Martin Luther wrote this hymn as a declaration of his faith! Having faced trials, excommunication, sickness, depression, spiritual warfare, and death, he knew that God, his Mighty Fortress, would be his bulwark never failing.
Martin Luther did more than just translate the Bible into German and post his 95 Theses, jumpstarting the Protestant Reformation. He also wrote some 36 hymns including “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
Let’s take a look at some verses from this beloved hymn, and see what they can teach us.
1. Our Helper through All Life’s Trials
"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.”
Ten years after Luther posted his Theses (and seven years before his German translation of the Bible was published), the bubonic plague hit his town of Wittenberg, Germany in August of 1527. Many fled Wittenberg to avoid contracting the plague, but Martin Luther, his wife Katharina, and their tiny son, Hans, stayed behind “teaching, preaching, advising the city council, and ministering to the sick.” Many believe that it was a result of the plague and other trials that Luther was inspired to pen not only the words but also the melody of “A Mighty Fortress.”
In verse one, he references “the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” Though Luther was likely referencing more than just the plague and physical diseases which affect us mortals, the plague had taken many people he knew personally. His own son, Hans, came down with the plague, though thankfully, he recovered. “Our helper” is indeed a mighty fortress, a bulwark (defensive wall) never failing. Nothing touches us without His permission.
Our “ancient foe” has been seeking to destroy mankind since the beginning of time. Luther reminds us that we have a mighty fortress to protect us from our enemy, the Devil.
2. Rely on God’s Strength
“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.”
Indeed, we cannot survive a physical plague on our own without God’s help. We certainly cannot rely on our own strength to defeat the enemy of God! But thanks be to God, we have “the right Man on our side” – namely Christ Jesus! Luther references “Lord Sabaoth” in verse 2. Lord Sabaoth means the Lord of Hosts – the starry hosts, the hosts of armies, the angelic hosts and the heavenly host. The Lord over all these hosts must win the battle!
3. Light Defeats Darkness
“And though this world, with devils 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.”
It’s interesting to note that Reformation Day and Halloween are observed on the same calendar day: October 31st. While the world celebrates the forces of evil, the Church remembers a day when the truth of the gospel triumphed! The Light will ultimately defeat the darkness.
This world “with devils filled” still threatens to undue us. Do you feel overwhelmed by our world’s increasing spiritual darkness? It is tempting to fear, but Luther reminded us that God’s truth will “triumph through us.” The Devil, known also as the Prince of Darkness, may be wreaking havoc on our world right now, but we tremble not because his doom is sure. We know who is going to win the ultimate battle, and it’s Jesus and His followers!
“The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).
4. One Word for Victory
“That word above all earthly pow’rs, 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.”
What “word,” you may be wondering? Both verses 3 and 4 reference a word that will defeat Satan and abide forever.
“One little word shall fell him . . . that word above all earthly powers.”
Luther doesn’t explicitly say, but we know for sure that his hymn is exalting Christ Jesus – the right Man on our side, Lord Sabaoth, the one prophesied to win the battle. John 1:1 calls Jesus “The Word.”
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:1-5).
What other word could fell Satan? What Word is above all earthly powers? Jesus!
“Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
And then the hymn concludes with tremendous encouragement. The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Jesus. Goods/possessions, family (kindred), even this mortal life and body can be released. God’s Truth (John 14:6) abides and His kingdom is forever!
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom” (Psalms 45:6).
“But to the Son He says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom’” (Hebrews 1:8).
“And do not lead us into temptation but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen” (Matthew 6:13).
Martin Luther wrote this hymn as a declaration of his faith! Having faced trials, excommunication, sickness, depression, spiritual warfare, and death, he knew that God, his Mighty Fortress, would be his bulwark never failing. (We would be remiss not to mention that the most popular English translation of Luther’s hymn was written by Frederic Henry Hedge (1805-1890). Without his help, most of us would not be able to understand or sing this powerful song.)
Listen to Matt Boswell’s beautiful version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNeP7bGagqg.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Photo by Hanneke Luijting
Kristi Walker has been a missionary in Berlin, Germany for over 19 years working with CrossWay International Baptist Church. She is the author of three books: Disappointment: A Subtle Path Away from Christ, Convinced: Applying Biblical Principles to Life’s Choices, and Big Picture: 66 Books, 1 Message.