Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” has often been called the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation” and has been translated into almost every known language. It was perhaps the single most powerful hymn of the Reformation, as it was a great source of strength and inspiration for those who were persecuted and even martyred for their convictions.
The hymn was based on Psalm 46, a psalm written in response to God’s delivering His people from severe calamity and trial. Psalm 46 begins with “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.” It then describes a event in which the city of Jerusalem was under siege by enemy armies, using pictures of the earth shaking and mountains falling and waters flooding to express how dire the situation was. Then the psalmist describes how, though the Israelites could do nothing in their own power, God was with His people and He could not be shaken nor moved and He won the victory. The final stanza of the psalm looks ahead to the future when God shall defeat all armies and establish his eternal reign. It presents God as the conqueror who is the one and only victorious and sovereign God. Therefore He tells us: “be still and know that I am God”
Martin Luther used Psalm 46 as the inspiration for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Luther’s four stanzas interpret this psalm from his own experience during the troubled times of the Reformation. He interpreted the psalm to be not merely expressing God’s protection and strength for God’s people of Jerusalem, but for God’s people of all times. And he understood the battle described in the psalm to be more than an earthly battle but a spiritual battle. So Luther saw in Psalm 46 a great encouragement for him and the Reformers that God would be a strong refuge and strengh for them in their current time of trouble—a battle against not merely fleshly armies but in the realm of spiritual warfare as they defended the Gospel itself.
Luther said, “We sing this psalm to the praise of God, because God is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends his church and his word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh and sin.”
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.
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 Sabbaoth 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 pow'r,
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!
Words and Music: Martin Luther