God is our refuge and strength, a very present help … (Psalm 46:1).

Perhaps the finest of Luther’s great hymns is Ein feste Burg, “A Mighty Fortress.” Its majestic and thunderous proclamation of our faith is a singing symbol of the Reformation. Inspired by Psalm 46, Luther caught up in the hymn the very essence of faith, and the fervor and flavor of patriotism which he found in the Psalm. This Psalm had fortified Luther with courage to defy the whole system of ecclesiastical tyranny in his day, and his hymn has been the bugle call of our Protestant heritage. Before the mighty God and his marching hosts nothing can stand. Staerk calls this composition “the most glorious hymn of faith that ever was sung.”

Oliver Cromwell, aspiring to make England a place where God’s will reigned supreme, asked his followers to sing Luther’s great hymn. “That is a rare Psalm for a Christian,” said Cromwell. “ ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.’ If Pope and Spaniards and devil set themselves against us, yet in the name of the Lord, we shall destroy them. ‘The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.’ ”

Long ago in the fourteenth century when Sergius the hermit was leading his countrymen, and Tartar hordes were overrunning his land, this Psalm was a source of strength and courage. Over and over the godly hermit recited Psalm 46 and then led his revived men in a charge that drove the invaders back and brought ultimate victory.

Throughout the ages men have been stirred by the realization that the Eternal God is available to them and that nothing, literally nothing, can overwhelm or destroy a man when he lives in this faith.

Born In Hour Of Need

No wonder this Psalm is so lifting. It was born in an hour of gloom and danger and defeat. It contemplates the siege of Jerusalem by the armies of Sennacherib in the year 701 B. C. Sennacherib had driven his invincible armies across Palestine and held the ancient people of God bottled up behind the walls in Jerusalem. Fear and dread seized the people as they huddled helplessly behind the city walls. Soon the Assyrian battering rams would hammer at the walls until the Holy City would be no more. How could this people with their puny army stand up to the assault?

Jerusalem was not located on an ocean or a great river as were other ancient capital cities. Only the brook of Siloam flowed out of the temple rock “to make glad the people.” That was enough to assure the city against surrender by thirst; and the Psalmist sings about it, “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God.”

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When all the resources of the garrison have been estimated and set down, greater than every other factor is the knowledge that “God is in the midst of her.” And what a God he is! Not only is he the commander of the hosts in battle but he is the friend of the lonely and the comfort of the sorrowing. He has made a covenant between heaven and earth. No matter what happens, “God is in the midst of her.” The historic fact is that there then occurred the spectacular deliverance of the city, when Sennacherib lost 185,000 men and was forced to flee to his home in Assyria.

In that dramatic experience the Psalm was born. Hope lives. Despair and fear and gloom have been dispelled. God has demonstrated both his power and his love. Under the spell of this mighty deliverance, the author wants to inculcate in the people an abiding trust. He knows that God is dependable, that God is available, that God is unfailing—even in dark hours. He puts his trumpet to his lips and heralds this truth to the ages.

A Stupendous Assertion

The Psalm opens with the most important assertion a man can make; it begins: “God is …” This is the most stupendous affirmation a man can make. Make that claim: “God is,” … and all else falls in order.

Say “God is,” … and you have a clue to the universe.

Say “God is,” … and you can pray; for there is One to whom you can pray.

Say “God is” … and the moral law becomes the only rational basis for human conduct.

Say “God is,” … and the future holds no terror; it holds only triumph.

Say “God is,” … and, in an hour of need, you go on to say with the Psalmist: “God is our refuge and strength,” and in the end to shout: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

The assertion, “God is,” is the beginning of our way of life; it is the claim throughout our days; it is the triumphant exclamation at the end.

Psalm 46 is an abridgment of the thesis of the Bible—that “God is,” and that God is presiding over his universe and over his people, and that he and they are victorious. For the Bible begins where the Psalm begins: “In the beginning God.” Its whole theme is that God is in “the midst of” life, the God who entered life in Jesus Christ and who never forsakes his people, even in their wilfulness and sin. And the Bible comes to its finale with a crescendo about hosts who have come out of great tribulation, singing: “He shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah,” and a benediction, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”

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When you say “God is,” you have made the beginning which assures the victorious conclusion.

An old professor of mine uttered a sentence with which I have lived all my adult years. He probably was not aware of the uniqueness of the phrase. He meant so much to me that in my study his is the only photograph other than those of my family. One day, quite extemporaneously, he said, “Young men, I have found that the unconscious presuppositions of my childhood have become the philosophical conclusions of my mature manhood.”

The Christian faith has a philosophical basis; it is a rational way of life. But everyone has to begin by saying, “Lord, I believe.”

That is why we come to church, to establish us in the truth and in the way of life which proclaims that “God is …” That is why we Christians have (or should have) family prayers, that we may be fed at the source which says, “God is.” And we must pray day by day if we are to be strong in faith.

Tremendous Consequences

“God is.” When we say that, tremendous consequences follow. Then we can live each day and every day.

Years ago there was a half-breed guide on the Canadian border who escorted American fishermen to the most promising fishing areas. Although he signed his name only with an “X,” somewhere in his background he had been exposed to the idea that God made all things and that man’s happiness came in dedicating his life to him. Evidently this idea made an indelible image in his heart. Each morning he made a prayer something like this:

“God help me have a good day fishing. Help me be a good man, for Jesus. Amen.”

One day when the results were not good his employers twitted him about his prayer, “Well, Joe, your prayin’ didn’t pay off today. Look—only one measly little fish!”

“You wrong, friend,” said Joe, “Maybe no fish. But me no mad like you.” Then came a toothless smile that wrinkled his red-brown parchment face, “The trees still tall, the water clear. The sun still in sky. No fish today, more for catch tomorrow. God, he good. He give you, me, good day.”

Yes, the committing of our days to God, the sensing of his presence, and the assertion of faith in him make every day good—no matter what happens.

Because we say “God is” at all times, we go on to the triumphant succeeding phrases “God is—our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Too often this Psalm is heard only at funerals. It has valid meaning in times of sorrow or crisis only because we have learned to live with its truth every day. “God is our refuge and strength, and he is a very present help in time of trouble.” I have read this Psalm to men in battle and watched them go out strong in spirit.

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Most Real In Sorrow

In times of sorrow God may be most real. One of my friends, Dr. Lowell Ditzen, is the distinguished pastor of the Reformed Church of Bronxville, New York. His mother, a lovely Christian, died when he was a boy, leaving him forever impressed by her radiant sense of life and God’s eternal presence. When Dr. Ditzen became an influential minister, his eight-year old daughter died following a bout with cancer. Later still his oldest son was killed accidentally. There in his own household the ultimate questions were asked. There was about this problem of death nothing abstract or theoretical, as might have appeared earlier in a classroom.

“The only answer that made sense,” said Dr. Ditzen, “was that amid all the mysteries and enigmas of life, one could see a purpose and a reason—at least a use for everything that existed or occurred. While in sorrow one could not say what the reason or use of a specific tragedy might be.” He could only say “God is.”

A friend came to sit with Lowell Ditzen and quietly, by the fireside, quoted the Scriptures;

“Deep calleth unto deep.”

“In all their affliction he was afflicted.”

“All things work together for good.”

“Underneath are the everlasting arms.”

These truths brought the necessary dimension to see that “God is …,” for “nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”

One day when I was a boy, on a quiet, warm summer evening most of our family joined others of the village for a swim at the beach on the banks of the Monongahela River. One of my brothers, a rather athletic youngster of nine, had a great evening diving and swimming with some older men and boys with whom he was expected to return to our home. When the evening was spent and night was fallen he had not returned home. Inquiry in the neighborhood and elsewhere eliminated most clues to his whereabouts. In the early darkness a searching party went to the banks of the river and my brother’s dog led the men to a log where his clothes were found. Then began the diving and eventual recovery of his body from the water, and an unsolved mystery as to how it could have happened among so many people.

That evening of shock and grief brought to our home a simple minister who never served a large or distinguished church. But he sat there saying, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble …” And he was. Out of that assertion came a calm, confident, healing faith. Because there had been developed in other times the spiritual resources, there was sufficient faith for the valley of the shadow.

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Faith For Each Day

God is not a gimmick. He does not promise to save us pain, or sorrow, or death. He does something better! By taking that great step of faith each day, by saying “God is,” we find that “underneath are the everlasting arms” and he will never “leave us or forsake us.”

It is just as simple as that: God is. He is near. He is available. He is adequate. He knows us. He loves us. He gives moral reinforcement. He banishes fear. He gives power to suffer. He gives victory in death. For he is God. He is our Lord.

“The Lord is with us”—“The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth—Hallelujah!”

Edward L. R. Elson has been Minister of The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D. C., for eleven years. President Eisenhower and other leaders high in the echelons of government are found in its pews. Dr. Elson has published One Moment with God and America’s Spiritual Recovery.

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