Posted on

Greatest hymn in history

The Word Lives
Greatest hymn in history
Greatest hymn in history
The Rev. Kathy Brumbaugh
The Rev. Kathy Brumbaugh, Special Writer

Background text: Psalm 46

Devotional text: Hebrews 13:8

It’s November, a time of changing seasons, a time of thanksgiving, a time of preparation for coming holidays and a time of reaching out to God.

We are busy human beings as we prepare for this season. Getting ready for a Thanksgiving dinner. Buying presents to be wrapped and presented at Christmas. This year, there are changes that go along with how we will celebrate due to the constant threat of COVID-19, but we will get through it with joy in our typical “can do” American fashion.

That brings me to the celebration of our God as found in one of the greatest hymns of all time. That hymn is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” written and composed by Martin Luther in 1529.

As we were singing this hymn at church on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think that this is one of the oldest hymns we sing. After close to 500 years, its meaning is as important and encouraging to us today as it was in the time of the Protestant Reformation. Of the 40 hymns attributed to Luther, it is by far the most well-known and popular, sung by all Christian denominations.

This hymn has come to be known as “the greatest hymn of the greatest man in the greatest period of German history.” If you were to visit Luther’s grave in Wittenberg, Germany, you would find these words inscribed at the bottom: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

It was Martin Luther, a Catholic priest in Wittenberg, who is best known for starting the Reformation of the church. Disturbed by certain actions by the church at that time, Luther did as anyone would have done: he wrote down his complaints to be read and debated and hung them on the door of the Wittenberg church.

This was nothing new. This was the way it was done. Others before him had done the same thing as debates and conferences were held to discuss the running of the church. Why were the 95 Theses written by Luther any different?

Perhaps it was the number of complaints. Perhaps it was the way Luther did not back down from what he believed to be right. Perhaps it was just that so many others believed as he did and were ready for change.

As Luther studied theology at the Wittenberg University (having changed his studies from that of law), he grew more and more of the belief that each person must have a personal relationship with God. That relationship was based on a personal belief in Christ’s death on the cross for the forgiveness of one’s sins.

It bothered Luther that the entire Mass, accept for the sermon, was sung in Latin by the priests and cantors. He grew to believe the people of the congregation should be singing in their own language and that the Bible should be accessible to the common people in their own language.

In following his beliefs, Luther translated the New Testament, which was written in Greek, into German and started writing hymns to be sung in church by the people in their own language. By following his faith in God, Luther unwittingly began a spiritual revolution for all people. Luther’s hymns were based on understanding the biblical basis from which they were written.

After writing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” based on Psalm 46 (and other scriptures), the hymn garnered immediate popularity. The people were ready for a hymn that expressed their faith in God for themselves, a hymn in their own language.

It is said that the people began singing the hymn in the streets. Those who were being persecuted sang it on the way to their trials. Martyrs sang it on the road to their own death. This hymn, written by a priest who only wanted righteous change within the church, became known as “The Battle Hymn of the Protestant Reformation.”

It wasn’t until 1853 that the hymn was translated into English by Frederick H. Hedge and appears as we sing it today.

As we sing Luther’s hymn in our churches today, we find that it has the same powerful meaning now as it did 500 years ago. Although some of its language may seem foreign to us in modern days, understanding the meaning of words like “bulwark,” “Sabaoth” and even “fortress” help us to understand the powerful nature of God in our lives.

Today, when we need to hear about our God who hides us and protects and is constantly on our side during troubled times, this hymn has once again become ripe with meaning.

As we sing “a mighty fortress is our God,” we read in Psalm 46:7 “The Lord Almighty is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress.” A fortress refers to any strongly defended place such as a fort or a town, or an impenetrable place of safety. We can find our safety in God.

In the continuation of this line, we find he is “a bulwark never failing.” This phrase goes together with the fortress of God’s safety. A bulwark is any strong wall or raised mound giving strong support. We find its analogy in our God who gives us strong support and encouragement in the time of need, danger and even doubt.

The third line of verse two refers to Jesus Christ as Lord Sabaoth. You may be surprised to know that Lord Sabaoth appears 235 times in the Bible, both in Old and New Testaments. It is a Greek word translated into English as “Lord of hosts,” the way we find it in our Bibles today. Lord Sabaoth refers to Jesus as the leader of the hosts of angels in heaven (see Matthew 26:53 for example).

After reading about Jesus as Lord Sabaoth, the hymn continues by saying that Jesus is the same from age to age. Jesus never changes. He is the one who has won the battle against evil for us, of this we should be sure. We find this assurance in Hebrews 13:8 as we read of Jesus who is “the same yesterday, today and forever.” For Jesus never changes his mind. Jesus never lies. Jesus has shown us the way to follow and in him we can always trust.

I end with these words from Psalm 46:10, paraphrased in Luther’s hymn: “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”