Recently I heard a church choir offer a hymn of praise to Satan. I’m satisfied they did not know what they were doing, and would not have done so had they thought about it.
As the C-Span cameras focused on the flag-draped coffin containing the body of former President Ronald Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda, the other C-Span outlet replayed the 1973 funeral of former President Lyndon Johnson. We beheld mourners gathering inside a Washington, D.C., church to pay their respects with tributes, a sermon, and several hymns. Then, as the pallbearers ushered the casket from the sanctuary, the choir sang:
- A mighty fortress is our God
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
But 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.
Only one verse, end of hymn, end of service. I sat there stunned, wondering if anyone else noticed what had just occurred. By singing only the first verse of “A Mighty Fortress” the choir had paid tribute to the devil himself–using Martin Luther’s words, admittedly–and had left the matter there, as though nothing more needed to be said.
Over the years as I’ve sat in church listening to choirs and congregations lift up this grand hymn of the Reformation, I have wondered how many notice that the last half of the first verse is a description of Satan himself, that “on earth is not his equal” refers not to our Lord but to his infernal majesty. Anyone studying the life of Martin Luther quickly learns how well-acquainted he and Satan were–they had done battle for decades–and how thoroughly he knew the evil one’s ways. His hymn acknowledges the power of the devil, then pays tribute to the greater authority of the Lord God, our Mighty Fortress.
In the following verse, Luther topped this “tribute to Satan” with a word about our weakness which was then followed by praise to the Lord Jesus Himself.
- 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.
Doth 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.
It is worth noting that none of the verses of this beloved hymn stand on their own, that each is dependent on what comes before. Omit any verse and nothing that follows makes sense.
Joe Stowell, president of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, spoke in the chapel of our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary sometime after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Like many of us, he had watched on television the inspiring worship service from the National Cathedral where our nation’s political and spiritual leaders gathered to express the grief and the faith of this land. Later, Stowell remarked on how moved he had been by the service. A friend said, “Did you notice they left out a verse of ‘A Mighty Fortress’?”
“They left out a verse?” Stowell said.
“Verse two,” the man said. The verse that describes Jesus Christ as “the man of God’s own choosing, that calls Him “Lord Sabaoth” (Lord of Hosts, no less!), and promises “He must win the battle.”
Stowell was stunned. He was not so much taken aback by the politically correct surgery someone in Washington had performed on that hymn as chagrined that it had occurred without his noticing.
I once heard Rick Warren’s worship leader remark that after we sing a song something like seventeen times, we no longer pay attention to the words. Perhaps that is why Scripture calls on believers to “sing unto the Lord a new song.”
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was featured during the Reagan funeral, and said to have been selected by him. It does have a grand sweep to it, with ringing declarations that “His truth is marching on.” One verse even declares how, “in the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,” which renders it safe for church, I suppose. But you have to wonder if people know that Julia Howe wrote this hymn–if it actually could be called a hymn–early in the Civil War after she and her husband had watched the Union soldiers training for battle. The judgment of God she seems to celebrate is clearly the Confederacy getting what it deserves for its defense of slavery.
As a history major and a son of the South, I do not question for a moment that the Lord sent a severe judgment on my part of the country for its mistreatment of fellow human beings. But I do think it strange where we hear that hymn lifted up sometimes, and suggest that we ought to pay attention to what we are singing to the Lord. Sing it if we like, but know what we are singing.