A Fresh Look at Martin Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress’
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.
One of the most important things we do in my Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs class is to 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.
It may seem a bit presumptuous to try to improve upon the theme song of the Reformation, or even its venerable 1852 English translation by Frederick H. Hedge, the one still sung by most American Protestants. Incidentally, his is hardly the only translation available. 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 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. It appears in italics below, one line at a time, with my annotations and translation notes.2
The Fortress and the Foe (stanza 1)
A massive fortress [fortification] is our God. What exactly are we looking at here? The adjective fest means strong.3 A Burg is a castle, a Festung is a fortress, a Festungsanlage is a military fortification.4 In medieval Europe these three were often rolled into one; if anyone needed to be protected in the case of enemy attack, it would be the king. The medieval Festung in Salzburg, for example, is a stunning fortified castle in the Austrian Alps built high up directly into the face of a mountain, a massive stone structure overlooking the city. Like ancient Jerusalem, there’s a strong wall around it (about six feet thick). I love that mental picture for God as our refuge. Never a worry of floodwaters here.
A strong defense and weapon. This phrase neatly covers both offensive and defensive warfare.
He alone helps in all the needs / That have us overtaken. Contrary to one transliteration I’ve seen, frei in the phrase Er hilft uns frei does not mean “He helps us free,” which makes no sense. It means “singlehandedly, without a single other means, agency, or crutch;” that is, he alone rescues and delivers us from every spiritual attack and any devastation which has overtaken us.”5 Carlyle used the phrase, “He’ll help us clear” for frei−a Victorian wording that I think does not communicate well to American congregations today. The message is: Spiritual victory is accomplished by Christ alone, period.
Our ancient, vicious foe / aims to seek and destroy. Satan is on a seek-and-destroy mission and Christ-followers are in his cross-hairs. He hates Christians to death, is hell-bent on their destruction. The word jetzt (“now”) seems to carry special weight, as if to say the battle has just gotten fiercer and he has pulled out his biggest guns, now employing deadly force.
And armed with might and lies, / he wars and terrifies. The German here says: “Great might and deceit are his cruel, dread armor”−and arms, I would add. Hedge’s couplet, “His craft and power are great / and armed with cruel hate,” is perfectly accurate. “Craft” here indicates deceitfulness.
And none on earth can match him. No one, no power on earth. A cautionary note to both lead pastors and worship leaders: Never, never end this congregational hymn after the first stanza in the interest of time or anything else. Why would you want to send your congregation home with a stanza about the enemy’s might instead of Christ’s?
The Man Whom God Has Chosen (stanzas 2-4)
In our own power we’d only fail, / we would be lost forever. This couplet was hard for me to write because I dearly love the concision, force, and economy of “Did we in our own strength confide.” I’m a huge fan of subjunctive case, which can speak powerfully in few words, and “confide” is a strong verb. The bottom line here, intensified by Luther’s use of both superlative and sharp contrast, is that our strongest strength is only weakness. We would be quickly swept out to sea by the floods of sin and evil if we were trusting in ourselves. You’ve seen it happen.
But fighting for us is the Man / Whom God himself has chosen. I regretted having to drop the word “right” here (“rechte Mann”) in order to fit the line meter. The point is: Jesus is the Man, not in the gangsta sense of being the coolest, but in the sense of Ecce homo (“Behold the Man”), the words spoken of Him by Pontius Pilate at Christ’s trial (John 19:5). So the word “right” is still clearly implied.
You ask who that might be? / Christ Jesus is His name,6 / Captain of heaven’s hosts.
I wanted to convey here the biblical title of heaven’s Commander-in-Chief, the true meaning of the title “LORD Sabaoth” in the refrain of Psalm 46. Chris Tomlin’s release of 2013, “Whom Shall I Fear?” [“God of Angel Armies”], is one of the few recent worship songs to honor Christ with this name. In Hebrews 2:10, speaking of the redeemed, Jesus is called the “Captain of their salvation.” The translation in the current Lutheran hymnal7 uses the title “Champion” here for Christ.8 We should praise him as such! This is Luther’s moment of greatest intertextuality in the hymn.
Weaving together Old and New Testament truths, he first asks the rhetorical question, then answers it dramatically with an emphatic declaration: The Old Testament God of armies, the LORD of Hosts who journeyed with His people, is Christ Jesus himself. This picture of Jesus as Commander of the heavenly hosts also points forward to his return, vividly reminding us that, to quote one Bible teacher, at Christ’s next appearance he will “have a sword coming out of his mouth and a tattoo on His thigh, and will be meting out judgment on His enemies.”9
There is no God but He, / and He will hold the field [or: He must win the battle]! Hedge injected here “From age to age the same” to emphasize that Jesus is not only ancient but eternal. This is a great line but is not found in the hymn. Luther is saying here, in the words of Peter’s famous sermon, “There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus has to win, will win, will hold the battlefield and never give up an inch.
And though this world were full of fiends [or: Though evil spirits filled this world] / all trying to devour us. This is not far from the truth, though it sounds like hyperbole. Jesus said the thief’s mission is to steal, kill and destroy. In Hedge’s version the German meaning is muted; the verb verschlingen really does mean to devour, as a carnivorous animal does. I Peter 5:8 is clearly the basis of this line: “Be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour.”
[We know] we do not have to fear, / Our God will still empow’r us. We need not live in fear. The original states: “We still would succeed.”
The ruler of this world, / however much he roars. The actual verb is, “grimaces.” Demonic powers can terrify. Carlyle uses the title here the “ancient prince of hell,” which may sound authoritative and vaguely goth but is completely unbiblical and is found nowhere in Scripture. When Jesus calls Satan “the prince of this world” in John 14:30 he is describing a temporal, temporary situation; Satan will not be ruling anything in hell, he’ll be tormented there forever.
He can do us no harm, / he is already judged. I had always envisioned Hedge’s phrase, “One little word shall fell him” to mean felling Satan as in bringing down a tree. Actually, fällen also means to hand down a verdict, to pronounce a sentence, in this case, a death sentence, to bang the gavel.10 Satan’s death sentence has been pronounced, his ruling has been handed down. We’re not chopping trees here. One little word or, better, one single word that we speak from the Word of God condemns him to death row. Thus Hedge’s phrase, “Lo, his doom is sure,” gets us back on track.
That Word no powers of hell can touch, / It stands, though demons swarm us. It stands, despite their raging, though evil powers rage.
God with His Spirit surrounds his church, / with holy gifts he arms us11. He is filling and equipping the church today for what she needs to face, just as he equipped believers at Luther’s time to meet their hour.
At the end comes the hardest part—the fourth stanza. Who of us in the West, with our homes, networks, accomplishments, aspirations, or positions, can sing these lines? Another question related to this stanza would be: Whatever happened to honor (Ehre), which used to mean everything for a man or a woman? Today personal honor receives less attention than someone’s reputation, buzz, and numbers of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.
While the previous stanza is about God’s giving lavish gifts to his church through his Spirit, this stanza is about our giving up, our losing everything for him, though it cost us our lives.
Though they [men] may take our lives,
goods, honor, children, wives,
Nothing will they have won,
His kingdom still will stand;
It must endure forever.
The Final Word
Through the truth of God’s Word, the spiritual Zion will be established; the church of Christ, Augustine’s “city of God,” will be unstoppable. As Paul wrote in his chains: “I suffer . . . but the word of God is not bound.” (2 Tim. 2:9) We as his followers may die, Luther wrote, yet that for which we will have given our lives, the truth of Christ’s gospel, will not die, but must move inexorably forward until his righteousness covers the earth as the waters cover the sea. The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ.
This abiding truth alone−not the adulation of an historic leader who though used by God beyond description remained frail and sinful to the end−the gospel’s final Word is cause for the church’s lasting, eternal joy evoked by the title of another great hymn of his, that on justification. Beloved by Lutheran congregations worldwide, although not nearly as universally known as his greatest hymn, its first stanza reads:
Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice, . . .
Proclaim the wonders God has done,
How His right arm the vict’ry won,
What price our ransom cost him!12
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.
–E.R. Crookshank, transl.
Esther Crookshank is Ollie Hale Chiles Professor of Church Music at SBTS and is director of the Academy of Sacred Music.
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.
3 Also “solid, tight, tough, firm, strong, fixed, firmly established.” “Fest. Adj.,” The Concise Oxford Duden German Dictionary, Rev. Ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), 915:3-916:1. To put this into a regional colloquial English expression, “Ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
4 “Burg, die,” Oxford Duden Concise, 833. “Festung, die,” ODC, 916. “Festungsanlage, die,” ibid. “Anlage” is a structure, complex, or installation, as in a military installation or military base. “Anlage, die,” ODC, 743:2-3. Altogether rather hefty images.
5 I don’t use “befallen” here, since nothing is accidental to God, and Satan’s attacks on the church are in no sense an accident like falling into a ditch.
6 I have borrowed only this line from Carlyle’s version, the rest of which, although richly poetic, is dated in its language.
7 Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg; Philadelphia: Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, 1978), 228, 229.
8 “Champion” evokes for me also Psalm 19:4, where that word is used to personify the sun in its strength with Christological overtones, according to many commentators.
9 Westte Williams, “Lecture on Exodus” (Adult Bible class, Cedar Creek Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky), October 1, 2017.
10 Einen Schiedsspruch fällen means “to make a ruling.” “Fällen, tr. V.” ODC, 909:2.
11 Or: “With charismata arms us.”
12 “Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice!” Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), 299. The German title is, Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein.