1God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
This psalm is the source of Luther’s famous hymn: “A Mighty Fortress.” It is profound expression of trust in God in the midst of life’s chaos.
Luther was an outlaw when he wrote the hymn. He had been condemned at the Imperial Diet in Worms in 1521. The imperial edict forbade anyone to provide any food, clothing, protection or assistance to Luther. It required that he be immediately imprisoned or sent in chains to the Emperor and authorized the authorities to confiscate the property of any “sympathizers, supporters, patrons, protectors and followers” of Luther.
Luther had been given free passage to the Diet, so was allowed to leave the city before the edict was published. Once outside the city, he was kidnapped (by friends) and taken into hiding at the Wartburg. There he grew a beard and masqueraded as Junker Jorg. Bored, he sent for his Greek New Testament and translated it into German. When Wittenberg was torn by zealous proponents of a swifter, more radical reform, Luther returned despite the sentence over his head. In a series of sermons he rebuked the reformers for failing to act in love.
Though Luther was out of hiding, the Emperor was not in a position to march on Saxony to enforce the edict – Suleiman the Magnificent was advancing on Vienna; Hapsburg lands were under attack from Charles’ brother Ferdinand; and Turkish pirates threatened the Mediterranean – but the threat remained and Wittenberg did fall to imperial troops in 1547 (though Luther had died the year before).
In the tumult of those years, Luther transformed the psalm into a hymn that expressed the same profound trust in God despite the chaos of the world around him.
We live in a time when fear is a tool of politics and media. The lead-in to the evening news seems always to warn of some imminent threat, from Ebola to terrorism to the hidden dangers of ordinary household products. We see images of floods and fires and civil unrest and it is easy to imagine that the world is devolving into chaos. To suggest that “God is our refuge and strength,” may seem like denial. But neither Luther nor the psalmist is pretending. Luther’s hymn declares, “Though life be wrenched away, he [Satan] cannot win the day. One little word shall fell him.”
The psalm does not promise that nothing bad shall happen to believers. It simply celebrates God’s triumph over all the forces of chaos, whether in nature or in politics. It remembers that whatever may happen, God has spoken. He has passed judgment. He has declared us forgiven. He has opened the grave. And “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”