Floods, Refuge, and the Voice of God: Luther's Vision of Psalm 46 (Part 1)

It seems we can think of little else right now. The motif of water, assuming a variety of roles, is one of the leading metaphors in Hebrew poetry. In many contexts water imagery is closely associated with chaos, according to Old Testament scholar William P. Brown in his exhaustive study of metaphor in the Psalms.[1]

Repeatedly, God enforces order, an extension of his righteous character and rule, on natural chaos; the “scenario of destruction paves the way for the establishment of a salutary order,” as Brown explains. God does so by His word, as He did at creation’s birth when the Spirit hovered over the formless waters. The waters, however, are not always inanimate or amorphous. In some Psalms their force is embodied in the image of the sea monster Leviathan, cast in the framework of a combat or Chaoskampf motif. In Psalm 74, Brown notes, “God achieves victory over watery chaos through the exercise of royal office”:

Yet God my King is from old,
Who works salvation in the earth’s midst.
You divided Sea (yam) by your strength;
You broke the heads of the dragons (tannînîm) of the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan.”[2] (Psalm 74:12-14a)

YHWH, agent of all powers and forces, can sovereignly choose to cause tumult as well as to silence it, as when he ripped open the Red Sea to accomplish His deliverance of Israel.

It is the resounding word, the voice of the Lord that thunders through Psalm 29, Psalm 93, and others. Psalm 29, an important enthronement Psalm recalling Israel’s royal temple liturgy, incorporates the combat motif while also drawing on the genre of storm deity hymn found in ancient Mesopotamian literature. This Psalm pictures YHWH enthroned directly upon the waters. As Brown states: “Raging floods, rather than posing a threat to YHWH, become the foundation beneath His sovereign throne. . . . [Furthermore, he observes,] in contradistinction to Near Eastern lore, the convulsion of creation is not the prerequisite for royal rule but the result of it.”[3] YHWH, agent of all powers and forces, can sovereignly choose to cause tumult as well as to silence it, as when he ripped open the Red Sea to accomplish His deliverance of Israel. His voice thunders far above the loudest floods:

The floods have lifted up their voice; . . .
Greater than the voice of the many waters (mayyîm rabbîm),
More majestic ('addîr)[4] than the breakers of the sea,
[most] majestic on high is YHWH.
Your decrees are very firm;
Holiness befits your house,
YHWH forevermore. (Psalm 93:3-5)

When Floodwaters Rise

Floodwaters can signify[5] not only natural chaos but political turmoil, the riots of the peoples. God, a royal warrior, is victor in the cosmic battle,[6] . . . poised to subdue any force that would plunge creation into chaos,”[7] which often includes the Psalmists’ and Israel’s enemies. Enemies and “deep waters” are juxtaposed in striking parallelism in Psalm 69, where the Psalmist depicts himself as “drowning” in shame, with shame covering his face as waters cover the face of the deep (69:7), and begs to be rescued from both: “Let me not sink: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters.” (Psalm 69:14b, KJV)[8]

In Psalm 124, a hymn of community thanksgiving, the Israelites thank YHWH for having driven back their enemies, which “would have swallowed us alive,” as well as the “raging waters” which “would have swept us away.” YHWH silences the fury of both seas and peoples, who become associated with chaos through the use of water imagery, Brown notes:

You silence the roaring of the seas,
The roaring of their waves,
The tumult of the peoples. (Psalm 65:7)[9]

Refuge in the Storm

Psalm 46, one of the great Zion psalms, “revels in water imagery of a cataclysmic scale,” as Brown describes it, “while conveying the calm assurance of God’s saving power amid national threat.”[10] This Psalm is divided into two scenes with Zion as its centerpiece, God’s city fed by God’s river, a refuge against chaos. The picture of flooding waters and roiling seas which permeates Psalm 46:1-3 stands in dramatic contrast to the calm, life-giving river whose streams “make glad the city of God.” (v. 4) As Brown points out, this is no ordinary river but a spiritual one, flowing from the very sanctuary of God. The river image recalls the crucial importance of a city’s water source as its lifeline in a time of attack or besiegement, as occurred in Hezekiah’s time. Brown here notes significantly that “within the city, water is an agent of joy; outside its walls, water . . . destroys the nations.”[11] Theologically, he continues, the river “connotes God’s solidarity;” as its streams flow through the city, His presence indwells her, which is why “‘she shall not be moved’ . . . . The river is a sign and seal of God’s holy habitation in Jerusalem’s midst.”[12]

In scene one of the Psalm, mountains totter and crash; in scene two, kingdoms fall and the earth melts. Brown sums up the stunning picture: “As cosmic chaos slides into political mayhem, . . . while both mountains and nations collapse into the churning sea, indeed as the entire earth dissolves, the city of God remains unmoved.”[13] Just as Psalm 29 ends with the voice of YHWH “outshouting” the voice of floods, notes Brown,[14] and Psalm 65 shows Him silencing the raging peoples, Psalm 46 “concludes with a cease-and-desist order against both the nations and the cosmos: ‘Settle down (harpû) and acknowledge me as God! Exalted am I among the nations, and in the earth!’ (v. 10). The command reflects a new reality, an equilibrium established by God’s dramatic intervention in which the weapons of war are silenced and chaos subsides.”[15] In each case it is the voice of YHWH, the Word, that is the prime mover which all powers obey.

How did Luther read Psalm 46 and its richly complex metaphors when he paraphrased it in “A mighty fortress,” destined to become the battle song of the Reformation and one of the Church’s great hymns of all time? Read Part 2 coming soon!

In the meantime, our ongoing prayers rise for the victims of storm and flood as well as for those doing backbreaking relief work and reconstruction. May their spirits be lifted by the stillness which YHWH’s voice can bring even in the wake of fierce devastation, the peace which He achieved in Christ when he calmed the sea of Galilee and when he has stilled past storms in our lives, and may all whose trust is placed in Him be sustained today by the strength and joy that His river of life provides for His holy Zion.

May their spirits be lifted by the stillness which YHWH’s voice can bring even in the wake of fierce devastation, the peace which He achieved in Christ when he calmed the sea of Galilee and when he has stilled past storms in our lives.

[1] William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox, 2002).
[2] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 109. Translation from the Hebrew by Brown.
[3] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 112.
[4] “The term indicates expansive glory, both divine (Psalm 67:5) and watery (Exodus 15:10).” Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 246, note 41.
[5] Or “target”, the technical term used in linguistic analysis of metaphor. Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 106.
[6] A motif throughout the Psalms and also in ancient Mesopotamian literature and Babylonian epics.
[7] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 112. God pronounced His created order good, and promised never to create global chaos through flooding again.
[8] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 114.
[9] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 115.
[10] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 115.
[11] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 115.
[12] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 117.
[13] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 116.
[14] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 112.
[15] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 116-117.


Dr. Esther Crookshank is a Professor of Church Music at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. She teaches in the areas of hymnology, musicology, applied ethnomusicology, and musical aesthetics. Since 2009 she has also served as director of the Academy of Sacred Music, the seminary’s guest artist and lecture forum.