The Presence of God (Psalm 46)  

Psalm 46 is frequently called Martin Luther’s psalm. During the initial years of the Reformation when there was much hostility to him and his colleagues, he would often suggest to his friend Melanchthon that they should sing Psalm 46 because it assured them of divine help. Luther’s hymn, based on this psalm is translated into English under the title, ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God.’ 

This psalm is about the presence of God. We can see that is the case from the refrain in verses 7 and 11. His presence is described in two ways. In verses 1-7, it is his presence among his people (note the pronouns) and in verses 8-11 it is his presence everywhere else. Of course, many things can be said about the divine presence and it would not be possible to say everything in one short psalm.
In order to show the wonder of God’s presence, the psalmist considers what would happen in the worst possible scenario. So he mentions an earthquake in verses 2 and 3. We have all seen on the television and elsewhere the devastation that an earthquake causes. Of course, there is more than one kind of earthquake: there are political earthquakes, there are economic earthquakes, and there are social earthquakes in which powerful forces bring about changes that seem so powerful and threatening. We may be going through political and economic changes at present and we are certainly going through a social one.

How should we respond? This psalm tells us how we can do so. First, we need to see what it meant for the author and his contemporaries and then we can take lessons from it for ourselves. Regarding the time when this psalm was composed, no one knows, although that does not stop people making suggestions. It was obviously a time of potential crisis, as we can see from some the things mentioned by the psalmist.

God was with his people
The first response that the psalmist mentions is the bigness of God. He does not say that God is his refuge and strength. Instead, he says that he is capable of looking after all the people of God simultaneously. We are so used to saying such comments that we fail to see the wonder of this amazing reality. Yet this is the amazing fact about God. He can treat each of his people as if he or she was the only one who needed God.

Connected to the bigness of God is the nearness of God. The psalmist points out in verse 1 that God is there in difficult situations. Indeed, the author says that his presence is very certain – he does not say that God is a present help, but a very present help. We should not be surprised at this. The psalmist knew that God was the shepherd who never left his people, but was always there.

Third, we can see that the author focuses on the graciousness of God. It would not be comforting to know that a big God was near, if he was there to punish us for our faults. The psalmist would be aware of his own faults and he would be know that all the people of God had numerous personal faults. Yet to such, the Lord is their refuge and strength. A refuge provides safety and security, and strength gives energy for the situation. God says to them at all times, ‘Come to me to hide in the storm and come to me for power to endure the situation.’ This refuge and strength is not merely physical, it is also spiritual. It is not like hiding in a cave, in darkness, hoping that the enemy cannot see us. Instead, in his presence, we come into the light and we see things as they really are, like the author of Psalm 73 who discovered how insecure the opponents of God always are.

Fourth, the psalmist urges his readers, or fellow singers, to remind themselves of the serenity of the capital city. Jerusalem did not have a major river, instead it had the stream of Siloam. Yet it was a reminder that there was an ongoing source of refreshing water. More importantly, he knew that God was present with them in a special way in the temple. As long as they remained faithful to God, they would be protected by him, even from seemingly powerful enemies. His help could be known all day long, from the dawn of any day. And he could easily deal with any who attacked them.

Fifth, the psalmist noted that God was present with them in two ways. He describes him as the Lord of hosts and as the God of Jacob. The first title reminds us that he is the powerful Commander of the heavenly armies and the second title states that he is the gracious Friend of the individual believer. Israel had known supernatural help from the heavenly armies on numerous occasions. When we think of Jacob, we see a man whom God changed from being self-centred and manipulative into a man who walked with God through many unusual circumstances and trouble. And he still was the God of Jacob when this psalm was written even although Jacob had been dead for centuries.

Sixth, we are asked to observe God’s providence throughout the world. The point that is made in verses 8 and 9 is that God is active all over the earth. Sometimes, he brings judgements and at other times he brings an end to hostilities. Of course, he does much more than those two options. It is the case that God’s people often get so wrapped up in their situations that they fail to take notice of what he is doing elsewhere. They are reminded here that their God is the Lord of the world.

Probably, news was coming to Jerusalem that powerful empires were developing in other parts of the world. For most of their history, Egypt had been a threat, and towards the north there was Syria. The Assyrian empire perhaps had come to the fore by this time. What match did little Jerusalem seem to be in comparison to those powerful alternatives? How should the inhabitants of the city deal with this? By sitting down and thinking about God. They are to think of his purpose which is that he will be exalted in the earth, and they are to remind themselves of who he is, the Commander of the heavenly armies and the God of the individual believer.

It is possible that the command to be still is addressed to the nations who are scheming things and attempting to overturn the plans of God. If that is the correct interpretation, then the words of the psalmist could be regarded as a prayer for enemies rather than an exhortation to the faithful.

God is with his people

As mentioned earlier, we are going through a time of social earthquake in our society, with numerous changes having taken place in the last couple of decades. If all we did was look at the world through the eyes of merely human commentators we would get depressed and disillusioned, fearful and afraid. But we should want to be like this unknown psalmist, and we should be thankful that he has told us what to do.

First, we are to think of the bigness of God. We thought of how the psalmist stressed that God could be with all his people simultaneously. It is still the same today except to say that there are a lot more believers on earth today that actually existed in Israel or Judah at that time. There are probably more of his people in our country today that there were in Israel in the psalmist’s time. And when we add to our total the vast number of believers all over the world, and how each of them is under the care of God, then we sense something of his bigness. Jesus knows the name of each of his sheep.

Second, there is the nearness of God. We don’t know that much about the experience of believers in Old Testament times, mainly because we have never lived as such. The psalmist affirms that God was near them. The application for us is to ask how near he can be to us. When a sinner believes in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes and lives in that person’s inner life, in his or her heart. That is very close. Moreover, the Holy Spirit comes to bring the Father close to his children and to bring Jesus close to his people. He is never far away from any of them.

Third, the gracious God is with us as our refuge and strength. Jesus said about his disciples that no one could snatch them out of his hand, which is a very secure situation; he then said that no one could pluck them out of his Father’s hand, which means that they are doubly secure. Paul reminded the Colossians that their lives were hidden with Christ in God. Moreover, as Paul wrote, a believer can do all things through Christ who gives them strength, which he does by the Holy Spirit. One amazing feature of this divine provision is that none of those millions who benefit from it deserve it.

Fourth, every believer today is a member of the capital city, the New Jerusalem, and they receive from it heavenly sources of spiritual refreshment. From the throne of God in that city a constant supply of grace comes down from the heavenly storehouse. Of course, the means of this supply is invisible, although the effects are not. The water supply of the earthly Jerusalem brought refreshment to a few thousand. In a far greater way, the water of life reaches its membership of millions wherever they are. And other forms of help also come from the heavenly city to its members. When they obey the Lord, there is serenity and security usually for them.

Fifth, God relates to his people today in both ways mentioned by the psalmist. As the Commander of the heavenly armies he arranges for the protection of his people. People laugh at the notion of a guardian angel and I have heard Christians dismiss this as possible. The only problem I have with the suggestion is why have it in the singular. The writer to the Hebrews informs us that all the angels are ministering spirits who constantly serve God by taking care of the heirs of salvation. And part of that care is protection. In addition, they have the tender care and life-transforming experience of being handled by the God of Jacob. If we want to know how God deals with his people, we should read often the story of Jacob. It gives hope for us all as we watch the Lord changing a swindler and a deceiver into a spiritual giant.

Sixth, the people of Israel were urged to take time and consider what God was doing throughout the world. Sometimes he sent judgements and at other times he sent blessings connected to common grace. We know an amazing secret, not that it is hidden, but since people don’t read the Bible they are in ignorance about it. The secret we know is that Jesus is head over all things for the sake of his body the church.

And we know that the sovereign Lord has not changed his purpose to be exalted in the earth. At times, we are too often in a hurry to consider and reflect, to absorb into our souls the promises in the Bible and the providences we are aware of. Why is the gospel flourishing in South America and Africa? Africa used to be called the dark continent, but things have changed. God is at work to increase his glory, and when we take time to think about or read about what he is doing, it gives confidence and joy to discover what is taking place.

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