“Luther’s Psalm”: A Look at the 46th Psalm

“Luther’s Psalm”: A Look at the 46th Psalm

The Psalmist uses three metaphors to describe God in the opening verse. He is a refuge–a safe place to hide in times of trouble. He is strength–he can do all things, as the people of Israel had just witnessed with the victory of Judah over the Moabites and Amorites as recounted in 2 Chronicles 20. But he is also an ever-present help whenever trouble comes. Unlike the Canaanite deities, YHWH may be “found” in times of trial. He is with us, not far away. He is active, not indifferent. He is the fortress for his people, keeping us safe no matter what the circumstances may be. Although we always need him, he is “found” (“with us”) when we need him most. Because the LORD of Hosts is all of these things, in verses 2-3 the Psalmist affirms, “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.”

Luther’s Interest in Psalm 46

Most people cannot recite Psalm 46 from memory. But many are so familiar with the words to Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” that they can sing it without looking at the hymnal. “Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott” is actually Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46. This Psalm has several very familiar lines, has been cited by American presidents (most recently by Barak Obama), and portions of it appear in well-known Jewish prayers. Found in Book Two of the Psalter and attributed to the Sons of Korah, it is classified as a “Psalm of Zion.” It contains loud echoes from Psalm 2, where that divine protection promised to the king, is extended to include his capital city (Jerusalem). Charles Spurgeon aptly speaks of the 46th Psalm as “the song of faith in troubled times.”[1] Martin Luther thought this Psalm of such comfort, he put it to verse.

It is important to reflect upon Psalm 46, because we sing this particular Psalm as often as any other–often in the form of Luther’s famous paraphrase. Before we take up the text of the Psalm–where we will find much deep and rich biblical theology–I think it appropriate to consider Luther’s use of this Psalm, then debunk one of the persistent myths surrounding the version of the Psalm which appears in the KJV, and then look at the context in which the Psalm was originally composed. Then, we will look at the text of the Psalm while making various points of application as we go.

As for Luther and “A Mighty Fortress,” although there are many theories about when it was written and for what occasion, Luther’s hymn first appears in a 1531 hymnal which would indicate that Luther wrote it several years earlier, likely in 1527-29. This was ten years or so after his 95 theses were circulated throughout Europe, igniting the theological fire which became the Protestant Reformation. The black plague was especially virulent throughout much of Europe in the winter of 1527, nearly killing Luther’s son. Luther was also a physical wreck during this time (from exhaustion). He began spending much time reading and reflecting upon Psalm 46, especially its promise that God is the bulwark (fortress) who never fails. From Luther’s reflection on that word of comfort, the famous hymn was born.

According to one writer, “many times during this dark and tumultuous period, when terribly discouraged, [Luther] would turn to his co-laborer, Philipp Melanchthon, and say, ‘Come, Philipp, let us sing the forty-sixth Psalm.’”[2] Luther said of this particular Psalm, “we sing this psalm to the praise of God, because He is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends His church and His word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh, and sin.”[3] Because our fathers in the faith were sustained throughout their trials by their knowledge and love of the Psalter, we would be foolish to ignore their wise counsel, and the faithful example they have set before us.

A Persistent Rumor

One persistent rumor which needs to be debunked is that William Shakespeare helped prepare the translation of this Psalm which appears in the King James Version of the Bible. As the spurious theory goes, the 46th word of the Psalm is “shake,” while the 46th word from the end of the Psalm is “spear.” Furthermore, the bard was forty-six years old in 1611 when the translation of the KJV was completed. Unfortunately, the only way this will work is if you do not count the word “selah” which appears in three places in the Psalm. Selah is an indication to the musicians that this is a place to pause. No doubt, there are some interesting coincidences here. But then, it is a shame that people are so preoccupied with interesting coincidences, because, apparently, coincidences are far more intriguing than making an effort to understand how this particular Psalm speaks of Jesus Christ.

The Songs of Zion

As for the background to the Psalm itself, this Psalm (along with a number others) is usually classified as a “Song of Zion.” The Zion Songs are identified as such because these Psalms proclaim the excellencies of Zion (the mountain upon which Jerusalem and the temple are located), which is the apple of YHWH’s eye. In these Psalms YHWH is depicted as the great warrior-king who protects his own as he advances his kingdom. These Psalms are also polemical–they are a response to Canaanite polytheism. In contrast, the Songs of Zion proclaim that YHWH alone is God, and it is he who made the mountains where the Canaanites foolishly believed their “gods” dwelt.

But the Zion motif is not just limited to the physical mountain upon which the city of Jerusalem happens to sit. Zion is the very symbol of God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom which has a visible expression in the city of Jerusalem and in its temple. Yet the people of Israel also know that YHWH’s kingdom extends beyond Zion to the ends of the earth. In the Zion Songs, it is YHWH who protects the earthly Zion, and its people, and its ruler. It is YHWH who provides for his people–especially during their trials. It is YHWH who blesses them, when (in faith), they obey his covenant. And it is YHWH who will bring down the covenant curses upon Israel when they disobey him. The citizens of spiritual Zion trust in YHWH’s promise. They delight in his presence. They seek to honor him through living lives of gratitude–loving him and neighbor. And they believe that YHWH will see them through the worst of times and trials, which is why they both praise him and call upon his name in these songs.[4]

It is in this sense then that Zion is the center of Israelite life, and why the earthly mount Zion and city of Jerusalem, points beyond the city and the temple to the new Jerusalem and the heavenly city. At this point in redemptive history, Zion is the holy mount where YHWH chooses to be present with his people. He delights when his people acknowledge him as the true and living God. All of this points ahead to the coming of Jesus Christ who is the true temple, and the true Israel, and in whom and through whom the kingdom of God is realized in the new covenant era.

As the author of Hebrews tells Christian worshipers in Hebrews 12:22-24,

“but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

When we assemble for worship, we do so as citizens of the heavenly Zion, the city of the living God, whose inhabitants have been made perfect by the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. We too sing the “Songs of Zion,” but we sing them in reference to God’s kingdom and to the covenant mediator, Jesus.

The Historical Background to the Psalm’s Composition

The historical situation behind the composition of this Psalm is likely the events recounted in 2 Chronicles 20, when YHWH defeats the tribe of Judah’s enemies while the people uncharacteristically pray and wait for YHWH to act on their behalf–which he does.[5] According to verses 4 and following of 2 Chronicles 20,

“and Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord. And Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the Lord, before the new court, and said, ‘O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you. Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? And they have lived in it and have built for you in it a sanctuary for your name, saying, ‘If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you—for your name is in this house—and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save.’”

In verse 22, the Chronicler tells us that YHWH brought about Judah’s successful ambush of their enemies and as a consequence,

“Judah came to the watchtower of the wilderness, they looked toward the horde, and behold, there were dead bodies lying on the ground; none had escaped. When Jehoshaphat and his people came to take their spoil, they found among them, in great numbers, goods, clothing, and precious things, which they took for themselves until they could carry no more. They were three days in taking the spoil, it was so much.”

Having witnessed YHWH thoroughly defeat their vastly superior enemy and protect his city, the Sons of Korah composed this song of triumphal victory. They directed the choirmaster to use the 46th Psalm on a special occasion–most likely during times of crisis.[6]

The Structure of the Psalm

The 46th Psalm is divided into three stanzas, each marked off by “selah” (pause). The first stanza (vv. 1-3) reminds us of God’s power over nature, while the second stanza (vv. 4-7) describes YHWH’s power in defending his holy city from all attackers.

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