TO THE CHOIRMASTER. OF THE SONS OF KORAH. ACCORDING TO ALAMOTH. A SONG.
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. Selah
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. Selah
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. Selah
This is the psalm upon which Martin Luther based his great hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is our God/ A Bulwark never failing/ Our helper, He, amid the floods/ Of mortal ills prevailing.”
The first word of the psalm is Elohim, God. There is much danger and trouble and raging and tottering in this poem, yet in all this the poet first speaks of God. That’s harder than it looks here.
The word translated trouble is literally “straits.” It’s the particular trouble of having no more room – you look in your checking account and there’s not enough, you look at your options and they are depleted, you actually don’t know how to proceed, your charisma or force of personality doesn’t work anymore, you’ve ran out of inspiring platitudes, you’re emotionally spent….you’re stuck.
And there, in that small, confined space, you find God. That’s the word for “present” – to be found. God is there, the poet writes. Notice Him. He’s found just there. What a relief! We might have thought that God was always hovering around church buildings and beautiful thoughts. But there He is in the middle of… our trouble.
What trouble do you have today?
Let’s not hurry on from that main point… He’s really there. That’s how the song’s opening verse that carries its motif concludes, with the word “muchness.” The ESV translates it as “very present”; it’s often translated “exceedingly.” Here’s the point: We are to linger over the fact that in our troubles God is NOT vaguely present, but on His phone. He’s NOT a portrait hanging on the wall, nice decoration. NOT tucked away into an inspiring or uplifting sermon.
But in the upheaval itself, God Himself IS fully present, attentive.
And He’s there to help. God is refuge, strength…Ezra. Help. Not ‘wish you the best.’ ‘Thoughts and prayers.’ ‘Vague something or other.‘ ‘Heard about your plumbing problem and just calling to see how your spirits are.’
No, actual help! With God, the doorbell rings and there’s a plumber with the right tools, his truck crammed with copper and PVC pipes, and he’s seen this problem a million times, and he’s not going anywhere until this problem is totally fixed. And, by the way, he noticed that you’re having some foundation problems and he’ll take care of that too. That’s God.
If it weren’t clear before, in the coming of God in the Person of Jesus Christ, we learn that God’s help isn’t confined to any one kind. His help is of all kinds: Material supply. Making decisions. Fixing character defects. Lifting demonic oppression.
Some typical phrases from the gospels: “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.” “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” “And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and healed them…”
We have intellectual needs, physical needs, spiritual needs, social needs (and these are just words). All kinds of problems out there and in there, and not a few of them of our own making. But God is there to solve the problem, whatever the actual problem is, of whatever kind. Yes! The people of God never tire of this catechism in Psalm 121: From where does my help come? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.
In this brief psalm the poet is conveying the truth, celebrating it, that there isn’t any problem which has become too tangled or too unyielding for God. He is a refuge, strength; He is the Most High, the LORD of Armies (Jehovah Sabaoth – the “hosts” here are probably heavenly armies), the fortress.
I do love that word ‘fortress.’ The fortress is the stronghold that the people would enter after all the other fortifications had succumbed to the enemy.
The word ‘fortress’ admits that there are other, fine places of protection other than God himself, though they are there by God’s enactment. Your parents keep you safe, robust finances are a good protection, your spouse supports you, your government keeps watch over the enemy, your reason keeps your will and emotions in check, your blueberries are capable antioxidants.
Enjoy all these protections for as long as you can, but know that when all others give way, God is a Fortress.
Notice the other title given to God is the “God of Jacob.” Which God? The God of Jacob. The God of who? The God of Jacob. The God who wills to be associated with that man Jacob. No, not simply ‘be associated! But also, come into an everlasting covenant with!
Who is this man, Jacob? And to answer that, start with the first impression and last impression of Jacob. Our first impression of Jacob is at his birth. Rebekah, his mother, gave birth to twins – Esau came out first, but little Jacob was close behind, and holding on to Esau’s heel. That detail is given to us because it’s a little insight into the character of adult Jacob – always striving to get ahead, jostling, scheming, manipulating, willing to deceive, slow to trust anyone but himself, conflicted.
And then we come to the end of his life, and what is our impression? Let’s hear the summary of his life from his own mouth: Genesis 47: “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.”
Summary: My days have seen trouble after trouble, and I have not lived up to my fathers.
And this is the one who, out of all the patriarchs, God is most likely to associate Himself with by title! You hear Him called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You hear occasionally, the God of Abraham. But you hear many times, the God of Jacob.
It is a designation to remind us that the God who is our refuge is a God of grace, committed to His people who are sinners, committed even as they, in covenant with Him, proceed unsteadily, impatiently, with mixed motives.
Brothers and sisters, note that this is not a psalm celebrating the fact that God helps us by keeping us out of trouble. Rather, this psalm speaks of great trouble, the possibility of massive, fundamental, terrifying displacements. It uses the image of mountains moved into the sea – what was the most settled, familiar, reliable, comforting parts of your life being overtaken by chaos, undefinition.
I was privileged to grow up under mountains, and they really are great metaphors for fixed reliability. When you drive in Denver you don’t need a compass in your car to know which direction you’re going. Where are the mountains? Ok, now I know where I’m going.
Sometimes I would look at them in the morning and at sunset – beautiful. Inspiring. I’m grateful. But most of the time the mountains were just there: in the background of my life and consciousness, part of the landscape, fixtures.
What are the mountains of your life? I know some of you have been living in the same house for decades. Some families have farmed the same land. Maybe it’s America – I know America, what it means, what it stands for, what it opposes. As I think about it, many of the mountains our ancestors have known have already settled into the sea… or are currently heading out.
Still, for many of us, our parents are the mountains of our life. Good ol’ Dad. Good ol’ Mom. And yet every generation experiences the upheaval of losing those from whom they took their orientation, whom they leaned on in so many ways, most of which they never fathomed. We watch these mountains being moved into the heart of the sea.
We will grieve. But the poem says, even when mountains shift, we will not fear. Why? God is here. The Most High. The God of Hosts. The Refuge. The God of Jacob.
Later in the poem we hear about the tumult of nations. Natural and national clamor and turmoil. The people of God see it all, are affected, are grieved. And yet they are not moved. And not distraught. Not despondent. Because flowing in the midst of the people of God is a gladdening river.
Do you see the picture? The chaotic sea roaring and roiling, having taken the stable mountains into its maw; the nations raging and kingdom tottering. Chaos is what’s loud. The giving way of all that was constant seems to be the main thing.
But through it all, this stream with its various rivulets runs through the lives of the people of God. Through the congregations that gather in the name of the Most High. Running through the Church to the ends of the earth. In whatever they’re…we’re facing – from personal financial hardship to the encroaching woke culture – there still flows that life giving river: He jes’ keeps rollin’/ He keeps on rollin’ along
Spurgeon: “It is no boisterous ocean, but a placid stream, it is not stayed in its course by earthquakes or crumbling mountains, it follows its serene course without disturbance. Happy are they who know from their own experience that there is such a river of God…The streams … are clear, cool, fresh, abundant, and gladdening… In this verse, Jerusalem, which represents the church of God, is described as well supplied with water, to set forth the fact, that in seasons of trial all sufficient grace will be given to enable us to endure unto the end.”
This is a song, and obviously the river is poetic language. We’re being given a picture. The river is an image for the Presence of God – v. 5a: God is in the midst of her – Who isn’t among His people statically but to help them at just the right time, which is often at the end of a long night – v. 5b: God will help her when morning dawns.
I’ll repeat, God’s help for His people individually and for His church, often comes at the end of a long night. Hold Fast Christian!
God’s Presence is the key! By means of faith in Jesus Christ and His Gospel, God takes up residence – in a person, in a congregation, in His Church – in the Person of the Holy Spirit. That Presence of God – manifested in the Word preached, and in the responding praise and worshipful faith of the people, and in a hundred other ways – is a continual feeder of durability, of real aid, of joy.
When all around, the things we’ve grown to rely on decline or even nosedive, the Presence of God establishes us, helps us in every way we need help, and brings joy along many streams. Yes, there are many streams of joy coursing through the Christian: The joy of hope. The joy of fellowship that extends throughout the earth. The joy of being tied to something eternal. The joy of serving a great Master, of being part of a great cause. The joy of structure. ETC
The last half of the psalm, especially the last stanza, the commentators call “telescopic.” We’re given an overview of where all this Presence of God thing is going, we’re taken to the end of history. And here’s what we learn there: That God is a refuge and help for his people ISN’T just their private interpretation to give comfort in distress. That God is the Most High ISN’T a psychological truth or a religious overlay on reality.
No, rather: this Presence of God thing becomes the factor in how everything ends up, including the political powers.
