“Where does one find finer words of joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving? There you look into the hearts of all saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens, yes as into heaven itself. There you see what fine and pleasant flowers of the heart spring up from all sorts of fair and happy thoughts toward God, because of His blessings.”
The Book of Psalms was the songbook of the Israelites. Many churches still chant or sing the Psalms today. A multitude of hymns and Christian songs are based on a particular psalm. Luther called this book “the Bible in miniature” and took particular comfort in reading the Psalms. His most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress, is a paraphrase of Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble
Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though the waters roar and foam though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
What’s your favorite Psalm? Is it used in worship or a song that you love? I’m hoping our authors and readers will weigh in on this.
“It is well for us that, amidst all the variableness of life, there is One whom change cannot affect; One whose heart can never alter, and on whose brow mutability can make no furrows.”
Have you ever heard of entropy? It comes from a principle of thermodynamics and refers to the idea that everything in the universe moves from order to disorder. This makes perfect sense to me: it’s what happened when sin entered the world. Left on our own, mankind gradually disintegrates into more and more sinful behavior. As we age, our bodies are subject to the results of sin as well–sickness and death eventually overtake what God has “fearfully and wonderfully made.” The people closest to us, the ones we love and depend upon, will all die. We will die as well.
Thankfully in life there is one person who doesn’t change; one person that we can count on forever. In Hebrews 13:8 we are told:
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Deuteronomy 31:6 assures us:
“…for it is the Lord your God who goes with you; He will not fail you or forsake you.”
In a world of change, I need to remind myself every day to choose the unchangeable and focus my mind on the unseen. I want to be able to say along with Martin Luther:
“Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.”
from the hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress.’
Among many talents, Martin Luther was also a musician. When the Reformation began , he was determined to revive congregational singing. He worked with musicians to create new music to be sung in the vernacular. Sometimes he “borrowed” popular secular music for his hymns, though sometimes a tune brought criticism because it was too closely associated with bars and taverns and Luther was “compelled to let the devil have it back.”
“Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”(A Mighty Fortress is Our God) is his most famous hymn. It is based on Psalm 46. In times of difficulty and danger, Luther would be comforted by this song, saying “Come … let us sing the 46th Psalm.” It has been called the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation.”
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Text: Martin Luther Trans. by Frederick H. Hedge
Music: Martin Luther Harmony from The New Hymnal for American Youth
Tune: EIN’ FESTE BURG, Meter: 18.104.22.1687
|1. A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.2. Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.3. And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath 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;
one little word shall fell him.4. That word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours,
thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.
This article was originally published in The Lutheran Ambassador
Lutherans are known as “the singing church” and Martin Luther has been called “the father of congregational singing.” But why do we sing? Is it simply our tradition? Is it an appropriate way to express our emotions of gratitude and love toward God? Is it a biblically sanctioned part of worship (Psalm 66:1-2)? Does it help bind us together as a community? The answer is yes to all these questions about communal Christian singing in the Church. However, there is another excellent reason Lutherans sing: hymn singing is an important part of our Christian education.
Maybe you thought the children were just having fun singing all those Sunday School songs. They are having fun, but they are also learning about important people in the Bible (Father Abraham), the essentials of the faith (Jesus Loves Me), the proper response to God’s love (Praise Him, Praise Him, All You Little Children) and what it means to be part of the church (We Are the Church).
Setting words to music is an aid to memorization. Young people often learn the books of the Bible (in order no less) by singing a song. Adults who participate in a Lutheran liturgy discover they’ve memorized many Psalms and other portions of scripture by taking part in the worship service. Well chosen hymns also serve to reinforce the theme of the sermon and the readings of the day. And in times of crisis in our lives the comforting words of hymns bring the reminder of God’s eternal concern for His people to our minds and hearts.
Good hymns teach. They help us understand the different church seasons (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel). They prepare us for communion (Let Us Break Bread Together). They tell us about the attributes of God (A Mighty Fortress). They convict us of our sin (Amazing Grace). They explain theological concepts (The Church’s One Foundation) and give lessons in how to serve (Hark the Voice of Jesus Calling) and be more generous (We Give Thee But Thine Own). Some hymns are almost a sermon in themselves (Salvation Unto Us Has Come)!
Church music can touch our hearts and sink into our souls in a way that is hard to explain or understand. Church music can lift us up into the very realm of God’s presence. No wonder Luther called it “a fair and glorious gift of God.”