4. LUTHER AS HYMNIST
“Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, and His praise in the congregation of the saints.” — Psalm 149:1
There is no question about it, Martin Luther is the father of all evangelical hymnody. God gave this man a special gift and love for music and through him the lost art of congregational singing was restored and the Christian hymn was given a special place in public worship.
For almost 900 years what music there was in the worship services of Christianity was generally reserved for professional choirs. There were no hymn books. The worship service was primarily a spectator experience with little or no individual involvement. As one man puts it, “They were doomed to passive silence.” (The Story of Christian Hymnody, E.E. Ryden, p. 58).
The Council of Constance (1414-01418) decreed: “If laymen are forbidden to preach . . . much more are they forbidden to sing publicly in the churches.” (Same ref. p. 58)
Then came the Reformation. The people heard the wondrous Gospel of forgiveness and life through faith in Jesus Christ alone. They recognized themselves as a congregation of saints cleansed in the blood of Christ. Their hearts overflowed with joy and they wanted to cry out in praise. They wanted to sing to the Lord a new song. And Luther gave them songs to sing.
>From his childhood Luther was passionately fond of music. You remember the stories of young Luther singing at the windows of wealthy citizens for his livelihood. It was his singing that attracted the attention of Ursula Cotta, that gracious woman who gave him a home during some of his school years.
Luther was very vocal about his appreciation of music: “I give music the highest and most honorable place.” “For music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men.” (Same ref. p. 58)
He realized that spiritual song could be enlisted as a powerful ally in spreading the wondrous blessings of God’s love in Christ as well as inspiring the people of God to stand firm in the Word. 36 hymns have been attributed to him.
Probably the best known of all is what came to be called the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation”: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. In the heat of the battle for the truth Luther found refuge in the words of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” A fortress was a place of refuge and safety built high on a mountain top where all could see and where all could find safety and peace in the midst of trouble–A Mighty Fortress is our God, a trusty Shield and Weapon!
Satan was in the very midst of the visible church threatening to destroy the salvation of Christ. Yet, Luther taught the people to sing with confidence:
Tho’ devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us, We tremble not, we fear no ill, They shall not overpow’r us. This world’s prince may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none, He’s judged; the deed is done; One little word can fell him.
Luther looked upon the Papacy and Islam (which Luther called the Turk) as the two greatest enemies of the Christian faith. In 1541 when the Turks had overrun all of Hungary and parts of Austria and were knocking at the gates of Vienna, all of Germany trembled with fear.
Special days were set aside in the church for prayer and intercession. German parents, remembering the scriptural promise that out of the mouths of babes and sucklings the Lord ordains strength, brought their children to the services that they might add their “amens” to the prayers.
It was for one of these services in the Wittenberg church that Luther wrote the hymn “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast In Thy Word.” It was arranged for the boys’ choir and carried the title “A Hymn for the children to sing against the two arch-enemies of Christ and His holy Church, the Pope and the Turks.”
The original first verse was much more pointed and went like this:
Lord, keep us in Thy Word and work, Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk, Who fain would tear from off Thy throne Christ Jesus, Thy beloved Son.
But yet this man, who sounded the trumpet and fought the battle of the Lord valiantly with the sword of the Spirit, could sit with his children and tell them the story of God’s love and teach them to sing the words of the angel:
To you this night is born a child Of Mary, chosen virgin mild; This little Child of lowly birth Shall be the Joy of all the earth.
And then he taught them to pray:
Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child, Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled, Within my heart, that it may be A quiet chamber kept for Thee.
Thank you, Lord, for this gentle and courageous spirit–this very special gift to your Church.
“Oh, sing to the LORD a new song! Sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, bless His name; proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples” (Ps. 96:1-3).
–Pastor L.D. Redlin