Where else to start my exploration of the Salvation Army Song Book than right at the very beginning, SASB1: A Mighty Fortress is Our God, written originally by Martin Luther, and put to the tune Ein’ Feste Burg (SATB640), also by Martin Luther. The performance above is by the Jazz Acapella group, GLAD, and is a slightly different arrangement to that of the tune book.
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.
Firstly, the word bulwark is one we don’t use often. Reference.com has a few definitions, but the one I like is “any protection against external danger”. So in this verse, we read that God is a mighty fortress, who never fails at protecting us from external danger – for example the flood of mortal ills (a 12th Century definition of this word meant “Morally Evil” – it was only around the time that Luther wrote this song that the word “ill” came to be associated with sickness). Despite this, the ancient foe – that is, Satan – seeks to work us into trouble. Armed with his cruel hate, and his craft and power, there is no-one on earth that is 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 his name,
From age to age the same,
And he must win the battle.
Luther goes on to ask a question: Did we – in our own strength – have faith that our striving would be of no use, were not the right man at our side? Who is the man that God chose? What is he name? Christ Jesus, Lord Sabaoth (which means Hosts or armies, usually of a heavenly host – see James 5:4 or Romans 9:29), who from age to age is the same. It is Christ that must win the battle with Satan.
And though this world, with demons 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.
The world that is full of temptations – the demons that threaten to undo us – we do not fear because the will of God allows truth to triumph through us.
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 for ever.
The word – that is, God (John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”), that is above all earthly powers, can fell Satan. That same word grants those who side with him the spirit and gifts. Finally an exhortation: Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. Luther is saying that possessions do not matter, because “God’s truth abideth still, His Kingdom is forever”
Finally, another performance of these lyrics, now that we’ve gone through them and looked at them in depth. This performance is a contemporary one by TransMission.