Reformation Day

“Ein feste burg ist unser Gott…” is the original, German phrase that opens Martin Luther’s famous hymn.

October 31, 2010

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Commentary on Psalm 46

“Ein feste burg ist unser Gott…” is the original, German phrase that opens Martin Luther’s famous hymn.

In English we sing “A mighty fortress is our God” but that is not quite the meaning of “feste burg.” In German, the word “fest” means “fast”-not “fast” as in “quick” or “speedy” but “fast” as in “unmoving,” “secure.” When something is unmoving and secure, we would say it “holds fast.” That is the idea of “ein feste burg”: a fortification that holds fast against any assault, a castle that can withstand every onslaught, a citadel that keeps those on the inside safe and secure from all attacks.

This is the sense of the opening lines of Psalm 46, the Psalm upon which “A Mighty Fortress” is purportedly based.1 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Note that in the NRSV version there is a footnote after the phrase “very present.” Here the translators have indicated that the verse may also read: “God is our refuge and strength, a well-proved help in trouble.” If you go with “very present” you have a God who is right there with you, keeping you secure in your time of trouble. If you go with “well-proved,” you have a God who has been time-tested and, over and over again, can be trusted upon to keep you secure in your time of trouble. Either way-and in all times and circumstances-you have a God who has got you covered. That is what Psalm 46 declares. And that is what Luther wanted to proclaim in “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”2

When you compare all of the verses of Psalm 46 with all of the stanzas of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” you will see the connection between the two works, even though they differ somewhat in language and imagery.

Luther’s hymn is an explicit proclamation of Christ Jesus as victorious warrior, the “man of God’s own choosing” who has been sent to wage battle against that “old, evil foe,” the devil.3 This Christ fights at our side, able to subdue Satan with “one little word.” Therefore, no matter how many devils prowl the world “threatening to devour us,” Christ holds the field. True, the enemy can inflict severe wounds (“may take away our property, our children, our spouse, our life”). Nevertheless, Christ’s kingdom endures and is ours forever.

Instead of Christ, Psalm 46 names God (Elohim) as the LORD of Hosts (YHWH Sabaoth), the one who watches over and controls all that transpires on earth. Therefore, we need not fear when our world is upended, when “the nations are in uproar” and the “kingdoms totter.” For God melts the earth with a word, making it desolate. And the Lord of Hosts “makes wars cease,” breaking the bow, shattering the spear, burning the shield in fire.

The central connection between Luther’s hymn and Psalm 46 lies in the proclamation that God is in the mix, present, fighting on our behalf. In the Psalm, “the Lord of Hosts is with us” in all kinds of natural and political tumult; in Luther’s hymn, Christ fights at our side, no matter what our struggle or temptation, trial or tribulation. Despite these connections, there remains a key difference. In Psalm 46, the lyricist seems to have in mind actual war and the cessation of war, while in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the warfare is more of a spiritual sort.

Here, it is worth pointing out “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was written by a man who was profoundly familiar with the internal tumult of “spiritual affliction.” Luther preferred to describe his internal, spiritual affliction using the German word, Anfechtung. Note the word fecht (“fight”) in the middle of Anfechtung. For Luther, Anfechtung described the devil’s attacks on faith in Christ. Luther experienced these “fiery darts” or “flaming arrows” of the devil (see Ephesians 6:16) in the form of doubt. That is, the devil would cause Brother Martin to think salvation depended upon personal good works, rather than upon Christ’s work on the cross.

Luther took refuge from such “spiritual distress” by immersing himself in the Word of God, in the company of Christian friends, and occasionally in good food and drink. Sometimes Luther would fight back and engage the devil in the battle over his conscience. With the “whole armor of God” (again, see Ephesians 6), Luther would quote scripture and confess Christ. And if that didn’t work, Luther would simply mock the devil and, somewhat infamously, fart at him.4 Whatever works!

1 In fact, little is known about the circumstances that inspired Luther to craft his most famous hymn. The hymn apparently first appeared in a German hymnal dated 1528. Yet the hymn’s tune and its themes are similar to Luther’s first published hymn, “We Lift Up a New Song” (1523).
2 “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is not the only English translation of Luther’s “Ein Feste Burg.” Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth century Scottish commentator, offered this version: “A safe stronghold our God is still, a trusty shield and weapon.” Carlyle’s contemporary, George MacDonald, rendered stanza one, verse one, in this way: “Our God he is a castle strong, a good mailcoat and weapon.”
3 Hymn quotes are from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006).
4 See, for instance, LW 54:15, 16.