This coming Thursday is Reformation Day, the anniversary of the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses. And so this week’s entry in my series on favorite old hymns is a hymn from early in the Reformation, and conveying much of the spirit of the Reformation, by Luther himself.
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 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, 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 forever.
I have rarely, if ever, met a better summation of the Christian’s position in the war against “the world, the flesh, and the devil”—that without Jesus, our position is hopeless, but with him, victory is assured.
I also like this hymn’s portrayal of the devil. He is mentioned in passing, as the source of present evil circumstances, and it’s made clear that no human effort can overcome him, but no sooner is he brought up than our attention is turned to Jesus, who has overcome him. And then the devil is only mentioned once more to emphasize the Christian’s sure confidence even in the face of the devil’s personal attention.
So much of modern Christian thought seems to assume that the Christian’s conflict—or at least the Christian’s conflict in the modern West—will be merely spiritual. Not so Luther! The last verse of this hymn makes clear that the Christian may give up possessions, family, and even his or her life for the sake of God’s kingdom.
I learned this hymn so early in my life that I’ve sung it almost from memory for as long as I can remember. (By “almost from memory” I mean that I glance at the words to remind myself of how each piece of the hymn goes, rather than really reading it.) And so for a long time I was unsure as to how the beginning of the last verse should be parsed; I thought that maybe it was saying that the word that shall fell the Prince of Darkness was ours along with the Spirit and the gifts, and that no thanks abide to the earthly powers above which the word … Looking closely at it now, and thinking it through, even without the punctuation the proper meaning is clear. But as a child and young adult singing a text—and rather quickly, at that—only every few months or so, it was less obvious.
One of these days, I’d like to find Luther’s original German text for this hymn and go through it with a German dictionary in hand to see all the nuances that the English translation misses. For example, I looked up “feste” this afternoon, and found that it means something very much like “immovable”; it’s probably related to the English word “fast”, as in “steadfast.” “Mighty” may be as good a rendering as we could get without utterly breaking the meter, but something has been lost in the translation. I’d like to learn more such details someday.
I really like the tune that this hymn is nearly always sung to, especially in its usual harmonization. It’s strong, upbeat, even strident, and its contrasting colors fit the text well. I’m not so fond of the “rhythmic” version, apparently closer to how it would have first been sung, that I found (associated with a second translation of this text, in addition to the standard text in its standard setting) in the Psalter Hymnal. I found a helpful explanation of the difference between “rhythmic” and “isorhythmic” chorale tunes here.
Next month, I plan to discuss several “Thanksgiving hymns.” But for now … any thoughts about this old favorite hymn?