Reference: Hymns of Grace (Los Angeles: The Master’s Seminary Press, 2015)
Sources: Hymnary website, Hymns of Grace, The Hymnbook (PCUSA 1960), Cruciform Press, Online Etymology Dictionary
Martin Luther (b.1483) wrote “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in 1529. The tune, EIN FESTE BURG (18.104.22.168.22.214.171.124.7; trans. “A Solid Fortress”), is original to Luther, though perhaps by means of adaptation and arrangement of preexisting melodies. Modern harmonization is taken from Johann S. Bach when he worked with the tune in his Cantata 80 (17thcentury). In 1852, Frederick H. Hedge translated Luther’s text into English. Ironically, it would first be sung in the American Unitarian Association (Hymns for the Church of Christ, 1853). An alternate translation was provided by Michael A. Perry in 1981, titled, “God is Our Fortress and Our Rock.”
In the following commentary, all quotations from the hymn will be italicized.
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 does seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
This hymn pulls chiefly from Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (v.1). We know that God is mighty. He must be, or else He is not God. Yet here He is called a mighty fortress. A fortress is for protecting what dwells within, for keeping safe that which presides inside the high walls. What God keeps safe is implied immediately, for it is not any God but our God Who is a mighty fortress. Israel rests in the fortress. The people of God dwell in the protection of God. In sending aid to His people, God makes no distinction. The least and the greatest receive all His benefits. “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18). “ – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:22).
A bulwark is not a fortress, but an outer fortification. It is a defensive structure not directly connected to the city walls which stand behind it. The word dates back to the early 15th century from the Middle High German term “bolwerc” (bole, “plank, tree trunk;” werc, “work”). Typically made from logs, a bulwark was always a means of defense. If God is a bulwark never failing, then He is this outer security which never gives way. The city dwells in perpetual safety because the bulwark perpetually holds.
This is grand news for us, because we live amid a flood of mortal ills. Perhaps there is no trouble so great as Satan, our ancient foe. From our waxing moments (Genesis 3) until now, he has sought to work us woe. He is considered fantasy by many, and even those who believe him take no stock in his craft, power, and armory. Yet did he not devise our fall? Does he not prowl around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8)? Did he not bring Job to rags (Job 1-2)? Did he not help facilitate Christ’s suffering (Luke 22:3)? We would do well to remember that 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.
You 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.
Our strength and striving are only our losing. Victory comes when God fights for us, as He told Joshua, “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5). For this reason we reject the devices of men (1 Samuel 17:38-40), preferring to leave the battle in God’s hand alone (v.47). “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-11), and leave Saul’s armor in the tent.
The turn of the tide comes, not by our strength, but when the Man of God’s own choosing is on our side. This is Christ Jesus, the true and greater Prophet, Priest, and King. “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1; cf. Matthew 3:17). “I have set my King on Zion” (Psalm 2:6; cf. Proverbs 8:23). Union with Christ means our salvation. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (Romans 8:28-39; Ephesians 5:25-27). Union with Christ means our worldwide conquest (Job 27:16-17; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Matthew 5:5; 28:18-20) – He must win the battle. In Christ, and only in Christ, we are eternally blessed (Ephesians 1:3-14).
“Sabaoth” is from a Hebrew word, transliterated into Greek and Latin. It often means “armies,” though can mean a “host” of any sort. Lord Sabaoth is rendered in the Old Testament English as “Lord of Hosts.” By referring to the man Christ Jesus as Lord Sabaoth, we confess that He is truly God, the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8; cf. Philippians 2:9-11). From age to age He is the same: “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). This Lord of Hosts must win the battle, which is an eschatological promise many Christians quietly forget. The pessimism of premillennial dispensationalism has dominated the American church for decades. Christians are never permitted a pessimistic view of the future. We march forward under the authority of a risen, reigning, victorious Christ, Who cannot fail or lose the fight.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has 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.
There is one particularly powerful, evil spirit, whom we call the Devil (Ephesians 4:27; 6:11; 1 Peter 5:8). Numerous other spirits follow in his rebellion (Isaiah 14:12-15; Revelation 12:1-13). The world which Adam was tasked to subdue was indwelt by dragons (Genesis 3; Revelation 12), and that same predicament has been handed down to us. We are addressed on every side by, not simply impersonal iniquity, but devils who threaten to undo us. Yet there is no room for hesitation, self-pity, or fear, for God has willed His truth to triumph through us. We know that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9; cf. Habakkuk 2:14). The gates of hell shall to prevail against the church of the living God (Matthew 16:18), not because we are mighty, but because Christ, the Son of the living God will reign victorious through us on earth (v.16).
Therefore, there is no cause for a Christian to fear. Whatever we may feel or wish, we never have a good reason to be afraid. Though the prince of darkness prowls for prey (1 Peter 5:8), we tremble not for him. One may respect this ancient, powerful spirit without bowing down to him. His rage is endurable because his doom is sure. The word of God shall fell him, swiftly and surely (Revelation 19:19-21).
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!
Here, we sing of three treasures that belong to the church: the Word, the Spirit, and the gifts. The Word of God abides, subject to neither destruction nor obscuration. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35; cf. Psalm 119:89; Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:23, 25). The Spirit is by no means under our control, but He is nevertheless ours through him who with us sideth – that is, through Christ. “In him you… were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:13-14; cf. Acts 1:4). Christ gave the Spirit, and the Spirit, in Christ, gives gifts: “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men’” (Ephesians 4:7-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12).
With such divine aids at our side, by the disposal of God’s free grace, there is nothing for which to want. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. Cling not unto the earthly weights; clasp only about the hem of His garment. The body they may kill – with sword, saw, and sickle – but God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever! “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (Romans 8:35). He cannot fail, and so His people cannot fail. “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (Psalm 103:17-18). We are assailed from all fronts, but we gladly give up our goods, kindred, life, and body, for ours is an assurance which cannot be shaken. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Alt. Trans. “God is Our Fortress and Our Rock”
God is our fortress and our rock, our mighty help in danger;
He shields us from the battle’s shock and thwarts the devil’s anger;
For still the prince of night prolongs evil’s fight;
He uses all skill to work his wicked will;
No earthly force is like him.
Our hope is fixed on Christ alone, to Man of God’s own choosing;
Without him nothing can. Be won and fighting must be losing;
So let the powers accursed come try do their worst;
Christ Jesus shall ride to battle at our side,
And he shall have the victory.
The word of God will not be slow while demon hordes surround us,
Though evil strike its cruelest blow and death and hell confound us;
For though we meet distress, lose all we possess;
Those planning our ill may ravage, wreck, or kill;
God’s kingdom is immortal!