Sometimes the work is worth it.
That’s certainly the case with understanding the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Since it was written almost 500 years ago, it has become one of the most well-known hymns in church history. Originally written by Martin Luther, the monk who kicked off the Protestant Reformation in Europe, the song has been translated in to over 200 languages. Luther wrote the melody to “A Mighty Fortress” himself, and based the lyrics on Psalm 46.
The version that is most well-known in English was translated in 1853 by Frederick Hedge – so it comes to us in 200-year-old English. That creates a bit of a challenge for folks (most of us) not familiar with archaic terms and ways of writing. But as with a lot of old literature and poetry, the work of making sense of it is worth the reward.
Luther became a monk because of a rash promise. Threatened by a severe lighting storm, the terrified Luther cried out to St. Anne, patron saint of travelers, that if he survived the storm he would dedicate his life to God in a monastery. And when he took his vows as a monk, he didn’t have a clue who God really was. Afraid of God as a frowning, threatening, untouchably perfect tyrant, Luther believed God hated him for his sin. And in return, he hated and was terrified of God. But thanks to Johann von Staupitz, his superior in the monastery, Luther came face to face with the love of God in Jesus through studying the scriptures.
The rest is history – some of the most transformative history in all of Western Civilization. Luther came into conflict with the Roman Catholic church because of his insistence on following the Bible over the traditions of the church, leading to the Protestant Reformation. Though many of Luther’s friends and coworkers in the Reformation died for their convictions, Luther not only survived, but thrived. Even with the most powerful institution in Europe gunning for him, Luther was safe.
20 years after becoming a monk, Luther wrote a hymn based on Psalm 46. Often, when he was afraid, Luther would say to his friends, “Let’s sing the 46th Psalm, and let the devil do his worst.”
So: let’s take a look at these old lyrics, and see if we can find the same comfort in God’s promise that as long has he is our fortress, nothing can hurt us – even if we lose our lives for his sake.
A mighty fortress is our God; a bulwark never failing.
- Our God is our fortress! A bulwark is the big, defensive wall of a fortress. These parallel lyrics emphasize that God is our place of never-failing refuge.
Our helper, he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
- Even though the ills – the problems and evils – of our mortal world seem to be prevailing – winning – he is our helper in the midst of it all.
But still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe.
- Our “ancient foe” is Satan, and he is still trying to hurt us who love God.
His wrath and power are great, and armed with cruel hate;
- Satan is angry and powerful, his hate is cruel.
On earth is not his equal.
- No one on earth can beat the devil on their own.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
- If we trusted our own strength, all our efforts would fail…
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing
- If not for the one who is on our side…
You ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he!
- Who is on our side? Jesus!!
The Lord of Hosts his name, from age to age the same
- He is the Lord of Hosts – the name of God that means the leader of angel armies – and he never changes.
And he must win the battle!
- The only way this can go is that Jesus wins.
And though this world with devils filled would threaten to undo us,
We will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.
- Even though the world and the forces of evil will try to take us down, we won’t be afraid because God’s truth is going to win – through us!
The prince of darkness grim: we tremble not for him!
- Satan himself can’t scare us…
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure:
- We can deal with him – he’s already destined to lose.
One little Word shall fell him.
- Satan will fall with a single Word.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth.
- And the word that will destroy the devil is Jesus – the Word Made Flesh
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him who with us sideth.
- Because he’s on our side, we have his Spirit and his spiritual gifts.
Let goods and kindred go – this mortal life also
- So: let go of your possessions, your loved ones – even your life in this world…
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still!
- Don’t fear the one who can kill the body. Even if you die, God’s promise stands!
His kingdom is forever!