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David's Commentaries

Psalm 46: ‘God is our Refuge and Strength.’

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Psalm 46: ‘God is our Refuge and Strength.’

 

    One who has written ‘101 Hymn Stories,’ adding at a later date, ‘101 More Hymn Stories,’ is, quite apparently, excited to inform us that this hymn of Martin Luther, ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God,’ is based on Psalm 46. In fact, our own hymn book has the Scripture reference at the top of the page where this hymn is found, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble….Psalm 46:1. Kenneth W. Osbeck, the author of the ‘Hymn Stories’ continues his exultation over this song of Luther, as he says, ‘The single most powerful hymn of the Protestant Reformation Movement was Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” based on Psalm 46. This hymn became the battle cry of the people, a great source of strength and inspiration even for those who were martyred for their convictions. This hymn has been trans-lated into practically every known language and is regarded as one of the noblest and most classic examples of Christian hymnody. It is said there are no less than sixty translations of this text in English alone. In England the version by Thomas Carlyle is in general use, while in this country the translation by Frederick H. Hedge, a professor at Harvard University, is used most frequently. This translation was not made until 1852 and first appeared in a book entitled Gems of German Verse by W.H. Furness, published in 1853.’ 

    We certainly are not challenging the happy usefulness; the glorious truths, contained in Luther’s hymn, we only question the statement of many that it is based upon Psalm 46. We much appreciate the language of a contributor to the ‘Desiring God’ website of John Piper; this contributor is David Mathis; Executive Editor, desiringGod.org. In asserting that the theology of the Reformation made for such a good marriage with music; the Reformation sang. In reference to Luther, he added:

‘Leading the way, not just in song, but in word was Martin Luther. He wrote nearly forty hymns, many of which he composed not only the words, but even the music. His most famous, of course, “A Mighty Fortress,” often is called, “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” The song embodies with strength and gusto the very spirit of the Reformation, breaking free from the flaccidity and poverty of medieval theology with rich God-confidence. 

    

    ‘The hymn takes its inspiration mainly from the first two verses of Psalm    46, along with the refrain of verses 7 and 11.

        God is our refuge and our strength, 

        A very present help in trouble.

    Therefore we will not fear….(Psalm 46:1-2).


    The Lord of hosts is with us;

    The God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46:7, 11)


‘Psalm 46 opens with God as ‘refuge and strength’ and the battle hymn opens with God as ‘mighty fortress.’--, literally, a strong or unshakable castle. Line three is ‘help in trouble’; stanza three is, ‘we will not fear.’    


‘But that’s where the parallels end. Rather than a mere hymnodic expression of the psalm, we do better to call it a Christian hymn. What’s generic in psalm 46, Luther makes specific, and Christian. He names the personal agent behind the trouble, “our ancient foe,” the devil. He puts a human face and person to the rescue: “Christ Jesus it is he.” And the hymn apexes with the glorious Himalayan peaks of Romans 8.’

    This gets to the issue, I suppose, of what is intended by the apostle, in his epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, and the phrase used in both of these letters. He has written to those in Ephesus, and in chapter 5:17-19, where he has exhorted us, rather forcefully, when he says;

Wherefore be ye not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunken with wine, wherein is riot, but be filled with the Spirit; speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.

One could readily and strongly wish that we could understand ‘what the will of the Lord is’ with regard to ‘speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.’ We are not really given any help when we turn to the other epistle that Paul wrote from prison, namely Colossians, where he repeats this exhortation in much the same language, (3:16), yet with a few subtle, or not so subtle, differences:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God.

Why has Paul prefaced this occasion of the use of ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ with the exhortatory statement ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.’? 

Does he mean to direct us to let the word of the psalms dwell in you richly? Or does he intend that we let the word of the hymns dwell in you richly? Perhaps he means that we should let the word of the spiritual songs dwell in you richly? Or, possibly, he means to exhort us that we should let psalms and hymns and spiritual songs dwell in you richly? Would this not suggest that he, at the very least, implies that the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are, in fact, the word of Christ that he would have to dwell in us richly; and in all of this wisdom to teach and admonish one another? 

    Surely, we should, each and every one of us, desire that the word of God, the word of Christ, would dwell in us richly. We should exercise ourselves unto that end. And we should equally wish with all our being that, when we sing praises unto God, that we would be singing with grace in our hearts unto our God.


David Farmer, elder

Fellowship Bible Church

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