A Mighty Fortress is our God
A Devotion on Psalm 46
“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (TLH, 262) is probably the most famous hymn written by Dr. Martin Luther, who not only wrote the edifying words but also composed the stirring melody. It is quite a well-known hymn even outside of Lutheran circles (especially among Protestants). This “Battle Hymn of the Reformation” provided Luther himself with great comfort in the face of intense opposition from many powerful enemies; and it has, likewise, supplied countless other Christians since that time with strong encouragement in times of distress. The reason why Luther’s hymn can do such great things is because its content is thoroughly Scriptural; it is a clear, poetic, and musical declaration of the comforting and edifying doctrines recorded in numerous passages of God’s Holy Word. However, it was one section of Scripture in particular that provided Luther with the theme and parts of what could accurately be described as a sermon set to verse and music in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”—namely, Psalm 46. It is a relatively short Psalm, and one that many Christians have committed to memory. In the following paragraphs, the content of Psalm 46 will be examined for meditation. The word “selah,” which appears three times in this Psalm, will be skipped, however, because we do not know exactly what it means. (It obviously meant something to the people at the time it was originally written, but its precise meaning and usage is uncertain to us today.)
The Psalm begins by stating: “God is our Refuge and Strength, a very present Help in trouble” (v. 1). Notice how the Psalmist groups himself together with all true believers using first person, plural pronouns such as “our,” “we,” and “us” —as Luther also does throughout his hymn. The promises of God’s powerful protection are indeed universally applicable to all Christians. The fact that God is “our Refuge” simply means that He keeps us safe from danger. He is, furthermore, called our “Strength,” which is certainly a fitting title considering that the Lord God possesses all power in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18), and that He is able to do everything (Matthew 19:26) —even more than we can imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Consequently, He is always able to provide us with sufficient help in times of trouble, in the very best way and at the very best time, no matter what our needs may be. Thus Luther writes in the first stanza: “A mighty Fortress is our God, a trusty Shield and Weapon; He helps us free from ev’ry need that hath us now o’ertaken.”
Because the Lord our God is, as the Psalmist declares, “our Refuge and Strength, a very present Help in trouble,” therefore we need not fear anything no matter how disastrous and overwhelming it may appear to be. Think about what is pictured in the next two verses, where we are told: “Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled; though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof” (vv. 2–3). That is a description of a scene that would seem to be truly terrifying — the earth crumbling around us, huge mountains being cast into the sea, powerful waves of water rising up and shaking the very mountains around us. But even considering all of that, the Psalmist still says that we will not fear, for the exact reason that he stated at the outset, namely, because “God is our Refuge and Strength, a very present Help in trouble.” Similarly, Luther also expresses how we need not fear even in situations that would certainly be quite terrifying if we did not have the Lord “by our side upon the plain with His good gifts and Spirit.” He sings: “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill; they shall not overpower us. This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will. He can harm us none; he’s judged; the deed is done; one little word can fell him.”
The next two verses of the Psalm describe a very pleasant scene in which God’s people dwell with Him in peace, safety, and happiness —completely protected from all outside threats. “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. God shall help her, and that right early” (vv. 4–5). The residents of God’s “city” and “holy place” are the members of “the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints” —all true Christians. They are made “glad” and helped by the Lord God who “is in the midst” of that holy city (the Church being referred to by the feminine pronouns “she” and “her”). Indeed, “if it had not been the Lord who was on our side, now may Israel say: ‘If it had not been the Lord who was on our side when men rose up against us, then they had swallowed us up quick when their wrath was kindled against us; then the waters had overwhelmed us; the stream had gone over our soul; then the proud waters had gone over our soul’” (Psalm 124:1–5). But since the Lord is on our side and in our midst, therefore, we “shall not be moved” — we shall not fall to our enemies’ attacks. Hence we may enjoy true peace as we rest in the safety and security of the almighty God (Psalm 124:8), who is our loving and gracious heavenly Father for Jesus’ sake (Galatians 4:4–6; Ephesians 2:7). “I will both lay me down in peace and sleep; for Thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8). “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee because he trusteth in Thee” (Isaiah 26:3).
