by Rev. Dr. Mark Birkholz
Luther’s Reformation hymn, “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” (LSB 655) is one of his best known compositions. When it was published in 1542, it appeared with the subtitle, “A Children’s Hymn, to be Sung Against the Two Archenemies of Christ and His Holy Church, the Pope and Turk.” What was going on for Luther to write such a hymn?
Luther and the Reformers’ theological conflict with the various popes is well-known. The political conflict between the Holy Roman Empire, to which the Reformers and their princes belonged, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire was also a significant factor during the time of the Reformation.
In Luther’s day the Turks controlled not only much of the Middle East and North Africa, they also held land in southeastern Europe (modern day Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Balkans). In the early 1500’s there were a series of battles in Austria and Hungary between the Turks and the Holy Roman Empire. The siege of Vienna in the autumn of 1529 led to the decision of Emperor Charles V to call the Diet of Augsburg to unite the Holy Roman Empire against threat of Turkish invasion.
In 1541 there were two additional battles between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Turks, which led Luther to pen this hymn. The army of the Holy Roman Empire was defeated at Budapest in August, and the imperial fleet was largely destroyed near Algiers in October.
Luther felt like he was surrounded by enemies—both the forces of the pope and the Turk. He wrote an appeal for the people to pray against the Turks (Vermahnung zum Gebet wider den Türken, LW 43:213-42), and he wrote “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” to encourage them in the face of their enemies. The second line of the hymn originally read, “Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk” (Und steur des Papst und Türken Mord). The translation was later revised to “Curb those who by deceit or sword,” to include all the enemies of the church.
Here is the translation of the text, as it appears in the Lutheran Service Book:
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.
This hymn is written in a threefold, Trinitarian format. This first verse is an appeal to God the Father to preserve us by His Word, rather than by the force of arms. God never promises us victory in battle over our enemies. Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks are reminders that there will be times when our enemies may triumph over us as a nation. Luther does not lead his people to pray for the imperial armies or for victory in battle, but for God to sustain His people by His Word, come what may.
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.
In the second verse Luther emphasizes the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ with the title “Lord of lords” (Rev 17:14; 19:16). He is Lord over all emperors, kings, presidents, or rulers of any kind. The original German of the third line actually refers to the church not as “holy” but as “poor” (arme). We are in constant need of the help that only Jesus can give, and His rescue of His people always leads to praise and thanksgiving.
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.
The final verse calls on the Holy Spirit to send unity to the people of God, so that we work together and are not divided in the face of opposition. Our greatest struggle is not against any earthly power, but against death itself (1 Cor 15:36). No matter what happens in this world, we trust in the Holy Spirit to raise us from the dead and give to us eternal life. As Luther wrote in his explanation ofthe third article of the Apostles’ Creed, “On the Last Day [the Holy Spirit] will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.” (SC III:3)
The Ottoman Empire is long gone, but the church is still surrounded by enemies, from false teachers who would lead us from Christ, to political forces that seek to destroy us. As we face growing violence and terror around us, Luther’s hymn, “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” reminds us to turn to the Lord in the Holy Scriptures and trust in Jesus Christ as the Lord of lords who has won the victory over all of our enemies, and who will give us victory over death in the resurrection on the Last Day.
To sing along with this hymn, follow this link.
The Rev. Dr. Mark Birkholz is pastor of Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church, Oak Lawn, Ill.
 Fred L. Precht, Lutheran Worship Hymnal Companion (St. Louis: Concordia, 1992), 352.