By Reuben Bredenhof
A favourite hymn for many people was written by Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress.”
Around Reformation Day—and throughout the year—this hymn is sung by the church with great passion. Often after sermons that celebrate the power and faithfulness of God our Saviour towards his people, the organist will pull out a few extra stops and we’ll belt out this cherished song.
Lord of the Sabbath?
As tends to happen with more of the tried and true psalms and hymns, “A Mighty Fortress” contains some old expressions whose meanings are no longer clear. And though we love to sing familiar lyrics , it’s proper that we know the meaning of what we are singing.
In “A Mighty Fortress,” in its second verse, we find especially one phrase that seems to be widely misunderstood. Speaking of the right Man on our side/ The Man of God’s own choosing, Luther asks and answers a rhetorical question about our Saviour: Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He. And then, to further identify this person, his title is given:
Lord Sabaoth his Name.
What is this title, “Lord Sabaoth?” If asked, someone might think for a moment and tentatively suggest that this could be linked to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 12:1-8. There Jesus is disputing with the Pharisees concerning what is lawful on the Sabbath. Jesus ends his words to the Pharisees with this definitive statement, “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 8). So we might conclude that in the second verse of “A Mighty Fortress” we celebrate Jesus as the one with authority over the Lord’s day.
Lord of Hosts
But while Matthew 12:8 teaches an important truth, it’s not Jesus’ revelation of his lordship over the Sabbath that is being celebrated in Hymn 53:2. The confusion arises because the word “Sabaoth”—not Sabbath—is an English representation of a Hebrew word, sebaoth.
Of course, Luther didn’t write his hymn (Ein Feste Burg) in Hebrew, but in German. Yet in his original composition too, he simply gave the German representation of that Hebrew word sebaoth. So from Hebrew to German to English, “Sabaoth” has found its way into this favourite hymn.
For what this word “Sabaoth” means then, we must turn to the Hebrew Old Testament. There we regularly find this title for God: “Yahweh Sebaoth.” This title is often translated in English Bibles as “the LORD of hosts.”
Over what kind of hosts is the LORD? This is debated. There are some texts in Scripture that depict God as the head of human armies. For example, in 1 Samuel 17:45 David confronts Goliath with these words: “I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.”
Other texts suggest that the hosts which God commands are the celestial bodies, like the sun, the moon and the stars. For instance, after God defeats the Canaanites, Deborah sings this: “From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera” (Jdg 5:20).
Still other texts say that the LORD’s hosts are heavenly creatures, such as the angels. The prophet Michaiah once described this war-room scene in heaven: “I saw the LORD sitting on his throne with all the host of heaven around him” (1 Kgs 22:19).
Looking at these three options, it may not be necessary to choose only one of these to the exclusion of the others. The general idea of the title “LORD of hosts” is that God is sovereign over all the powers in the universe, both visible and invisible, human and non-human. This is the reason that the NIV usually translates the Hebrew “Yahweh Sebaoth” as “LORD Almighty.” He is the God of great strength and all ability. And we should notice that the title certainly associates God with battle and warfare. He is the LORD of hosts of human soldiers, celestial troops, and heavenly fighters.
Luther tells of how Psalm 46 was the inspiration for “A Mighty Fortress.” And this Psalm too, portrays our God in battle against his enemies. The setting of Psalm 46 is one of unrest. Creation is unsettled: “the earth gives way, the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (v. 2). The peoples boil, as “nations are in uproar” (v. 6). In spite of all this, the Psalmist’s confession is sure: “God is our refuge and strength” (v. 1).
And in verse 7 the Psalmist expresses this great confidence:
The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Psalm 46 says that God is a mighty fortress indeed! Like the strongest citadel or castle, God is a refuge for his people against all their foes.
The Psalmist then goes on to sing of the LORD doing battle with the aggressive enemy: “He breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire” (v. 9).
The LORD of hosts is a mighty warrior, a general who is not afraid to go to the front lines to fight for his people.
This Psalm was dear to Luther’s heart. During times when the Reformation movement seemed near collapse, Luther would say to his friend and fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon, “Let’s sing the Forty-sixth Psalm.” This Psalm all about God’s great power over his enemies gave Luther and others a rich encouragement that God was on their side and would preserve them.
Yes, it is even Jesus Christ who is fighting for his people: Christ Jesus it is He/ Lord Saboath His Name. He who commands the mighty armies of God is the Lamb who once was slain. It’s a sure thing that Christ will always fight for the church whom He bought with his blood! Luther sang to this triumphant King with steady confidence, even in the darkest hours of the Reformation.
A Mighty Fortress
The hymn expresses well Luther’s faith, and not only his faith, but that of the church in his day. Christians back then looked to God Almighty as the one who would fight and also win their fierce battles against falsehood and persecution. For that reason, Ein Feste Burg has been called the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” It captured the spirit of the Reformation so aptly that when Protestant martyrs were walking to their death at the scaffold or stake, it was often “A Mighty Fortress” that they chose to sing.
And its popularity in Protestant churches has hardly waned. “A Mighty Fortress” has been translated into hundreds of languages, and there are at least eighty different English versions. It’s curious to see that some of these English versions have changed “Lord Sabaoth” into “Lord of hosts,” but many more have preserved the remnants of that rich Hebrew title for God our Saviour. The title is a beautiful link from the Old Testament people of God to his New Testament people today. Our God is unchanging in his power and zeal for the people redeemed in Christ’s blood.
As we remember Reformation Day, and as we celebrate the power and faithfulness of God towards his people, let’s take “A Mighty Fortress” on our lips with a renewed enthusiasm. We may sing it with Martin Luther, and with the church of all times and all places. We may sing it with great confidence in our God of awesome might, and with great confidence in our Saviour who is enthroned in heaven.
The times can seem dark and troubled for the church of Christ. People are rejecting the truth of God’s Word as antiquated and irrelevant, many governments are restricting religious freedoms and making life difficult for Christians, while godlessness and wickedness seem to be on an inexorable rise.
We certainly don’t always feel as confident as the Psalmist does in Psalm 46, or as triumphant as Luther does in his hymn. But even though we’re just weak footsoldiers who are facing a formidable foe, we know as God’s truth that our Lord will fight for his people until the very end:
Lord Sabaoth his Name
From age to age the same
And He must win the battle.