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What Do the Lyrics of “a Mighty Fortress” Mean?

The Bible instructs the church to sing the truth of God’s word, not only with our mouths but also from our hearts.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)

[Address] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. (Ephesians 5:19)

But how do we sing from our hearts if we don’t understand what we’re singing?

Some songs are rich in theology and meaning, but use complex, abstract, or even antiquated language. In order to make sure that the songs we sing fulfill their purpose of genuine praise and encouragement, we need to make sure the lyrics are understood. If we don’t, we waste our words and our time, if not worse.

Many churches have been singing an old song more frequently in recent months in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is likely the only song in any of our repertoires written by Martin Luther, if not by any Reformer. Luther wrote the song based on Psalm 46 while focusing on how Jesus fulfills the psalm. To hear the story behind “A Mighty Fortress,” I’d direct you to this excellent post by Tim Challies. I want to tackle the job of explaining the meaning of the lyrics, so that when you next sing this in church, you can sing at full gusto, with your whole heart, and actually know what you’re singing.

At our church, we use a version that’s been slightly modernized by Brian Doerksen. I will use the original English translation below, and then include Doerksen’s version at the end.

Verse 1

A mighty fortress is our God,

Remember that Psalm 46 was written in days when fortresses were the usual military defence strategy, and “A Mighty Fortress” was written in the days of castles. These were the metaphors used to describe God as our defence. He is mighty to guard, protect, and keep his people safe.

A bulwark never failing;

A “bulwark” refers to a defensive wall or fortification that is part of the fortress. So a bulwark that never fails is a wall of a fortress that can never be breached or broken into.

Our Helper He amid the flood

Of mortal ills prevailing:

This says there is a flood of “mortal ills” that befall us as God’s people. This is more than just sicknesses; these mortal ills could be any hard times or circumstances humans face on earth. God is our Helper in the midst of all these challenges we face. I believe the “prevailing” at the end of the line refers to God prevailing against them, though it could also refer to these things seeming to prevail against us.

For still our ancient foe

Doth seek to work us woe;

Our “ancient foe” is Satan, the devil—the ancient serpent who has sought to destroy mankind from the garden of Eden. And he is trying hard to “work us woe”: he is working to bring woe—danger, distress, or worse—upon us.

His craft and power are great,

And, armed with cruel hate,

On earth is not his equal.

Satan’s craft—his diabolical skill and cleverness—and his power are both significant, in comparison to our power. There is no equal to him on earth. No human could stand against him. To top it off, he hates believers. His main aim on earth is to steal, kill, and destroy God’s work and God’s people. Let’s just say this verse ends on a very negative note.

Verse 2

Did we in our own strength confide,

Our striving would be losing;

If we tried to stand against the devil on our own strength—to rely on (confide in) ourselves, we would lose terribly. All “our striving”—any efforts we make against him—would be futile.

Were not the right Man on our side,

The Man of God’s own choosing:

We would be losing unless God has a Man on our side. If God appointed a Man (“of his own choosing”) to fight on our behalf against Satan, sin, and death, all of a sudden things aren’t as hopeless.

Dost ask who that may be?

You might be wondering: Who might that be?

Christ Jesus, it is He;

It’s Jesus! God has chosen Jesus to be a Man—the perfect Man, the second Adam—who is on our side. Praise the Lord. And then it gets even better as we consider who Jesus is:

Lord Sabaoth His Name,

“Lord Sabaoth” simply means “Lord of Hosts.” “Hosts” is not talking about hospitality, by the way; it’s talking about armies—armies of angels. Jesus is the Lord of the armies of angelic warriors of heaven.

From age to age the same,

Jesus Christ—the same yesterday, today, and forever. The same Man who died and conquered death through his resurrection is the same today, and will be the same forever.

And He must win the battle.

It’s not just “He must” win, as if it’s our only hope if he wins(though that is absolutely true); this implies a certainty that Jesus will win the battle. He must win, because there’s no other possible outcome in this war. It’s a foregone conclusion. Again, praise the Lord.

Verse 3

And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

Read this line as: Even though this world is still filled with devils (demons) that seek to “undo” (or destroy) us…

We will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us:

…we refuse to fear, because God has already decided that his truth will win the war. And the amazing part is that his truth will triumph through his people! We get to play a part in his victory.

The Prince of Darkness grim,

We tremble not for him;

The Prince of Darkness is another title for Satan. And he is grim, or worrisome or harsh. But we are not afraid of him—we don’t tremble for him. And why not? Let’s see:

His rage we can endure,

For lo! his doom is sure,

We can endure Satan’s short-term rage against us, because his eventual doom (and destiny in the lake of fire) is certain.

One little word shall fell him.

And this is how he’ll meet his end: Our ancient, strong, hateful, enemy will fall by just one little word. It’s debatable what single word this is referring to. I always assumed this was talking about Satan’s final end as described in Revelation 20:7-10. In this passage, Satan leads a final rebellion against God after the Millennium, but this massive rebellion is snuffed out in a moment by fire falling from heaven and wiping them out. The devil is then cast into hell. Presumably God gave “the word” to end him. But there are other possibilities. The single word could refer to the name of Jesus, as evil trembles at his name. Others suppose it refers to the word of God as a whole (Scripture). Brian Doerksen updates the lyrics to refer to this. And I think the way the fourth verse begins lends credence to this view. Alternatively to all of the above, Bryce Young offers an interesting hypothesis here. Whatever word Luther referred to, the point remains the same: Satan is a woefully powerful enemy that will be crushed by a single word from our far more powerful God.

Verse 4

That word above all earthly powers,

No thanks to them, abideth;

The word of God which shall fell Satan is “above all earthly powers.” This is talking now about human powers that stand opposed to God, his word, and his people. “No thanks to them,” the word is still alive and active. Plenty of people have sought to halt God’s powerful word. But despite their opposition, the word of God is still supreme and powerful.

The Spirit and the gifts are ours

Through Him who with us sideth:

Because Jesus sided with us in the war, believers have now been blessed abundantly with the Holy Spirit and the spiritual gifts that he gives us. In other words, God has imbued some of his power in his people.

Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also;

Here is a call for us to have an eternal perspective on life. We need to “let go” of the worldly ties that we have to either wealth/possessions (goods) or people close to us (kindred). Don’t even worry about this present, mortal life! This life is not all there is! We get so caught up in the immediate, temporal world, and we forget the eternal battle that is raging for our souls.

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

You may even lose your life, and that’s ultimately OK. This is a direct reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The powers that be may kill your body. But God’s truth goes on. God’s word will never fail. And God’s word promises eternal life to those that believe in Christ.

His Kingdom is forever.

No explanation needed. God’s reign will go forever. Remember this. Let this truth frame your life. And praise God for his eternal kingdom.

For reference, here are Doerksen’s updated lyrics, which probably aren’t perfect, but I think they are helpful to begin building the bridge from the 16th century to the 21st century. I’ll bold the words or lines he has modified:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A stronghold never failing;
Our helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Conspires to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with bitter hate,
On earth is not his equal.

If we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Unless God’s man is on our side,
The man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He;
The Lord of Hosts, His name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure;
God’s Word shall overthrow him.

That Word above all earthly powers,
Is evermore abiding;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours,
Through Jesus with us siding.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill;
God’s truth is with us still;
His kingdom is forever.

Soli Deo Gloria!