“A MIGHTY FORTRESS”
“He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him will I trust” (Ps. 91.2)
INTRO.: A hymn which presents God as a refuge and fortress is the familiar “A Mighty Fortress” (#16 in Hymns for Worship Revised and #216 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written and the tune (Ein Feste Burg) was composed both by Martin Luther, who was born Nov. 10, 1483, at Eisleben in Saxony, Germany, the son of a poor miner. Educated at the University of Erfurt, he became a monk in 1505 and was ordained as a priest in 1507. The following year he joined the faculty at the University of Wittenberg, and it was there, in 1517, that he nailed his now well-known 95 theses to the door of the cathedral. Three years later, in 1520, he was excommunicated. As a result of his courage, he became the leader of the reform movement in 16th century Germany against the medieval Roman Catholic Church.
In 1520, when Luther was being threatened with arrest and trial in Rome, he was “kidnapped” (so to speak) and given asylum by a sympathetic German prince at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach. Feeling that people should be able to understand their religion, he used the time during his year-long isolation to begin his work of translating the New Testament from Greek into German as well as writing hymns in the language which the common people spoke. It is thought that the security of this castle may have been in Luther’s mind when he later penned his best-known hymn. One of the important benefits of the Reformation was the rediscovery of congregational singing. And the single most powerful hymn of the movement was this one, which was apparently produced in 1529 at Coburg when Luther was 45 for the Diet of Speier (or Spires) and published in a Wittenberg hymnbook that same year.
When Luther died suddenly on Feb. 18, 1546, at his hometown of Eisleben, the hymn was sung at his funeral and the first line was inscribed on his tombstone. The translation into English that we use was made by a professor at Harvard University, Frederick Henry Hedge (1805-1890). It was done in 1852 and first published in the 1853 Hymns for the Church of Christ. The version of the melody as we know it is taken from the arrangement and harmonization of the great German Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). His 1717 Cantata #80 is based on the hymn. There were originally 4 stanzas in all, but many of our books have only three, with the third made up of sections taken from Luther’s stanzas 3 and 4.
Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the hymn appeared in the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2 and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 both edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater; and the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch. Today it may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; in addition to Hymns for Worship, Sacred Selections, and the new 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat.
The hymn presents God a source of protection, like a strong castle.
I. In stanza 1 the Lord is called a bulwark.
“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.”
A. “Bulwark” means a defensive wall such as would surround a fortress which then can serve as a refuge: Ps. 46.1-2
B. Because God is such a bulwark, He is our helper: Heb. 13.6
C. Of course, needing such a bulwark implies that we have a foe against whom we require protection: 1 Pet. 5.8
II. In stanza 2, the point is made that God is the source of our trust
“Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right One [Man] on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth [is] His name, From age to age the same, And He must win the battle.”
A. Since God is our refuge, we must look to Him for strength and not ourselves: Ps. 18.1-3
B. God provides the strength that we need through the right One who is on our side; Christ Jesus is called “the Man of God’s own choosing” because He became human so that by His example He can aid us: Heb. 2.17-18
C. But He is not only man; He is also Lord Sabaoth; this has nothing to do with the sabbath but means “Lord of Hosts”: Rom. 9.29, Jas. 5.4
III. In stanza 3, we are told that God will be the victor
“And though this world, with evil[s] 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.”
A. The original first line read “with devils (or demons) filled” since Luther believed that demons were still alive and active on earth; most of our books, and many others, change it to evil. We certainly recognize that this world is filled with evil and thus threatens to undo us: Rom. 12.2; Jas. 1.25, 4.4; 1 Jn. 2.15
B. However, if we truly trust God, He will give us victory so that there is really nothing to be afraid of in this life: Matt. 10.28
C. This victory is assured to God’s people because the doom of the prince of darkness has already been declared: Rev. 20.10
IV. In stanza for, it is said that God is the King who gives us His word
“That word above all earthly powers–No thanks to them–abideth;
The Spirit and the gift[s] 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.”
A. The means by which our King protects us is the word which abides: 1 Pet. 1.5, 25
B. Through this word, we have the Spirit and His gift to guide us and provide for all our spiritual needs: Acts 2.38, Eph. 6.11
C. Having these blessings, then, no matter what may happen in this life, we can receive an entrance into God’s eternal kingdom: 2 Pet. 1.10-11
CONCL.: Luther felt that God is our protection from both enemies without and from the evil that arises within ourselves. He composed some 37 hymns, some of which were written for his five children. Many of these are still found in Lutheran hymnals even today. However, only this one has become universally known and loved, and the reason for its endurance is undoubtedly the stirring music which Luther provided and the personal sentiment of his words. This is not the easiest song to sing. But we should never grow tired of the truth found in this grand old hymn, because it gives us good reasons to praise God as “A Mighty Fortress.”