The title of Psalm 46, in most translations reads, "To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song." Since we have already discussed the "Sons of Korah" in previous topics, I will skip that this time and cover the last portion of the title "According to Alamoth." For most readers, this sounds like the psalm was written by a man named Alamoth, but in Hebrew, alamoth (properly ʿalāmôt - pronounced al-aw-moth') means "girls" and more specifically to the female vocal range which is typically soprano, contralto, or falsetto. In the past, there were those who had supposed that Alamoth referred to a musical instrument, and in part they would be correct, since the human voice is one of the most diverse. While this is not a major theological point, we can understand that this song was written to be preformed by what we would commonly call a girls choir.
The back story:
There is some conjecture about the back story, with some supposing that it was written after the return from Babylon and having resettled Jerusalem. Others feel that it was written after a major earthquake.
More than likely however is that it refers to one of two events: the night that all Sennacherib's army was destroyed, or, the events which took place in the Persian empire after the death of Cambyses, when the Magi overtook the government (which I will get to later).
Small side note: Sennacherib was the king of Assyria. Assyria was a strong enemy and attacked Jerusalem in 701 BC. But God protected the city. In a single night, a strange illness overtook the Assyrian army and 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died. This caused Sennacherib and his army to flee from Jerusalem back to their homes. You can read about this story in 2 Kings 19.
The important information that is contained in this psalm is requires some basic understanding: Jerusalem is a classic picture of God's people; in-fact in Revelations God's people are called the "new Jerusalem." What we learn in this psalm is that God can protect His city, but since Jerusalem is a picture of the Church (God's people) it is also teaching us that God can protect His people.
This psalm contains the enigmatic word, Selah. It is a word that occurs seventy-one times in thirty-nine of the psalms as well as three times in Habakkuk chapter 3. However, as I said in the article Psalms 1-3:
...the word Selah comes from the root word calah literally meaning "to hang" which is a reference to something being weighed and can be properly understood as a measured pause. It is found throughout the Old Testament books and is not musical measurement that is found only in Psalms. In this context it is telling us to "measure" what is being said, in other words, to appreciate its importance or gravity of the situation being spoken about.
Verse 1: This psalm begins very suddenly with the words "God is our refuge and strength" which might give some insight into how the music began as well. The second half of verse one may be a bit confusing as most translations read "a very present help" but the Hebrew is very straight forward and emphatic when it says ʿezrâ ṣārâ māṣāʾ meʾōd, literally "help in distress the one being found exceedingly" so can be properly understood as, "God is our refuge and strength, a help in distresses, very readily found." This translation seems to be the most accurate and the most fitting to the original structure; it can be found in Darby's Translation of the Old and New Testament.
Verse 2 & 3: The reading of the text may seem to imply an earthquake, however, please remember that this is a song and things are not always to be taken exactly as they may first appear. Often times, the word earth simply means man, or mankind. In fact, the word "earth here in psalm 46 is the Hebrew word ʾeres which literally means "to be firm", it can be used to reference land, fields and nations. Thus, mountains would refer to kings and heads of state. Combined with the imagery in verses 2 and 3, we can understood, in context, that the psalmist is talking about more than simply natural disasters, but also of political unrest.
Moreover, psalm 46 is written in prophetic language; in prophetic language, the word "water" often represents people and often people in... yep you guessed it, political commotion. As Adam Clarke points out:
...these strong agitations of the people, the mountains-the secular rulers, shake with the swelling thereof-tremble, for fear that these popular tumults should terminate in the subversion of the state. This very people had seen all Asia in a state of war. The Persians had overturned Asia Minor, and destroyed the Babylonian empire: they had seen Babylon itself sacked and entered by the Persians; and Cyrus, its conqueror, had behaved to them as a father and deliverer. While their oppressors were destroyed, themselves were preserved, and permitted to return to their own land.
