If you’ve recently joined us in one of our services, then you’ve probably noticed how we enjoy singing ancient hymns of our faith. One of the oldest and greatest of these is A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Originally written by Martin Luther in the early part of the 16th century, this song is often also known as “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” And, considering its history and lyrics, that is certainly an appropriate description. Luther is most famous for his role in ushering in the Protestant Reformation. He, along with many others throughout Europe, found many of the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church (especially the selling of indulgences for the pardon of sins) to be heretical and became an unashamed advocate of the true gospel: that salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). As a result he faced consistent threats and was eventually excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1521. Instead of shrinking back from opposition and persecution, as well as from many other hardships throughout his life, Luther instead spent the remainder of his days boldly preaching, writing, and singing for the glory of God and in service to the church.
The Hymn and its Value
One of Luther’s greatest legacies is his songwriting, as he had a particular passion for the participation of the congregation in his worship services. This led him to write many songs in German (the common language of his people), with modern and familiar tunes, so his congregants could actually lift their voices together and not just observe the priests in their service. His greatest song is the very song we sang together this morning: A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Imagine, in Luther’s day, the strength and hope this song would have fostered in the souls of those who dared to believe in and live for the true gospel. Why? Because it would have directed them to place their faith and trust solely in God, their “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1) Though it is referred to as “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation,” it is certainly not limited to that context in history. God’s people have and will always need to be strengthened in the hope of God’s might and mercy through Christ. Think of the church in Galatia, long before the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. Were they not facing direct opposition as they sought to live in the freedom Christ brings? Now think of the many ways the cultures around us oppose the same gospel that has taken root in our lives. Or maybe some other indication of our fallen world comes to your mind: relentless temptations to sin, chronic diseases, or relationships faltering or broken. Indeed, as the hymn reminds us, our foe is ancient, he is not of flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), and he will ever wage war against our souls and the advancement of God’s kingdom. So just like the Christians in the 16th century, we too can be bolstered in our faith as we sing the triumphant words of this hymn…
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.
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.
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.
That word above all earthly powers, 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.
The Hymn and its Language
Of course, a song is only as helpful in worship as our correct understanding of its content. As we think of the lyrics of A Mighty Fortress is Our God, a few words may strike us as a bit odd. For instance, in the first stanza, we find the word bulwark: “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” This is a particularly rich description of our God, as Merriam-Webster dictionary defines bulwark as “a solid wall-like structure raised for defense.” Not only is God our defense, but He is our impenetrable, “never failing” defense against even the strongest attacks of “our ancient foe,” the evil one.
Another bit of language that may seem strange to us occurs in the second stanza: “dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord Sabaoth, His name.” As strange as it sounds, that name for God, Jehovah Sabaoth, is mentioned over 270 times throughout the Bible. It means “The Lord of Hosts,” and is used to describe God as the sovereign and faithful captain of His armies. Perhaps the most memorable use of this name for God is found in 1 Samuel 17. Consider what David says to Goliath in verse 45, prior to striking him down with the stone: “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” Brothers and sisters, the good news of the gospel is that even now we have Jesus, who is Jehovah Sabaoth, The Lord of Hosts, fighting on our behalf, and “He must win the battle.”
The Hymn and Our Church
So as we sing this hymn together in the days ahead, let us be encouraged by the mighty fortress and bulwark who is our God. Let us be uplifted as we remember it is Christ Jesus, our Lord Sabaoth, who alone can and will conquer the forces of darkness. Let us find joy in the Holy Spirit’s faithful presence and continual work in our lives. And let us be challenged to give all of ourselves for the sake of the gospel, ever living for and hoping in this beautiful promise: “His kingdom is forever.”