The psalmists invite the hearers to walk throughout the earth and see what God, the God who chooses to dwell with a people, the God of Jacob, has done by the end of history:
- God has brought desolation to the nations that raged against Him and His people, and against each other. After all the so-called progressivism, culture wars, smug policy making to dig or destroy the people of God – in their place jackals roam and owls hoot.
- Kingdoms and rulers and governments, who by policy and culture and greed and deceit have caused disturbance to God’s people, have all just melted away at the voice of the Most High.
- The peoples’ resentment toward God had spilled out in bitterness and hostility and war against each other. But God has destroyed this destruction; they’ve got nothing left to fight with.
- God – remember, who is the God of Jacob, the God who has chosen to come into covenant with sinners, to dwell with His people – has the final words over the seething nations who so much resemble the roiling and chaotic sea at the start of the psalm: Be still, let go, unclench your fist, take your hand off your weapon, and know that I am God. Your outbreak against the Trinity won’t succeed. Your push to secularize the world, to make Me a relic of the past, to harass my people, won’t work. I’m sticking with my original intention to be glorified: to be eminent throughout the earth, to be esteemed among every people group.
Do you get the point? The only thing that counts in the end is God, the God who has chosen to dwell with His people. The people of God, who often feel themselves so beleaguered against both the forces of chaos and the political powers, are on the winning side.
And on the winning side, not because we’re not Jacobean – prone to rivalry, deceitfulness, “tricksiness,” ourselves deceived – but because God has chosen to dwell with sinners, to come into covenant with the transgressors and iniquitous. To be the God of Jacob.
In other words, we are conquerors through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ and all the hardship he passed through, Himself choosing to enter the sea of God’s wrath and fall under its breakers for us. His skin was riven and his blood was shed. His wounds which streamed out blood and water became the authorization for an everlasting pledge, a covenant, that stated God is not against us, but for us. The Most High is ours, and we are God’s. We… Jacobs… God claims by the work of Jesus.
Let me conclude with four brief applications:
- To those who are outsiders to this Gospel: I hope you’ve picked up on something today, that you cannot interpret how things go with you from the circumstances of your life. If things are going badly, but God has pledged to help you, then actually there is this vital stream of health and even joy coursing through your life. On the other hand, if things are turning out well for you, but you aren’t near to God through Jesus and the Gospel, then the outcome of your life will be desolation. So, don’t interpret things by reading the circumstances, but by listening to God’s Word. I or others here would love to start a bible study with you so that you learn God’s word, not as an academic exercise, but as that which sets and explains reality.
- Christian, this river of God’s Presence that runs through your life, don’t attempt to avoid it. Don’t dip your toes in. But plunge in! Be filled with God’s Spirit. What I mainly mean: Dive into the Word. Privately. Publicly, at church. Read books that explain the Bible. Grow in your expertise with the Word. Let the Word dwell richly in you. So that, as Jesus said, you yourself become another rivulet through which the river of God’s Presence courses, making everywhere you are “a place of springs” as the sons of Korah talk about in another psalm (Psalm 84:6). Let me ask this: Fathers, what better thing could you bequeath to your children, than the gift of living alongside someone constantly filled with God’s Spirit?
- If you’re here today facing some trouble, God is a refuge and strength and fortress. A very present help. A strange thing that we struggle to really believe: God is there especially for the one who is struggling. Remember what we read earlier: once the crowds got to know Jesus and figured out what kind of person he was, they started to bring to him the lame, the blind, the demon possessed, the ignorant. Probably without even articulating it, they just knew that this Man was able and willing to…simply make things better.
God wants to be known as a help. Jesus came to serve. And the Son and the Father sent the Helper into the world.
You who are struggling to pay bills, find a house to live, look for a church to be at home in, get established in a vocation, get physically or mentally healthy, be a good parent, mend a relationship with your son or daughter, stop looking at porn, stop being unproductive – whatever you’re into or you’ve gotten yourself into, God is ready to help.
Do you want help? That is always the first question that has to be answered: Do you want help?
Here’s the only way to correctly answer that question: God, whatever you tell me to do, I’ll do. I just need help. See me after the service or come by the office this week for more direction on this.
- Finally, if you filled with the Spirit of God know of some Christian who needs help, go to them and help. Be the body of Christ, working out His purposes, because you are the body of Christ. A lot of times Christians need help and they stop going to church, they don’t pick up their phone. Go to them!
May each of us, may we as a church, experience this wonderful truth: God is our refuge and strength/ a very present help in trouble.