Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 9: Psalms, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This psalm seems to be an expression of thanksgiving rather for some particular deliverance, than for the constant aid by which God has always protected and preserved his Church. It may be inferred from it that the city of Jerusalem. when stricken with great terror, and placed in extreme danger, was preserved, contrary to all expectation, by the unlooked for and miraculous power of God. The prophet, therefore, whoever composed the psalm, commending a deliverance so singularly vouchsafed by God, exhorts the faithful to commit themselves confidently to his protection, and not to doubt that, relying fearlessly upon him as their guardian and the protector of their welfare, they shall be continually preserved in safety from all the assaults of their enemies, because it is his peculiar office to quell all commotions.
To the chief musician of the sons of Korah, a song upon Alamoth.
Interpreters are not agreed as to the meaning of the word עלמות, alamoth; but without noticing all the different opinions, I shall mention only two of them, namely, that it was either an instrument of music, or else the commencement of some common and well known song. The latter conjecture appears to me the most probable. As to the time when this psalm was written it is also uncertain, unless, perhaps, we might suppose that it was written when the siege of the city was suddenly raised by the terrible and sore destruction which God brought upon the army of Sennacherib, 174 (2Ki 19:35.) This opinion I readily admit, because it accords most with the whole scope of the psalm. It is abundantly manifest that some favor of God, worthy of being held in remembrance, such as that was, is here commended.
1. God is our refuge and strength: he is found an exceeding [or superlative] help in tribulations. 2. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and the mountains fall into the midst of the sea.
1. God is our refuge and strength Here the Psalmist begins with a general expression or sentiment, before he comes to speak of the more particular deliverance. He begins by premising that God is sufficiently able to protect his own people, and that he gives them sufficient ground to expect it; for this the word מחסה, machaseh, properly signifies. In the second clause of the verse the verb he is found, which we translate in the present, is in the past tense, he has been found; and, indeed, there would be no impropriety in limiting the language to some particular deliverance which had already been experienced, just as others also have rendered it in the past tense. But as the prophet adds the term tribulations in the plural number, I prefer explaining it of a continued act, That God comes seasonably to our aid, and is never wanting in the time of need, as often as any afflictions press upon his people. If the prophet were speaking of the experience of God’s favor, it would answer much better to render the verb in the past tense. It is, however, obvious that his design is to extol the power of God and his goodness towards his people, and to show how ready God is to afford them assistance, that they may not in the time of their adversities gaze around them on every side, but rest satisfied with his protection alone. He therefore says expressly that God acts in such a manner towards them, to let the Church know that he exercises a special care in preserving and defending her. There can be no doubt that by this expression he means to draw a distinction between the chosen people of God and other heathen nations, and in this way to commend the privilege of adoption which God of his goodness had vouchsafed to the posterity of Abraham. Accordingly, when I said before that it was a general expression, my intention was not to extend it to all manner of persons, but only to all times; for the object of the prophet is to teach us after what manner God is wont to act towards those who are his people. He next concludes, by way of inference, that the faithful nave no reason to be afraid, since God is always ready to deliver them, nay, is also armed with invincible power. He shows in this that the true and proper proof of our hope consists in this, that, when things are so confused, that the heavens seem as it were to fall with great violence, the earth to remove out of its place, and the mountains to be torn up from their very foundations, we nevertheless continue to preserve and maintain calmness and tranquillity of heart. It is an easy matter to manifest the appearance of great confidence, so long as we are not placed in imminent danger: but if, in the midst of a general crash of the whole world, our minds continue undisturbed and free of trouble, this is an evident proof that we attribute to the power of God the honor which belongs to him. When, however, the sacred poet says, We will not fear, he is not to be understood as meaning that the minds of the godly are exempt from all solicitude or fear, as if they were destitute of feeling, for there is a great difference between insensibility and the confidence of faith. He only shows that whatever may happen they are never overwhelmed with terror, but rather gather strength and courage sufficient to allay all fear. Though the earth be moved, and the mountains fall into the midst of the sea, are hyperbolical modes of expression, but they nevertheless denote a revolution, and turning upside down of the whole world. Some have explained the expression, the midst of the sea, as referring to the earth. I do not, however, approve of it. But in order more fully to understand the doctrine of the psalm, let us proceed to consider what follows.
3. Though the waters thereof roar and rage 175 tempestuously: though the mountains be shaken with the swelling thereof. Selah. 4. The streams of her river shall make glad the city of God, the sanctuary of the tabernacles of the Most High. 5. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God will help her at the dawn of the morning.
3 Though the waters thereof roar, etc This verse ought to be read in connection with the verse which follows, because it is necessary to complete the sense, as if it had been said: Though the waters of the sea roar and swell, and by their fierce impetuosity shake the very mountains — even in the midst of these dreadful tumults, the holy city of God will continue to enjoy comfort and peace, satisfied with her small streams. The relative pronoun her, according to the common usage of the Hebrew language, is superfluous in this place. The prophet intended simply to say, that the small streams of a river would afford to the holy city abundant cause of rejoicing, though the whole world should be moved and destroyed. I have already mentioned shortly before how profitable is the doctrine taught us in this place, that our faith is really and truly tested only when we are brought into very severe conflicts, and when even hell itself seems opened to swallow us up. In like manner, we have portrayed to us the victory of faith over the whole world, when, in the midst of the utmost confusion, it unfolds itself, and begins to raise its head in such a manner as that although the whole creation seem to be banded together, and to have conspired for the destruction of the faithful, it nevertheless triumphs over all fear. Not that the children of God, when placed in peril, indulge in jesting or make a sport of death, but the help which God has promised them more than overbalances, in their estimation, all the evils which inspire them with fear. The sentiment of Horace is very beautiful, when, speaking of the righteous man and the man who feels conscious of no guilt, he says, (Car., Lib. iii., Od. 3,)
“Dux inquieti turbidus Adriae,
Nec fulminantis magna Jovis manus,
Si fractus illabitur orbis,
Impavidum ferient ruinae.”
“Let the wild winds that rule the seas,
Tempestuous, all their horrors raise;
Let Jove’s dread arm with thunders rend the spheres;
Beneath the crush of worlds undaunted he appears.” 176
But as no such person as he imagines could ever be found, he only trifles in speaking as he does. Their fortitude, therefore, has its foundation in the assurance of the divine protection alone, so that they who rely upon God, and put their trust in him, may truly boast, not only that they shall be undismayed, but also that they shall be preserved in security and safety amidst the ruins of a falling world.
The prophet says expressly, that the city of God shall be glad, although it had no raging sea, but only a gently flowing stream, to set for its defense against those waves of which he has made mention. By this mode of expression he alludes to the stream which flowed from Shiloah, and passed through the city of Jerusalem. Further, the prophet, I have no doubt, here indirectly rebukes the vain confidence of those who, fortified by earthly assistance, imagine that they are well protected, and beyond the reach of all danger. Those who anxiously seek to strengthen themselves on all sides with the invincible helps of the world, seem, indeed, to imagine that they are able to prevent their enemies from approaching them, just as if they were environed on all sides with the sea; but it often happens that the very defenses which they had reared turn to their own destruction, even as when a tempest lays waste and destroys an island by overflowing it. But they who commit themselves to the protection of God, although in the estimation of the world they are exposed to every kind of injury, and are not sufficiently able to repel the assaults made upon them, nevertheless repose in security. On this account, Isaiah (Isa 8:6) reproves the Jews because they despised the gently flowing waters of Shiloah, and longed for deep and rapid rivers.
In that passage, there is an elegant antithesis between the little brook Shiloah on the one hand, and the Nile and Euphrates on the other; as if he had said, They defraud God of his honor by the unworthy reflection, that when he made choice of the city of Jerusalem, he had not made the necessary provision in respect of strength and fortifications for its defense and preservation. And certainly, if this psalm was written after the slaughter and flight of the army of Sennacherib, it is probable that the inspired writer purposely made use of the same metaphor, to teach the faithful in all ages, that the grace of God alone would be to them a sufficient protection, independent of the assistance of the world. In like manner, the Holy Spirit still exhorts and encourages us to cherish the same confidence, that, despising all the resources of those who proudly magnify themselves against us, we may preserve our tranquillity in the midst of disquietude and trouble, and not be grieved or ashamed on account of our defenseless condition, so long as the hand of God is stretched out to save us. Thus, although the help of God comes to our aid in a secret and gentle manner, like the still flowing streams, yet it imparts to us more tranquillity of mind than if the whole power of the world were gathered together for our help. In speaking of Jerusalem as the sanctuary of the tabernacles of the Most High, the prophet makes a beautiful allusion to the circumstances or condition of that time: for although God exercised authority over all the tribes of the people, yet he made choice of that city as the seat of royalty, from which he might govern the whole nation of Israel. The tabernacles of the Most High were scattered throughout all Judea, but still it was necessary that they should be gathered together and united in one sanctuary, that they might be under the dominion of God.
5. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. The Psalmist now shows that the great security of the Church consists in this, that God dwells in the midst of her; for the verb which we translate, shall be moved, is of the feminine gender, nor can it be referred to God, as if it were designed to teach that God is immovable. The sentence must be explained in this way, The holy city shall not be moved or shaken, because God dwells there, and is always ready to help her. The expression, the dawn of the morning 177 denotes daily, as soon as the sun rises upon the earth. The sum of the whole is, If we desire to be protected by the hand of God, we must be concerned above all things that he may dwell amongst us; for all hope of safety depends upon his presence alone. And he dwells amongst us for no other purpose than to preserve us uninjured. Moreover, although God does not always hasten immediately to our aid, according to the importunity of our desires, yet he will always come to us seasonably, so as to make apparent the truth of what is elsewhere said,
“Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep,” (Ps 121:4.)
