Recently, I led a tour through the ancient city of Jerusalem. Early one morning, I looked out across the skyline and read Psalm 46. You may know the first verse by heart:
God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble.
I thought of how God had shown Himself strong in the very place I had come to visit, protecting His people through centuries of endless wars. The setting gave the psalm new meaning.
Perhaps when they penned Psalm 46 the descendants of Korah had endured yet another gruelling battle. To remember God’s greatness, they opened by declaring Him their “refuge and strength.” They closed with the climax of their praise:
The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress. (Psalm 46:11)
What was true for Korah’s descendants is true for us. God is our refuge and strength, our help. God is our fortress.
The maverick monk Martin Luther from the village of Wittenberg pondered those truths as he translated the original Hebrew into the German vernacular, “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott.” In our language, Luther’s translation became a hymn nearly every believer knows, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The first verse of that grand theme rings with triumphant confidence:
A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of moral ills prevailing.1
What a passionate clarion call to commitment! No matter how you translate those words, they smell of blood and battle. They drip with discipline. You can almost hear the report of guns and the clashing of swords. It is indeed the battle hymn of the Reformation.
Luther lived over 500 years ago, back in the 16th century—a dark age of superstitions, immorality, and spiritual exploitation. In the 21st century there’s just as much reason to sound that battle hymn, for despite all our advances, our times are still awfully dark. Those powerful words shine in the spiritual darkness of our lives today, just as they shone in Luther’s day. God was and is and always will be the mighty fortress we need.
The benefits of embracing that truth are palpable. Psalm 46 names three:
- Because He is our fortress, we will not fear
- Because He is our fortress, we will not be moved
- Because He is our fortress, we will not strive or be anxious
Because God is our refuge and strength, nothing disturbs our peace. I’m talking about the kind of peace Isaiah described:
You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! (Isaiah 26:3)
Literally, the prophet wrote, “He will keep him in shalom, shalom.” That idiom of duplication, in the Hebrew tongue, expresses the superlative. “Shalom, shalom” amounts to “total peace,” “absolute peace,” “perfect peace.” Such peace doesn’t depend on others acknowledging God—and that’s a very good thing.
This spring, the prestigious National Geographic Society put on a 10-part television series called One Strange Rock. It’s all about our planet, how everything began, and what makes life possible here. The program and accompanying articles are well-researched, carefully written, and beautifully produced by sincere, scholarly, top-notch scientists. Yet there isn’t even a throw away hint mentioning our Creator God. Of course not. The Creator doesn’t fit the reasoning of the sophisticated. They have no place for Him. But His existence and careful shaping of this marvellous rock we call home is clearly revealed in Scripture: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
Rather than lamenting our culture’s failure to acknowledge our great and powerful God, let’s turn our full attention to Him who is enthroned above us, who reigns over us, because He alone is our shalom, shalom. He alone is the Creator—the God of heaven and earth who brings the snow to the ground, calls lightning from the sky, and mixes our atmosphere with the perfect elements to sustain life. He IS, whether anyone acknowledges Him or not.
That same God poured steel into Martin Luther’s soul as he hammered his 95 Theses on the door of that Wittenberg church. And that same God who marched before Luther marches before us as we pursue His Great Commission. He alone can give light to the shadows of our dark age. He alone can relieve our fears and mingle His peace with our pain. He alone knows the earth and all its inhabitants and His plan for every one.
He alone is our mighty fortress.
1. Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” (1526)