God is our Refuge and Strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging… Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46:1-3,10
I was born in the 1960s at a time when one’s television choices were very limited; there were the “Big 3” television networks, a couple of local stations and of course, PBS. While you may find this hard to believe, when I was growing up we couldn’t always GET PBS as it depended on which way the antennae was turned and how much cloud cover there was. If there wasn’t something you were interested in watching on those 5 (sometimes 6) channels, you were out of luck.
When I was a child, I used to get up early on Saturday mornings, go into our family room and watch cartoons, just like my own children did when they were growing up. I remember occasionally stumbling across a claymation children’s show called Davey and Goliath; I only watched it when I couldn’t find anything else to watch. Do any of you remember it? It is the story of the adventures of Davey and his dog, Goliath. I didn’t realize it at the time but the show was produced by the Lutheran Church, and each episode began with music I never heard anywhere else but on this show, the music of A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Here is a link to the show’s opening music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTkFgdMNRAE).
When I became a Christian and started attending church, I remember how strange it was for me to hear A Mighty Fortress is Our God; I remember wondering why music from a kid’s cartoon was being played in church! Then I actually sang this hymn and understood its message. It instantly became one of my favorites and some 34+ years later, it still is. As I grew in my understanding of the man who wrote the song, Martin Luther, and the tumultuous times in which he lived, the song took on even more significance for me.
If you don’t know much about the man who penned this song, I encourage you to look him up. You may want to watch the series of “So What?” podcasts Don Waite and I did called The Reasons for the Reformation if you want to understand the significance of the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther’s part in it. Here is a link to the first podcast in that series, “Post Tenebras Lux.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekppzs4vEhI) You can also read Roland Bainton’s book, “Here I Stand; a Life of Martin Luther.” I don’t believe I am being hyperbolic when I say that Martin Luther is one of the most important figures in world history.
We don’t really know when the hymn was written. According to Tim Challies, there are at least 7 different views as to when it was written (https://www.challies.com/articles/hymn-stories-a-mighty-fortress-is-our-god). I tend to agree with those that put the writing of this hymn during 1527, some 10 years after the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, an event which changed the world.
1527 was a very difficult year for Martin Luther as he battled with an emotional breakdown, ongoing depression, physical illness, the arrival of the plague in his home town (Wittenberg, Germany), and the loss of many people he held dear. Once the plague hit Wittenberg, people fled to try and save their own lives, including many clergymen. Luther, being Luther, took another tack and instead of running away from the epidemic to save himself turned his home into a hospital. Luther ended up largely alone, though, as he sought to minister to the sick and dying. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been for him, trying to relieve the suffering of so many while Luther himself was dealing with so much; it must have been overwhelming.
As if all this wasn’t enough, theological conflicts within the Reformation movement that Luther himself started was a source of enormous concern for Luther.
He really was at a breaking point.
In the midst of one of the most difficult times in his life, it is believed Luther wrote what is without question one of the most famous hymns in all Christendom, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. The song of course was written in German, and what we have come to know is an English translation written by Frederick Henry Hedge and originally published in 1853. While Hedge’s translation has its problems (an interesting story in itself I encourage you to read about at https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-mighty-fortress-is-our-god ), it has been with us now for almost 175 years. The song remains very popular in the Church, and it is even sung by Roman Catholics!
Luther’s life was filled with challenges that we in our modern world can’t really appreciate or understand, challenges we will never face. Yet, its message is one that has stood the test of time. During one of the most difficult seasons of a difficult life he wrote about the never failing strength of God, the faithfulness of God to help us in the midst of the flood of difficulties that come our way; that when faced with all we’re faced with we won’t have any hope if we rely on our own resources; how we must turn to our Jesus for the strength we need to not just endure trials but actually to grow through our trials. And in a world where so often things don’t go the way we had hoped, Luther reminds us we can always be comforted by the fact Christ (and those who are His) will ultimately triumph!
Even though I’ve been a Christian for a long time now, it never ceases to amaze (and disappoint) me how surprised I get when trials come, when everything goes wrong and I’m faced with painful experiences. Jesus warned us that hard times would come (John 16:33), and Paul’s life was nothing but hardship, just as Jesus promised (Acts 9:15-16, 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, 2 Corinthians 11:23-33). Yet how often have I flailed about, scrambling to find my footing, when the sure Word of God tells me everything I need to know in order to stand strong in the face of difficulties?
This song reminds me of what I need to remember at those times: my God is large and in charge, and even if I don’t understand what is happening, I can be assured my God has it all under control.
Martin Luther’s life was literally falling apart all around him as he faced struggles on the outside and fears within (2 Corinthians 7:5). What was his anchor? What held him secure when friends and colleagues abandoned him, when people assaulted him, when sickness weakened him, when his emotions got the best of him? He went back to the promises of His God, and there He found the comfort, strength, and assurance he needed to persevere.
My friend, you will, too.