The Psalm of Holy Confidence
19th century Baptist preacher, Spurgeon, says Psalm 46 would've been called The Psalm of Holy Confidence if not for Luther's love of it and use of it in A Mighty Fortress. In dismal times Luther would say to Philip Melanchthon, "Come, let us sing Psalm 46," and they would sing it as Luther had paraphrased it in his hymn. So, Psalm 46 say's Spurgeon has since been known as Luther's Psalm (Treasury of David, 1, 339). In these times when everything seems shaky, let's make it our Psalm of Holy Confidence.
We start "as fat as Martin Luther." This was a popular 16th century saying. It was inspired by the marked contrast between Luther's first portraits and his married ones (MacCulloch, Reformation, 139). You've seen them. The gaunt, half-starved Luther and the round faced, chubby one. While an Anglican historian has the dividing line between unmarried and married life, I think the line is between Luther serving the Law as a means to be saved and discovering the Gospel that a man lives by faith in what Christ has done for him. I say this because Luther's outward life didn't get easier as he aged and confessed the Gospel.
We all remember Luther saying, "I cannot and will not recant.God help me." But hardly anyone remembers Emperor Charles V reply, "'I have decided to mobilize everything against Luther: my kingdoms and dominions, my friends, my body, blood, and my soul" (Luther, Oberman, 29). We think of the first 3 centuries of the Church as being hard and dangerous. However, 18th century English historian, Edward Gibbon, said, "it must be allowed that the number of Protestants who were executed in a single province and a single reign far exceeded that of primitive martyrs in the space of three centuries and of all the Roman Empire." In the Netherlands alone Charles V killed more than 100,000 (Decline and Fall, 354-5).
In the midst of so much tension, so much death, so much uncertainty Luther sung of God as His Refuge, Strength, and Help. The Psalmist sung of God being these "in trouble." The NASB says that it's literally "tight places." Does that fit or what? That's the very nature of stress isn't it? You feel cramped, surrounded, trapped. If it's not personal problems it's world, national, or political. If it's not my medical matters it's someone else's or the threat of them. We are living in a state of disease. Our word comes from the Old French desaise, literally dis' and ease', lack of ease. Fat Martin Luther lived in times like ours. There was political discord between the German Princes, the Pope, and Charles V. The Ottoman Turks were the Islamic terrorists of his day and they were literally at the gates, and you want to talk about a pandemic? Bubonic plague was regularly making the rounds through Wittenberg. Google "The Death of Magdalena". It's Lucas Cranach's depictions of fat Martin Luther at the death bed of his 13-year-old daughter.
And yet he sang, "Will not we fear, though the earth should change, and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and, though the mountains quake." The God-inspired title says it's to be song in soprano or even in a shrill tone. Hear a powerful, soaring soprano voice singing this in a an aria flying high above an earth changed by fires and hurricanes, above the shaking political mountains, above the sea of life roiled by pandemics, civil unrest, and militant unbelief. All these preach be concerned, be afraid, be panicked. The voice soars on, "Will not we fear."
The next stanza marked off by "Selah" in Hebrew which is probably a musical term indicating a pause, sound, or accent, (blueletterbible.org), makes me feel like a Martian. In the early days of the Reformation, 1521-1522, people who followed Luther were generally called "Martinians" (Bornkamm, Luther in Mid-career, 64). I know Martinians is not the same as Martians but I can't hear the former without thinking the latter. And to sing triumphantly in the face of such shaking, roaring, foaming, and tightening you have to be on another planet. And that's how the second stanza makes me feel. From an earth shaking and reeling I'm transported to a river branching off to many streams all flowing from the City of God, the Dwelling Places of the Most High. God in the midst of her means she will not be moved. Even though nations make an uproar and earthly kingdoms teeter, when our God raises His voice the earth itself melts. How cool is that?
In C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy two of the books are set on other planets. One is Mars the other is Venus. In an Alice in Wonderland-like way, Lewis describes reality on these other worlds. Down is up and left is right. Water is not wet and light is not light. It's very disorienting. And to sing Psalm 46 while the very mountains you stand on are being shaken into the heart of the sea you have to be in a different reality. Whether Martinian or Martian you are. Luther lived in a reality where his redemption and salvation were sure. They were in the hands of Jesus not the Pope or Emperor and certainly not his own. They could threaten him with the loss of goods, fame, child, and wife, let these all be gone. They still had nothing won because the kingdom his remains. The Lord of Hosts is with him. The God of Jacob was his stronghold. Luther said that if his opponents knew him better they would threaten him with life not death. When a German Prince offered to send troops to protect him, Luther declined saying that he would send the Word of God to protect his troops.
