A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.
I would guess that most people singing this hymn have never been inside a fortress, and may have no idea what a bulwark even is (it is a wall, often made of earth, built for defense). It is the word “mighty” that probably resonates with us most, along with the phrase “never failing.”
I can’t help noticing, as I read the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, how many metaphors applied to God come from the practice of war. I suppose it’s no surprise, as David was a warrior, as were many of Israel’s leaders. War was a constant threat for a small nation, especially on situated as Israel was at the crossroads of major trade routes.
All of Psalm 91 describes God as a powerful Protector. “He is my refuge and my fortress.” “His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” (A rampart is also a defensive wall.) Not all the images are taken from warfare. “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” In a day when disease could easily wipe out whole villages, a really powerful protector would be one who could prevent it. “You will not fear … the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.”
Many of the best-known narratives from both the Old Testament are examples of God’s extraordinary protection of His people. He protected Noah by giving him instructions on building an ark. He protected the Israelites as the army of Pharoah pursued them, and later from various perils in the wilderness. He protected Daniel in the lion’s den, and Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace.
Of course, not everyone was saved from death this way. The writer of Hebrews mentions some counterexamples: “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.” (When I first heard of the legend of Isaiah taking refuge inside a hollow tree, and then the tree being sawed down by orders of the evil king Manasseh, it took a long time to stop dwelling on the awful mental image the story produced.)
I have heard many Christians give testimony of God’s protection at various times in their lives. I can’t think of any that were clearly by supernatural events, however (as with the examples given above of the crossing of the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, and the fiery furnace). Often it is a matter of a change of plans (taking a different plane, taking a different route, or leaving earlier or later than planned), or the fortuitous (providential) arrival of help. Sometimes it is an inexplicable change of behavior by the person threatening harm, or a physical healing unexplained by medical experts.
I have no problem believing that God has protected people in those cases. God works through a variety of means, and even when the protection comes in the form of help from other people, it ultimately comes from God. What I have more trouble with is such examples being used as proof that God intervened. If God is sovereign over all that happens, then every circumstance must have His hand in it somehow. But that is true of the times when tragedy is not averted as the times it is.
Frankly I have trouble knowing how to personally appropriate the belief that God is a Powerful Protector. I think I’ve mentioned previously that I had prayed for safety the night I was raped. Later a good friend pointed out that God kept me safe through the ordeal although not from it. Of course, if I had been killed (as I fully expected to be that night), one could say that I was still kept safe because I would be in Heaven.
So I while I pray for protection for myself and those I love, I can’t help thinking that the protection He gives may not be what I had in mind. And a part of me knows this is OK, because God is good and all that He does is good, so I can trust Him. But the things I fear may still come to pass. I can tell myself not to fear, because He is taking care of me, but I find it hard not to fear some of the things I know could happen.
I don’t consider myself a fearful person. Most of the time I don’t think much about these things, because there is nothing to be gained by it. “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27) But I find my thoughts going in a rather different direction for this post, than most of the ones I have done in this series of names for God.