This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.
The Poetic Structure of the Psalms
Recently, a young preacher tasked with preaching his first psalm asked me, “How do I preach the Psalms?” One of the tips I gave was to ask and answer the question, What is the poetry doing? If you fail to understand poetic structures and literary devices, you will preach the Psalms improperly. So, for example, Psalm 46 is structured in three parts, and the author (one of “the Sons of Korah”) provides a cue (Selah is used three times, perhaps as a musical interlude) to his original audience (“the choirmaster”) on how to divide this “song” into three stanzas.
The structure is like the frame of a painting. The poetic devices, however, are the painting itself. Devices such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, apostrophe, assonance, personification, and hyperbole add color and texture to a poem. No matter how artistic the frame might be, it is the painting and not the frame that is the focus. Our job, in preaching poetry or just reading it, is to recognize these images, sense them, and understand them.
Refuge and Strength
What then does the psalmist mean when he calls God “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1)? The repetition of the refrain at the end of verses 4–7 and of verses 8–11 explains using concrete (literally stone!) imagery: “The LORD of hosts [angelic armies] is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Ps. 46:7, 11). God is, as Martin Luther famously phrased it, “a mighty fortress.” Put differently, God is the place (and person) we go to for safety (“our refuge”) and revitalization (“our strength,” Ps. 46:1).
He is our refuge—in the past, now in the present, and forever into the future.
Even amid cataclysmic turmoil—an earthquake-induced landslide (“the earth gives way”) and avalanche (“the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,” Ps. 46:2)—those who are part of the city of God “shall not be moved” (Ps. 46:5). The seas may rage (“waters roar and foam,” Ps. 46:3), and “the nations rage” as well (Ps. 46:6), but Yahweh will protect his people. He is “a very present help in trouble,” as well as (using the alternative translation for “very present”) “well proved” (Ps. 46:1). That is, we can trust him now because he has a proven track record of protecting his people. We can also trust him because, although he is “the Most High,” he makes his “holy habitation . . . in the midst” of his people (Ps. 46:4–5).
How true these truths are in Jesus Christ! Jesus, who is Immanuel (“God with us,” Matt. 1:23) and has promised to be with us to the “end of the age” (Matt. 28:20), is the personification of this psalm. He is our refuge—in the past, now in the present, and forever into the future.
Douglas Sean O’Donnell is the author of Psalms: A 12-Week Study.
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