“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,” (Psalm 46:1–2)
Martin Luther - the great reformer - was a man who understood the power of music. An accomplished player of the lute, he wrote many hymns and also penned some hymn tunes. These hymns were not only a means by which God could be praised, but also were a way of lodging good solid theology into the minds of the singer. Chief amongst these were the hymns which were paraphrases of the Psalms.
One paraphrase, which became something of an anthem for the Reformation, was “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, based on Psalm 46. Both the tune and words were composed by Luther, and speak of the confidence which comes from placing trust in God alone. When you consider the impact that Luther made, with the whole forces of the Papacy against him (and much of the European monarchy too) you can see how that confidence plays out.
Composed around 1527-29, it was translated into English by Myles Coverdale in 1539. Coverdale is better known as the translator of the Psalms used in the Book of Common Prayer, and it says something about Luther’s ability to capture the essence of Psalm 46 that Coverdale saw it as something worth bringing to an English audience.
So it is that this hymn became established in the English speaking world, and that we could see the truth of Luther’s assertion: “Music is the highest art, the notes of which cause the words of the text to live. It puts to flight all sad thoughts”
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 his woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
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.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth is his name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
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.
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.