Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Mighty Fortress

Praise for the Lord #6

Words: Martin Luther, 1529, translated by Frederick Hedge, 1853
Music: Martin Luther, 1529, arranged by J.S. Bach, 1717

Few hymns will ever achieve the importance of "A mighty fortress". Not only is it a truly great hymn by almost anyone's reckoning, it has accrued an inestimable cultural significance because of its author and his era. It has been called the "Battle Hymn of the Reformation", and is as deeply rooted in German culture as, for example, "Amazing grace" is in the United States.

Martin Luther will require a post all his own to discuss his impact on hymns and on the restoration of congregational singing to a primary place in worship. Suffice to say, for now, that he was a true Renaissance man, broadly talented and well able to launch a great musical tradition, even though this was hardly his main area of work!

Making a good translation of hymn lyrics is a difficult proposition, since the translation itself needs to fit the notes of the tune and (ideally) rhyme in something approaching the form of the original. Hedge's translation is only one of many; the following resources may also be of interest:

There have been many other translations, and there are many variants, as can be expected with such an old and popular hymn. Praise for the Lord, for example, omits Luther's original fourth verse, following the practice of Elmer Jorgenson's classic Great Songs of the Church, which greatly influenced the editors throughout. Some will remember a different final verse from the rendition in Alton Howard's Songs of the Church, which splices the beginning of the third verse with the ending of the fourth verse, following Hedge's translation.

Luther's inspiration was Psalm 46, though he did not follow the text closely; the figure of God as a fortress in the midst of a spiritual battle seems to be the extent of the borrowing.(Stead, 56) He seems to rely just as heavily on Ephesians 6.

Stanza 1:
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.

Scripture often represents God as a fortress, a place of safety from attack. "You have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy," said David in Psalm 61:3. Proverbs 18:10 affirms that "The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe." Of course, this only means something to us when we realize we are under attack--and we are. It was not for rhetorical emphasis that Paul warns us to "fight the good fight of faith"(1 Timothy 6:12) and to "take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm."(Ephesians 6:13)

Luther is perfectly clear who is to blame--literally, his text accused not "our ancient foe", but "that old, evil fiend". Luther believed very literally in the devil--it is said he even claimed to have seen him at the door, and (Luther being Luther) to have thrown an inkpot at him. Moderns mock the idea, of course; we live in a day when everyone believes in "angels" but nobody believes in the devil. Nothing could suit him better, of course.

Stanza 2:
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.

This hymn is a good example of why sometimes you really have to sing all of the verses. At the end of the first stanza, Luther introduces the devil, not as a comical figure in a red suit, but "like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour."(1 Peter 5:8) "On earth is not his equal"--the believers, on their own, cannot stand against him. But as Ephesians 6:10 instructs, "be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might." The Hero arrives in the nick of time, the "Man of God's own choosing", succeeding where no one else could have succeeded. He is the "Lord of Hosts"(Easton) riding into battle to rally His troops to win the day. The awesome picture of Christ as the Lord of Hosts is given in Revelation 19:11-16:

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

Stanza 3:
And though this world, with demons 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!

"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."(Ephesians 6:12) This battle rages on, but we know that we can win because He has won--because on the cross, "having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it."(Colossians 2:15) Though the devil will rage against us, we can carry on this spiritual fight in the assurance that "one little word shall fell him;" remember how Jesus countered the devil's temptations in Matthew 4! "Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil,"(Ephesians 6:11) and "resist the devil, and he will flee from you."(James 4:7)

About the music: This is a "chorale", as they are called in the Lutheran tradition, and follows a very typical format called "Barform" in which the first section repeats and the second section, usually somewhat longer, does not. Luther believed strongly in using simple, folk-like melodies that could be easily learned by untrained singers, and thus wrote a sturdy marching song in keeping with the text. It is important to understand that Luther wrote only the melody, and that it was meant to be sung by the congregation in unison. Harmony was added by others later, and was provided by the choir and organ while the congregation sang the tune. J.S. Bach's rich, complex harmonizations were thus written for an accompanied choir, not for a cappella congregational singing; it is a real accomplishment when a congregation can sing them.


Stead, William Thomas. Hymns that Have Helped: Being a Collection of Hymns which Have Been Found Most Useful to the Children of Men. Doubleday & McClure, 1897. http://books.google.com/books?id=h-XXf5RuXQ8C&printsec=frontcover

Easton, M. G. Sabaoth. Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897. http://www.blueletterbible.org/search/Dictionary/viewTopic.cfm?


  1. My understanding is that in the German original of the second stanza;
    "Were not the right Man on our side,"
    the word "right" refers to righteousnes. Jesus is the "righteous man" who is on our side.

    Hymnals not used in churches of Christ have the world filled with "devils" in stanza three. Since there is only one Satan, the plural "demons" seems to be a better choice. Do you know who made this change? What do you think of the softer "And though this world, with evil filled?"

    Why is the fourth stanza omitted?

    That word a-bove all earth-ly powers,
    no thanks to them, a-bid-eth;
    The Spir-it and the gifts are ours
    through Him Who with us sid-eth:
    Let goods and kin-dred go,
    this mor-tal life al-so;
    The bod-y they may kill:
    God’s truth a-bid-eth still,
    His king-dom is for-ev-er.

  2. Mark, Thanks for reading, and for raising these interesting questions.

    The best I can tell, the 3-stanza version found in Praise for the Lord came from Great Songs of the Church, along with the "demons" wording. That particular word choice, however, is found in a few earlier hymnals, most notably Salvation Army songbooks. The earliest instance I can find is In Excelsis (New York: Century, 1897).

    I recognized the second half of the 4th stanza you quoted immediately, because I grew up with a 3-stanza version of this text that splices in the second half of the 4th:

    And though this world, with evil filled
    Should threaten to undo us;
    We will not fear for God hath willed
    His truth to triumph through us.
    Let goods and kindred go,
    This mortal life also;
    The body they may kill:
    God's truth abideth still,
    His kingdom is forever.

    This is in Christian Hymns no. 2 from Gospel Advocate, and was picked up in Howard Publishing's Songs of the Church. It works pretty well, actually. The earliest instance I have found is in Laudes Domini (New York: Century, 1887).

    The GA/Howard Publishing version uses "evil" instead of "devils" or "demons," but I see that wording used outside the Churches of Christ as well, for example in the African American Heritage Hymnal.

    It is always possible that a particular editor used an altered version of a text because that was the one known to him, not because he specifically rejected the original. If a 20th-century editor picked this chorale up from one of the Century Company publications, he might not be aware of the differences. But if there was an intentional avoidance of the original 4th stanza, I suspect it had to do with the words "The Spirit and the gifts are ours." Of course many non-charismatic groups sing this stanza, and I could to, without reference to miraculous manifestations; but some brethren might want to avoid the possibility of controversy.

    On the word choice of "devils," "demons," or "evil," I think "demons" best communicates Luther's language to us today. Some might object to the idea of demonic activity still at work today, because there is a school of thought that says the demonic activity of the 1st century ceased with that generation, along with the miraculous gifts that drove it out.

    I tend to agree, but this is conjecture; my attitude towards demons is that 1) I know I am safe from any such powers as long as I am in Christ (Romans 8), but 2) I am certainly not going looking for them.

    p.s. An interesting way to try to compare different wordings is to use a phrase search in quotes on Google, and see how many hits result. The "devils" version of that line gets over 70,000, but the "demons" version only a few hundred, and the "evil" version just a handful.

    God bless, and Merry Christmas!