Thought for the Day : Wednesday 16 December

Thought for the Day by Malcolm Heath (St Michael’s)

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 its waters roar and foam,
        though the mountains tremble with its tumult…

Psalm 46.1-3

That psalm was the inspiration for Martin Luther’s hymn ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott / Ein gute Wehr und Waffen…’, composed in 1529 or perhaps a little earlier.

Of the many English translations (close to a hundred, according to one expert), Thomas Carlyle’s version (1831) is the most familiar:

A safe stronghold our God is still
A trusty shield and weapon…

The last line of Carlyle’s version, ‘… the City of God remaineth!’, is (I think) an allusion to St Augustine’s theological masterpiece, The City of God: Luther—an Augustinian friar before his excommunication—was a reformer, not a vandal.  

Luther composed his hymn in the light of the single astonishing decade that saw an initially precarious and vulnerable reformation become a safe and securely rooted reality. Such a transformation, he reasoned, would be inexplicable if God had not defended His people. Though we lack the power to save ourselves, we may put our trust in God and celebrate Christ’s victory over the Devil.

The tune has appeared in many different forms. Bach’s over-elaborated cantata (BWV 80) does not appeal to me: it seems more interested in the music than in God. Mendelssohn does a better job in his Reformation Symphony, planned for the 300th anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession (1530), a key event in Lutheran history. The final movement is based on Luther’s chorale, and comes to a magnificent celebratory climax: the final movement starts at 22:59).  

Nowadays the hymn is typically sung at a drearily slow tempo and in a ploddingly regular rhythm. But in Luther’s time the hymn, sung to a syncopated rhythm, had more bounce and far more of a sense of joyful confidence in God. This modern performance (in German) may give a sense of what we are missing:

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