

There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
4. In contrast to the tumultuous sea threatening to engulf the solid mountain, is the river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God. The gently flowing river, fertilising all the land over which it is distributed in channels and rivulets, is an emblem of Jehovah’s Presence, blessing and gladdening His city. Abundant irrigation is indispensable in Palestine. Cp. Psalm 1:3; Isaiah 30:25. The figure reminds us of Isaiah 8:6, where “the waters of Shiloah that go softly” are the emblem of the Divine government, and “the waters of the River great and many” are the emblem of the power of Assyria; and again of Isaiah 33:21, where Jehovah is compared to a mighty river encircling and protecting His city.

the city of God] Cp. Psalm 48:1; Psalm 48:8; Psalm 87:3; Psalm 101:8; Isaiah 60:14; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 3:12.

the holy place &c.] Better, the holy dwelling place of the Most High. Cp. Psalm 43:3, note. The title Most High is significant. By His deliverance of His own city He has proved Himself the supreme Ruler of the world, refuting the self-deifying pretensions of Sennacherib (Isaiah 36:20; Isaiah 37:4; Isaiah 37:10 ff., Isa 34:23, 35; cp. Isaiah 14:13-14). Cp. Psalm 7:17, and for the usage of this title see Appendix, Note ii.

4–7. The Presence of God the joy and security of His people.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
5. God is in the midst of her] Cp. Isaiah 12:6; and Micah 3:11, where we learn how this watchword was abused by those who saw in the Presence of God a pledge of protection but no call to holiness.

she shall not be moved] More stable than the solid mountains (Psalm 46:2): more secure than the kingdoms of the earth (Psalm 46:6).

and that right early] Better, when the morn appeareth, when the dawn of deliverance succeeds the night of distress (Psalm 46:3; Psalm 30:5): but not without a special reference to the morning when they rose to find Sennacherib’s army destroyed (Isaiah 37:36), and a reminiscence of the Exodus, where the same phrase is used (Exodus 14:27).

The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
6. The heathen raged] Or, the nations roared;—a word commonly used of the tumultuous noise of a multitude or an army (Psalm 83:2; Isaiah 17:12). The same words (roared … were moved), which were used in Psalm 46:2-3 of convulsions of the earth, are applied to commotions among the nations; but the change of tense shews that while Psalm 46:2-3 are hypothetical, Psalm 46:6 refers to an actual experience.

he uttered his voice] God has but to speak with His voice of thunder, and earth melts in terror: its inhabitants with all their proud Titanic boastings are dissolved. Cp. Isaiah 29:6; Isaiah 30:30 f; Exodus 15:15; Amos 9:5; Psalm 75:3; Psalm 76:8. The rhythm of short abrupt clauses without a conjunction recalls that of Exodus 15:9-10.

The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
7. The refrain corresponds to Isaiah’s watchword Immanuel, ‘God is with us’ (Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 8:8; Isaiah 8:10). The name Jehovah is retained (or has been restored) here even in the Elohistic collection in the familiar title Jehovah of hosts. This great title Jehovah Tsebâôth or ‘Lord of hosts’ was characteristic of the regal and prophetic period. Originally it may have designated Jehovah as “the God of the armies of Israel” (1 Samuel 17:45), Who went forth with His people’s hosts to battle (Psalm 44:9; Psalm 60:10). But as the phrase “host of heaven” was used for the celestial bodies (Genesis 2:1), and celestial beings (1 Kings 22:19), the meaning of the title was extended to designate Jehovah as the ruler of the heavenly powers, the supreme Sovereign of the universe. Hence one of the renderings of it in the LXX is Κύριος παντοκράτωρ, Lord Almighty, or rather, Lord All-Sovereign. See add. note on 1 Sam., p. 235. The title is a favourite one with Isaiah, and its use here is significant. He whose command all the hosts of heaven obey is Israel’s ally. Cp. 2 Kings 6:16 ff.

the God of Jacob] A title suggesting the thought of Jehovah’s providential care for the great ancestor of the nation, a thought upon which Hosea dwells (Psalm 12:2 ff.).

our refuge] Or, our high fortress: the same word as that in Psalm 9:9; Psalm 18:2; Psalm 48:3; Isaiah 33:16. Cp. the use of the cognate verb in Psalm 20:1. “The Name of the God of Jacob set thee up on high.”

Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
8. Come, behold] The invitation is addressed to all (Isaiah 33:13), but especially to the nations, who are bidden (Psalm 46:10) to take warning from the sight. They are not merely to “see the works of Jehovah” (Psalm 66:5), but to behold them; to gaze upon them with discerning insight.

the Lord] Some MSS. read God; but LXX, Targ., Jer., support the text. The name Jehovah may have been retained as significant in relation to foreign enemies.

what desolations &c.] Rather, who hath set desolations, or, astonishments. It is possible, as Lagarde thought, that the LXX represents another reading, wonders (Jeremiah 32:20).

8–11. An exhortation to reflect upon this marvellous deliverance and learn its lesson.

He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
9. The destruction of the Assyrians is an earnest of that final abolition of war which Jehovah will one day bring about, destroying the weapons of war, or burning them in a vast pyre upon the battlefield, as Isaiah predicted (Psalm 9:5, R.V.). Cp. Isaiah 2:4 (= Micah 4:3); Zechariah 9:10.

the chariot] R.V. the chariots. The word however is nowhere used of war chariots, and must rather mean baggage-wagons (cp. 1 Samuel 17:20; 1 Samuel 26:7). Perhaps, as Baethgen proposes, the word should be vocalised ‘agîlôth instead of ‘agâlôth, and rendered as in LXX and Targ., shields.

Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
10. Jehovah speaks, admonishing the nations to desist from their vain endeavour to destroy His people, and bidding them recognise Him as the true God, who will manifest His absolute supremacy. Cp. Isaiah 33:10; Exodus 14:4; Exodus 14:17-18; Psalm 2:10.

The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
11. The refrain with its triumphant chorus of faith and gratitude forms an appropriate conclusion.

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