Therefore We Shall Not Fear | Psalm 46
Brian Hedges | March 15, 2020
[Audio starts here] ...we’re going to try to flatten the curve of this pandemic; I think that is wisdom. Nothing that I say this morning is meant to accuse those who are not here of fear. I think there are many who have chosen not to come this morning for prudent reasons, wanting to safeguard their families. All of us have to make those decisions, of course, and we respect everyone’s decisions.
What I’m more concerned about is how we think about the future, how we deal with the anxieties of our own hearts when we’re in these times of uncertainty. You know, we’re not the first people in history to face this. There have been many Christians throughout the history of the church who have faced times of epidemics and of plagues, and one of those was the Reformer Martin Luther. Martin Luther wrote a letter that I think is really instructive; I actually want to begin with this this morning. The letter was written to Dr. John Hess, and it’s called, “Whether one may flee from a deadly plague.” He wrote this when the Black Plague was running through Europe.
What he says is a wonderful combination of confidence in God, common sense, and love for neighbor. It’s a good model for how we should respond as well. Listen to what Luther said.
He said, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me He will surely find me, and I have done what He has expected of me, and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
That’s good sense. That demonstrates faith in God, and it’s the kind of attitude that I think we should have. We should take precaution, we should be prudent, we should pray, and we should love our neighbors.
Now, you might ask, where does that kind of faith in God come from? Where does that sanctified common sense come from? Of course, there are all kinds of places you could go with Luther, but I love what Luther used to say during times of trouble to his dear friend Philip Melanchthon. He would say, “Philip, let’s sing the 46th.” What he meant was the 46th Psalm, and some of you probably know that his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress” is based on the 46th Psalm.
So today we’re going to go the 46th, and we’re going to look at this psalm, because it’s really a psalm about why we should not fear. I’ve titled the message “Therefore We Shall Not Fear.” It’s a phrase right out of the psalm. I think the “therefore” is important. We’re not simply saying, “Don’t fear,” we’re saying, “Don’t fear because of certain reasons.” “Therefore we shall not fear.”
Here’s what I want to do this morning from the 46th. I want to give you three reasons why we should not fear, there in the psalm, three words that start with P; and then I want to give you two responses, two ways that this psalm teaches us to respond to the truth in the psalm. Each of these phrases start with B. Three Ps and two Bs, five points in this message this morning.
Let’s begin by reading the psalm, Psalm 46. I’m going to read it in its entirety. It’s not going to be on the screen, but you can follow along in your Bibles, as I hope that you will. The psalmist says,
“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
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.
“Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
This is God’s Word.
I. God’s Protection
Why should we not fear? Three reasons. Number one: God’s protection. Look at verse 1. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
The psalmist here gives us vivid, concrete images to teach us about God. God is our refuge. What is a refuge? A refuge was a symbol of strength. It was a place, a fort or fortress, or a covering, maybe, in the rocks or in the mountains, where a person would flee to escape from danger. So the psalmist says, “God is our refuge and our strength.”
To paraphrase one commentary, God is a refuge in which to hide, he gives us strength to bear our trials, and he offers help that stands ready for our need. He protects us because he is our refuge.
Then verse 7, the verse is repeated exactly the same in verse 11, gives us another image, and it’s the image of fortress. “The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress.” The Lord of hosts—that phrase carries the idea of the God of the armies, the God who has hosts of angels at his command. The God of Jacob reminds us that he is the covenant-keeping God. He made this covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who was Israel, the children of Israel.
He is a God with unmatchable strength (he’s the Lord of hosts), and that strength is all positioned in order to help us, his covenant people. He is the God of Jacob and he is our fortress. Again, Luther based his hymn on this:
“A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing.
Our helper, he, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.”
They show us that God is strong, he is mighty, he is powerful, and he leverages that power to protect his people, the protection of God.
