Lent hymn review: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"

The hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (ELH 250 and ELH 251) is called the Battle Hymn of the Reformation. Written by Martin Luther, it has been called “the greatest hymn of the greatest man in the greatest period of Germany history.” By 1900 it had been translated into 53 languages, and a recent estimate counts that number at over 200 languages.

The exact date and circumstances of Luther’s writing of this hymn are unknown. Possibly it was written after the Second Diet of Speyer in 1529, which attempted to reverse the religious liberties granted three years earlier by the Holy Roman Emperor. The German princes wrote a formal protest about this reversal. Their action created the term ‘Protestantism.’

But it is not necessary for the glory of the hymn to show any specific occasion for its origin. All those years in Germany were a period of religious struggle and persecution, and Luther wrote the hymn to strengthen himself and other Christians. Christian courage finds a wonderfully clear expression in this hymn. The helpless flock, facing an enemy who has unequaled power on earth, does not fail in courage, but holds to God and his Word and sings about an assured victory.

God himself became our general in battle. The battle waged throughout our Savior’s life built up to the battle of the ages on the cross. If we do not view that battle at the cross carefully, we may think the war was lost because there our champion died. Yet Easter morning wipes all confusion aside. Jesus arose victorious showing that he crushed the general of evil and his forces and destroyed the Devil’s power.

Our hymnary includes two different tunes. ELH 250 was written by Martin Luther. According to the musical tastes of the 1500s, it features an interesting rhythm but a plain harmonization.

ELH 251 was written by a famous Norwegian musician, Ludvig Lindeman, in the 1800s. Musical tastes had changed. His tune features a plain rhythm to highlight the more interesting harmonies of the singers. At Lindeman’s funeral it was said, “He taught the Norwegian people to sing.”

250/251 – A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

  1. A mighty Fortress is our God,
    A trusty Shield and Weapon;
    Our help is He in all our need,
    Our stay whate'er doth happen;
    For still our ancient foe
    Doth seek to work us woe;
    Strong mail of craft and pow'r
    He weareth in this hour;
    On earth is not his equal.

  2. Stood we alone in our own might,
    Our striving would be losing;
    For us the one true Man doth fight,
    The Man of God's own choosing.
    Who is this chosen One?
    'Tis Jesus Christ, the Son,
    The Lord of hosts, 'tis He
    Who wins the victory
    In ev'ry field of battle.

  3. And were the world with devils filled,
    All watching to devour us.
    We tremble not, we fear no ill,
    They shall not overpow'r us,
    Our souls to fear we need not yield,
    They cannot overpow'r us.
    Their dreaded prince no more
    Can harm us as of yore;
    His rage we can endure;
    For lo! his doom is sure,
    A word shall overthrow him.

  4. Still must they leave God's Word its might,
    For which no thanks they merit;
    Still is He with us in the fight,
    With His good gifts and Spirit.
    And should they, in the strife,
    Take kindred, goods, and life,
    We freely let them go,
    They profit not the foe;
    With us remains the kingdom.