2020-7-19 A Mighty Fortress

A Mighty Fortress
Psalm 46
July 19, 2020

Prayer for Illumination:

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. May you speak today through your servant so that your people will hear your word and be transformed into the image and likeness of Christ.

Enable us to hear your word and obey. We ask this in the name of Christ. Amen.

To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song.

       God is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.

       Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,

though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

       though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

       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.

       The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;

he utters his voice, the earth melts.

       The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

       Come, behold the works of the Lord,

how he has brought desolations on the earth.

       He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;

he burns the chariots with fire.

10      “Be still, and know that I am God.

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth!”

11      The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah[1]

This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Martin Luther was incredibly influential. His re-discovery of salvation by grace alone received through faith alone in Christ alone set in motion the Protestant Reformation. Luther had been reared and raised believing that salvation was God’s grace with our works. And he saw how impossible salvation was that way. He saw that if salvation was 1% our work then it was impossible. That left him incredibly depressed.

In the mid 1510s, Luther was teaching Paul’s letter to the Romans. As he studied, he saw that salvation was 100% God’s doing. He re-discovered the biblical truth that salvation is by God’s grace alone received through faith alone trusting in Christ alone. That changed everything. From that moment on he was committed to the gospel proclamation.

However, Luther’s commitment to this truth meant that he spent most of his life in constant peril. The Roman Church didn’t accept this proclamation. The Diet of Worms declared Luther a heretic and unless he repented of this teaching he could be arrested and killed. The Holy Roman Emperor was looking to arrest and kill Luther if he ever left the protection of Frederick the Wise.

As a result, he would become disheartened. In those moments, Luther would often turn to Psalm 46 for comfort. He would turn his coworkers and say, “Let’s sing the 46th Psalm”. Luther’s version of Psalm 46 begins, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing”. We still sing that hymn.

Psalm 46 is still a favorite among Christians. It is a psalm that expresses our confidence that God provides salvation for his Church. It is a cry that our God is a mighty fortress saving believers from sin and being with them. As we examine this psalm, we’ll see:

  • The Church’s Strength
  • The Church’s Need
  • The Church’s Mission

The Church’s Strength

This psalm assures believers that God is the strength for his people.

God is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.

                     Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,

though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

                     though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

The image here is of a cataclysmic event and in that moment, God being the refuge for his people. Verses 2-3 depict a natural upheaval; the earth gives way and the mountains are swallowed up in the sea. Mountains are an image of permanence. We are blessed to live in the midst of the Appalachian foothills. And we see on a regular basis that the mountains are firm and strong. They’ve been here longer than we have. They’re hard to cut into and cut through. And to image that these mountains being swallowed up by the sea is distressing.

This acknowledges the simple fact that we are weak and vulnerable to many dangers. It’s possible that this psalm was written in response to Sennacherib’s failed attempt to capture Jerusalem.[2] Sennacherib was the king of Assyria when Assyria was the world power. He was the most powerful man at that time. He had already beaten Israel, the northern kingdom. And he had sent his emissaries the Tartan, the Rab-saris, and the Rabshekeh to intimidate the leaders of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

They taunted the Jews. They said, “And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria … Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” (2 Kings 18:32b-35) That was a cataclysmic event for many Jews. They knew just how dangerous and deadly the Assyrian army. They knew how easily the Assyrians had defeated Syria and Israel. It was distressing.

We are living in an unprecedented time. We are experiencing a worldwide health pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1920s with the Spanish Flu. No matter where you stand on how we should handle COVID-19, it is a serious illness and it has shown how vulnerable we truly are. And it’s affected us individually and as a congregation. It is a cataclysmic event that has shaken us. It is distressing.

Despite the fact that we are weak and vulnerable, God is the strength for his people. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” God is a refuge; he is a fortress. In the ancient world, and really up until the advent of the airplane, people were safest in walled cities. Behind a wall, people were safe from invading hordes. The slings and arrows would hit the wall but not the people. The city was a refuge providing salvation for her citizens.

And that is what the psalmist is envisioning. The psalmist is envisioning God as a fortress providing salvation for his Church.

As the emissaries from Assyria taunt him and his leaders, Hezekiah didn’t respond. Instead, he turned to God. He trusted that God would provide salvation for his people. He prayed, “O Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. 16 Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. 17 Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands 18 and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. 19 So now, O Lord our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.” (2 Kings 19:15b-19)

God then sent the prophet Isaiah to Hezekiah to tell the king of Judah that God would indeed provide salvation for his people. “And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. 36 Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home and lived at Nineveh.” (2 Kings 19:35, 36) God was the refuge and strength for his people.

The Lord our God is our refuge and fortress in times of calamity and distress. When everything that seems so certain, so dependable seems to give way he will not.

Sadly, we often don’t realize that God is our refuge and strength. We often think in a worldly way about what will save us. Instead of turning to God, we turn to our finances in moments of distress. How often do we try to gain security by stockpiling funds? Money is not our strength. It is not our refuge. I don’t say that to imply that money is evil, it isn’t. But it is not our strength; it is not our refuge. Psalm 46 makes clear that our strength and refuge is the Lord. God is an ever present help in trouble. Maybe it’s not money we turn to in times of distress. Maybe we turn to our might and our weaponry and take refuge there. Our strength is not in our weaponry or our military might. Our strength and refuge is the Lord. God is an ever present help in trouble.

The Church’s Need

Psalm 46 tells us that God is our strength. But it also tells us of our need. Our need is for our God is dwell in our midst.

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.

                     The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;

he utters his voice, the earth melts.

                     The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Assyria was the mightiest military at that time in the world. They had conquered every other surrounding nation. They had conquered every kingdom from the Euphrates in the east to the Nile in the west. The only kingdom they didn’t conquer was Judah. Why? Why was that? Because God was there in the midst of Jerusalem; that was where he chose to dwell. As we’ve seen over the last two weeks, God is with his people, even in the most difficult of times. Our great need is for God to be in the midst of his people.

Jerusalem wasn’t the dwelling place of God because of the buildings or heritage. Jerusalem was the place that God chose to dwell. In 2 Samuel 7, God told David that his successor would build a house for him. That was filled in 1 Kings 8, there Solomon built the Temple. He had the Ark of the Covenant brought into the Temple. “And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, 11 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord (1 Kings 8:10-11).” Jerusalem was the place that God had chosen to dwell and that is what made it special.

And while God chose to dwell in Jerusalem and be there, he was protecting the city and the inhabitants. But over the years, the people gave their hearts to various pagan gods. Eventually, when the people had fully rebelled against God and had forsaken him, God removed his presence. Once the people had turned away from God, he no longer dwelt in Jerusalem. The prophet Ezekiel sees God depart from the Temple (Ez. 10:18-19).

This should be a warning to churches. If we turn from God, God will remove his presence from that congregation. In Revelation 2, Jesus tells the church in Ephesus that unless they repent he will remove his presence from them (Rev. 2:5). Let us not think that we can give lip service to God and he will continue to dwell in our midst. Let us not think that we can give ourselves to sin and God will still be in our midst.

46:4 says, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High”. Water is essential to life. You can go weeks without food. Jesus fasted 40 days. But you can only go three days without water. Water is essential to life.

One of the things that makes Jerusalem unique among ancient cities is that it wasn’t built on or near a river. Babylon was built on the Euphrates River. The ancient city of Nineveh was built on the Tigris. Baghdad is built on the Tigris. St. Louis is on the mighty Mississippi. Cities were often built on or near a river so there would clean flowing water and it would make commerce easier. But Jerusalem wasn’t built on a river. It was built on a mountain. There was no river.

Why would the psalmist say that there is a river running through the city of God if there wasn’t one? The psalmist is saying that God being in the midst of his people is like a river flowing through the city. God’s presence is refreshing to his people.

The image of a river runs throughout Scripture. The Bible begins and ends with the image of the river. In Genesis we’re told that there are four rivers running through the Garden of Eden. Eden was a well-watered garden where life could thrive. In Revelation 22, John sees the new heavens and the new earth.  There in the midst of the city he saw “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city” (Rev. 22:1b-2a).

The river whose streams make glad the city of God is the gospel. The gospel is what gives life to believers. Without it, we are dying of thirst. Without the gospel we are dead in sin. The tributaries that form the gospel are found in the Old Testament before bursting forth into a flowing river in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The good news that Jesus Christ has died in the place of his Church is a stream that makes glad the Church. It is cool water that gives life to someone dying of thirst.

The gospel should comfort us more than anything else. Our need is for God to dwell with us and to give us living water. We have that in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Apostle John begins his gospel by saying that the Word who is God and with God, the very Word who created all that is seen and unseen, took on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). He offers each and every believer living water. He says “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John4:14). Everyone who looks to him for salvation will drink and never thirst. We will be glad having the river of life refreshing and reviving our hearts. The gospel should be our only comfort in life and in death.

The Church’s Mission

Psalm 46 ends by telling us our mission.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,

how he has brought desolations on the earth.

                     He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;

he burns the chariots with fire.

                     10 “Be still, and know that I am God.

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth!”

                     11 The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Our mission is to be witness of God’s salvation in Christ and to look to God as our refuge and strength.[3]

First our mission is to be the witness of God’s salvation. Verses 8 and 9 say, “Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire”. The psalmist is calling people look and see how God has been the fortress protecting his people. Imagine the sight the day after Sennacherib’s emissary had taunted the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They probably woke up expecting to see the Assyrian army surrounding their walls. Instead, the look out and see nothing. God had protected his people by sending his angel to decimate the Assyrian army. They could look out and see the works of his hands and how made the war with Assyria cease.

We are still entrusted with being the witnesses of God’s salvation. Jesus gave a commission to his Church not long before he ascended to heaven. He said, “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20). We are to be witnesses to the fact that our God is a mighty fortress saving his Church from her enemies. We are to be witnesses to the fact that God has provided salvation from sin and death in Christ Jesus.

Second, we’re to look to God as our refuge and strength. Verse 10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God”. This command means that we are to look to God and rest in his saving work at the cross. Rest in him. Find refuge in him. Trust that there is absolutely nothing you can do to earn salvation or that you need to something. Be still – rest in the saving work of Christ. Know that God is the one who has saved his people at the cross.

This psalm helps us express our trust that our God is mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing. He is our strength in times of trouble, protecting us. He is the one who meets our need by dwelling in our midst and giving us living water. And as those who have drank from the living water, we are his witnesses.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ps 46:title–11). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[2] W. Robert Godfrey, Learning to Love the Psalms (Michigan; Reformation Trust, 2017), 92.

[3] Richard D. Phillips, Psalms 42-72 (New Jersey; P&R Publishing, 2019), 41.