The Story Behind the Song – A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Probably, one of the greatest hymns written by the greatest man of the greatest period of German history is the song “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. It has been called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation”. This song was written by the great German reformer Martin Luther. Let us look briefly at the man, Martin Luther. Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483 to Hans and Margaretha Luder in Eisleben Germany. Hans, Martin’s father, owned a copper mine in Mansfield. Having the finances to do so, and having come from a very modest peasantry himself, Martin’s father Hans was determined that Martin would be raised with dignity and have a future in civil servitude. Martin attended schools in Mansfield, Magdeburg and Eisenach Germany. When Martin Luther was seventeen he enrolled in the University of Erfurt in the year 1501. He received his Bachelor’s degree in only one year and his Master’s degree three years later. As soon as a completed his Master’s degree, he enrolled in the law school of the University of Erfurt.
One day in the year 1505 while walking in the woods, Martin Luther got caught in a terrible thunderstorm and he began to run to seek shelter at the school but before he reached the safety of the school lightening struck near where he was running. It was so close to him in fact that he cried out to St. Anne “Help, St. Anne! I’ll become a monk!” (according to catholic tradition St. Anne is the mother of the Virgin Mary). Martin Luther survived the near death experience and true to his word, he dropped out of law school and entered the monastery.
Young Martin Luther dedicated himself fully to the life of a monk. He put forth every effort to please God and to do good works. He devoted his life to religious fast and flagellations (A beating or whipping; a flogging; the discipline of the scourge) long pilgrimages and many hours in prayer as well as constant confession. The closer he tried to get to God and the more he did to do to gain God’s favor, the more aware he became of his sinfulness.
Martin Luther’s superior, Johann Von Staupitz thought that he needed more work to distract him and occupy his mind. He ordered young Luther to pursue a career in academics. In 1507, at the age of 24, Martin Luther was ordained and in 1508 he began to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg. March 9, 1508 Martin Luther earned his Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies and in 1509 he earned a Bachelor’s degree in the Sentences (the main textbook of theology in the Middle Ages) The University of Wittenberg conferred upon him the Doctor of Theology on October 19, 1509.
Though he lived the life of a monk without reproach, Martin felt that he was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. After meditating on the “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” he began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith and Martin Luther was saved by the grace of God.
It was in the year 1517, to be more precise, it was Halloween of 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. In his Theses he accused the Roman Catholic organization of many heresies, particularly the Dominican priest Johann Tetzel and the selling of indulgences. Johann Tetzel died two years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door. According to Martin Luther’s own testimony, it was after the death of Tetzel that he himself was saved.
Martin Luther was the first to translate and publish the Bible in the common language of the German people. He used Erasmus’ 1516 critical Greek edition text, which later came to be know as the Textus Receptus (the received text) from which our King James Bible was translated. Luther published his German New Testament translation in 1522 and completed the Old Testament resulting in an entire German language Bible in 1534. About this same time, Martin Luther became a friend and confidant of William Tyndale who translated the Textus Receptus into English.
It was in 1529 that Martin Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and it has been called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation. This hymn presents an exception in its tune in the fact that it is sung pretty much as Luther wrote it. There are some different variations as far as the rhythm is concerned.
The words are a paraphrase of Psalm 46. We will examine the verses, which of course have been translated from German to English, for their doctrinal content. We will use the version by Frederick Henry Hedge translated in 1853, this is the most popular English version although it has been translated into English at least seventy times.
Let us compare the first verse with Psalm 46.
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.
As you examine these lines and compare it to Psalm 46 verse 1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” You can easily see where his thought came from. Another English translation of this hymn, by Thomas Carlyle, opens with the line, “A safe stronghold our God is still” but I personally prefer “A mighty fortress is our God”. Keeping in mind that this hymn was written between 1527 and 1529, this was during the period of exile and during the time he was translating the Old Testament.
In 1520 Luther had been condemned for his Protestant views by Pope Leo X and commanded to renounce or reaffirm his 95 Theses. He was given 24 hours to consider his choice. He did apologize for his harsh tone, but reaffirmed his belief in his Theses. After knowing all of these circumstances, understanding that he was now in hiding in exile, you can understand the verse much better. He talks about in the latter part of the verse how “the ancient foe doth seek to us woe” and his pow’r and hate, it is clear to see that he equates the Roman Papacy with the Devil. He writes about how that “on earth is not his equal” most likely referring to the fact that at this time, this was the height of the power of the Roman Papacy and there was no power on earth that could equal them, but his confidence was not in any earthly protection, or fortress, he was looking to God.
Again, we refer back to Psalm 46 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Psalm 46:2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;” consider the second line “amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing” in light of Psalm 46:2. The word “refuge” in verse 1 is from a verb that means to flee, and then to flee to, or to take shelter in, it, according to Albert Barnes, “denotes a place to which one would flee in time of danger – as a lofty wall; a high tower; a fort; a fortress.”
The theological doctrine found in the lines of Martin Luther’s song is the that of faithfulness, God’s faithfulness, this reminds us of Hebrews 6:18, “That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us:” It is a comfort to know that you can flee to God for refuge, you can trust him. It is interesting to note, that even though Luther was condemned to death, he escaped martyrdom and died of natural causes.
Look briefly at verse two:
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.
The first lines remind me of Philippians 3:3 “…and have no confidence in the flesh.” Our flesh is weak, warped and wicked and cannot be trusted. Luther had it right in the third line, the right man on our side. The man of God’s own choosing, Revelation 13:8 declares that Jesus was “…the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” God did not have to search through heaven or come up with a secondary plan when Adam fell in the garden, Calvary was in the mind of God when he created the heavens and the earth. When God took Adam up in his arms and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul, God had already determined that Jesus would die to redeem fallen man.
The Lord Sabaoth is Jehovah Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts. According to Amos 4:13 “For, lo, he that formeth the mountains, and createth the wind, and declareth unto man what is his thought, that maketh the morning darkness, and treadeth upon the high places of the earth, The LORD, The God of hosts, is his name” The “God of hosts” is Jehovah Sabaoth. Amos gives us a clear and concise description of God’s attributes of sovereignty, omniscience and omnipotence. We also find another accurate description of Jehovah Sabaoth in Isaiah 6:3 “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Our first introduction to the Jehovah Sabaoth, the Lord Sabaoth, that Martin Luther refers to in his second verse, is in I Samuel 1, the very familiar story of Hannah. Hannah was barren, she was one of two wives of Elkanah, and she had the natural desire of a woman, to be a mother. She made a promise to the Lord, Jehovah Sabaoth, Jehovah of Host, the mighty tower that she would give her child back to God. The Lord of host opened her womb and Samuel was born, she did just what she had promised, she gave him back to God and God greatly used Samuel. The Lord Sabaoth is the Lord of hosts of I Samuel 1:3. No doubt, in his personal study, Martin Luther was aware of this, and he himself, in his exile, had fled to the mighty fortress, Lord Sabaoth, the Lord of hosts.
There are two more occasions in the book of I Samuel where we find Jehovah Sabaoth. The first of these two encounters is another very familiar story, it is the story of David and Goliath. David is facing the giant and tells him “…thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts…” This can easily be seen in the opening lines of Martin Luther’s second verse “Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing;” Martin Luther could relate to David in his own battle against the giant Roman papacy.
Both Hannah and David had fled to and called upon the name of Jehovah Sabaoth, the Lord of hosts, and had experienced deliverance. Martin Luther had experienced this deliverance himself and it is comforting to know that we too can call upon Jehovah Sabaoth, but there is an instance in I Samuel 4 when Israel is defeated and the ark of the covenant is stolen by the Philistines. Upon careful study of the context of this defeat, you will see that Israel was trusting in the Ark of God rather than the God of the Ark. They were using the Ark and looking to the Ark as a lucky charm so to speak. But David later corrected this and restored the Ark to its rightful place by trusting in the God of the host, the Lord of host, Jehovah Sabaoth. We can learn the lesson from this to trust in the Lord. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Martin Luther knew from experience what he was writing about in those lines.
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