From John Ray's shorter notes
December 16, 2018
Why a great Protestant hymn breaks my heart
I don't know if I will be able to convey what is after all a feeling but I cannot listen to the original version of the great Lutheran hymn "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A mighty fortress is our God) without being upset.
The hymn is now best known in the marvellous setting by J.S. Bach -- a supreme work of musical art -- so we usually overlook the original hymn. Both the original work and the Bach setting are works expressing Christian triumph over evil and adversity but in the original version you get a feeling for what Christians of hundreds of years ago had to triumph over.
The world they lived in was full of tragedy, hardship and disaster and they attributed it all to demons and the Devil himself. To them the Devil was real and powerful and present in their lives. They saw his cruel deeds all about them on a daily basis -- in sickness and death and disaster. There are few things, if any, more upsetting than the death of a child but they had to endure such deaths often.
So what the hymn conveys to me is both how awful their lives were and how their Christian faith gave them the heart to power on. Their faith was their only rock, their only comfort. They had no power to combat the evils around them. It cuts me up that they had so little power over their lives when we have so much. Their survival truly is a wonder.
But I have said as much as I can. Just listen to the starkly simple words of a very simple hymn and feel for those poor people.
I originally put up above a version of the hymn that had the words translated but it has vanished so I had better add a translation below.
As students of foreign languages always tell you, you cannot adequately translate a poem and that is certainly so here. The song is even more powerful in the original German: Simple punchy words
The words: "Gut, Ehr, Kind und Weib: lass fahren dahin" at the end of the hymn are not well translated above. They say that your possessions, your honour, your child and your wife can all be lost but the Devil still has not triumphed. What tragedies they had to expect!
Footnote: The images are of a variety of fortress castles in the German lands
And now listen to the wonderful things Bach did with that ultra-simple hymn: