As is fitting for Reformation Day, our hymnist today is Martin Luther, the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) reformer of the 16th century. He roiled the church, both for good and ill, during his lifetime. Though he is probably best known for his All Hallows’ Eve declaration of grievances, in which he nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church, he was also an excellent hymnist. Luther actually reformed the way we do hymns as well. Of all the hymns he wrote, “A Mighty Fortress” is likely the best known, and you can read more about that hymn and Luther himself in the link above. But this certainly was not the only hymn he ever wrote. Not by a long shot.
Another well-loved hymn of his is “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word,” known as “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort” in German. As mentioned in previous posts, this hymn does, and should, read like a prayer. We will discuss the individual verses in a moment, but we first must ask: What was Luther praying about? Part of the answer to that question is found in the original lyrics of this hymn:
Lord, keep us steadfast in thy Word,
And curb the Turks’ and Papists’ sword,
Who Jesus Christ thine only Son,
Fain would tumble from off thy throne.
Another way that the second line has been translated is, “And control the murder by the Pope and Turks.” Not exactly the most appealing thing to sing about, but the sentiment has mostly remained to this day. Many hymnists, including Luther, wrote hymns as prayers to God concerning the struggles they faced in the world around them. Think of David in his Psalms, asking the Lord to deliver him from the hand of his enemies. During this time, one of the greatest enemies of the church was the Ottoman Turks. The Pope was also often seen as an enemy of faith.
At this time, the world was afraid. The reformers feared for their lives at the hands of the Pope and secular lords. Most of people feared succumbing to the plague. Nearly all of Europe at some point or another found themselves fighting the Turks. In the early 1540s, some of the European forces were losing to the Turks in the south, and people wondered how soon their country and city would be next. For many, including Luther, this was seen as an apocalyptic time. What could they do? THey did as we all should do: Christians sought hope and deliverance from the Lord. In this case, their appeal came in the form of song. One such song was Luther’s “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word.” Despite all that went on around them, these Christians knew their hope was not in Popes or princes or earthly powers. It was in the Lord and His Word.
Obviously, though, this hymn did not remain in its original form. With time, the translations changed the exact wording of some of the lines, and eventually, they were rewritten altogether to be more appealing and contemporary to a greater number of singers. We don’t deal with the Turks or the power of the Pope in the same way as Christians did in Luther’s day, so an update was understandable. We all can relate to the need to remain faithful to God’s Word when the world around us seeks to deceive or threaten with death, striving to take away the work and peace God has done among us.
Furthermore, many other verses have been added to the hymn, as well as rephrases of individual lines and adaptations of the music itself. First, Johann Walter adapted an old Lutheran hymn melody for Klug’s Gesangbuch of 1543. Here we learn that this hymn was known as a children’s hymn and still contained references to the Turks and the Papists. In a British hymnal from the mid-1800s, the hymn contains the German text alongside the English, though in lyrics different from what we would find in the LSB today. It is also referred to as “A Children’s Song against the two arch-enemies of Christ and his Holy Church.” I wonder what these hymnists would think of what we consider children’s songs today?
By the time Bach adapted the tune for this hymn, there were two additional verses having to do with the Council of Trent. Later, two more verses were added. But the translation that we use today has only Luther’s three verses, a translation coming from hymnist Catherine Winkworth, possibly from 1863. She is generally understood to have been the person who brought German hymns to the English-speaking world.
We still fear threats from those outside of the Church, those who deceive, those who come from the Church but are not of us; we fear pestilence, war, and untruths. But in all this fear, uncertainty, and unrest, we can find faith, hope, and love in God and His Word. Thus, we ask that God keep us in that Word that we might serve His kingdom and have peace.
Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word;
curb those who by deceit or sword
would wrest the kingdom from your Son
and bring to naught all he has done.
We begin the first verse with a plea to our Father in heaven. We ask that we be kept steadfast, or faithful in older translations, in the Word of God (Psa. 119:5-10, 103-106). We know that we are sinful, faithless, and rebellious. Thus, we ask for the Lord’s help, that He keep us in His Word, and therefore keep us in Him (Psa. 119:41-45, Jhn. 8:31, 14:23-26, Eph. 3:20-21). We also ask that the Lord hinder those who would seek to deceive or physically stop people from hearing His Word. Sometimes this comes from wolves among the flock; in the original text, Luther saw this as the Pope and false teachers in the church. But we also ask that the Lord keep away those who wish by threat of death seek to separate us from God and His Word. We ask that this trial be kept from us that we might remain steadfast. Thus, we ask here for the Lord to “give us this day our daily bread, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:12-15, Psa. 119:85-90).
Lord Jesus Christ, your pow’r make known,
for you are Lord of lords alone;
defend your holy church, that we
may sing your praise triumphantly.
The second verse petitions the Son. It may seem as though our Savior is far away in times of trial, though He is not. We are so quick to forget that it is His strength that sustains us in all things (Acts 17:28). So in our weakness, we ask for Christ by His strength (not our own) to defend His Bride from all attacks, as our Lord and Redeemer (2 Cor. 4:7, Phil. 4:12-13). We do not trust in princes or lords of the earth but our Savior (Psa. 118:8-9, 119:46-48, 121:1-8, Jhn. 17:11, Rev. 19:11-16). We ask that what He is doing may be done among us that we may sing His praises (Psa. 20, 146:1-3)!
O Comforter of priceless worth,
send peace and unity on earth;
support us in our final strife,
and lead us out of death to life.
Finally, we petition the Holy Spirit, the Comforter (Jhn. 14:16, 26, 15:26, 16:7). Though Christ is not bodily among us, the Spirit of truth is with us. And what a wonderful gift this is! Through our baptism, we received this Spirit, who enlightens us through God’s Word, reminding us that the Lord is with us always, defending us against all attacks (Rom. 15:13, Eph. 4:1-7). And through the Spirit, the Word was given that we may defend against the attacks of the evil one (Eph. 6:14-18)! In this Spirit, we find true peace (Gal. 5:22-23, Eph. 4:3). We are not joined together by physical things (which our sinful nature uses to divide brothers) but we are unified by the Spirit into the body of Christ. And as we engage the world, which is often seeking our destruction, we take comfort in knowing that this world of death and our death is not our end, but the Comforter will bring us to life eternal with Christ (Psa. 119:49-50).
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig
“655. Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word.” The Lutheran Service Book. 2006.
Grafton, David D. Piety, Politics, and Power. Eugene: Pickwick Publications. 2009. p. 28.