In honor of Reformation Day, this is a re-posting of a study on the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” that I wrote for the Worship Ministry blog last year as part of our “Systematic Hymnology” series.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way.” ~ Psalm 46:1-2
This hymn is arguably the best ever written, and almost certainly the most important… at least as far as Protestants are concerned. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel on October 31, 1517, it set off a chain reaction throughout Germany, followed by Europe and the rest of the world. Christendom divided over Luther’s revolutionary claims that grace was a free gift of God, and that Scripture was the only authority needed for a person to know God and to learn of gospel of salvation. The Roman Catholic church disputed these claims.
Among the many reforms proposed by Luther were the ideas that all Christians can and should sing hymns, read the Bible, and understand the sermons being preached. Previously, only trained musicians were allowed to make music during religious services. The Bible and all sermons were in Latin, a language most of the people did not know. They relied completely on the Roman church to interpret the Scriptures for them, and to tell them what God had told them to do, which led to much corruption in the church.
Luther translated the Bible into the vernacular of the German people, and began writing hymns which they could sing in their own language to help them understand the Bible’s true teachings. A Mighty Fortress, or, Ein Feste Burg as it was called in its original language, was one of the first of these hymns, and became known as “the battle hymn of the Reformation.” Its immense popularity helped the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation to spread very quickly. The advent of the printing press also helped copies of Luther’s German Bibles and hymnals to be promulgated throughout Germany much faster than the Catholic church could destroy them. Soon, Bibles and hymns began appearing in French, Dutch, and other languages as the Reformation blew across Europe. Luther’s most well-known hymn, like all of his other teachings, was also translated into many other languages.
In fact, this hymn was so important that musicologists actually attribute the increasing importance of the Ionian mode (what we now call a “major” key) to the popularity of its melody, which was also composed by Luther. This contrasts with what are known as the church modes, which were the scales on which most hymns and chants had previously been written. These modes mostly correspond to what we now call “minor” keys. Think about it: How often do we sing hymns in minor keys today?
Click here to see a photo of one of the earliest printings of this hymn.
Here is a powerful a capella performance of this hymn by Steve Green:
One of the main reasons this hymn became so popular was that it told a story. And not just any story; it’s a story ripped straight from the pages of Scripture. Unfortunately, it was one which most of the people of Luther’s time had never heard, because they couldn’t read or understand the language used in the Church.
Today, in many ways, we have the same problem. The Bible has been translated into nearly every language on Earth, but the fact remains that most people never read it, and most churches now avoid teaching the precious doctrines of the faith in favor of a pragmatic, moralistic message. We may speak the language, but many Christians are not fluent in the theological nomenclature that helps us to understand and articulate our faith. This problem is compounded when so many great hymns — such great teaching tools in the past — are sung in older versions of our own language, which can seem quite foreign to us. Let me attempt to paraphrase the lyrics of this great hymn — translated into English in by Frederick Hedge in the mid-19th Century — into our own contemporary vernacular, in the hopes that its story may have a similar impact on us today.
“A mighty fortress is our God, a Bulwark never failing.”
This echoes several passages of Scripture which call God a “fortress”, a “strong tower”, and other forms of refuge. In fact, Luther wrote much of this hymn as a paraphrase of Psalm 46, which is subtitled in most translations as “God is Our Fortress”. A “bulwark” is a form of fortification. (see 2 Samuel 22:2; Psalm 18:2; Proverbs 18:10)
“Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”
In this world we are constantly bombarded with troubles which, were we left to our own devices, would overwhelm us. But God is our helper who sees us through this times of trouble, which is straight out of Psalm 46:1. (see Psalm 34:17; Psalm 124; John 14:16; Hebrews 13:6)
“For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”
Our ancient foe is Satan, the devil (Revelation 12:9). He is a crafty and powerful deceiver (John 8:44; Ephesians 6:11) who hates and seeks to devour men (1 Peter 5:8). No mortal man could ever hope to defeat or resist him. This is bad news!
“Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.”
The beginning of the second stanza picks up where the first left off. If we tried to rely on our own strength, we wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.”
What’s this? Hope that God has chosen and sent a champion to fight on our behalf!
“Dost ask who that may be?”
Of course we want to know who this champion is!
“Christ Jesus, it is He: Lord Sabaoth His Name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle.”
Finally, Luther names this champion. “Jehovah Sabaoth” is a Hebrew term translated as “Lord of Hosts”, which appears 230 times in the Old Testament. In the book of Revelation, Jesus is presented as the commander of a vast army of the heavenly hosts, coming to make war on Satan (Revelation 17:14; 19:14). He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8), and has always had sovereignty and power over all of His creation, including Satan. If the battle is to be won, Christ will be the one to do it.
“And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.”
Because we have faith that God will deliver on His promises, we don’t fear the devil, or any of the things that would undo us apart from Christ. Jesus promised that Hell would not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18). In death, Christ triumphed over the demonic rulers and authorities of the world (Colossians 2:15), and that victory has been passed on to those who place their trust in Him.
“The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure. One little word shall fell him.”
God has promised to help us endure life’s trials, by means of the Holy Spirit. He will not allow us to be tested beyond our ability (1 Corinthians 10:13), so we can face the devil’s rage with courage. We know that the devil’s doom is sure, and that he shall be defeated by The Word of God (Revelation 19:11-21), spoken from the mouth of Jesus himself.
“That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth.”
The Word of God is higher than all of the demonic powers in this world. That Word still lives, no thanks to them. Think of all the efforts that have been made against the Scripture. How many times throughout history people have tried to destroy or make a mockery of the Bible. Yet it still remains, and will until the end!
“The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him who with us sideth.”
The Holy Spirit has been sent by Christ to help us. He has also given gifts to the Church (including prophets and teachers who help us to understand the Word), which aid us in our resistance to deceitful schemes (Ephesians 4:11-14).
“Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.”
Like Paul, Martin Luther knew from experience the loss that often accompanies obedience to the gospel. But nothing compares to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord (Philippians 3:7-11)!
“The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still.”
Sometimes taking a stand for the gospel requires giving one’s life. Many Christians have been martyred for their faith, and many more will be in the future. The powers of darkness may be able to kill a Christian, but it will not rid them of the Truth they hate so much!
“His kingdom is forever.”
Both testaments are full of promises that the Messiah’s reign will be forever (Psalm 45:6; Isaiah 9:7; Daniel 6:26; Luke 1:33; Revelation 11:15). This is a wonderful promise in the midst of persecution, because Christ’s eternal kingdom is our inheritance as adopted sons of God!