Adam Clarke's Commentary on Psalm 46 Verse 3
Verse 4: If indeed the interpretation above is correct, they are made more clear in verse 4. The word used here for "streams" is the Hebrew word peleg which you might remember as the name of the man who it was said "for in his days the earth was divided" (Genesis 10:25). The difference between these two words is minor but they both point out the nature of division. While one speaks of division through earthquake, the other speaks of the dividing up of the waters into tributaries, or streams. Thus, combined with the prophetic language, one can understand verse 4 to be the coming together of the waters (the streams feeding into the river) as a symbol representing the flowing together of various peoples in faith and worship of the one true living God. By this, they "make glad the city of God" through their faith.
Verse 5: When verse 5 says, "God is in the midst of her" it is speaking of the city itself and as I have spoken of earlier, the city of God, Jerusalem and New Jerusalem are used as a picture of the Church. We then can understand that the Church will be upheld by God and it "will not be moved." Additionally in 5b (the second half of the verse) there is the understanding that the Church will go through times of darkness, but on the other side, when morning dawns, God will be there to comfort and heal the wounds of the Church.
Verse 6: Many translations render the first part of this verse as "the nations rage" and while that is not all together wrong, it loses some of the impact of the original language. The KJV renders it as "the heathens raged" which is a bit better as the word representing "nations" and "heathens" is gôy, literally meaning "a mass of bodies", thus a nation, but also points out the animal qualities of the group, as in a "swarm of locust" or a "pack of hyenas." It is a word that when used strictly of nations, refers to foreign (Gentile) nations. Interestingly, note that the "kingdoms totter"; this points out the reality of what we find in the historical record. The middle-east has seen kingdom after kingdom fall to the hands of their enemies, the Jews often caught in the crossfire, yet of the old kingdom's, Israel is the only one which had been preserved as a testament to God. This is the sense of the later half of verse 6. By God's command, the once strong (earth = firm) kingdoms were dissolved (melted). Through this dissolving, we see one kingdom fall, while another is raised up. Through this whole process, God used other nations to act as judges against Israel and work out a continual renewing of faith. You can read about this concept in Judges 2:18.
Verse 7: In verse 7 we are introduced to a "new" title for God. While it is used elsewhere in Exodus, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings and 1 Chronicles, this is the first time we have covered it in this Bible study. The title is "Lord of hosts" or in Hebrew YHWH ṣābāʾ. While the literal meaning of this title is difficult to translate, "Lord of hosts" is perfectly fitting. YHWH is the proper and unspeakable name of God, thus the vowels have been removed to prohibit pronunciation. However, it can properly be understood as the "self-existent or eternal God" combined with ṣābāʾ (pronounced tsaw-bah') which literally refers to a mass of people. It is especially used with the intention of an army of soldiers ready for battle. So, one can also properly understand "the Lord of hosts" as "the God of armies."
In verse 7, the God of armies is said to be with the Jews. Though the armies of Israel had become a small ragtag group after the return from the Babylonian exile, God was on their side and though armies could attack the city and overthrow the government, they could not overthrow the Jews or cause them to fall away from faith any longer. There was no longer hope for success in attacking Jerusalem by might and we see in the New Testament that even the Roman's who were "governing" Jerusalem were in most ways at the mercy of the Jews and their customs.
He is also called the "God of Jacob" which of course is a reference to Jacob who we are studying in Genesis. Thus this same God who had appeared to Jacob had also protected Israel and the Jews. He had established Himself as a trustworthy God and refuge for His people. The word translated here as "fortress" or "refuge" (depending on the translation) is miśgāb, literally meaning "a cliff" which is meant to show not only the defense aspect, but that God's protection, His "wall" that He builds around His people, was unclimbable and no one could hope to breach it.
Verses 8 & 9: We are told to behold the work of God in the desolation of the previous kingdoms. The successive desolation and regeneration having an effect that shows God's hand. Yet, in verse 9, He makes the wars end, He "breaks the bow and shatters the spear, He burns the chariots with fire." Is this speaking of future things? Is it pointing out something that has already taken place?