This is the first reasons why we should not fear. You see it in verses 2 and 3. “Therefore,” because the Lord is our refuge and strength, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”
Again, the psalmist here is using very concrete, vivid images as he talks about the earth giving way and the mountains being moved into the heart of the sea. He may be thinking in terms of an earthquake. In fact, Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon on Psalm 46, and he titled it, “Earthquakes, Not Heartquakes”. It’s the idea here of the earthquake being a picture of what can happen in our own hearts, in our own worlds, when we are shaken.
Derek Kidner, in his little commentary, observes that “the psalmist takes the two things that seems most immutable and impregnable, the earth and the mountains, and he sets them against the symbol of what is most restless and menacing, and that’s the sea.”
This is really important. We need to understand that in the Hebrew mind the sea represented the forces of evil, of disorder, and of chaos. So here’s the scene that the psalmist envisions. He’s thinking of a situation where the most secure and stable things in his life, his family, and his nation are being overwhelmed and swallowed up by utter chaos.
You can see how appropriate this is, then, to our own world, our own situation. When we are confronted with uncertainty, when we are confronted with anxiety, when we see that things are unstable, when we wonder what the effect of a pandemic will be—if not on the health of people, what will the effect of a pandemic be on the economy of our country? How will it change our way of life? We don’t know the answers to those questions, but everybody’s asking those questions. Things that seemed stable just a few months ago seem unstable now. How will this affect people’s jobs, how will it affect schools, how will it affect children? How will our lives change?
Well, when it seems like everything is in chaos, when it seems like the things that once were stable are being swallowed up in chaos, where do we turn? We turn to a God who is our refuge, our strength, our help in time of trouble, the God who is our fortress. The God who protects his people.
If we believe that, if we believe that with all of our hearts, it doesn’t mean we don’t take precaution, but it does mean we should not fear.
Listen to what David Powlison, a great author who just passed away of cancer about a year, listen to what he said. He said, “Fear is a prediction of the future that doesn’t take into account the sovereignty of a good God.”
What I’m hoping we will all grasp this morning is that God is both good and that God is sovereign, and therefore we should not fear. He uses this sovereignty to protect us. The protection of God. In other words, the antidote to fear is a big God theology, a theology of a big God, a God who’s powerful, who’s mighty, and who reigns on behalf of his people.
II. God’s Providence
That leads us to the second reason not to fear. Not just God’s protection, but what we could call God’s providence. When we talk about the providence of God, we mean the fact that God is ruling and overruling all the circumstances of our lives, both the good things and the bad things. They are all under the sovereign control of God.
I think the psalm teaches this, and it teaches it in a way that we might miss. Point number two, God’s providence. I want you to see this in verses 4-5. This is a verse that, when it’s quoted, it’s often quoted without any attention paid to the immediate context, and I want you to see the connections here.
Verses 4-5, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved.”
Now, most of us, when we read that text, we probably have read it in isolation from the psalm. We think of this river through the city of God and we may think of Ezekiel’s vision of the river flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47, or we may think of Revelation 22, “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” running through the New Jerusalem. Those images are certainly appropriate.
The fact is, there’s not a river running through the city of Jerusalem, and yet the psalmist here says there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. I think to understand what’s going on here we have to connect the imagery, the water imagery. He’s talking about a river, now, and streams that bring gladness, but he’s just been talking about the waters of chaos, right? The depths of the sea swallowing up mountains.
Here’s what one commentary says. I didn’t recognize this until the commentaries pointed it out, but John Goldingay in his commentary says, “The waters which threatened destruction have been subdued, and therefore transformed into the river of life.” Here’s the idea, that the very thing that seems to overwhelm us, under the providence of God, God uses it, he exploits it, he transforms it and uses it for good.
I think that’s what this psalm is teaching. It’s teaching us that the forces of chaos in our world, though it seems like chaos to us, though it seems like trouble to us, it doesn’t surprise God. God has these things under control, and he is always advancing his purposes. He is, in his providence, governing all things, and he’s doing it for the good of his people.
Don’t you remember the stories of the Bible? I mean, if we don’t believe the text (and I think you do, this congregation), if we wouldn’t just take it at face value from the text, surely the stories teach it!
Don’t you remember Joseph? He’s the eleventh son of in this family of twelve, right? He’s his father’s favorite, and all the other brothers are jealous. You remember they throw him into the pit and then they sell him into slavery and he’s shipped away to Egypt. He thinks that he’s going to reign—he’s had these dreams—but here he is, and he’s in Egypt. He slowly rises to a place of prominence in Egypt, and then he’s falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and he’s thrown into prison. He’s in prison for two years—two years that he’s in prison! Genesis 39.
Yet, you know what the refrain of Genesis 39 is? It says over and over again, “But the Lord was with him.” All of these bad things happened to him, but we know the story. By the end of the story, we know that God was working all along to get Joseph to Egypt, so that through the interpretation of these dreams he rises to a place of great influence, second only to Pharaoh himself, in order to provide for the people of God during the seven years of famine.
When finally his brothers come to Egypt to look for food and his father comes to Egypt and his father dies, his brothers are shaking in their sandals, afraid that Joseph is finally going to take revenge on all the awful things they did to their little brother. You remember what Joseph said in Genesis 50:20? He said, “God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.
It reminds us, of course, of Romans 8:28, which I just read a few minutes ago, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This is our confidence in the providence of God, that God works all things for the good of his people.
You know what the greatest demonstration of that is? The greatest demonstration of that is the cross. I’ve said it in this church many times, but the cross is the worst thing that ever happened in human history—it’s the greatest crime, it’s the greatest event, it’s the greatest evil, it was a cruel form of capital punishment against the most sufferer who ever lived—and God was working out his greatest plan of redemption through it. If God can turn the cross, the crucifixion, to the good of his people, then he can turn every other thing in our lives to our good.
I love the words of that English poet and hymn-writer William Cowper, a man who struggled with depression his entire life. He, sadly, attempted suicide many times, and in God’s mercy was prevented; he never actually killed himself. He was pastored by John Newton, the author of that famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” In order to help Cowper with his mental health problems, he got him to start writing hymns. They were writing poetry together, and some of our greatest hymns were written by Cowper and by Newton. I love these words from Cowper. He said,
“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessing on your head.
“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.”
Why should we not fear? Because of God’s protection, because of God’s providence, and then there’s more; number three, because of God’s presence.
III. God’s Presence
In other words, he’s not only powerful, a refuge and a fortress, and he’s not only for us (that’s his providence); he’s also with us. You see it four times in this psalm. In verse 1, “He is a very present help in trouble”; in verse 5, “God is in the midst of her,” he’s in the midst of the city of God, he’s there, “she shall not be moved”; then in verses 7 and 11, “The Lord of hosts is with us.”
It shows us the great promise of God to be with his people. I was just thinking as I was preparing this message of multiple texts that were coming to my mind about God’s presence with his people, the promise of God to be with his people and to protect them by being with them so that they would not fear. I want you to listen to some of these. They’re not even going to be on screen; you might even want to shut your eyes for a minute, because I want for just a minute, I want God’s promise, God’s word, to just wash over you. Listen to what the word says.
Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Psalm 27:1-2, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers; they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the holy one of Israel, your Savior. Fear not, for I am with you.”
The Gospel of John, in the upper room discourse, John 14:1 and 16:33. Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. ...I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Hebrews 13:5-6, “Keep your life free from love of money—” Now, listen, this one’s interesting, because it’s an exhortation about covetousness. Perhaps some of the greatest anxieties that people have right now are the economic anxieties. It’s not whether we’re going to end up in the hospital or not, it’s whether we’re going to have enough! It’s whether it’s going to affect our way of life. Listen to what Hebrews says. “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’”
We should not be afraid. We should not be afraid because of God’s protection, because of God’s providence, and because of God’s presence. He is with us.
Now, then how should we respond? Really quickly, as we draw to a close, how should we respond? I want to give you two statements that come directly out of the psalm. They both start with B, but I want to preface them with a quotation from one of the great Puritan authors.
This isn’t a guy I’ve quoted as much, but he was a wonderful author, a wonderful pastor named John Flavel. John Flavel wrote one of the primary books on providence, the providence of God, in the Puritan literature. In fact, you can buy a paperback copy of this [The Mystery of Providence] now. You can easily find it online. It’s easy to read, and it’s a wonderful book about why we should think about and meditate on the providence of God in our lives. I want you to listen to what Flavel said.
He said, “It is the duty of the saints, especially in times of straights,” times of trial. “It is the duty of the saints, especially in times of straights, to reflect upon the performances of providence for them in all the states and through all the stages of their lives.”
Flavel actually takes his readers through all the different things in their lives over which they have no control. You don’t have control over where you born and the family you were born to or the country you were born in or the time you were born in or many of the ways in which you were raised. There are so many circumstances, and yet attentive believers, if they will look at the providence of God in all of these things we had no control over, we can see that God was at work. God was working, he was blessing, he was preparing. Even in our trials he was doing things in our lives that were drawing us to himself. Flavel tells us we should meditate on the providence of God.
Well, that’s what this psalm is telling us to do. It is telling us to think, and it tells us to do this in two ways.
(1) Number one, behold the works of God. Look in verses 8-9. “Come behold the works of the Lord,” he says, “how he has brought desolations on the earth; he makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.” Behold the works of the Lord.
Probably this gives us a window into what was going on in the psalmist’s world. When the psalmist wrote this, he probably wasn’t afraid of disease; he was probably afraid of war. It was a time of war. Yet here is an exhortation to “behold the works of the Lord,” and how the Lord is the one who makes wars to cease.
Notice this, that it shows us God’s victory over his enemies, but it also shows us how complete the victory is. You get this language, “He makes the wars to cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks their bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.” You know what he’s doing? He’s destroying the weapons that have been used against them!
You and I can have great confidence that this is true for us as well. Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection, has broken the bow, he has shattered the spear, he has burned the chariot with fire! What has he done? He has conquered sin and death and hell.
Listen, if you serve a King who has let men and devils do their worst to him and he has faced death and yet absolutely defeated it and rose from the dead, what can man do to you? Christian, every one of us are going to die, and the worst thing that can happen to you is you’re going to die. The good news is that you’re going to rise again. Death is not the end, therefore we should not be afraid.
“Behold the works of the Lord.” I think this includes all the works of the Lord. It includes God’s works in history. Listen, one reason you should be reading biographies and church history is so that you can see the evidence of God’s working in the lives of saints who went before. But also in your own life, one reason you should be thinking about your life and how God’s hand has been at work is so that you can see how God has led you and protected you and been gracious to you. But especially, we behold the works of the Lord in the gospel, in and through Jesus Christ. That’s first. Behold the works of God.
(2) Here’s the second thing: Be still and know that he is God, verse 10. “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
I think there are two ways to interpret and apply this; I think both are appropriate. The first is that you and I need to be still and know that he is God. I think the idea here is more than just knowing the doctrine, it’s getting that doctrine down into our lives, down into our hearts. This is what the Puritans talked about when they talked about experiential Christianity; that is, Christianity that gets down into the experience.
Let me give you an illustration. When I was a teenager, I worked for a print shop for a few years. When you work in a print shop, you get ink all over your hands, and it’s hard to get out, except we had this powdered soap, this really gritty powdered soap, called Boraxo. Has anybody used Boraxo before? Dave Enders has; I see his hand right there. We had Boraxo.
You take that Boraxo, and you’re just scrubbing the grit down into the pores of your skin to get the ink out. There’s a difference between your nice, smooth hand soap that’s in most of our bathrooms and Boraxo. Boraxo's not comfortable. Its gritty. Your hands are red and raw when you’re done, but they’re clean, you get the ink out.
I think a lot of us, in our private, personal devotions and stuff, we’re using the soft hand soap. We’re reading the devotional thought for the day, and what we need is the Boraxo of the hard doctrines of Scripture to rub that grit down into the pores of our souls, to get the ink of fear out. It’s when you really take those truths to heart and you ask yourself, “Do I believe this? If I believe it, why am I afraid?” You work it into the pores of your soul until you really believe it. You be still and know in your bones that he is God.
That’s one application of this, but here’s another way. You notice who’s speaking here. This is the one place in the psalm where God speaks. “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations…” Who is he speaking to? Go back to verse 6. It says, “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice; the earth melts.” The psalmist has already told us that God speaks, and he’s speaking into the chaos. But verse 10 tells us what he says. He says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Can you read that and not think about Jesus with his disciples in the boat? The waves are about to overwhelm the boat, and what does Jesus say? He says, “Peace; be still,” and the waves calm down. It’s a picture, again, of God, the sovereign God, who commands the stormy waters of chaos and causes them to be still.
Sometimes that chaos is in our own hearts, isn’t it? What we need is for God to speak his word to our hearts and say, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Let me end with a little more from John Flavel. I want you to know, here’s a man who suffered. John Flavel lost both of his parents to the plague after they were imprisoned in Newgate Prison in 1665. That was after he’d already been ejected from his pulpit in 1662, along with 2,000 other Puritans. They were kicked out because they wouldn’t conform to the Book of Common Prayer.
But his greatest suffering was in marriage. In 1655 his wife, Joan, died while giving birth to their firstborn child, and the child died as well. He did not write The Mystery of Providence until 1678. So when he wrote The Mystery of Providence, he had already lost his first wife, he’d lost a child, he’d been kicked out of his church, and both his parents had died of a plague in prison.
He writes The Mystery of Providence. By the end of his life, he would be widowed two more times, and endured all manner of hardship as a persecuted nonconformist minister. But listen to what he said:
“Many of a time have we kissed those troubles at parting which we met with trembling. The Lord does not compute and reckon his seasons of working by our arithmetic. Out of the worst of evils God can work good to his people. We cannot understand the mind and heart of God by the things he dispenses with his hand. ‘Let a Christian,’ says a late writer, ‘be but two or three years without an affliction, and he is almost good for nothing.’ Whatever ends in the increase of our love to God proceeds from the love of God to us.”
Brothers and sisters, we don’t know what’s going to happen in our world, but there’s one thing I can guarantee: that if you are in Christ, if you are called according to his purpose, if you believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, everything that happens in your life will end for your good, so that when you get to the end—and for some of us it may not be till we open our eyes in heaven, because there are hard things that we endure, but there will come a point for every Christian where we will look back over everything that happened in our lives and we will say, “He did all things well.” He is good, and we can trust his goodness. Let’s pray together.
Our gracious God, we thank you that you are a sovereign God. We thank you that you are merciful and good, that you are powerful, that your providence rules over all things, and we thank you that you are with us. You are present with your people, and we pray that we would know that presence, we would be conscious of your presence, that we would trust you through this time in which we live. Lord, we pray that you word would comfort our hearts, we pray that we would believe these truths, and that we would believe them so deeply that the overflow of our hearts and lives would be confidence and joy and gratitude and contentment and light to other people, that we would point them to the God who reigns and who is in control.
Lord, we need the work of your Holy Spirit to seal these things to our hearts. It’s one thing to know them, it’s another thing to know them in our bones. We pray that we would, and that you would help us.
We pray that as we come to the Lord’s table this morning that it would be a tangible reminder to us once again of your love, the love that led you to send your only Son to die for us, the love of Jesus to give himself on the cross for us. We know that if the cross is for our good, then everything else is good, or is at least for our good. Even the things that are not good themselves, they’re for our good. So help us to trust you in that this morning. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.