Do Bulwarks Need to Take Sabaoths? (Reflections on the Hymn, "A Mighty Fortress")

In a time in which the Holy Spirit empowered people to speak in foreign languages, Paul said, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (1 Corinthians 14:15). In context, he was encouraging the Corinthians to sing in commonly understood languages even if they found themselves empowered to do otherwise. Since he wrote these words, the miraculous gift of tongues has ceased, just as Paul said it would (1 Corinthians 13:7). Still, his words have relevance to us. While we typically sing in a known tongue in worship, we sometimes sing words or phrases that aren’t common or that we might not understand without reflection. This article is part of a articles examining some commonly sung hymns with the aim of ensuring that like Paul we can sing with understanding when we sing them. Use the tag "Song Studies" to find more.
The image of an imposing fortress is often used in Scripture as an illustration of the protection that God gives His people (2 Samuel 22:2; Psalm 18:2; 31:2-3; 71:3; 91:2; 144:2; Jeremiah 16:19). Roughly 500 years ago, Martin Luther borrowed this image and used it to picture God as a place of safety from Satan and the forces of evil. Luther’s aim was not merely to identify God as a fortress but rather to encourage people to cling to the place God had provided for protection: His Word, the Bible. Though Luther himself fell short in some of His theological understandings, his hymn is powerful and worthy of consideration – if you can get past some antiquated language and veiled figures of speech.

What is a “bulwark”? A bulwark is a defensive structure, something that offers support and protection. The hymn begins by affirming that God is a fortress but then clarifies through the word bulwark that He is not simply a fortress; He is our fortress. Facing a “flood of mortal ills” – things that damage and destroy our life – God both prevails and keeps us safe.

Who is “our ancient foe”? Of all the ills that face our mortal being, none is greater than “that serpent of old,” also known as “the Devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9; 20:2). Luther describes Satan as a “foe,” or enemy, who seeks “to work us woe,” or to bring us great sorrow and distress. He does so with great “craft” (i.e., craftiness – cf. Genesis 3:1) and “power,” finding no match in mankind. The second stanza continues this thought by saying that if we trust in “our own strength,” we will lose in our battle against Satan and his onslaught of “mortal ills.”

Who is “the right Man”? Luther anticipates that you might not be tracking him when he describes “the right Man on our side,” so he goes on to ask and answer this question: “You ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he.” It’s important to see Jesus’ total Deity (John 1:1-5) but equally important to see His total humanity (Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 2:9-18; 4:15). Jesus came in our likeness and defeated “sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3-4).

What is meant by the title, “Lord Sabaoth”? Since this typically gets sung as the word “sabbath” instead of its three syllables (sab-ah-oath), growing up, that’s exactly what I thought it meant. Jesus is certainly the “Lord of the sabbath” (Luke 6:15; cf. Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:28), but that fact doesn’t exactly fit here. If you’re using an older translation, the NKJV, or an older NASB version, you’ll find this word in your Bible in Romans 9:29 and James 5:4. If you use another version, you will see a translation in those passages instead such as “Lord of hosts,” or “Lord of armies.” Either of those are acceptable translations of the transliterated word “Sabaoth.” Using either translation of Sabaoth for the word in the hymn, one arrives at truth; Jesus both is Lord of all of the hosts that come against Him and has all of the military might He needs at His disposal. As Luther affirms, “He must win the battle.”

How does the song end? This song doesn’t appear the same in every hymnal. Luther originally wrote in German, so all versions of the hymn reflect translation. Certain versions of the hymn also have been edited in various ways to reduce the hymn from four stanzas to three. Here’s a translation that’s probably close to what Luther originally intended from the Psalter Hymnal of 1987:
3 And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God has 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
through 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!

Every version that I’ve sung as best as I can recall substitutes the word “evil’ for the word “devils,” which I prefer, as I can’t say with confidence that I know what powers the angels of Satan (cf. Matthew 25:41) or “devils” still hold over this world. While they were evidently loosed for a season during the ministry of Jesus, Jude says that they are now “reserved in everlasting chains under darkness” (Jude 1:6). Some versions then go on to combine the first part of stanza three (ending with “His truth to triumph through us”) and the last part of stanza four (beginning with “Let goods and kindred go”), which together form a coherent and useful thought. Some versions though just omit the fourth stanza altogether, leaving the singer to wonder, “What is the ‘one little word’ that will fell or defeat Satan?”

Given that the fourth stanza picks up with affirming “That Word…abideth,” it seems like it’s not a single word, but rather as Luther goes on to say, “God’s truth” that “abideth still” i.e., the Gospel. Luther lived in a time in which governmental powers were actively striving to suppress the New Testament, so he affirms that the Word abides in spite of them rather than because of them. Luther also affirms that Jesus, siding with Christians in this conflict, has given the Holy Spirit and “the gifts.” This line may be omitted by many song books because it appears to be inconsistent with New Testament teaching. While the Holy Spirit is still active in the world today and while He continues to give power and life to the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12), the gifts of the Spirit have failed, ceased, and vanished away (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8ff).

In spite of what seems to be a shortcoming in understanding regarding miraculous gifts, there’s a beautiful thought contained in the third and fourth stanzas of the hymn as originally written. Neither Satan, nor devils/evil, nor earthly powers will ever triumph over God’s truth. Holding to the truth may cost “goods and kindred,” or family, and may even cost our life, but as truth cannot be defeated and God’s kingdom cannot be defeated, “we can endure.” I am reminded as I read these words of the powerful affirmations of Romans 8:31-39.

So, do bulwarks need to take Sabaoths? Well, in the case of the mighty fortress that is our God, I guess the answer is no, but it’s good to know that He both has them and is Lord over them.
-Patrick Swayne






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