We think of October 31, 1517, as the birth date of the Protestant reformation. It was likely a decade or more later that Luther wrote the hymn we know as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” While we may think of it as the battle-hymn of the reformation, Luther likely saw it as a hymn of comfort and confidence in trials. Around 1527–1528 the plague was resuming. Radical fringe movements were threatening to undermine the reformation. His daughter, Elizabeth, born a sickly baby in December of 1527 died months later in 1528. A friend of Luther’s was martyred. Luther turned to the Psalter for comfort, paraphrased Psalm 46 ,and apparently wrote the music for the hymn as well. Focus on that Psalm today.
Trust the God who is your refuge and strength. Chaos may surround you. This is a Psalm of trust. Problems, even chaos, surrounds the author, one of the sons of Korah, but the language is general enough that we don’t know the circumstances. The imagery of 2 and 3 is that of an earthquake. Mountains being tossed into the sea sounds drastic to us, but especially for someone in the ancient Middle East, where the sea pictured chaos (roaring and foaming), but the mountains were what stood firm. While we can’t rule out a literal earthquake as part of the background, the language also suggest that this is a picture of the chaos that results as an invading army wreaks havoc. Where do you turn when the relatively tiny nation of God’s people has the might Assyrians or Babylonians sweep through their territory? The language of cosmic unsettling brings to mind the end of the created order as we know it, cataclysmic judgment. Even at that point you are secure. You may face disruption, even chaos in your life. When the doctor says, “I’m sorry, it’s malignant,” that seems to put everything else in life on hold. When your secure job vanishes, when you’re left alone by the death of a spouse, what happens to your life? And sometimes it’s not the big things, but the little details that seem to go far differently than we expect, and we feel that we’re losing control. Whether the problems we face are the direct result of sin, or the result of living in a sin-cursed world, God is still your refuge.
God is present to help you. God is your refuge, strength, and fortress. The Psalm begins with that assurance, and it is repeated in the refrain of vv. 7 and 11. He is a refuge, providing you with protection, and your strength, enabling you from within, empowering you. The concepts come together in “a very present help.” The root for “present” is related to “found” in Isaiah 55:6. This is a God who is not distant, even when you are in the midst of seeming chaos. He is willing, eager to be found. “For this is what the high and exalted One says — he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” (Isaiah 57:15) God is with us. The Emmanuel principle is at work here. In the Lord’s Supper we have the presence of the Lord, not carnally, but truly present by faith and by the powerful working of the Spirit. God is in his city. The turmoil of the tossing seas is replaced in vv. 4,5 with the placid, life giving stream. “[T]here can be no doubt concerning the principle of paradise being the habitation of God, whee He dwells in order to make man dwell with Himself. But this symbolism of paradise with its God-centered implication appears in still another form in the Prophets and the Psalter, viz., connected with the streams so significantly mentioned in Genesis as belonging to the garden of God, here also in part with eschatological reference…. The truth is thus clearly set forth that life comes from God, that for man it consists in nearness to God, that it is the central concern of God fellowship with man to impart this.” (Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 38) Although Jerusalem is not a city physically built on the banks of a river, in its relationship with God, the river of life runs through it. Look back to Genesis 1, to Psalm 1, and to Ezekiel 47. Look ahead to Revelation 22:1.) Here sacrifices were offered. Here atonement was made for the sins of the people. And just outside this city true, ultimate, peace would be established by the death and resurrection of the Savior. The presence of the Lord means peace instead of judgment–because that judgment which you and I deserved was poured out on Christ at Golgotha. This is not the peace of the weak. Though the nations are in turmoil, they simply melt at the voice of God, v. 6.
Submit in reverence. See the works of the Lord of hosts. The last stanza invites you to see the works of the Lord. The work upon which the Psalm focuses is the peace which follows judgment. The nations are disarmed because they have been conquered and subdued. The God who subdues, the God who is with us, is the Lord of hosts. The hymn transliterates the name, “Lord Sabaoth.” While Lord Almighty conveys the general idea, keep in mind that he is the sovereign over the armies of heaven as well as the nations on the earth. All things, all people eventually submit to this sovereign rule. Be still. The command is not first of all to enjoy the quiet peace that results from his rule, but rather is a call to submit. The tumultuous nations are in rebellion against the Lord–and he summons them to silence. “Luther’s battle-hymn, Ein’ feste Burg, took its starting-point from this psalm, catching its indomitable spirit but striking out in new directions. The psalm for its part proclaims the ascendancy of God in one sphere after another: His power over nature (1–3), over the attackers of His city (4–7) and over the whole warring world (8–11). It robust, defiant tone suggest that it was composed at a time of crisis, which makes the confession of faith doubly impressive. But as the crisis is left unidentified, and the psalm ranges far beyond any local situation, there is little to be gained by historical speculation.” (Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72, p. 174)
Exalt God’s name among the nations. God is God, and he will be exalted. That is his firm resolve — and it will happen. At the same time, he summons you to exalt his name, to praise him. He calls you to make his good news known, so that men bow in adoration, rather than simply in terror of judgment. You join in that process of bringing the nations to exalt him when you speak of your Lord to your neighbor. You join in it as you give to the Thank Offering . Your reaction to trouble and chaos around you is part of the way that the name of the Lord is exalted. Work and pray for his name to be held high in this community.
People of God, fear not. The Lord of hosts himself assures you of his presence.