That's crazy talk, and what do you expect from people who believe the Voice of God can not only melt the earth but make Water regenerative, Words forgiving, and His Body, Bread and His Blood, Wine? What do you expect from a people who live in a reality where angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven come down to earth and worship with them each Sunday? What do you expect from people who have died to the reality of sin, death, and the devil, and whose life is hid with Christ above? What do you expect from a people who have been plunged under water and rather than drown live? What do you expect from a people who hear the forgiving voice of God from the mouth of a man? What do you expect from people who eat and drink the Body and Blood of their God and taste Bread, Wine, life, and forgiveness? Dorothy we're not in Kansas anymore.
While the second stanza speaks of how everything changes for those whom the Lord is with, the third stanza is the change. An early 20th century Lutheran seminary professor said that the term Reformer didn't do justice to Luther's singular importance. Protestants will speak of Luther, Calvin, Huss, and Wycliff as if they are equals. Johann Reu didn't think that right, so he preferred to call Luther not a Reformer but the Reformator (Catechetics, 84). Last stanza we were on another planet as Martians or Martinians. In this third stanza we're back on earth but now we we're with a superhero character, The Reformator. I know; you're right. Luther wouldn't like this, but stick with me.
The Psalm speaks a lot about God, Elohim. This is God as He can be known in nature and to all: the God of power and might. Last stanza ended speaking of the Lord of Hosts. This is the Lord God of Sabaoth we sing of in the Communion Liturgy. This is Yahweh, the God of promise and grace we know of only in the Person and Work of Jesus. Come behold the works of your Jesus. He works desolations on earth. This the Reformator knew very well. Luther didn't think he himself was doing anything. He famously said the Word did everything while he and Melanchthon drank beer in Wittenberg. All he did by God's grace was let the Word out. He knew the result of the pure Gospel of forgiveness of sins by grace through faith being preached would be desolation. The Devil, the World, and our own Flesh they don't care if good works, loving thy neighbor, good stewardship, or feeding the poor get preached. They only rise up against that which destroys them the Gospel. And boy did they. Read the history of the religious wars that followed the Reformation. O what a stain they are on the history of the church. They were the result of devil, world, and flesh rising up in rebellion, persecution, and hatred of the Gospel the Reformator let loose on their kingdom.
But there is a sense that Christ too wrought desolation on the earth. Read Daniel 2. The rock made without human hands, conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, destroys all worldly kingdoms while establishing an otherworldly kingdom of peace and righteousness. Yes, God descends into this manmade hell of sin, death, and devil in holy flesh and blood and lives a holy life under the duress, temptation, and persecution of all three. Again and again people were forced to admit He had done nothing wrong. Yet to the cross and hell that sinners such as us deserve He went. And God and Sin, and Death, and Devil punished Him as if He were us. They tortured, whipped, beat, nailed, roasted, and damned Him till all of God's wrath against sins and sinners was satisfied. God was at peace now with the world that rebelled against Him. And He showed this and proclaimed it by raising Jesus from the dead on the 3rd Day, and that changed everything.
So, the proclamation goes out in the end of stanza 3: "Cease striving". The NASB has a marginal note, "Or Let go, relax. It's why you can do that the Reformator championed. It's knowing that Jesus is God. The Yahweh of Armies is with us. Yahweh is Immanuel, God with us. Jesus is Yahweh. Luther delighted in saying such startling things as, "I know of no God apart from Jesus Christ." "If you can find God anywhere apart from the Man Jesus, He is not God for you or with you at that place." If you want to show your Protestant and particularly nondenominational friends the difference between a confessional Lutheran and them, say such things. You can even show them the difference in the translation of A Mighty Fortress we sing. We sing, "for us fights the valiant One./ You ask, Who is this?'/ Jesus Christ it is,.. / And there's none other God;". They sing, "were not the right Man on our side,./ You ask who that may be?/ Christ Jesus, it is he;../ from age to age the same;".
The confidence expressed in Psalm 46 is holy because it's based on the Holy Man who is God with us and for us forever. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (20201025); Psalm 46