His passionate beliefs about music and worship led Martin Luther to write both words and music for several hymns, including ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God.’ Luther’s first hymnal was published in 1524. It contained eight hymns, four written by himself. Later hymnals were also published for congregational use. He urged people to use the hymns at home and encouraged parochial schools to teach them to their students.
Luther’s Reformation hymn, “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” is one of his best known compositions. When it was published in 1542, it appeared with the subtitle, “A Children’s Hymn, to be Sung Against the Two Archenemies of Christ and His Holy Church, the Pope and Turk.” What prompted Luther to write a hymn under such a title?
Luther and the Reformers’ theological conflict with the various popes is well-known. The political conflict between the Holy Roman Empire, to which the Reformers and their princes belonged, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire was also a significant factor during the time of the Reformation.
In Luther’s day the Turks controlled not only much of the Middle East and North Africa, they also held territory in southeastern Europe (modern day Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Balkans). In the early 1500’s a series of battles was waged in Austria and Hungary between the Turks and the Holy Roman Empire. The siege of Vienna in the autumn of 1529 led to the decision of Emperor Charles V to call the Diet of Augsburg to unite the Holy Roman Empire against threat of Turkish invasion.
In 1541 two additional battles occurred between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Turks, which led Luther to pen this hymn. The army of the Holy Roman Empire was defeated at Budapest in August, and the imperial fleet was largely destroyed near Algiers in October.
Luther wrote an appeal for the people to pray against the Turks and penned “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” to encourage them in the face of their enemies. The second line of the hymn originally read, “Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk.” (Und steur des Papst und Türken Mord). The translation was later revised to, “Curb those who by deceit or sword,” to include all the enemies of the church.
Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word,
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from your Son
And bring to naught all He has done.
This first verse is an appeal to God the Father to preserve us by His Word, rather than by the force of arms. God never promises us victory in battle over our enemies. Luther does not so much lead his people to pray for the imperial armies or for victory in battle, as he does for God to sustain His people by His Word, come what may.
Lord Jesus Christ, your pow’r make known,
For you are Lord of lords alone;
Defend your holy Church that we
May sing your praise triumphantly.
In the second verse Luther emphasises the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ by employing the title “Lord of lords” (Revelation 17:14; 19:16). He is Lord over all emperors, kings, presidents, or rulers of any kind. The original German of the third line actually refers to the church not as “holy” but as “poor” (arme). We are in constant need of the help that only Jesus can give, and His rescue of His people always leads to praise and thanksgiving.
O Comforter of priceless worth,
Send peace and unity on earth;
Support us in our final strife
And lead us out of death to life.
The final verse reminds us that no matter what happens in this world, we trust in the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to raise us from the dead and give to us eternal life. As Luther wrote in his explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, “On the Last Day [the Holy Spirit] will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.” (SC III:3). On the lead up to this ultimate hour, we pray for the Holy Spirit to enable the true Gospel of Christ to spread across the globe and unify the people of God, so that we work together to build His Church.
Though the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires are long gone, the true church of Jesus Christ is still surrounded by enemies, from false teachers who would lead us from Christ, to political forces that seek to destroy us. As we face increasing dissemination of falsehoods from Roman Catholicism and growing violence and terror principally from the militant forces of Islam around us, Luther’s hymn, “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” reminds us to turn to the Lord in the Holy Scriptures and trust in Jesus Christ as the Lord of lords who has won the victory over all of our enemies, and who will give us victory over death in the resurrection on the Last Day.