Daniel Johnson, my good friend from England, has agreed to write two posts interpreting two hymns over the next two weeks. This week he'll be interpreting "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," and next week will be "And Can It Be?" Daniel is a musician whose own hymns can be listened to on his website, danieljohnsonhymns.co.uk, and he's doing postgrad in the hymn writing of Isaac Watts.
'A MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD'
interpreted by Daniel Johnson
Have you ever noticed that, without warning, you suddenly find yourself singing a song from your childhood? You wake up one morning and you have a nursery rhyme in your head, and even though you've not sung it for twenty-five years, you can sing it word for word.
My great-grandmother was 98 when she died. She had severe Alzheimer’s disease, and could barely recognise her family. But she could remember the hymns from her childhood perfectly. They were rooted deep down within a memory that was being ravaged by a cruel disease. She couldn't recall the names of her grandchildren, or remember what she'd had for lunch, but she knew every word to the hymns that had been her companion for nearly a century.
500 years ago, Martin Luther saw the potential of song, and harnessed their power to great effect. He knew that when a tune and words are married, they are hard to forget.
Luther was one of the great figures in the Protestant Reformation. He was a German monk gripped by guilt and fear. While studying the book of Romans, he found the truth of the gospel in Romans 1:17 – “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."” Luther saw that righteousness was not granted by the church, nor attained by good works. Instead, he discovered the truth that it is Christ, dying for our sins and rising.
This put Luther at loggerheads with the Catholic Church. He wrote many books and tracts, to get the gospel out across Germany and into Europe. He did away with the Latin Bible and translated the Bible into German. And he wrote many hymns. He knew that while many people could not read, they might not grasp the truths he was labouring to preach. So he put the jewel of the gospel in the casket of the hymn.
The most famous hymn Luther composed is “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” It is based on Psalm 46, which begins,
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
- Psalm 46:1-3
Luther believed that the Psalms were mainly about Christ. In Colossians 3:16, Paul instructs the church to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”
For Luther, using the Psalms was not only obedience to God’s commands, it was also a stroke of genius. By using the songs of Israel, the elect people of God, chosen by grace, Luther is equating the fledgling Protestant Church with Israel. The songs of Israel had become their songs. Just as God, according to the psalmist, is “our refuge and strength” so too a mighty fortress is “our God.” The collective possessive adjective locates the Protestant believers into the history of God’s people. The God of Israel was their God too. Their enemies were therefore God’s enemies.
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 power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
In the second verse, Luther moves the focus onto Christ. The strength to fight for the purity of the gospel and the holiness of the Church is ultimately Christ’s battle. Christ, as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Psalm is now the hope of the Reformation.
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.
Luther was not one to mince his words. To him, the pope and the Catholic Church were in league with the devil. They were agents of darkness, in direct conflict with God.
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.
The song finishes by lifting the singer’s eyes up from the battlefield to the victory parade, where the Triune God has destroyed all enemies, while protecting all true believers from every age.
That word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours,
thru 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.
“A Mighty Fortress” is just about 500 years old. What is the key to its enduring legacy? Why is it still sung today, when countless hymns have come and gone through the centuries? I think there’s a few reasons:
As I mentioned earlier, Luther places the singer right in the heart of the story of the Bible. The God of Israel is the God of the Reformation. And all who continue to sing this song find themselves lifting their voice with believers who span history and the globe. The promises that God made to Israel are now ours in Christ. We are the covenant people of the LORD. We live in a world where identity is so hard to find. Identity is constructed from nationality, race, gender, sexuality, education, wealth, accomplishment and status. For the Christian, the challenge is not to build our identities on these shifting sands, but to know that we are “in Christ.”
One key message within the song is that we who are in Christ are the people of God, and that He is the one who keeps us safe. The world, the flesh and the devil are no match for the power of God. Just as one would be saved from an invading army by seeking refuge in a castle, so too all who are in Christ are secure in Him. To leave the Catholic Church during the Reformation was no small thing. There was a cost to it; families would be divided and livelihoods were put at risk. And yet, in the face of it all, they sang of a fortress within God Himself. For Christians today, there are pressures on all sides, to remain pure in a corrupt world, to shine as lights in the darkness and to stand firm for Christ. Christians from all ages have experienced struggles, hardships and persecutions. But through it all, God is the refuge of His people.
3. Spiritual Warfare
Ephesians 6:12 states that, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” It is tempting for Christians to see our enemy as being flesh and blood; the armies threatening Israel, the Catholic Church, the secular press, the government, apathetic or hostile friends…the list goes on. But this hymn goes behind the curtain to a world beyond our eyes, where a spiritual battle rages. It serves as a corrective to our weak spiritual eyesight. The hymn is like Elisha, and we are like his servant, unable to see the great army that surrounds us, fighting for us.
When we sing hymns that belong generations that have gone before us, we give our worship the dimension of time. The experiences of believers who have since passed the baton of faith into our hands shape our lives and faith. “A Mighty Fortress is our God” has, for 500 years, infused Christian worship with God’s priorities. The hymn stops us from settling in and getting too comfortable. It reminds us that we are pilgrims, joining a great and joyful procession moving towards an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:4-5)