Hymns are inspired by scriptures in the Bible. For those who enjoy research, finding a hymn’s related scriptures and comparing them to original translations is educational. Recently, a church music professor who was raised in a German-speaking family provided an intriguing look at how “A Mighty Fortress” is perceived in the translated English version versus the original German version. The song is in nearly every traditional hymnbook, and it is famous because Martin Luther wrote it. These are some of the differences pointed out by Esther Crookshank.
“Our helper he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” A flood of mortal ills indicates perpetual problems, and the first portion of the verse paints God as a helper. The translator of the song used a literal approach, which produced the idea that God simply helps people become free. However, Esther pointed out that the old German word “frei” has been widely misinterpreted in English-speaking congregations since the end of the Victorian era. In this hymn’s context, “frei” means that only God has the power to deliver Christians from spiritual attacks and any trials that overtake them.
“For still our ancient foe does seek to work us woe.” The original German version of this verse includes the word “jetzt.” While the English translation indicates that the enemy is still maintaining a long-standing battle, “jetzt” means that the enemy has just heightened the intensity of the battle. The word is also used to indicate that the fiercest weapons have just been deployed.
“On Earth is not his equal.” The closing verse of the first stanza emphasizes the power of Satan. Esther suggested that pastors avoid having the congregation sing only the first stanza of this hymn for the sake of brevity. Shortening hymns is a popular practice today. However, people who are new to Christianity will only hear that Satan is a powerful force to be feared. Singing the first stanza alone also detracts from the power of God, which is depicted in the proceeding stanzas. In German, the song’s takeaway message is that God holds the ultimate power.
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear.” This sentence in the third stanza implies that Satan will unravel humans. To some people, this could mean that he will cause problems that make life hard. It could mean anything from losing a job to dying depending on how a person perceives the message. In German, the verse is more specific with its use of “verschlingen,” which is a literal term for devouring. It is used to describe how a carnivorous animal would devour its prey.
“The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him.” This verse could be misinterpreted in the English version. It names Satan as the prince of darkness. An original English translation called him the ancient prince of hell. The prince title implies that Satan has authority. The translation’s basis was John 14:30. In the verse, Jesus called Satan the prince of this world. However, the Bible also says that the world is temporary, and Jesus was only giving Satan temporary power to influence people. While singing the song, Christians should understand that Satan’s power is temporary. Although he has already been judged by God, he will be condemned to suffer eternally in hell someday without any influence.
In her article, Esther concluded her commentary on the song by pointing out the seriousness of the fourth stanza. In modern Western culture, comfort is a top priority. Social status is more important than honor to many people. The fourth stanza welcomes the loss of material things, the intensification of hardships and even martyrdom for the sake of God’s kingdom. She challenged readers to think about how many people in modern Western culture would truly consider it an honor to die or lose their belongings for any reason. Her thought-provoking insights show how the power of foreign hymn words may be misinterpreted in translation. It is a good reminder that Christians everywhere can benefit from asking their pastors about old hymns that have outdated or vague wording.
About Mighty Fortress Church
Mighty Fortress Church is in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The church is conscientious about providing a safe environment where people from all walks of life can come to learn about Christianity for the first time or strengthen their relationship with God. One of the church’s main goals is to provide an atmosphere that is not ritualistic or formal. By doing this, the church leaders hope to help people realize that God loves and accepts them as they are.
The church focuses heavily on music during its services. While visitors are not required to sing or stand if they do not want to participate, the band, choir and worship team hope to create an enjoyable experience for the congregation. Messages are delivered in simple English, and the pastor encourages visitors and regular members to ask questions. The church’s goal is to provide honest and direct answers that are backed with scriptures when people ask questions. The pastor understands that the Bible is hard for most people to understand and hopes to clarify any misconceptions.
Bishop T.R. Williams is the pastor of Mighty Fortress Church. He has served as a minister for over three decades in several roles. He is passionate about helping people learn how to apply the Bible’s concepts in modern life. Bishop Williams is familiar with the needs and problems of today’s society. His insightful sermons show people how to help fight problems such as moral decay, poverty, sickness, sin, racism and rebellion.
Bishop Williams holds two doctoral degrees, a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree and ministerial credentials. He completed his ministerial studies at Rhema Bible Training Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bishop Williams founded Mighty Fortress International Ministries to help achieve his mission of bringing people together. The organization uses a multi-dimensional ministry that is built on applying God’s commands and creating meaningful worship services.
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