6. The peoples raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice 178 the earth melted. 7. Jehovah of armies is with us: the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah. 8. Come ye, consider the works of Jehovah, what desolations 179 he hath made in the earth. 9. He maketh battles to cease even to the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, he cutteth in pieces the spear; he burneth the chariots with fire. 180 10. Be still 181 and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth 182 11. Jehovah of armies is with us: the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah.
6 The peoples raged Since the Church of God is never without enemies, and these very powerful, and such as consequently fight against her with cruel and unbridled fury, the prophet now confirms from experience the doctrine which he had advanced concerning the impregnable character of the divine protection. He then deduces from it this general ground of consolation, That it belongs continually to God to restrain and quell all commotions, and that his arm is strong enough to break all the efforts of the enemy. This passage, I admit, might be understood in a more general sense, as meaning that the city of God is liable to be assailed by many storms and tempests; but that by the favor of God she is, nevertheless, always preserved in safety. It is, however, more probable, as I have already said at the beginning, that the Psalmist is here speaking of some notable deliverance, in which God had given a striking proof of the power and favor which he exercises in the constant preservation of the Church. Accordingly, he relates what had taken place, namely, that the enemies of the Church came with a dreadful host to waste and destroy it; but that immediately, by the voice of God, they, as it were, melted and vanished away. From this we derive an invaluable ground of consolation, when it is said, That although the whole world rise up against us, and confound all things by their increased madness, they can be brought to nought in a moment, as soon as God shows himself favorable towards us. The voice of God, no doubt, signifies his will or command; but the prophet, by this expression, seems to have an eye to the promises of God, by which he has declared, that he will be the guardian and defender of the Church. At the same time, let us observe the contrast which is here stated between the voice of God and the turbulent commotions of the kingdoms of this world.
7. Jehovah of armies is with us. In this verse we are taught how we shall be able to apply to our own use the things which the Scriptures everywhere record concerning the infinite power of God. We shall be able to do this when we believe ourselves to be of the number of those whom God has embraced with his fatherly love, and whom he will cherish. The Psalmist again alludes, in terms of commendation, to the adoption by which Israel was separated from the common condition of all the other nations of the earth. And, indeed, apart from this, the description of the power of God would only inspire us with dread. Confident boasting, then, arises from this, that God has chosen us for his peculiar people, to show forth his power in preserving and defending us. On this account, the prophet, after having celebrated the power of God by calling him the God of armies, immediately adds another epithet, the God of Jacob, by which he confirms the covenant made of old time with Abraham, that his posterity, to whom the inheritance of the promised grace belongs, should not doubt that God was favorable to them also. That our faith may rest truly and firmly in God, we must take into consideration at the same time these two parts of his character — his immeasurable power, by which he is able to subdue the whole world under him; and his fatherly love which he has manifested in his word. When these two things are joined together, there is nothing which can hinder our faith from defying all the enemies which may rise up against us, nor must we doubt that God will succor us, since he has promised to do it; and as to power, he is sufficiently able also to fulfill his promise, for he is the God of armies. From this we learn, that those persons err egregiously in the interpretation of Scripture, who leave in entire suspense the application of all that is said concerning the power of God, and do not rest assured that he will be a Father to them, inasmuch as they are of his flock, and partakers of the adoption.
8 Come ye, consider the works of Jehovah The Psalmist seems still to continue in this verse the history of a deliverance by which God had given abundant evidence that he is the most efficient and faithful protector of his Church, that the godly might derive from it both courage and strength to enable them to overcome whatever temptations might afterwards arise. The manifestations which God has given of his favor towards us in preserving us, ought to be kept continually before our eyes as a means of establishing in our hearts a persuasion of the stability of his promises. By this exhortation we have tacitly rebuked the indifference and stupidity of those who do not make so great account of the power of God as they ought to do; or rather, the whole world is charged with ingratitude, because there is scarcely one in a hundred who acknowledges that he has abundant help and security in God, so that they are all blinded to the works of God, or rather wilfully shut their eyes at that which would, nevertheless, prove the best means of strengthening their faith. We see how many ascribe to fortune that which ought to be traced to the providence of God. Others imagine that they obtain, by their own industry, whatever God has bestowed upon them, or ascribe to second causes what proceeds from him alone; while others are utterly lost to all sense. The Psalmist, therefore, justly calls upon all men, and exhorts them to consider the works of God; as if he had said, The reason why men repose not the hope of their welfare in God is, that they are indifferent to the consideration of his works, or so ungrateful, that they make not half the account of them which they ought to do. As he addresses himself in general to all men, we learn, that even the godly themselves are drowsy and unconcerned in this respect until they are awakened. He extols very highly the power of God in preserving his chosen people, which is commonly despised or not estimated as it ought to be, when it is exercised after an ordinary manner. He therefore sets before them the desolations of countries, and marvellous devastations, and other miraculous things, which more powerfully move the minds of men. If any one would prefer to understand what follows — He maketh battles to cease — of some special help vouchsafed by God, yet still it must be considered as intended to lead the faithful to expect as much help from him in future as they had already experienced. The prophet, it appears, from one particular instance, designs to show in general how mightily God is wont to defend his Church. At the same time, it happened more than once, that God quelled throughout the land of Judea all the dangerous tumults by which it was distracted, and drove away wars far from it, by depriving the enemies of their courage, breaking their bows, and burning their chariots; and it is very probable that the prophet, froth a particular instance, here takes occasion to remind the Jews how often God had disappointed the greatest efforts of their enemies. One thing, however, is quite certain, that God is here set forth as adorned with these titles, that we should look for peace from him, even when the whole world is in uproar, and agitated in a dreadful manner.
10 Be still, and know that I am God The Psalmist seems now to turn his discourse to the enemies of the people of God, who indulge their lust of mischief and revenge upon them: for in doing injury to the saints they do not consider that they are making war against God. Imagining that they have only to do with men, they presumptuously assail them, and therefore the prophet here represses their insolence; and that his address may have the more weight, he introduces God himself as speaking to them. In the first place, he bids them be still, that they may know that he is God; for we see that when men are carried away without consideration, they go beyond all bounds and measure. Accordingly, the prophet justly requires the enemies of the Church to be still and hold their peace, so that when their anger is appeased they may perceive that they are fighting against God. We have in the fourth Psalm, at the fourth verse, a sentiment somewhat similar, “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” In short, the Psalmist exhorts the world to subdue and restrain their turbulent affections, and to yield to the God of Israel the glory which he deserves; and he warns them, that if they proceed to act like madmen, his power is not enclosed within the narrow limits of Judea, and that it will be no difficult matter for him to stretch forth his arm afar to the Gentiles and heathen nations, that he may glorify himself in every land. In conclusion, he repeats what he had already said, that God has more than enough, both of weapons and of strength, to preserve and defend his Church which he has adopted.
Others refer it, as Rosenmüller, to the victory of Jehoshaphat, which was celebrated with great rejoicing, 2Ch 20:26-30. It is, however, difficult or impossible to ascertain with certainty the occasion on which it was composed. It seems rather the language of faith under threatened difficulties, than of triumph over vanquished foes. Thus, in the midst of threatened danger, it may be employed by Christians to support their faith, hope, and peace. This was Luther’s favorite psalm. He composed a famous version of it on his journey to the Diet at Worms, where he went boldly to defend the Reformation at the risk of his life; and he was wont to say when threatened with any fresh trouble, “Come, let us sing the 46th Psalm.”
“Ou, s’enfleront.” — Fr. marg. “Or, swell.”
Francis’ Translation of Horace.
“At the looking forth of the morning; that is, as the Greek explaineth it, ‘very early;’ when the morning peereth or showeth the face.” — Ainsworth. “As soon as the morning appears [or shows] its face; i.e., God will come very early to her succor, before any enemy is awakened to annoy her.” — Mudge. “Before the dawn of the morning; i.e., with the utmost readiness and alacrity. The expression is borrowed from the conduct of a person who, in his anxiety to accomplish a favorite object, engages in it earlier than men ordinarily would. Jer. 7:13, 25.” — French and Skinner.
“C’est, fait resonner.” — Fr. marg. “That is, made to resound.”
“Ou, quels deserts.” — Fr. marg. “Or, what deserts.”
There is probably here an allusion to the ancient custom of collecting the arms and armor of the vanquished into a heap, and setting it on fire. The image is employed to express complete victory, and a perfect establishment of peace. This custom prevailed among the Jews, and the first instance of it which we meet with is in Jos 11:6. It is also referred to in the description of the judgments of God upon Gog, Eze 39:8-10. This was also a Roman custom. Virgil alludes to it in Aeneid, lib. 8, 50, 560. A medal struck by Vespasian the Roman emperor to commemorate the termination of his wars both in Italy and through all parts of the world, represents the Goddess of Peace holding an olive-branch with one hand, and in the other a lighted torch, with which she sets fire to a heap of armor.
“Ou, arrestez, demeurez coy.” — Fr. marg. “Or, stop, be quiet.”
“Par toute la terre.” — Fr. “Through all the earth.”