“Hymns of Glory” will be a recurring series. Its purpose is to reflect on beautiful, sound, and spiritual hymns, both old and modern, that have made a tremendous impact in the lives of those who write for The Reformed Alliance, and have glorified God through it’s all-around composition. May you be blessed by the series, and consider these hymns for personal, family, and corporate worship.
Of all the hymns sung by churches around the world, none could compare to the richness of A Mighty Fortress is Our God. There are few hymns that can be as prolific as this one, and there are even fewer hymns that have such a deep history. From Ned Flander’s doorbell from The Simpsons, to the 9/11 Prayer Service held on September 14 of 2001, A Mighty Fortress is our God is a hymn that has been presented in many forms throughout our American pop-culture.
However, as a child I grew up in Slavic church where most hymns were sung in Russian, and occasionally in the Ukrainian language. Regretfully, we didn’t sing hymns like A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and even while we did sing hymns on Sunday services for a while, that was quickly changed in my life thanks to the new wave of Christian music brought up by millennials. I was taught that hymns weren’t spiritual enough and that modern worship was the way to go.
It wasn’t until I truly decided to follow Jesus that I realized my grandparents were singing songs that were sung for generations. For centuries, people’s Christianity lasted through a lifetime through hymns. Hymns stuck for me, not just because of the beautiful, archaic language, but because it beckoned a Christian to praise God with courage, spiritual joy, and sound theology. I loved every hymn I discovered, until… this hymn.
I remember hearing A Mighty Fortress is Our God and hating it at first. The lyrics didn’t make sense to me, the melody sounded lazy, and the words didn’t sound biblical to me at the time. However, that all changed once I read about the man who wrote the hymn: Martin Luther. To truly understand this hymn, you have to know the history of a broken man and the biblical text that he based the hymn on.
The Man Behind the Song
Martin Luther, even before the Reformation, was considered to be one of the most brilliant minds of his time. By the time he was 25 years old, he had already completed basic, advanced, and masters degrees. However, it wasn’t until a lightening storm occurred, in which he was almost killed, that he decided to become a theologian. Within five years of his theological education, he had five degrees ranging from biblical languages to divinity. He even received a doctorate in his field.
Though Luther was a man with great achievements and status, he was weakened by a fear that God hated him. He would starve, whip, and cut himself in order to appease what he believed to be God’s wrath. Then, Luther had an epiphany after reading Ephesians 2:8-9 (GNV), “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast himself.” This made Luther realize that he was wrong and that the teachings of Catholicism were wrong too.
He then nailed his most famous document, The 95 Theses, to the door of a Cathedral on Saint Hallow’s Eve, October 31, 1517 (this year will mark the 500th year anniversary…mark your calendars). In that document, he stated that God saved His Church through grace, and not through works; he also said that we were to obey the Word of God, and not the claims of a pope. He was then brought before a hearing by the authorities called the Diet of Worms in 1521. When asked if he would renounce anything he believed, the broken, but confident man said this:
I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; so help me God.
Throughout the following years of his life, Martin Luther’s life would be threatened. He had death threats, assassination attempts, and friends betraying him. However, he found solace in the Scriptures, in prayer, and in God’s grace. He knew that nothing mattered more than God.
Martin Luther later on became an amateur musician and a lover of music. He began to enjoy hymn writing as well. At one point, he stated that the serenity of music was second only to Scripture. One day, after reading Psalm 46, he composed the hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God. His outcry for the Lord in the hymn was relatable to all Christians who have times of weakness, desperation, and temptation. Martin Luther, whose life was filled with depression, anguish, and death, was the best writer for a hymn like this one.
As I said before, understanding the text is also necessary to get this hymn. Psalm 46:1 (ESV) begins by saying this, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Right away, we get a glimpse that God is going to be a refuge, a bulwark rather. God is one who protects against troubles. Then in Psalm 46:6-7 it speaks of earthly destruction and societal corruption, but then there’s a hope saying, “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; He utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
This text reminds us, as much as it reminded Luther, that God doesn’t fail. God combats against Satan, our enemy. God combats against evil and sin. God combats against all forms of treachery and danger against His Church. Rest assure that God is completely for us, and that this hymn, which has lyrics based on this psalm, calls us to take note of this truth.
As one can tell, I have come to love this hymn very much. It has easily become one of my absolute most favorite hymns of glory in all of history. It truly glorifies God, and it is partially because of a Reformer who wrote, a man who was committed to giving glory to God alone. Martin Luther conveyed a biblical truth when writing this hymn, that God would always be with those He loves and would always protect His elect. Why? Because our God is a mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing.
Below are the lyrics to the song. May God bless you with this impactful hymn that has lasted throughout the centuries in the Church. (To listen to the traditional hymn, click here.)
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
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 is His name, from age to age the same
And He must win the battle
And tho’ 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 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
Soli Deo Gloria.