At the time this psalm was written, there was a great deal happening in this part of the world. Cyrus was king and had founded the Persian Empire and conquered most of the Near East and Central Asia including Babylon. Cyrus also made the first decree that the Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt (2 Chronicles 36:22 & 23). It was during Cyrus reign that the Babylonian exile ended and the first wave of Jews were free to return to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel in 538 BC. Cyrus was a beloved ruler and God even speaks to Him directly in the book of Isaiah when He says:
1 Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed:
2 “I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
Isaiah 45:1-3 (ESV)
However, after his father's death, Cambyses II (named after his grandfather) had taken it upon himself to expand the empire. The conquest covered all of the middle-east and, in 525 BC he even conquered Egypt, becoming not only the Emperor of Persia, but Pharaoh as well.
Most would think that a king with this kind of power would be unstoppable, but God had other plans. You will not find his name anywhere in scripture and by all accounts he seems to have forgotten about his father's decree, rather worshiping the Egyptian gods at the temple of Neit. In March 522 BC, Cambyses II died under mysterious circumstances. Some believing he had been assassinated, while Darius (his lance-bearer and cousin) records that a new force had risen up and taken control of the throne in Persia. Darius continued by saying that it was someone posing as Cambyses' brother Bardiya, who he had secretly killed only a few years earlier. Whoever was on the throne, Cambyses had seen the futility of marching against this adversary and took his own life.
Darius promptly, took control of Cambyses' armies and marched back to Persia where he joined with the six Persian noble families and assassinated the man sitting on the throne.
This established Darius as "Darius the Great" the third "king of kings." Darius then set about unifying the empire by making one standard monetary system and establishing Aramaic as the official language. Many revolts took place, but Darius marched his armies throughout the empire suppressing each one individually. The most notable, was the revolt in Babylon. There Darius was met by mockery, the Babylonians saying, "Oh yes, you will capture our city when mules shall have foals." The significance of this taunt might be lost on most, but all male mules and most females are infertile, so a mule giving birth was seen by the Babylonians as something that could only happen through divine sanction. Of course, a year and a half into the rebellion, a mule gave live birth and the entire Babylonian empire promptly fell to Darius.
Through Cyrus and subsequently through Darius, God effectively tranquilized the entire empire, but something that is often forgotten is that it was Cyrus, Darius and their successors who funded a great deal of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. You can read about this in several places including Ezra chapters 4 - 6 and Nehemiah 12. You can even find Darius mentioned in the book of Daniel chapters 5 - 9 and time was counted by the years of his reign in Haggai and Zechariah.
My point in explaining all of this is simply to show how much turmoil the region was going through in the course of only 20 years. The writer of this psalm was certainly familiar with this, or similar political turmoil and speaks about it here in prophetic language.
Verse 10: The beginning of this verse is quite clear. Cease from what you are doing, reflect on this..."be still and know that I am God." The second half of this verse, however, might be better understood with the understanding of the word "nations" which was previously explained. It is now a fulfilled prophecy! God's name and His gospel were exalted among the Gentiles (see verse 6). While there were some Jews who accepted the gospel, by and large, the Gentiles were the first to accept and spread the gospel message. However, 10c (the third part of verse 10) makes it clear, all the nations will worship Him. Yes, He is the God of Israel, but He is also God of every tribe and every nation. It is His and His alone.
Verse 11: You might notice that verse 11 and verse 7 are exactly the same. This is what we might think of today as a chorus and because of this, there are those that think that there is also a missing verse after verse 3 where this chorus should appear. It is most common for these types of repetitions to appear in triplicate, as we commonly do with "Holy Holy Holy" to signify that what is said, is to the utmost degree.
Whether or not this is true and there is a third repetition of this chorus or not, the meaning and intent has not changed.
I went a bit overboard on the history of this psalm, but I hope it has helped you to put it into perspective. All too often we as readers are tempted to read scripture as though it was isolated, when in fact there are uncountable events which all play a role in the unfolding of God's plan. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to post them.