German: Verzage nicht, du Häuflein Klein
Swedish: Förfåras ej, du lilla hop!
Text: Michael Altenburg (1584-1640). Tune: Anonymous
1. O little flock, fear not the foe Who madly seeks your overthrow; Dread not his rage and pow'r. And though your courage sometimes faints, His seeming triumph o'er God's saints Lasts but a little hour.
2. Be of good cheer; your cause belongs To Him who can avenge your wrongs; Leave it to Him, our Lord. Though hidden yet from mortal eyes, His Gideon shall for you arise, Uphold you and His Word.
3. As true as God's own Word is true, Not earth nor hell's satanic crew Against us shall prevail. Their might? A joke, a mere facade! God is with us and we with God— Our vict'ry cannot fail.
4. Amen, Lord Jesus, grant our prayer; Great Captain, now Thine arm make bare, Fight for us once again! So shall Thy saints and martyrs raise A mighty chorus to Thy praise Forevermore. Amen.
Tr. Catherine Winkworth 1855
MEDITATION “'Vengeance is mine,' says the Lord,” my mother would cry, her brown eyes flashing with fury, when she had to face troubles in the congregations where my father served. People can be unbelievably hurtful to each other in church politics. In any conflict, however, Christians believe, God is working, somehow. The battles the author in this hymn is referring to, however, were deadly battles on the fields of Germany in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).
It was November 6, 1632. The Lutherans led by Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, (1594-1632) were facing the Catholic armies of Wallenstein at Lützen, a few miles southwest of Leipzig. The king ordered the court chaplain to lead the troops in devotion. The story goes that as they knelt in prayer, a thick fog enveloped them. The soldiers sang this hymn, it is said, and then the king encouraged them to go into battle singing “A Mighty Fortress” as their watchword. As the trumpets and drums led in the song, the fog lifted. Gustavus rode along in front of the troops praying, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, help me today to fight for the honor of thy holy Name.” He refused to wear any armor but his leather armor. “God is my harness,” he proclaimed and set forth. Just before noon a bullet pierced his arm and he lay dying. His last words, “My God, My God!” As the battle raged, the outcome did not look promising for the Protestant forces, but at the end they prevailed.
The hymn has been dear to German and Swedish Lutherans, but not so much these days. The idea of religious wars and conflicts has not appealed to the compilers of recent hymnals. Nor to us. But today the authorities are wondering how to keep the peace and let people's voices be heard. The police helicopters are whirring above my house as I write. People want order--and justice. Thousands of people protested at the governor's mansion yesterday, just a block from my home. It was peaceful, but the police were very present. Luther says, the magistrate needs to have force to keep the peace. But we are not to bring the sword to our own battles, Luther says.
This hymn is ultimately about greater battles, those spiritual battles we fight, principalities and powers that are invisibly working to undermine us. This hymn knows that it is God who ultimately gives the victory. Luther thought of the Christian life as a battle between God and Satan, which we see clearly in his greatest hymn, "A Mighty Fortress." (See Hymn 71)
I have seen that up close and personal when our family was in the throes of despair over how a few people in a congregation were treating our saintly father. A small clique accused him of not being spiritual enough to be a pastor, a deep hurt to him and it stunned us. Who was more spiritual than he? We were in agony. He always counseled patience. God would work his way, he told us, as we raged for revenge. Even our mother, the political strategist of the family, had to agree that we were caught in a web from which only time and God could deliver us. When these things start in a congregation, no one but God can resolve it. We had to suffer it. But dad did not despair. All he could be was faithful, he would sigh.
Years later, when he was dying, with some dementia, we had to put him in a home, briefly. When I came to visit him the first morning, I found him cowering behind a corner. He had read that one of his tormenters had been on the board of the home. He feared a confrontation..
The next week he died. At his visitation, the line was over two blocks long in and outside the church. People told us how he had helped them through some difficulty and brought them to the Lord. He had died at peace, his face shining with love for the Lord, and us. Much later we heard that his main tormenters had met their just desserts. It was oddly unsatisfying. He would have found no pleasure in the news.
Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. The battle between good and evil is pitched. We learned, once again, that our father was right. Vengeance was not ours to work. "[Satan's] seeming triumph o'er his saints/Lasts but a little hour." In Christ, there is no reason for despair. Our dad showed us while he was dying that God's Word is true as we held his hands, feeling the warmth of his love flooding through us.
This hymn may be unknown to most of you, but it is important in the history of Lutheran hymnody. We really do not know who wrote it. The 1819 Swedish Hymnal attributes it to Gustavus Adolphus, but that seems unlikely. It may well be Altenburg who wrote it. Some attribute it to another, Jacobus Fabricius (1593-1654). Altenburg lived through much of the Thirty Years War and the battle of Lützen. He had to flee the war and found refuge in Erfuhrt. Most think he wrote this hymn after the victory at the battle of Leipzig in 1631. The composer of the tune is not clear, except that it was among the favored tunes from the Orthodox period. Bach used the first stanza in his Cantata 42 "Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats," a lovely piece.
Christian Hymn Series
Bach Cantata 42 "Am Abend..."/J. S. Bach Foundation/Trogen, Switzerland