Luther composed a good number of hymns beside the well-known “A Mighty Fortress.” The first hymn he ever wrote, in 1523, was actually a martyr ballad for Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch, who were killed in Brussels for supporting Luther’s teaching, and this ballad became the template for countless Anabaptist martyr ballads afterward (not a little ironic, since Luther supported persecution of the Anabaptists in certain cases).
In the American Edition of Luther’s Works, the translator of the hymns is none other than George MacDonald, a 19th-century Scottish Reformed writer and poet who was a great inspiration to the Anglican C. S. Lewis. He published the hymns in a book called Exotics, A Translation of the Spiritual Songs of Novalis, the Hymn-Book of Luther, and Other Poems from the German and Italian (1876). The editors’ comments are worth noting here:
“Perhaps the most felicitous attempt to translate Luther’s hymns without loss of their original ruggedness was made by the Scottish theologian and writer George MacDonald (1824-1905). MacDonald’s translation, used in this edition, has been completely passed by in common use, presumably because he consciously, and often successfully, tried to express Luther’s robust lines in an English idiom of similar character. Obviously he took for a pattern the older English verse. He sought to preserve the vivid metaphors, metrical irregularity, and folk-song quality of Luther’s hymns. He imitated Luther’s preference for monosyllables by using mostly Anglo-Saxon words” (LW 53:199-200).
And now at last the hymn itself, a dramatic depiction of the experience of salvation.
“1. Dear Christians, let us now rejoice
And dance in joyous measure:
That of good cheer and with one voice,
We sing in love and pleasure.
Of what to us our God has shown,
And the sweet wonder he hath done:
Full dearly hath he wrought it.
“2. Forlorn and lost in death I lay,
A captive to the devil,
My sin lay heavy, night and day,
For I was born in evil.
I fell but deeper for my strife,
There was no good in all my life,
For sin had all possessed me.
“3. My good works they were worthless quite,
A mock was all my merit;
My will hated God’s judging light,
To all good dead and buried.
E’en to despair me anguish bore,
That nought but death lay me before;
To hell I fast was sinking.
“4. Then God was sorry on his throne
To see such torment rend me;
His tender mercy he thought on,
His good help he would send me.
He turned to me his father-heart;
Ah! then was his no easy part,
For of his best it cost him.
“5. To his dear Son he said: ‘Go down,
’Tis time to take compassion.
Go down, my heart’s exalted crown,
Be the poor man’s salvation.
Lift him from out sin’s scorn and scath,
Strangle for him that cruel Death,
That he with thee live ever.’
“6. The Son, he heard obediently,
And by a maiden mother,
Pure, tender—down he came to me,
For he would be my brother.
Secret he bore his strength enorm,
He went about in my poor form,
For he would catch the devil.
“7. He said to me: ‘Hold thou by me,
Thy matters I will settle;
I give myself all up for thee,
And I will fight thy battle.
For I am thine, and thou art mine,
And my place also shall be thine;
The enemy shall not part us.
“8. He will as water shed my blood,
My life he from me reave will;
All this I suffer for thy good—
To that with firm faith cleave well.
My life from death the day shall win,
My innocence shall bear thy sin,
So art thou blest forever.
“9. To heaven unto my Father high,
From this life I am going;
But there thy Master still am I,
My spirit on thee bestowing,
Whose comfort shall thy trouble quell,
Who thee shall teach to know me well,
And in the truth shall guide thee.
“10. What I have done, and what I’ve said,
Shall be thy doing, teaching,
So that God’s kingdom may be spread—
All to his glory reaching.
Beware what men would bid thee do,
For that corrupts the treasure true;
With this last word I leave thee.”