There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

-Psalm 46:4

I’ve often wondered about this river “whose streams make glad the city of God.”  For years I had assumed that it was a metaphor for God’s provision and blessing.  After all, the garden in Eden was situated between two rivers; Ezekiel’s vision of the new Jerusalem highlights a river flowing from the Temple, renewing the land of Israel; Revelation 22:1-2 describes a river of life flowing from the throne of the Father and the Lamb.  Rivers are life giving, and God gives spiritual life to believers.  On the surface, it seems like a happy-day metaphor.  But this river is deep.

When we look closer at Psalm 46, a different image emerges.  Psalm 46 is a famous Psalm due to verse 1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”  It’s theme is clear: God’s people are safe in him.  Thanks to Martin Luther, we are well acquainted with this truth.  A mighty fortress is our God, indeed.

Verses 2-3 describe a chaotic “natural” disaster- if the earth gives way, the mountains fall into the sea, and the sea rages, we will not fear.  At this point we need to pause and consider what the sons of Korah are really saying.  We shouldn’t fear earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and raging oceans?  These chaotic forces are exactly what we fear.  

So what do these disasters represent in the Psalm?  We get some help from verse 6- the nations are in an uproar due to the voice of the Lord bringing judgment upon them.  The disasters are God’s judgment against the nations.  His voice is melting the earth.

Then comes the river.  Contextually, the river is linked to the raging sea of verse 3.  In Hebrew, this verse literally just reads “A river, its streams…”  The connection to verse 4 is obvious: the raging sea has resulted in a river headed for Jerusalem.  The translators of the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament understood it this way, and translated this as a “violent river.”  

Unfortunately, most English translations indicate that this river is unrelated to verses 2-3 by adding “there is.”  I think verse 4 should read “This river” or “The river” (NET), rather than “There is a river” (ESV, NASB, NCSB, KJV).  

What is clear in the Psalm is the idea of contrast.  The Good News Version makes this explicit and suggests two rivers, “Yet there is a river…”  But the contrast involved isn’t two different raging rivers, it’s two different responses to the same river

Believers need not fear the judgment of God.  The same waters that are disastrous to “the nations” bring joy to the city of God.  There is the contrast.  Unbelievers will fear God’s judgment, while believers will rejoice in the safety of God’s provision.

Verse 5 clarifies the sense: in the midst of the disaster, God’s city will not be moved.  His purposes and his people are indestructible.  In verse 6 he will judge the nations, but in verse 7 he is with us.

The concluding section of the Psalm calls us to look at the destruction of God’s judgment.  Having appreciated God’s power in judgment, we should be still in awe and be confident in God’s existence, sovereignty, and purpose.  Finally, we can take comfort because he is with us, and he is indeed our fortress.  So let the river flow.

This Psalm may look forward to the final judgment.  At that time, believers need not fear the judgment of God.  In fact, we will rejoice as God rights all wrongs and finally brings sin and evil to its necessary end.  This powerful reality brings to light three crucial truths for us today:  

  1. God’s judgment is fear-inducing.  Because of sin, humanity has more reason to fear God’s judgment than any other threat.  People spend so much time being afraid of so much, yet often they ignore their greatest threat: judgment for their sin.  
  2. Believers need not fear God’s judgment.  Although God’s judgment is scary, believers are safe.  Let the earth quake and waters roar, we are safe from God’s judgment because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Jesus paid for our sin on the cross.  In Christ, God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help.
  3. Believers should worship God in light of his judgment.  It is appropriate to be still in light of God’s judgment.  God’s judgment will come down on all who refuse to humble themselves and turn to him in faith.  In the end there will only be two groups of people: those who fear the river, and those who rejoice in safety.  

There is a river that makes glad the city of God.  It is the river of God’s judgment.  We need not fear it, but can rejoice from the safety of the refuge of the cross.

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