Betray kind husband thy spouse to our sights…John Donne
There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end without end. For what other end do we propose to ourselves than to attain to the kingdom of which there is no end?Augustine
Psalm 46 has long been the comfort of the people of God. Perhaps at the closing of 2020 we need to be reminded of its foundational and profound confession: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Notice that this confession sets the tone for the remainder of the psalm 46. As the deep bassline in Arvo Pärt’s Credo, this confession rings deep and rich through the entire psalm. It remains a beacon through dark and storm: When all is toss and turn, flee to the Unmoved; when you are weary, come to him who gives rest.
On the heels of 2020 and the edge of 2021, many are weary and tempted to fear. We read again: Even if “the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling,” even still, God is our refuge and strength.
Here, we ought to pause and reflect a moment. As I see it, in vv. 2-6 the psalmist develops three different kinds of imagery, layering them as strata which beckons the contemplative reader to dig down further still. And with each new layer uncovered we more fully contemplate the confession that God is our help.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth gives way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
On the surface of the psalm’s imagery is natural disaster. Mountains quake. The seas rage. These are natural phenomena, full of fury and deadly force. Contrasted with the violence of the turbulent world is, verse 4, the “glad city of God,” which “is not moved.” One is brought to think of a strong, coastal fortress; the waves of the sea crashing upon its exterior, yet it holds. Those on the interior are not disturbed for all the raging without, for they are established within. They are even glad in their steady stance. They are also glad because, in contrast to the tempestuous waters outside the fortress, there is a gentle, flowing stream inside the fortress, bringing to its inhabitants life and respite.
This, then, is the first level of imagery in this psalm. It is a city properly built, properly fortified against the natural perils of the world. Though wild without, the city is a garden within. Though the world be filled with natural woe, the City of God has a source of gladness that goes deeper still. She is not moved; for God is in her midst.
There is a second level of imagery in this psalm, a little further down: one of cosmic divine judgment. This becomes evident when one reads this psalm against the backdrop of other psalms contemplating God’s creation of the world. For example, Psalm 104: 5–9:
He set the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never be moved.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they fled;
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.
The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
Here the psalmist poetically develops the Genesis account of God’s creative act, whereby he moves creation from an initial chaotic state towards order, from restlessness to rest. In Psalm 46, the movement is reversed: the mountains are no longer so established and set in their place; the oceans begin to transgress their boundaries. If the establishing of the mountains and the setting of the boundaries of the oceans speak to God’s creative act, then the shaking of the mountains and the bursting forth of the ocean signify God’s de-creative act, that is, his judgment. Indeed, there are echoes here in Psalm 46 of that first great, de-creative act of judgment in the Old Testament, the cosmic deluge. The psalmist dares to contemplate a world so unsettled, so unhinged as when under the judgment of God in the days of Noah.
And yet, he says, even still, “we will not fear…” Just as those in the bosom of the ark were carried through the waters of judgment, so too the inhabitants of this city remain secure. For God the Most High has made this city his habitation, a place of safety to those who flee to him from his wrath. The city of God remains glad even amidst the judgment of God, for God has provided for her salvation.
Going deeper still, one uncovers a thirdstratumof imagery deposited in this psalm:
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…
Here in v. 6, it is no longer the oceans which rage, but the nations; it is no longer the mountains which totter, but the kingdoms.
These kingdoms are what Augustine referred to as ‘the city of man.’ It is the city of Cain, of Enoch, and of Lamech, built on a foundation of murder, a lie, and a boast. It the city of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose prosperity led to pride and then to perversion. This is the city of Babel, of Egypt, Edom, Philistia, Babylon, and Assyria, who filled their citadels with boasts and crowed in their opposition to God Most High and to his people. It is the city of Rome, the city of Aix-la-Chapelle, the city of Avraga, the city of Beijing, of London, of Munich. It is the city of Washington D.C. The nations rage and the kingdoms totter.
To the kings of the earth he gives a kingdom for a time; and he takes it away at other times. Only the dominion of the Lord of lords is an everlasting dominion. Only the city whose builder and maker is God remains.
The nations of the city of man rage, as it says in Psalm 46:6, but they also totter! Why do they totter? First, because the more they rage the more inherently unstable they become. The angry man loses more control with every new degree of anger. As the city of man devolves further in hatred, it totters and froths about in a stupor. It is tragic. And history has this tragic reel on repeat.
Even more, the kingdoms of the world totter because ‘the LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.’ God remains in control, as Psalm 2 has it: He who sits in heaven laughs… Like the waves of an angry sea, it is they who break on this fortress. They, like Nebuchadnezzar, will eventually bow the knee and confess:
…his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”Daniel 4:34-35
And so, in verse 10 God declares: ‘I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’
This is the third level of imagery: it is battlefield imagery. A city besieged by another. Yet no matter how many troops pour against the walls, no matter how hard they pound at the gates, God himself is our fortress (v. 7), and God cannot be broken.
The River of the City of God
A psalm for our own day, I should think: natural disaster, judgement, political upheaval and angst. There is nothing new under the sun. You shall see famines and earthquakes, you will hear of wars and rumors of wars, our Lord warned us. And so we do. Even still, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
I have said that there are three strata of imagery in the psalm. But in fact, I think there is a fourth level—not really a fourth level of imagery in the way I have been using it, I suppose, but I fourth level of meaning. Or, perhaps even better, a central meaning. Here I merely point to it for your further contemplation. That most marvelous line in verse 4, there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, points us simultaneously to protology and eschatology. Here is what I mean. The river mentioned here brings to mind that river in the garden of Eden, which ‘flowed out of Eden to water the garden…’ (Gen. 2:10). Psalm 46 directs our gaze back to the beginning, however, in order to drive us forward to the end. In John’s vision of the completed city, he sees “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. 22:1-2). There, the seas will be no more. There, is a river. That river is the life of God flowing down through the tree of life, who is Christ, to those inhabitants of the city of God. There, Augustine says, “we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise.