A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

“Put first things first and second things are thrown in. Put second things first and you lose both first and second things.”  C. S. Lewis

This article is written by Bradford Mercer, Senior Associate Pastor.

I mentioned “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in the sermon last Sunday. In this edition of First Things First I want to tell you a little more about the fascinating background of this hymn. 

Wittenberg, Germany during Luther’s time there. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Psalm 46:1

Martin Luther was, as the saying goes, a man in full. His passion for life was explosive and infectious. He mastered ancient languages, thrived on fellowship with colleagues and friends, deeply loved his wife and children, and (unique among Protestant Reformers) displayed a wonderful sense of humor. He was a gifted musician, and his reading ranged from Aristotle to the Bible to fairy tales.

Luther was also all too human, frequently experiencing physical pain and sickness, sleepless “dark nights of the soul,” and saying and doing some quite shameful things. He could be short-tempered and merciless toward both friends and enemies. Like all Christians, Luther was a grace-bought sinner. And he knew it. His hope was not in himself but in salvation by grace through faith in Christ—alone!

Many of Luther’s gifts come together in the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” “A Mighty Fortress” sounds like a battle song. Its confident lyrics and martial cadence are perfect for Reformation celebrations. But it was not originally written to celebrate the Reformation. Most scholars think Luther wrote the hymn between 1521 and 1529, with the majority saying 1527–28.

These were some of the darkest years of Luther’s life. Stalked by temptation and doubt, he underwent a period of anxiety (Anfechtung) that was one of the worst he had ever experienced. His daughter, Elizabeth, was seriously ill, and a plague broke out in the town of Wittenberg. Luther wrote to a friend: “We are all in good health except for Luther himself, who is physically well, but outwardly the whole world and inwardly the devil and all his angels are making him suffer.”

So he did what he usually did in times of trouble, he ran to the Psalms and music. Rather than a battle hymn, this hymn, based on Psalm 46, is a hymn of comfort for anxious times. A heading from a broadsheet (something like modern “sheet music”) of “A Mighty Fortress” published in Augsburg in 1529 reads “A Hymn of Comfort.” Simply put, Martin Luther took comfort in the Psalms and trusted in the promises of Jesus.

Today, the words “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” written on the Castle Church in Wittenberg (see photo below), serve as a reminder to Wittenberg, the world, and to us that our God is a mighty fortress in times of trouble! From the hymn:

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 [hosts, armies] is his name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

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 for ever.