Psalm 46, like Psalm 42 from last week, is grouped with a number of psalms that have a similar superscription. Psalms 42, 44-49, 84-85, and 87-88 mention the Korahites. Korah, the chief of the clan of Edom, is listed as both the son of Esau (Genesis 36:5, 14; I Chronicles 1:35), and the grandson of Esau, son of Eliphaz (Genesis 36:16). For reference, the superscriptions of seventy-three psalms mention David. The Korahites were one of the major guilds of Temple singers (II Chronicles 20:19), and are also mentioned as Temple gatekeepers (I Chronicles 9:19; 26:1; 19) and bakers (I Chronicles 9:31). "Alamoth" is likely a musical term, but its meaning is uncertain.
The power of Psalm 46 has inspired many poets and musicians over the centuries, so it comes as no surprise that all three of this morning’s hymns are based on Psalm 46. Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is our God, which first appeared in a hymnal of 1529, was – and remains – popular with composers both within and outside the organ/church music world. Felix Mendelssohn used it in his Reformation Symphony (1830), Richard Wagner in Kaisersmarsch (1871), and Giacomo Meyerbeer in his opera Les Huguenots (1836). Hymn 191 (God is Our Refuge…) provides a powerful combination of text (a metrical paraphrase of Psalm 46, altered by the great 20th-century hymn writer Jane Parker Huber) and tune (Winchester Old, a stately melody first published in Thomas Este’s Whole Booke of Psalmes of 1592). Este’s Psalmes was the first work in which English tunes appeared with names assigned to them, a practice that has continued ever since. Our closing hymn, God, Our Help and Constant Refuge, also a paraphrase of Psalm 46 (this one from a 1986 collection by Fred Anderson), is paired with the powerful tune, Michael, by Herbert Howells, one of the 20th century’s finest English church musicians. The soaring tune was composed in memory of Howells’ son, who died of spinal meningitis at age 9. As you give glory to God through these marvelous hymns, notice the variety of ways they shed light on one of Christendom’s greatest psalms.