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.