I know that “A Mighty Fortress” (LSB 656, 657) is considered the “Battle Hymn” of the Reformation by many, but I suspect that in the hearts of most Lutherans across the centuries, Luther’s much simpler and shorter hymn, “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” (LSB 655), simply wins the day, hands down.
The hymn was certainly popular in the church orders of the 16th and 17th centuries, which often prescribed it as the hymn sung after the sermon every week.
According to Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns, no one knows the exact date or occasion for which Luther wrote it. The earliest reference appears in 1543 and calls it “a children’s hymn.” That fits with the simple words and the sturdy, memorable melody.
To say that Luther had the gift of bluntness would be an understatement. The man would never have made it in an environment concerned with political correctness, especially not by the time he reached that testy last decade of his life. This little hymn embarrassed later Lutherans because of its first stanza as Luther penned it (and as the LCMS sang it until the publication of The Lutheran Hymnal in 1941). He dared to name those whom he firmly believed Christendom needed protection against. Here’s how it is translated in Luther’s Works:
Lord, keep us steadfast in thy Word(LW 53:305)
And curb the Turks’ and papists’ sword
Who Jesus Christ, thine only Son,
Fain would tumble from off thy throne.
In Luther’s day, the papacy still had the inquisition running full steam, torturing and killing those regarded as heretics ad maiorem Dei gloriam (that is, to the greater glory of God). Meanwhile, only a couple years prior, the Turks had taken Budapest and looked poised to sweep straight through Christian Europe and forcibly convert it to Islam. In such a dire moment, prayer against the sword of the enemies of God’s Word was surely called for. And Luther found a way to put it in words that the children could sing and that adults would never outgrow.
While Rome has long since repented of persecuting fellow baptized Christians — indeed, now they are regarded as “separated brethren” — the resurgence of militant Islam in our own day may help us grasp the fiery ardor that rings through this little battle hymn. You can detect it, even in the milder form that we sing now:
Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word;(LSB 655:1)
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Your Son
And bring to naught all He has done.
This first stanza of the battle hymn is a prayer to God the Father, and the opposition of Word and sword is not to be missed. There are worldly weapons that threaten, but the church conquers with weapons of a different sort of warfare, as St. Paul taught: “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4–5). And of course, “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17) is the preeminent weapon of all Christian warfare taken in hand with prayer. The weight of the prayer of the first stanza is: “Father, by Your Spirit’s sword protect and keep us in the Kingdom of Your Son.”
Lord Jesus Christ, Your pow’r make known,(LSB 655:2)
For You are Lord of lords alone;
Defend Your holy Church that we
May sing Your praise eternally.
The hymn moves from the person of the Father to the person of the Son. He is the founder of the church. He promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against her (Matt. 16:18). He sits on the throne of the universe and no matter if things appear to be “going to hell in a hand-basket” (as the saying has it), He still possesses all authority in heaven and on earth. We confess that He is the Lord of lords alone, the Pantocrator, the Ruler of all. And so we ask that He would defend His work, His church, His Christendom, and that He would do so in such a way that our song in His honor, to His praise, may begin now and redound through eternity. The weight of the prayer of the second stanza is: “Lord Jesus, show Your power and defend us, keeping us faithful in our worship of You forever.”
O Comforter of priceless worth,(LSB 655:3)
Send peace and unity on earth;
Support us in our final strife
And lead us out of death to life.
Now, the hymn moves from the person of the Son to the person of the Holy Spirit. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another [Comforter] to be with you forever,” Jesus said (John 14:16). Jesus is also a comforter (counselor, advocate), but we rightly apply the name chiefly to Him who brings us the comfort of Christ by granting us the gift of faith; that is, the Holy Spirit. St. Paul told the Corinthians: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12). Hermann Sasse observed once that the work of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed is always eschatological; it’s never finished in this age. The Spirit’s work reaches into eternity as He is always gathering a church to Christ until the revelation of the Son on the Last Day. And so we beg the Comforter, while giving us here in this world the gift of peace with God and unity through Jesus with one another, to fortify us for “the final strife.” The last enemy to be faced down is death. We pray that He will not only support us as our breath fails in this age and we breathe our last, but that by His own omnipotent power, He would lead us out of death and into life.
As we pass by Reformation Day 2020, we can be thankful that the inter-Christian persecutions have largely come to an end. The threat of false teaching (deceit) and persecution by Christ’s enemies still remains. Jesus didn’t lie: “In the world you will have tribulation.” But He also didn’t lie when He added: “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In the confidence of those blessed words, we join our voices in this little battle hymn of the Reformation, begging the blessed Trinity to keep our faith steadfast and strong by the protection and comfort of His holy Word as long as He wills our earthly pilgrimage to last.
Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort!