9/11 ceremony: Obama turns to comfort of Psalm 46

Vera H-C Chan
Senior Editor, Special Projects
The Upshot

A steady online stream of searches have accompanied the 9/11 memorial events — "George W. Bush," "Twin Towers," "conspiracy theories," "terror threat," "silence," "fdny 343 firefighters," "pledge of allegiance," "god bless America."

Among these queries, many focused on Psalm 46 ("president obama reading psalm 46," "obama psalm 46 ten anniversary"). The passage has been described as "a sure defense in desperate times." President Obama has quoted from this passage before, during the memorial service of victims from the fatal Tucson mass shooting.

Church history scholar Scott Manetsch, speaking to an Alabama divinity school in 2010, described its "emotive power" as deriving from "blunt honesty and its sturdy confidence in the Lord." The song has been favored among leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. An inspired nine-year-old Wolfgang Mozart composed "God is Our Refuge," based on the psalm, in 1765. Its origins are still unknown among Biblical scholars, and may go back as far as 700 B.C.

The psalm was evoked after the attacks on America, including a statement from evangelist Billy Graham on Sept. 11. Wrote reporter G. Jeffrey Macdonald of the Times Picayune on Sept. 29, 2001, "On America's ever-more-diverse religious landscape, few occasions in recent years have led believers of varied stripes to invoke a common text as relevant and authoritative. In the aftermath of the terrorist strikes, however, no one disputed the appropriateness of the ancient Hebrew lyrics: 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,' says the first verse. 'Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change.'"

The words to Sept. 11 anniversary recitals — such as Ecclesiastes 3:1, "Turn Again to Life," "The Names," and Meditation XVII ("No Man is an Island") — can be found here.