Summary: A Mighty Fortress is our God has often been called the "Battle Hymn of the Reformation" but it also contains the words about our God who fights for you today against sin, death and the devil himself.
"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" has often been called "the Battle Hymn of the Reformation." It is a hymn that is usually saved for Reformation Day, but very rarely used outside of this day. It is a tribute to it’s’ writer, Martin Luther, as one of his three greatest accomplishments. Probably Luther’s greatest accomplishment was the proclamation that we are saved by God’s grace through faith alone. The second was translating the Bible into the language of the people and the third is his 37 hymns that he wrote, of which "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" would rank as the finest.
Although this hymn is usually a Lutheran favorite, the story behind the hymn is one that is not often told or appreciated. Today, we will examine this great hymn, now sung in 170 different languages, in two areas--its’ historical context and its’ application for us today. In this hymn, we will see that no matter how dire the circumstances might be in our eyes, God is greater than our circumstances, and will deliver us from our greatest fears through the blood of Jesus Christ. Let’s take a look at the hymn.
When many Christians read the words to this hymn, they find the words difficult to relate to, because their experience is not what the early Lutherans experienced. While Luther indeed did take a stand for the truth, it was a stand that was very dangerous at that time. Luther put his very life on the line for what he believed--and so did thousands of others! In the Netherlands alone, 50,000 people died because they took their stand with Martin Luther against the Pope and the Church of their day.
It is because of this persecution that Martin Luther penned the words to this hymn. Luther wrote this hymn in order to remind his followers that no matter how bleak the circumstances appeared, they were not to lose hope. The Biblical text that he used for inspiration to write is Psalm 46. Luther, being an Old Testament professor, was most likely aware of the history of this Psalm, and chose it because of its history.
The story that probably inspired Psalm 46 comes from 2 Chronicles 20. It tells of a miraculous victory of the children of Israel during the days of King Jehosaphat. The story of this miraculous victory is this: three nomadic tribes, the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites, joined forces together against Israel. When Israel had come out of Egypt, God had forbidden them to wipe out these people when they took possession of the promised land.
Now, with the threat of being wiped out by them, the people--led by the King Jejosphat--turned to the Lord in prayer and asked for help. They knew only a miracle from God could save them. After Jehosaphat prayed to the Lord, the Lord answered the prayer of Israel through a prophet by the name of Jahaziah, who told Jehosaphat, "You will not need to fight in this battle. Position yourselves, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord..." The next morning, as the people got ready to go out to the battle, King Jehosaphat made what must go down as one the strangest strategic decisions in military history. Instead of putting the archers or swordsmen in front, he put the choir in front. This surely must have seemed strange to the people as well, but they went along with Jehosaphat. When they arrived to do battle, the choir began singing, "Praise the Lord! For His mercy endures forever!" That’s when things began to really get strange, because the three armies they came to fight began fighting among themselves! When the dust finally cleared, all three armies laid dead on the ground.
With the story of Psalm 46 in mind, we can begin to appreciate even more the words to the hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." Luther saw himself in the same position as the Israelites did in Jehosaphat’s day. He saw many "foes" in the emperor, Charles V, the Pope, and even the possibility of his own townspeople being against him. But were they against Luther--or
something else? They weren’t so much against Luther as they were what he stood for--salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Luther recognized that he could not win the battle for the truth by himself. In fact, it was not really his battle; that is why he writes in the last line of the first verse, "On earth is not his equal," and in verse two, "Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing." Luther knew he was in Jehosaphat’s position--the battle would have to be fought and won by the Lord Himself. Luther was willing to trust God completely to fight the battle against the emperor and the Pope. That is why Luther calls God "a mighty fortress," who he saw as a "trusty shield and weapon."