Many of us are familiar with Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”
A mighty Fortress is our God, a Bulwark never failing;
Our Helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing;
For 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.
Based on Psalm 46, this hymn is often considered the battle hymn of the Reformation. At a time when Protestants were sent into exile for their beliefs, this hymn reminded them of God’s sovereignty over evil. It reminded them that God rules and reigns over all things and no one can stop or thwart His purposes and plans.
In this hymn, Luther described God as a fortress. Psalm 46:7 says, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” Many cities in ancient times protected themselves from invading forces by building walls around their city. Those walls (or bulwark) would keep enemies at bay and people could take refuge behind them. Unlike ancient walls—which eventually came down after repeated assault—our God is a fortress, a refuge, and a bulwark never failing.
A False Refuge
If asked, we’d all likely say that God is our fortress. He is our refuge. Yet, the true test of our trust takes place when we are in stress, in a trial, or challenged in some way in our life. To whom or what do we turn when life is hard and out of control or uncertain? Where is our real or functional refuge? What is that thing, person, or circumstance we turn to for life, hope, and salvation?
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet warned God’s people that because of their repeated sin and idolatry, judgment was coming. They would face the consequences of breaking God’s covenant. In due time, the Assyrian army threatened Judah and Jerusalem. Their bulwarks were put to the test. In their fear of capture, they turned to Egypt in the hopes that Pharaoh and his armies would protect them. They turned to Egypt for refuge and salvation.
“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.” (Isa. 30:1-3)
When God’s people turned to Egypt for hope, they turned to a false refuge, an idol, a counterfeit god. Martin Luther wrote that an idol, a god, is something ‘from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress’ (Martin Luther, Small and Large Catechism). An idol is what we place our trust in. It is our refuge, what we turn to for help and hope. Often, difficult times in our lives reveal those false refuges.
What might a false refuge look like?
When life is stressful and we comfort ourselves with food, drink, or binge-watching Netflix, those things become our refuge. When fearful circumstances come our way and the future seems uncertain, we do all we can to control things. Our methods, strategies, lists, and plans become our refuge. We put our hope in those things to make our life work.
When we encounter thorns and thistles in our work or ministry, when our efforts and plans fail, and we find ourselves shattered to our core, lost and unanchored, it may mean that we seek meaning, significance, and worth in our success.
When we face obstacles to our hopes and dreams and we think “If only this happened, then life would be happy and complete,” we’ve turned to an idol to give us what only God can give.
Examine the Heart
In his catechism, Luther wrote that the first commandment teaches that we are to trust in God alone. When we trust in anything else, we worship a false god. Luther encourages us to evaluate what we trust, “Ask and examine your heart diligently, and you will find whether it cleaves to God alone or not. If you have a heart that can expect of Him nothing but what is good, especially in want and distress, and that, moreover, renounces and forsakes everything that is not God, then you have the only true God. If, on the contrary, it cleaves to anything else, of which it expects more good and help than of God, and does not take refuge in Him, but in adversity flees from Him, then you have an idol, another god” (Martin Luther, Small and Large Catechism).
We must ask ourselves, where do we turn for refuge? When we face challenges and trials, we must look at how we respond to those trials. Do we run to God or away from him? Do we seek help and hope in other people, circumstances, or things? What do we cling to in the hopes that it will make our life better, safer, complete, or happy?
Our heart is prone to idol manufacturing. We can turn even good things into false refuges. It’s important that we do regular heart checks and examine it to see those things we seek refuge in apart from God. In so doing, we need to repent of those idols and receive forgiveness through the power of the gospel—the truth of what Jesus did for us in His life, death, and resurrection. We then need to turn from those false idols and back to our One True Refuge.
Seek God as Your One True Refuge
When an alliance with Egypt failed and the Assyrians were back banging at their door, King Hezekiah turned to God, the One True Refuge, and prayed:
O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth . . . hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire. For they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord. (Isa. 37:16-20)
God heard Hezekiah’s prayer and delivered His people from Assyria. He became their refuge and defeated their enemies.
Egypt failed to rescue God’s people. So it is with every false god. At some point, they will show their uselessness; they will let us down. They cannot give us the life, hope, and meaning for which we long. Life is found in Christ alone.
When life is hard and trials come our way, when the pressure is overwhelming, when we are fearful or in despair, we must find our refuge in God. He is a bulwark never failing.