If you are a student of church history, you know the significance of Psalm 46 and the important role it played in the Reformation—arguably the greatest movement in the church since the first century.
The primary leader of this Protestant movement was the German reformer Martin Luther, who wrote “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Based on Psalm 46, this inspiring hymn has become perhaps the greatest worship song ever written. Luther penned this hymn as a result of how this psalm impacted his own life, during a debilitating time of extreme crisis.
It was 1527, and the bubonic plague was sweeping through Europe. This vicious epidemic brutally struck the country of Germany. A large number of deaths occurred because of the plague. People were living in fear. Many were escaping town in search of safety. The issue for Luther was: should he flee for the health of his family and his own preservation? Or should he stay and minister to those who remained and expose himself to the deadly disease?
Luther made the difficult decision to stay in order to shepherd the German people. With his wife Katy, Luther turned their house into a hospital for the dying. Tragically, their young three-year-old son Hans contracted the disease and nearly died. During this season, Luther became so overwhelmed mentally and emotionally that he fainted at the dinner table more than once and had to be carried to his bed.
It was in the middle of this grim situation that Luther anchored himself to Psalm 46. In a time of weakness and pestilence, Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress is our God” as a testimony to the strength he found in the Lord Himself. One of the verses of this famous hymn reads, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing/Our helper, He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”
It was Psalm 46 that gave Luther the inner strength he needed during this devastating plague. This psalm begins, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (verse 1). Here, we see two profound truths, that God is both all-powerful and all-present.
This psalm begins with a declaration of God. The author writes, “God is our refuge and strength.” This name for God is not the often used divine name Jehovah or YHWH (Psalm 23:1). Here, it is Elohim, which is the plural form of El, meaning ‘the powerful one.’ As a plural word, el is sometimes translated “gods.” But there is only one true God.
Consequently, we observe that Elohim is an intensive or majestic plural for the name of God. This means He is extraordinarily all-mighty, declaring omnipotence upon omnipotence.
This Hebrew word Elohim is used in the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). This Almighty Creator spoke everything into being out of nothing. So as this rich psalm begins, it is a declaration that God is all-powerful. He is far greater than any trial or foe that His people or the psalmist would face.
Notice the verb “is” – “God is our refuge and strength.” This verb stresses that each moment of every day, God is all-powerful. He is never weak, never lacking the necessary power to defeat any invading army. And because God is immutable, He possesses the same power yesterday, today, and forever—even to this present hour.
The word “refuge” here speaks to ‘a place of safety and security.’ It reminds us that God is an unassailable fortress and an unconquerable castle. When the psalmist runs to Him and hides himself in Him, it is like a soldier running into a castle. All that would assail him—surrounding enemies and dreaded fears—cannot harm him while he is surrounded by its sturdy and impenetrable walls.
So it is for every believer today. We find comfort and strength for our own hearts as we rest in God, who is our refuge. Nothing can touch us except that which He sends, or what He allows. Either way, God is the hedge of protection around us, no matter what we face. He is our stronghold in the day of our distress.
This does not mean no difficulties will come to us. But we can have this assurance of knowing that whatever assails us, God has a design and purpose to use it for a far greater good. And His very presence guards our hearts with divine protection.
“God Is Our…Strength”
As the first line continues, the psalmist adds that “God is…our strength.” The word “strength” (‘oz) means a ‘might’ that is so great that it upholds the psalmist and his fellow believers, even in their most difficult times. God enables His people to stand strong through the many trials that come against them through His supernatural strength.
As the psalmist writes this, the city of Jerusalem is surrounded by enemy forces, undergoing a siege. There was a very-present threat––foreign armies that threatened Israel’s very existence. God was ultimately the walled fortress around the psalmist, protecting, preserving, and empowering him.
The same is true in our lives. God remains our refuge and our strength. It is in times of our weakness when we should turn to Him with the greatest trust. God is all-powerful, and He ever promises to uphold us.
“A Very Present Help”
In the second line of this verse, the psalmist declares that God is not only all-powerful, but He is all-present. God is “a very present help in trouble.” It is one thing for God to be all-powerful, but what if He is so far removed in the heights of heaven that He is never close by? What good would it be for God to be all-powerful, yet be distantly removed from the psalmist’s life? He needs God to be in the furnace of affliction with him. He needs Him to be in the boat with him as he sails through the tumultuous storms of life.
The word “very” (me’od) means “exceedingly,” “extremely.” That is to say, God is always in the very midst of the believer’s difficult circumstances and dangerous trials. God could not be any more present in this difficulty. He is closer than our own selves. The same is true for all believers today. The Lord dwells within us to help us in every hour of greatest need.
Worth noting is the word “help,” which in the Hebrew is ezra – the same word for the central figure in the Old Testament book of Ezra. This word means that God is ever present to help His people. He is always with believers to undergird them in their weakness. He is always on site to strengthen us in our frailty.
At the end of this verse, the psalmist writes that God is very present when he is “in trouble.” God does not merely draw near to him when times are great. Instead, He comes alongside him when the psalmist needs Him the most, whether in adversity that is physical, financial, spiritual, relational, or emotional.
The same is true for you and me. In our time of trouble, God is a very present help. During the intense trials of life, we discover whether we are really leaning on the Lord, living for the Lord, or if we have been leaning on the empty props of this world.
Whatever the world may offer us as security, it is nothing compared to almighty God, who is our refuge and our strength in this time when we need Him so much.
May we find His comfort and strength to be a refuge for our weary hearts today and always.