Psalm 46 – A Grand Song of Faith… and Fantasy
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. For the leader. Of the Korahites; on alamoth.1 A song.
2. God is our refuge and strength, a help in trouble, ever-present.
3. Therefore we are not afraid, though the earth reels, though mountains collapse in the heart of the seas,
4. its waters 2-raging and foaming-2; mountains quaking in its swelling. Selah.
5. There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city, the holy dwelling of the Most High.
6. God is in its midst, it will not collapse; God will come to its aid by daybreak.
7. Nations rage, kingdoms collapse; He lifts His voice, the earth dissolves.
8. The LORD of hosts is with us; our haven is the God of Jacob. Selah.
9. Go, see the miracles3 of the LORD, Who has wrought astonishing acts on the earth.
10. He puts a stop to wars to the ends of the earth, breaking the bow, snapping the spear, consuming wagons in flames.
11. “Desist, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted on the earth.”
12. The LORD of hosts is with us; our haven is the God of Jacob. Selah.
1. Meaning uncertain.
2. Hebrew words echo each other, approximately, "fume and foam"
3. Literally, acts (not the term at the end of this verse), implying supernatural (cf. Ps. 66:5).
“Psalm 46 [is]… ‘the grandest song of faith’ ever written,” wrote Buttenwieser, some seventy years ago. Weiser more recently declared Psalm 46 to be “one of the most powerful testimonies of the Old Testament’s poetry as well as of its faith.” Faith seems to be their central theme—but one must read the poem carefully to consider whether this is faith expressed or faith explored.
Before dealing with the content, I note a few literary uses and structures that demand attention. (a) The identical verses, 8 and 12, are a refrain, ostensibly dividing the psalm into two. (b) On the other hand, there is a threefold division indicated by the use of the (apparently musical) term “selah,” not only after both refrains but also after verse 4. (c) The violence of nature seems balanced by a calm of God over history, first seen through the use of water (compare verses 3–4 to 5). Waters “rage” and mountains “collapse,” just as nations “rage” and kingdoms “collapse” (verses 3, 4, 7), but they fail to have effect, as God’s city cannot “collapse” (verse 6). (d) The use of “we” in the two opening verses and in the two refrains calls for a definition. (e) The most repeated word is “earth” (five times). (f) As in many psalms, there is a surprise in the last verse (here, the verse before the refrain)―this time, the entrance of God as speaker.
The content also raises questions. What natural phenomenon is first described (and is it real or virtual)? What is the river in God’s city (as there is no river in Jerusalem)? What role does God play?
In light of these questions, I first discuss Psalm 46 by the threefold division, then the twofold division (not as alternatives, but as complementary understandings), and thereafter I propose a comprehensive overview. The questions asked above are answered, directly or indirectly.
A Three-Part Psalm
“Selah,” which appears after verses 4, 8, and 12, is most often taken to be a musical instruction, added well after original composition, possibly related to high notes. Its use is often thought to reflect some interpretation of the text (though on occasion this is very hard to reconstruct).
In the case of Psalm 46, it does seem logical to divide the poem into three. Indeed, some interpreters praise the psalm precisely for this division, seeing the sections as reflections of God in three different realms: nature (Creation), history, and the messianic future. (Some commentators even suggest that the refrain once also appeared after verse 4, but was simply inadvertently omitted..) In Weiser’s words, “this triad… imparts to the particular events that quality of cosmic breadth, timeless surpassing worth and metaphysical importance which is of the essence of the continually recurring realization of the divine salvation.” According to this view, the total acceptance of faith is repeated in each section, which is what makes Psalm 46 so powerful.
However, in revisiting each section separately, one discovers a prevailing odd dissonance with reality.
The first section, often taken as a reflection of Creation, certainly does not fit the Genesis account, nor does it fit the myth (reflected elsewhere in the Bible) of God creating the world through battle against sea powers. No battle appears here, nor does any act of creation. It is more likely that the description is of a massive cataclysm of nature—earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves, etc., all included. The very scope is awesome and does not match any known historical event. The reaction here to the cataclysm is not easily comprehended: it seems impossible that humans facing what is described in verses 3 and 4 could greet it with that first phrase, “we are not afraid.” The reader is incredulous.
With those doubts in mind, one is then struck by the unreality of the second section, for there is no river in Jerusalem. Despite efforts to attribute this reference to a spring, which does bring some underground water, that is simply not what the verse is describing. Although verses 6 and 7 may have some historical basis (see “Additional Note” below), the tone set by verse 5 is a-historical and could reflect either God’s heavenly abode (which would not fit the need for defense) or an envisioned future perfection.
The third section is clearly a fantasy. This incredibly positive vision includes, in fact, the basic element of any eschatology―a total peace of worldwide scope. One reading it can only sigh with desire, accompanied by a touch of sadness for dreams unrealized.
The proposed three-part division, then, includes the element of fantasy in each section.
One also notes the use of “we” in each of the three sections, which pronoun is associated in the refrain with the God of Jacob. If the vision is universalistic, the immediate audience for this psalm is, in any case, the people Israel.
A Two-Part Psalm
Verses 1 though 8 constitute the first unit of the two-part division, marked by the refrains. So read, the first section reveals a secure city, sitting above (city of the “Most High”) the terrors of nature and the machinations of kingdoms. The “refuge and stronghold” of the opening is almost palpable, and the LORD being “with” us (verse 8) becomes an explanation of the confidence. The cataclysm of nature is not near the speakers but far away, and no rage, even of enemies, can reach them. The picture is one of a calm haven, and even if the description still seems unreal, it all blends nicely as a metaphor. They are threatened neither by enemies nor by natural cataclysm.
The second section still reads as eschatological, but there seems to be sharp difference from the first eight verses. There water dominates, but here the dominant image is fire. The “earth,” a term of nature in the first section, becomes a geopolitical term in the last verses. The solution to the problems in this last section is less through isolation (as in the first section) and more by overwhelming domination. The “hosts” of the refrain, which might have also hinted at the hosts of heaven in the first section, take on the exclusive meaning of armies. In a poetic echo (which Hacham notes), the second section even absorbs the fall of the kingdoms noted in verse 7 of the first section and now includes them in God’s dominion. (In verse 7 the phrases were: “nations rage…the earth dissolves” – hamu goyim… timog ha’aretz; in verse 11 – “I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted on the earth” - arum bagoyim arum ba’aretz).
Thinking of Psalm 46
The speaker of Psalm 46 dreams of a perfect reliance on the LORD—a faith that overcomes dangers in a way we do not experience, a faith that creates rivers in Jerusalem, a faith that brings total worldwide peace. It is a faith that is incubated at present within Israel, but one that will expand. It is rooted in history and lives on in the LORD’s being “with” the people, in the isolation of the haven of His city. Its goal will be fully achieved some day, but at the moment remains only a dream.
This is as grand a psalm as many have claimed, not only because it expresses total confidence, but because it maintains a vision of faith, while acknowledging a more challenging reality. One must note, however, that, in the end, God has to speak to confirm the contention, to reassure the reader. Human assertions are not enough.
If the psalm is international, it still spreads from the people, the “we,” outward. Its vision is international; its reality is isolation.
Is the psalm, then, messianic, as many would claim, focusing on the ideal future? Although the future hope might affirm this, the very recitation of this psalm imposes a different attitude in the present, enveloping it in the positive march of time. It is not that the speaker is “lost” in the future. As he envisions that future, he, ipso facto, lives in a different present, and it is that present that is the subject of the psalm. The poet ultimately has shared his vision with his readers in order to help them face a very different world in their own time.
* * * * * * * * *
Many commentators suggest that the event described in verses 6–7 is the siege of Jerusalem by the forces of King Sennacherib of Assyria in 701 BCE. Scholars tend to confirm the broad veracity of the biblical account of that siege―the army (the mightiest in the world) did besiege Jerusalem, and for reasons that are not clear, one morning, they fled. In that campaign only Jerusalem among the major cities was not captured. From the accounts (II Kings: 18–19; Isaiah: 36–37) one learns that the people understood this to reflect the hand of God. Certain details in Psalm 46 seem to match the story (the emphasis on “God’s city” and the use of that term for Jerusalem; “nations rage, kingdoms collapse”; salvation at “daybreak”), and many phrases have parallels in Isaiah, the prophet at the time of the siege. (Isaiah, in 30:2, uses the terms “refuge…stronghold” as in verse 2 of the psalm to condemn those who seek aid from Egypt; parallel to the “with” of refrain here, Isaiah in 7:14 and 8:8, 14 emphasizes the phrase “God is with us;" see also Isaiah’s emphasis on peace, 2:4.) Further, Psalm 48, also associated with the Korahites, is also widely believed to reflect the siege.
Of course, even if the psalm reflects these events, it could have been written well afterward. In any case, the structure and message remain the same.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ לִבְנֵי קֹרַח עַל עֲלָמוֹת שִׁיר:
(ב) אֱלֹהִים לָנוּ מַחֲסֶה וָעֹז עֶזְרָה בְצָרוֹת נִמְצָא מְאֹד:
(ג) עַל כֵּן לֹא נִירָא בְּהָמִיר אָרֶץ וּבְמוֹט הָרִים בְּלֵב יַמִּים:
(ד) יֶהֱמוּ יֶחְמְרוּ מֵימָיו יִרְעֲשׁוּ הָרִים בְּגַאֲוָתוֹ סֶלָה:
(ה) נָהָר פְּלָגָיו יְשַׂמְּחוּ עִיר אֱלֹהִים קְדֹשׁ מִשְׁכְּנֵי עֶלְיוֹן:
(ו) אֱלֹהִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ בַּל תִּמּוֹט יַעְזְרֶהָ אֱלֹהִים לִפְנוֹת בֹּקֶר:
(ז) הָמוּ גוֹיִם מָטוּ מַמְלָכוֹת נָתַן בְּקוֹלוֹ תָּמוּג אָרֶץ:
(ח) יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת עִמָּנוּ מִשְׂגָּב לָנוּ אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב סֶלָה:
(ט) לְכוּ חֲזוּ מִפְעֲלוֹת יְהֹוָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂם שַׁמּוֹת בָּאָרֶץ:
(י) מַשְׁבִּית מִלְחָמוֹת עַד קְצֵה הָאָרֶץ קֶשֶׁת יְשַׁבֵּר וְקִצֵּץ חֲנִית עֲגָלוֹת יִשְׂרֹף בָּאֵשׁ:
(יא) הַרְפּוּ וּדְעוּ כִּי אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהִים אָרוּם בַּגּוֹיִם אָרוּם בָּאָרֶץ:
(יב) יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת עִמָּנוּ מִשְׂגָּב לָנוּ אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב סֶלָה: