Fortress, Refuge, and the Word of God: Luther’s Vision of Psalm 46 (Part 2)

One of the most important thing that I tell my students in my Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs class is that a good hymn should make us thirsty for Scripture, and thirsty for God. “A Mighty Fortress” certainly does so. In the class we identify scripture passages on which a hymn is based and examine how they are used. As is evident from a comparison of this hymn text with Psalm 46, Luther chose not to paraphrase the whole of that Psalm. Instead, he focused on the flood scenes in the first three verses and the cosmic battle in the latter part of the Psalm, where Yahweh shows himself victorious over the rebellious nations of the earth. Luther’s original contribution in this Psalm paraphrase is a vivid, near-cinematic depiction of the battle in which the “flood of mortal ills” and a “world with devils filled” (both lines recalling the Psalm’s opening images of rising torrents) are at war with the armies of the living God. Particularly gripping is his portraiture of the “ancient foe” and the victorious Christ. The unifying refrain found at the middle (46:7) and end (46:11) of the Psalm, “The Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge,” resonates throughout Luther’s hymn in spirit if not in exact wording.

A New Translation

Since German is my first language, and since I grew up hearing this hymn from my parents first in German, I wanted to attempt a fresh version that might clarify a few obscure spots in the English text. The venerable 1852 English translation still sung by most American Protestants is that by Frederick H. Hedge. Incidentally, his is hardly the only translation available; there are dozens in all. The version by Scottish essayist, social commentator, and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) has long been the accepted translation in England, according to the late leading hymn scholar Erik Routley, and still holds that place in many British hymnals.[1] My version appears in italics below.[2] My longer article with annotations and translation notes, “A Fresh Look at Martin Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress’” appears on the Southern Equip blog.

A massive fortress is our God,
A strong defense and weapon.
He alone helps in all the needs
That have us overtaken.
Our ancient, vicious foe
Aims to seek and destroy,
And armed with might and lies,
He wars and terrifies,
And none on earth can match him.

In our own pow’r we’d only fail,
We would be lost forever.
But fighting for us is the Man
Whom God Himself has chosen.
You ask who that might be? 
There is no God but He −
Christ Jesus is His name,
Captain of heaven’s hosts,
And He will hold the field.

And though this world were full of fiends
All trying to devour us,
We know we do not have to fear,
Our God will still empow’r us.
The ruler of this world, 
However much he roars,
Can do our souls no harm;
He is already judged,
One word of God condemns him.

That Word no powers of hell can touch,
It stands, though demons swarm us.
God with His Spirit surrounds His church,
With holy gifts He arms us.
Though men may take our lives,
goods, honor, children, wives,
Nothing will they have won,
His kingdom still will stand;
It must endure forever.

--translation E.R. Crookshank, 2017

[1] Erik Routley, Panorama of Christian Hymnody, expanded and edited by Paul A. Richardson (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2005), 288. For Carlyle’s full text see “A safe stronghold our God is still,” https://hymnary.org/text/a_safe_stronghold_our_god_is_still, accessed October 26, 2017, 3:20 p.m. This is the comprehensive, scholarly online resource for texts, tunes, and biographical and publication information.
[2] While not a perfect singing translation, I preserved the German line meter nearly throughout.


Dr. Esther Crookshank is a Professor of Church Music at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. She teaches in the areas of hymnology, musicology, applied ethnomusicology, and musical aesthetics.

New Lexington Road Album Released!

"Awake My Soul" is now available!

The latest from Lexington Road Band is now available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Google Play Music, and other major music providers.

Click to view in iTunes.

Click to view in iTunes.

The new album features new takes on the classic hymns "To God Be the Glory" and "Nothing by the Blood" as well as fresh arrangements on the modern "Man of Sorrows" and "Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery." Also featured is the title track "Awake My Soul," a new song by Matthew Carpenter based upon an Isaac Watts devotional text.

You can preview the tracks "To God Be the Glory" and "Awake My Soul" over on our new Lexington Road Band page here.

Grab your copy today and help spread the word! Be sure to tell us what you think of the album in the comments below.

Floods, Refuge, and the Voice of God: Luther's Vision of Psalm 46 (Part 1)

It seems we can think of little else right now. The motif of water, assuming a variety of roles, is one of the leading metaphors in Hebrew poetry. In many contexts water imagery is closely associated with chaos, according to Old Testament scholar William P. Brown in his exhaustive study of metaphor in the Psalms.[1]

Repeatedly, God enforces order, an extension of his righteous character and rule, on natural chaos; the “scenario of destruction paves the way for the establishment of a salutary order,” as Brown explains. God does so by His word, as He did at creation’s birth when the Spirit hovered over the formless waters. The waters, however, are not always inanimate or amorphous. In some Psalms their force is embodied in the image of the sea monster Leviathan, cast in the framework of a combat or Chaoskampf motif. In Psalm 74, Brown notes, “God achieves victory over watery chaos through the exercise of royal office”:

Yet God my King is from old,
Who works salvation in the earth’s midst.
You divided Sea (yam) by your strength;
You broke the heads of the dragons (tannînîm) of the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan.”[2] (Psalm 74:12-14a)

YHWH, agent of all powers and forces, can sovereignly choose to cause tumult as well as to silence it, as when he ripped open the Red Sea to accomplish His deliverance of Israel.

It is the resounding word, the voice of the Lord that thunders through Psalm 29, Psalm 93, and others. Psalm 29, an important enthronement Psalm recalling Israel’s royal temple liturgy, incorporates the combat motif while also drawing on the genre of storm deity hymn found in ancient Mesopotamian literature. This Psalm pictures YHWH enthroned directly upon the waters. As Brown states: “Raging floods, rather than posing a threat to YHWH, become the foundation beneath His sovereign throne. . . . [Furthermore, he observes,] in contradistinction to Near Eastern lore, the convulsion of creation is not the prerequisite for royal rule but the result of it.”[3] YHWH, agent of all powers and forces, can sovereignly choose to cause tumult as well as to silence it, as when he ripped open the Red Sea to accomplish His deliverance of Israel. His voice thunders far above the loudest floods:

The floods have lifted up their voice; . . .
Greater than the voice of the many waters (mayyîm rabbîm),
More majestic ('addîr)[4] than the breakers of the sea,
[most] majestic on high is YHWH.
Your decrees are very firm;
Holiness befits your house,
YHWH forevermore. (Psalm 93:3-5)

When Floodwaters Rise

Floodwaters can signify[5] not only natural chaos but political turmoil, the riots of the peoples. God, a royal warrior, is victor in the cosmic battle,[6] . . . poised to subdue any force that would plunge creation into chaos,”[7] which often includes the Psalmists’ and Israel’s enemies. Enemies and “deep waters” are juxtaposed in striking parallelism in Psalm 69, where the Psalmist depicts himself as “drowning” in shame, with shame covering his face as waters cover the face of the deep (69:7), and begs to be rescued from both: “Let me not sink: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters.” (Psalm 69:14b, KJV)[8]

In Psalm 124, a hymn of community thanksgiving, the Israelites thank YHWH for having driven back their enemies, which “would have swallowed us alive,” as well as the “raging waters” which “would have swept us away.” YHWH silences the fury of both seas and peoples, who become associated with chaos through the use of water imagery, Brown notes:

You silence the roaring of the seas,
The roaring of their waves,
The tumult of the peoples. (Psalm 65:7)[9]

Refuge in the Storm

Psalm 46, one of the great Zion psalms, “revels in water imagery of a cataclysmic scale,” as Brown describes it, “while conveying the calm assurance of God’s saving power amid national threat.”[10] This Psalm is divided into two scenes with Zion as its centerpiece, God’s city fed by God’s river, a refuge against chaos. The picture of flooding waters and roiling seas which permeates Psalm 46:1-3 stands in dramatic contrast to the calm, life-giving river whose streams “make glad the city of God.” (v. 4) As Brown points out, this is no ordinary river but a spiritual one, flowing from the very sanctuary of God. The river image recalls the crucial importance of a city’s water source as its lifeline in a time of attack or besiegement, as occurred in Hezekiah’s time. Brown here notes significantly that “within the city, water is an agent of joy; outside its walls, water . . . destroys the nations.”[11] Theologically, he continues, the river “connotes God’s solidarity;” as its streams flow through the city, His presence indwells her, which is why “‘she shall not be moved’ . . . . The river is a sign and seal of God’s holy habitation in Jerusalem’s midst.”[12]

In scene one of the Psalm, mountains totter and crash; in scene two, kingdoms fall and the earth melts. Brown sums up the stunning picture: “As cosmic chaos slides into political mayhem, . . . while both mountains and nations collapse into the churning sea, indeed as the entire earth dissolves, the city of God remains unmoved.”[13] Just as Psalm 29 ends with the voice of YHWH “outshouting” the voice of floods, notes Brown,[14] and Psalm 65 shows Him silencing the raging peoples, Psalm 46 “concludes with a cease-and-desist order against both the nations and the cosmos: ‘Settle down (harpû) and acknowledge me as God! Exalted am I among the nations, and in the earth!’ (v. 10). The command reflects a new reality, an equilibrium established by God’s dramatic intervention in which the weapons of war are silenced and chaos subsides.”[15] In each case it is the voice of YHWH, the Word, that is the prime mover which all powers obey.

How did Luther read Psalm 46 and its richly complex metaphors when he paraphrased it in “A mighty fortress,” destined to become the battle song of the Reformation and one of the Church’s great hymns of all time? Read Part 2 coming soon!

In the meantime, our ongoing prayers rise for the victims of storm and flood as well as for those doing backbreaking relief work and reconstruction. May their spirits be lifted by the stillness which YHWH’s voice can bring even in the wake of fierce devastation, the peace which He achieved in Christ when he calmed the sea of Galilee and when he has stilled past storms in our lives, and may all whose trust is placed in Him be sustained today by the strength and joy that His river of life provides for His holy Zion.

May their spirits be lifted by the stillness which YHWH’s voice can bring even in the wake of fierce devastation, the peace which He achieved in Christ when he calmed the sea of Galilee and when he has stilled past storms in our lives.

[1] William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox, 2002).
[2] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 109. Translation from the Hebrew by Brown.
[3] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 112.
[4] “The term indicates expansive glory, both divine (Psalm 67:5) and watery (Exodus 15:10).” Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 246, note 41.
[5] Or “target”, the technical term used in linguistic analysis of metaphor. Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 106.
[6] A motif throughout the Psalms and also in ancient Mesopotamian literature and Babylonian epics.
[7] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 112. God pronounced His created order good, and promised never to create global chaos through flooding again.
[8] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 114.
[9] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 115.
[10] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 115.
[11] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 115.
[12] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 117.
[13] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 116.
[14] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 112.
[15] Brown, Seeing the Psalms, 116-117.


Dr. Esther Crookshank is a Professor of Church Music at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. She teaches in the areas of hymnology, musicology, applied ethnomusicology, and musical aesthetics. Since 2009 she has also served as director of the Academy of Sacred Music, the seminary’s guest artist and lecture forum.

Songwriting Seminar 2017

In the Spring of 2017, The Institute for Biblical Worship hosted a Songwriting Seminar for worship students. Funded by a generous gift from Ed and Sara Fu, three students were chosen to collaborate with Bob Kauflin of Sovereign Grace Music and Craig Adams of Lifeway Worship on their music and text. After spending a weekend editing, writing, and rehearsing, the students along with Norton Hall Band debuted the songs live in concert.

We also have lectures given at the conference by Kauflin on Congregational Song and Adams on Keys to Great Christian Songs.

These songs are written for local congregations. Please feel free to use them in your church.

7 Tips for Writing a Philosophy of Worship

Whether it’s an intricately written document providing guiding principles and goals or it’s a “shotgun” approach of firing off new ideas and hoping you hit the target, every pastor has a ministry philosophy. The same is true for worship ministry. Too often, a culturally-shaped methodology informs our philosophy of worship. Over time, this chips away at theology, and we can find ourselves falling into pragmatism or even unorthodoxy. Instead, what we believe about God must always sculpt our philosophy which then informs our practice. Does doctrine determine what you do?

Have you considered writing a philosophy of worship ministry to use as a guide and check for crafting Christ-centered worship services? Though the task might seem daunting, a written philosophy can prove vital to maintaining integrity in ministry and casting a vision for worship in the congregation. Here are seven tips for writing a philosophy of worship ministry for the local church.

  1. Keep it Trinitarian: If worship is to be Trinitarian in nature, then our definitions of worship should be. Look to Paul’s doxology in Ephesians 1 as a model where he echoes over and over “to the praise of his glory” while describing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We worship the triune God, and worship that neglects any of the persons is simply unchristian.
  2. Keep it biblical: Let the Word determine your belief and practice. A powerful philosophy of worship oozes Scripture from every pore. If we desire our people to be rooted in the Bible, then our ministries must be as well. Build your ministry upon the Rock of Ages (Matt 7:24-27).
  3. Keep it focused: Avoid tangents or words that might open yourself up to speculation or question. Make every phrase crystal clear. Determine from the outset what the most important aspects of worship ministry are in your local church and stick to them. The old communication adage goes “Say what you’re going to say. Say it. Tell them what you said.” The same is true for writing a concise, focused philosophy of ministry.
  4. Keep it timeless: Avoid common buzzwords that float around in the blogosphere. Write timelessly that your philosophy will endure and be as relevant in 50 years as it is today. Words like “energy” and “experience” will fade from vernacular, but biblical words like “truth” and “gospel” will stand forever (Isa 40:7-8).
  5. Keep it simple: Though you might have a seminary education, most of your congregation will not. Use words that they know and can latch on to. Use these words in your conversations with your bands and choirs and from the platform. They might not know what “hypostatic union” means, but they do know Jesus was “fully God and fully man.” Ministry is about the people, so your philosophy should serve them.
  6. Keep it practical: How does the philosophy you write actively spell out in your local church? Rooting ourselves in the Gospel truth of the Word is paramount, but with faith comes obedience (James 2:14-19). All theology is ultimately practical because it tells us not only who God is but also how to worship and love him. Does your worship philosophy do the same? 
  7. Keep it short: Limit yourself to a two-page document. This is plenty of space to provide short, to-the-point principles. Learn to condense your writing. Make every sentence count and maximize your impact by using specific, detailed wording. Never say in two sentences what you can say in one. Would your philosophy easily fit on your church’s webpage? Could someone interested in visiting your church learn your stance on worship without reading a novel or sending a clarifying e-mail?

So, what about you? Have you thought through your approach to ministry? Do you have a theology of worship guiding the songs you choose, the instrumentation you implement, or the services you craft? Spend some time sitting down and crafting a philosophy for worship ministry informed by and rooted in the Word. Your ministry and people will no doubt benefit from it. You can find a couple of sample philosophies of worship on our website here and here which might help guide your thoughts. We’d also love to hear from you, so feel free to share your philosophy of ministry with us over on the Contact page.

May the Word shape and guide your worship ministry.


Austin Collins serves as the research assistant at the Institute for Biblical Worship. He and his wife Liz currently lead worship at Harrison Hills Baptist Church in Lanesville, IN, while he pursues his Master of Divinity in Worship Leadership at Southern Seminary.