Hymn of the Month, October 2016
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
Many of the hymns we sing are gems of wisdom, guidance, and admonition, drawn from God’s Word and set to music so that the word of Christ might dwell in us richly. Let’s take some time to dig into another of these this month, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Unlike the writers of many hymns, the writer of this month’s hymn is no stranger to most of us. Martin Luther truly stands out in church history for his pivotal role in the Protestant Reformation. He was by no means the first person to embrace and promote the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ alone, but God equipped and deployed him in a critical and influential time and place.
Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, in what today is Germany. His father, an ambitious man, sent Martin to the best schools he could with the hope of one day seeing his son become a lawyer. Shortly after beginning law school, however, Martin dropped out and became a monk. The reason for this, as he later explained, was a vow he made during a thunderstorm. One time, while travelling back to the university, he was nearly struck by lightning. In terror, he cried out to Saint Anna for help, promising her he would become a monk if she would save his life. Subsequently, he joined an order of Augustinian monks in Erfurt, the same city where he had been attending university.
In the years that followed, Luther was ordained as a priest and later appointed as a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. Teaching changed his life. As he studied and prepared lectures on the Psalms and later Romans, he came to understand salvation as a gift from God to be received by faith, as opposed to a reward bestowed by God on those who earned it. This understanding would bring him into conflict with the Church of Rome beginning in 1517. It all began with Luther posting his famous 95 Theses, a list of debate points objecting to the sale of indulgences (certificates granting forgiveness of sins). Luther believed the Pope would take action once he understood what hawkers such as Johann Tetzel were selling. Sadly, Luther was wrong. In time the Church of Rome would not only excommunicate Luther, but even try to kill him. Luther, however, lived many more years, eventually dying from illness in 1546.
Luther wrote this month’s hymn—both its lyrics and tune—in the midst of the religious conflict that dogged him during the second half of his life. The hymn quickly became the “battle hymn of the Reformation,” figuratively and literally. The Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, for instance, “ordered it sung by his army before the Battle of Leipzig in 1631.” To this day it remains near and dear to the hearts of many Protestant Christians.
Luther’s hymn has been translated into English by various people, but the most common translation in use was penned by an American named Frederic Henry Hedge (1805-1890). Hedge served congregations in New England for nearly thirty years before becoming a professor of church history and later German literature. He is known today almost exclusively because of his translation of this hymn.
The hymn we sing has not only been translated, but also musically enriched. Luther is credited with the creation of this hymn’s melody, but its harmony came from the pen of the famous composer J.S. Bach (1685-1750). Bach used Luther’s melody in his Cantata 80. Other composers have done much the same: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), for instance, later built his majestic ‘Reformation’ Symphony on Luther’s tune (I highly recommend it—according to my computer, I’ve listened to it more than 200 times, more than any other piece of music). That noted, Bach’s harmonization has become the standard.
Sources: Hymnary.org, Ligonier.org, law2.umkc.edu, wikipedia.org, and The Psalter Hymnal Handbook.
“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is a robust song of confidence in the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though clearly based on Psalm 46, it functions equally well as a response to Paul’s question in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The four verses of our hymn provide an answer.
A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and pow'r are great;
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
We begin our hymn by putting in our own words the testimony of Psalm 46:1: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In fact, Psalm 46 goes on to testify unmistakably that our God is a mighty fortress who prevails (reigns) even in the midst of this world’s flood of mortal ills. In that light, we joyfully sing of our God not only as a mighty fortress, but also as a never-failing bulwark (defense) and our ever-prevailing helper.
From there we go on to identify the source of this world’s flood of mortal ills. Where does this veritable flood come from? As the New Testament periodically explains, it comes from our ancient foe who seeks to work us woe. He, the devil, is great in power and craft (skill), and his hate is fierce. Indeed, the apostle Peter warns that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). On our own we are no match for him.
Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing;
were not the right Man on our side,
the man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he,
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.
The second verse opens with an echo of Psalm 124:1-3. There we hear David declare, “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side— let Israel now say— if it had not been the LORD who was on our side when people rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us….” Both then and in the present day, any and all our striving is losing without the Lord on our side. Thus we rejoice in this verse that the right Man is on our side, the man of God’s own choosing. Who is he? Christ Jesus. According to the testimony of God’s Word, he is Lord Sabaoth, meaning “Lord of hosts” (2 Thess 1:7). Not only that, but he is also the same from age to age (Heb 13:8). And lastly, just in case it needs to be said, he is the one who must win the battle (Rev 12:7-12; 19:11-16).
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.
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.
This verse continues the thought of the previous one, elaborating on our confidence in Scripture’s testimony that Christ Jesus must win the battle. In this verse we join the apostle Paul in rejoicing that no one and nothing—not even the prince of grim darkness—can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). By God’s grace, we who believe in Jesus Christ “know the truth, and the truth will set [us] free” (John 8:31-32). To put it differently, God’s truth—the truth of his Word, most notably his promises—will most certainly triumph through us. His promises are solidly “Yes” and “Amen” to us through Jesus Christ his Son (2 Cor 1:20). Thus we tremble not because of the prince of darkness--in fact, God has revealed his doom to us (Rev 12:7-9; 20:7-10). One little word from our God is sufficient to fell the prince of darkness, however invincible he sometimes seems.
That Word above all earthly pow'rs,
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God's truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.
We finish our hymn with a somewhat ambiguous mention of a certain Word above all earthly pow’ers. Who or what is this Word? It could be a reference to Jesus (John 1:1), Scripture (Jer 23:29), or possibly both. Either way, our confidence is in the Triune God, including the Spirit, whom we go on to mention. We go on to rejoice that the Spirit and the gifts are ours, and for that reason we encourage one another to be willing not only to let goods and kindred (family) go, but even our lives. Jesus told us in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Indeed, later in Matthew we hear him teach that God’s truth and kingdom are of infinitely greater value than all that we have and all that we are (Matt 13:44-46).
Do you believe that? Even more broadly, do you believe all that you profess in this hymn? How does your life demonstrate that conviction, and how will you live accordingly in the weeks and months to come? Think about that. Let this great hymn of the Reformation both encourage and challenge you today.