But while there is such wonderful peace within the walls of Zion (Isaiah 52:7), there is still much warring without — the unbelievers fighting against God. “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed” (Psalm 2:2). Such opposition of the world should not at all surprise us. The Scriptures teach, and our own experiences also bear out, that the unbelievers firmly set themselves against God, His Word, and His faithful followers (John 15:18–21). And because the vast majority of people are unbelievers (Matthew 7:13–14), that means that we, the Lord’s “little flock” (Luke 12:32), are greatly outnumbered by those who hate us and want to destroy us because of our allegiance to Christ (Matthew 10:22). And yet we still have nothing to fear, because the Lord our God is infinitely more powerful than our enemies (Romans 8:31); He can melt the earth with a single utterance of His omnipotent voice! “The heathen raged; the kingdoms were moved. He uttered His voice; the earth melted” (v. 6).
The fact that we are completely safe in God’s protective care is emphasized in the following refrain found in verses 7 and 11: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our Refuge.” The Hebrew word translated as “hosts” is “sabaoth” [SÆ-bah-ōth; Hebrew: TSAY-vah-ōt]. It means “armies” and is a reference to the exceedingly large company of angels that serve the Lord. We find this word in the second verse of Luther’s hymn—“of sabaoth Lord”—as well as in the “Sanctus” in our communion liturgy—“holy, holy, holy, Lord God of sabaoth” (TLH, page 26; based upon the chant of the angels recorded in Isaiah 6:3). The armies of angels that God sends for the protection of His believing children are undetectable by human senses; but if we could see them, they would certainly make any of our earthly foes appear to be very insignificant by comparison (see II Kings 6:15–17). The Hebrew word translated in verses 7 and 11 as “Refuge” [misgab] is different than the word translated as “Refuge” in verse 1 [machaceh], and indicates a place of safety that is situated high above the threats of enemies below. Secure in such a refuge, with the Lord of hosts by our side, true Christians may declare in the words of Luther: “We tremble not; we fear no ill,” knowing that the enemies of our soul “shall not overpower us.”
Further accentuating God’s boundless power and supremacy over all that would seek to harm us, the Psalmist bids his readers observe how God demonstrates His overarching control in thwarting the endeavors of the heathen, destroying their instruments of war. “Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations He hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; He breaketh the bow and cutteth the spear in sunder; He burneth the chariot in the fire” (vv. 8–9). But why does God even involve Himself in the wars of humans who cannot possibly do anything that would harm Him? We learn from the Scriptures that the Lord takes it personally when His followers are attacked and persecuted (Acts 9:1–5). Because He loves His own (John 13:1), He does not want evil to come upon them in this world (John 17:14–15); and because He also does not want the wicked to die in their sins and be eternally damned (Ezekiel 33:11), God desires that the unbelievers stop their futile campaign against Him and His people, acknowledging that they cannot possibly defeat Him, thoroughly humbling themselves before Him, repenting of their sins, and looking to Him for mercy through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Psalm 2:9–12; James 4:8–10; Romans 3:19–24). Thus He declares in the next verse of the Psalm: “Be still [cease and desist], and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the heathen; I will be exalted in the earth” (v. 10). It is interesting to note that this is the only verse of Psalm 46 in which God directly speaks from the first person perspective: “I”. In the rest of the Psalm, He is consistently referred to in the third person: “He”). Sadly, the words of the Lord (every single word of the Bible) are too often ignored by the vast majority of people to their eternal peril (Matthew 7:26–27; II Thessalonians 1:7–9).
This grand and glorious Psalm concludes with its predominate theme repeated one final time: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our Refuge” (v. 11). Though we sinful creatures deserve none of God’s protection and loving care, yet on account of His rich grace for the sake of Christ Jesus’ perfect atonement as our Substitute under divine justice, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our Refuge!” What Christian could not be encouraged and strengthened by such words? These are the words of the faithful and all-powerful God of heaven and earth (Psalm 146:5–6)! For Luther, and for all Christians who have placed their trust in the comforting expressions of divine inspiration recorded in Psalm 46, God’s promises of constant protection have provided them with the courage and ability to prevail against the harsh threats, and sometimes even violent persecution, from the enemies of Christ’s Church. Indeed, our adversaries are many and may to a certain extent wound us — “we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” But “who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35–39).
“And take they our life,
goods, fame, child, and wife,
let these all be gone!
They yet have nothing won.
The kingdom ours remaineth!”
(the conclusion of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”)
—P. E. B.