God is referred to as a “fortress” 21 times in the bible. Once in Jeremiah, Isaiah and 2 Samuel, twice in Proverbs, and a whopping 16 times in Psalms. What does it mean that “God is my fortress”?
To understand this idea, let’s look at the context of the verses. Since a vast majority of them are in Psalms, it’s important to note that David wrote 75 of the 150 psalms, and many more were written about him by other psalmists.
The Psalms of David tend to have a common theme, one of taking refuge in the Most High. However, it’s not a metaphor. David was quite literally seeking physical safety through prayer to God. David had already been anointed by Samuel as the king of Israel by the time he killed the giant Goliath with a sling and a stone at the young age of 15. However, at that time, Saul was still reigning king of Israel. The bible tells us that Saul had been appointed king when the people of Israel were fearful of the Philistines.
Saul brought David into his court initially to play the harp for him. Eventually, David’s fame began to grow. He became close friends with Saul’s son, Jonathan, and David’s first wife was Saul’s daughter, Michal. He was very much a part of the royal family. As time passed, however, and David’s popularity rose, Saul realized what a threat David was to his rule, and so he set out to have him killed. David fled from Israel across the desert into Judah where he hid in caves and among the rocks. Many years later, when David’s son, Absalom, tried to wrest control of the throne, David once again had to go into hiding in the wilderness, this time from his own flesh and blood.
What is a fortress?
Though many people associate castles with princesses and fairy tales, what we think of as ancient castles are actually some comparatively modern examples of fortresses. Castles were built on strategic, defensible locations, generally on high ground that afforded a long line of sight of the surrounding land. They contained tall towers that provided 360 degrees of visibility so lookouts could see any approaching threat far in advance.
Castles are traditionally surrounded by moats, though not the crocodile-filled waters you might imagine. Moats many times were simply dry ditches meant to impede an invading force’s ingress. A deep ditch prevented the use of battering rams which require lateral velocity to be effective. Moats also served the purpose of further elevating the entire structure of the fortress by excavating the surrounding area down 12 to 15 feet.
Inside the moat the castle would have been surrounded by high and thick walls around which you would find arrow slits also known as “loopholes”. From the exterior they are narrow, usually vertical, slots in the wall, but on the inside they would be large, triangular openings that would allow archers to draw back their bows and fire arrow after arrow into advancing forces.
Castles were generally built in ever elevating concentric sections so that defenders could flee further inward and upward if the exterior fortifications didn’t hold against enemy attack.
Even the iconic notches at the tops of towers are less romantic or aesthetic than they are practical. They were meant to provide fortified space for cannons and other artillery so that bombardiers could duck behind the wall and place the cannon barrel through the gap as they loaded and fired their armaments.
In Jerusalem today you can visit the Tower of David, also known as David’s Citadel. Despite the name, the castle was actually built centuries later by King Herod on what is believed to be the ruins of the original tower of David. It’s as good an insight as any into what David would have considered a fortress though, so let’s start there.
The tower of David is built like many other ancient fortresses in concentric circles with elevated towers. The outside border is slanted which provides the castle with a thick exterior wall and creates a daunting task for invading forces to breach.
When David, hiding in the rocks and caves of the desert from Saul’s attackers, says “God is my fortress,” he is saying, despite the absence of fortified walls, he is safe because of God. He is putting his trust in God, and understanding that God will protect him just as surely as if he were in the highest tower in a well-armed, perfectly situated fortress.
What does that mean for you and I, though? We are not David, it’s true. David, despite his many faults, was called “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). He was fearlessly obedient to God, and took joy in obeying God’s laws, experiencing true grief over his own sins. But you don’t have to be King of Israel to receive God’s protection. Because of Jesus, we can stand redeemed before God, and seek refuge in Him as our fortress. Though we may not be literally running for our lives, many people may find themselves under attack of some form at some point in their lives, either outward from human disparagement, or attacks that are inwardly sourced, derived from our mental or emotional wellbeing. Maybe you are under attack from an addiction of some sort. More recently we all may have felt attacked by the current political climate or literally found our immune systems under attack from COVID. No matter what you’re facing, you can find refuge in God. Make Him your fortress. When you are under attack, go to God, you are safe with Him always.
Click through the links below to read about how God is your fortress: