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,”, 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.

Leadership Through Struggle

More and more in this day and age when leaders both secular and Christian are scrutinized for hypocrisy and scandal, the age-old maxim "lead by example" aches to ring louder than ever.  People are searching for something bigger than themselves, a cause they can join, something to bring significance to their lives - and they need someone to lead them there. The apostle Paul knew what it meant to lead by example.  In 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, we see Paul defending his credentials as an apostle and pastor to his opponents in Corinth.  He makes his claims based upon his social status, persecutions for his faith, and being a catalyst of many church plants.  But in verse 30, he takes an unexpected turn when he declares, "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness."  What kind of leader emphasizes his weaknesses to demonstrate his leadership abilities?  Why is such humility a call sign for the Christian minister?

Paul doesn't stop there, though.  He continues to defend his ministry through humility in chapter 12, and from this section, we can glean some of his understandings of what true leadership entails.

Leaders Must Be Aware and Unashamed of Their Strengths

In 2 Corinthians 12:6, Paul boldly claims that "if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth."  Paul was unashamed of the strengths that God had given him.  Too often leaders can exaggerate self degradation in the false guise of humility and squander away their greatest abilities in self-righteous self-pity.  Instead, Paul implies through his statements that he is keenly aware of his training, resolve, courage, and ministerial ability.  Leaders need to understand and utilize their strengths in ministry - and not be ashamed to do so in the process.  But Paul continues on in this notion, adding in the key element of humility:  "but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me."  Paul knew what he was good at as a leader, and the book of Acts clearly documents how he deployed those skills for the advancement of the Kingdom, but he never once used them as grounds for boasting for his own glory.

Leaders Must Recognize that their Weaknesses are Ordained by the Providence of God

Conversely, God does not only grant particular strengths to leaders, he also ordains weaknesses.  Leaders must have primacy in their groups of influence when it comes to embracing the idea that everyone has areas which could use improvement.  Paul continues, "So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited."  Paul was extraordinarily gifted in ministry, theology, public speaking, and pastoral leadership.  An abundance of gifts can easily cloud one's head and puff him or her up. Leaders should be confident in their God-given abilities, but they must not cross the line into arrogance.  This is a key distinction of humble leadership.  Paul understood that the thorn in his flesh was no random inconvenience or simple character flaw.  He recognized the sovereignty of God in this situation and attributed his weakness to God's providence - yet he never blames God.  In some respects, he has an attitude of thanksgiving for the thorn, because it prevents him from bragging of his abilities.  When leaders today come face to face with their deficiencies, rather than navel-gazing in shame, they should look to Christ "who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Phil 2:6-8).  Jesus' example of servant leadership in obedience unto death paves the way for leaders to take up their cross and follow him even through their struggles.  By following Christ in this way, we lead others to him.

Leaders Must be in Constant Prayer Concerning Their Struggles

So, are leaders simply to recognize their weaknesses and move on?  Can they use their weaknesses as excuses for failure, then?  By no means!  In verse 8 of 2 Corinthians 12, Paul exhibits the proper response of a leader to these hardships: constant, persistent prayer.  "Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me."  Though Paul accepted his weaknesses as part of God's will to humble him, he continued to pray for the thorn to be removed until he was finally answered.  He did not deny the reality that weaknesses and afflictions cause pain and suffering. Yet in this, Paul exhibited his own advice in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 where he urged his readers to "pray without ceasing."  Weakness in leadership is a continual reminder to pray.  When the floodwaters of the leader's struggles rise, the humble leader should fall to his knees in supplication and petition.  Paul's prayer was eventually answered, but not in the most conventional way.  God replied to Paul by stating "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9a).  God did not remove the thorn; he used it for his glory.  Paul's weaknesses did not exist simply to torment him.  They were placed in his life to constantly remind him of his desperate need of grace.

Leaders Must Exhibit Vulnerable Authenticity

How does Paul respond to this revelation that the thorn was here to stay? In verse 9b, he realizes its purpose and bows to the will of God when he claims, "I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me."  He uses his strife to point others to Christ, and he does so with joy.  There is no shame in his statements.  In fact, he is bold in declaring his fragility and reliance upon the power of Christ.  Struggle and weakness in leadership are a call to be authentically vulnerable before men for the glory of God.  As the post-modern millennial generation begins to take root in the public square, leaders must more than ever strive to be authentic with their audience.  The desire for legitimacy in leadership is stronger than ever.  People have become disenfranchised with leaders trying to sell their ideas while lying behind their teeth.  The illusion of the triumphant hero as leader has been shattered by broken promises and controversy.  Leaders who have lasting impact are those who are approachable, empathetic, and real.  Paul was humbled by his weaknesses, but he used this as a platform for the glory of Christ.

Leaders Must Lead for the Sake of Christ

Paul's goal in defending his ministry in this passage was two-fold.  In one sense, he put up a defense and gave human legitimacy to his teachings and commands.  But he also sought to testify to the power of Christ working through his weaknesses.  In verse 10, he concludes this section of his letter: "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong."  Content!  Paul was content even in the midst of tumult and pain because he knew that he was not working for himself but for the sake of Christ.  The ultimate goal of all ministerial leadership is to glorify Christ.  This thought should dwell at the forefront of every leader's mind.  James reminds us of Christ's exalting power when he quotes from the book of Proverbs, "But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, 'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble'" (James 4:6).  Those who display humble, servant leadership shall be given the strength from God to press onward even in the midst of overwhelming trials.  So, dear brothers and sisters, lead for the sake of Christ, knowing that the true leader is one who understands his weaknesses and struggles are ordained by God for his own glory.

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.