Week 4: Psalm 46 (Cory)

Psalm 46

I chose Psalm 46 because it is the foundation for one of the most famous Protestant hymns ever: Martin Luther’s text (and tune) Ein feste Burg, better known to American English speakers as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” It also happens to be my absolute favorite hymn. (I was raised Lutheran, so I guess it’s no surprise.) I’d like to look at the text of Psalm 46 from the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and compare (and contrast) it to the well-known English translation of Luther’s hymn by Frederic Hedge. I think this is an interesting place to begin the study of this psalm, as well as an insight into how psalms can be adapted into hymns.

Here’s the HCSB version of Psalm 46:

God Our Refuge

For the choir director. A song of the sons of Korah. According to Alamoth.a, b

1God is our refuge and strength,

a helper who is always found in times of trouble.c

2Therefore we will not be afraid, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas,d

3though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its turmoil.e•Selah

4There is a river — its streams delight the city of God, the holy dwelling place of the •Most High.f

5God is within her; she will not be toppled. God will help her when the morning dawns.g

6Nations rage, kingdoms topple; the earth melts when He lifts His voice.h

7The LORD of •Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.iSelah

8Come, see the works of the LORD, who brings devastation on the earth.j

9He makes wars cease throughout the earth. He shatters bows and cuts spears to pieces; He burns up the chariots.k, l

10“Stop your fighting — and know that I am God, exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth.”m

11•Yahweh of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.nSelah

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Footnotes: a. 46:title This may refer to a high pitch, perhaps a tune sung by soprano voices; the Hb word means “young women.” b. 46:title 1Ch 15:20 c. 46:1 Ps 9:9; 62:7-8 d. 46:2 Ps 18:7; 82:5 e. 46:3 Ps 93:3-4; Jr 5:22 f. 46:4 Ps 43:3; Rv 22:1-2 g. 46:5 Is 12:6; Zch 2:10-11 h. 46:6 Ps 2:1; Jr 25:30 i. 46:7 Ps 9:9; Jl 3:16 j. 46:8 Ps 66:5 k. 46:9 Lit chariots with fire l. 46:9 Ps 76:3; Is 2:4; Mc 4:3 m. 46:10 Ps 100:3; Is 2:11,17 n. 46:11 Ps 9:9; Jl 3:16

Now here’s Hedge’s translation of Luther’s Ein feste Burg:

A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing; Our shelter He, amid the flood Of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe Doth seek to work us woe; His craft and pow'r are great, And, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.

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 is His name, From age to age the same, And He must win the battle.

And tho' 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.

That word above all earthly pow'rs -- No thanks to them -- abideth: The Spirit and the gifts are ours Thro' 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.

Right off the bat, you can see Luther take the concept of “refuge and strength,” and adapt it to the common medieval imagery of a “mighty fortress” (or a “safe stronghold,” as another English translation puts it). This also sets up the imagery of a giant spiritual battle that is coming up in Luther’s hymn. Luther takes the specifically Old Testament picture of God as “Yahweh of Hosts” and puts a Christological spin on it, wherein Jesus Christ becomes “Lord Sabaoth” (Lord of Hosts). Luther then describes the great battle between the forces of good on Jesus’ side, and the forces of evil on the side of “our ancient foe.”

It’s interesting to me that, whereas the psalmist specifically says, “He makes wars cease” and “Stop your fighting,” Luther tends to focus on the spiritual battle between God and the devil. Still, in both works the word of hope is that God is in control of everything. Luther points out that “one little word will fell him [the devil].” And the psalmist proclaims, “know that I am God,” a common refrain in the Psalms.

One beautiful piece of imagery that is missing in Luther’s presentation of the psalm is the lovely description of the river whose “streams delight the city of God.” This more peaceful image didn’t fit, perhaps, with Luther’s imagery of “this world, with devils filled.” Even the psalmist’s more violent images tend to be nature oriented: mountains tumbling to the sea, waters roaring and foaming, etc.

It may interest you to know that Luther’s original tune for Ein feste Burg was not the stately hymn made famous by Bach, the one most of us have sung in church. Luther’s melody, although it followed the same contours as Bach’s version, was considerably more jaunty and syncopated. You can hear the rhythmic version here. Bach’s isometric version is here. (Sorry about the cheesy organ sound on the Bach midi.)

I would be interested in hearing from others what they think of Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46: Does he take the psalm in a completely different direction? Does he retain the atmosphere of the psalm, with his own twist? Are the two texts completely different? Other thoughts? Feel free to chime in!