The well known Psalm 91 seems to be placed in the Old Testament Book of Psalms to answer the last question of Psalm 90: “How long?” We all have that question these days, especially here in the beautiful Delaware River Watershed where the stay-at-home order is already getting to feel like a long time.
Psalm 91 can be a great comfort if you read it with a Jesus lens. But if you are reading it like every line of the Bible is a principle from the textbook of God, it could trip you up. With a Jesus lens, the psalm reminds us that our afflictions are temporary and every light in the darkness illumines our everlasting life. But read as a set of principles, it could be very discouraging, since most of the promises it lists are not likely to be specifically fulfilled for you and your loved ones any time soon in any verifiable way. Taking the theme of the poem seriously, the psalm reveals God, the Father of Jesus and the parent of us all, to be good, attentive and active on our behalf. As a result, we have something on which to build an anxiety-unraveling narrative.
The Jesus lens
Here is a summary of what Psalm 91 leads us to believe.
It starts and ends with truths that lead us into fullness. The thematic word is “shelter.” As you shelter-in-place, God is your shelter — that sums it up for now. God is your shadow in the desert. God is your hiding place from what attacks you. God is your fortress in the battle, and more. If you can’t do the poetry, now would be a good time to learn.
Whatever happens, nothing shall hurt you. Even though trouble and affliction come upon you, those bad things shall come to good. There may be grief right now as far as the quarantine goes, but there is joy in the eternal now of our heart-to-heart relationship with God. These are all the longed-for and debated promises Jesus-followers spend a lifetime grasping and grappling. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul teaches that the experiences of Israel with God “happened to them as an example,” and the stories about them “were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The risen Jesus told his disciples, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Jesus considered the book of Psalms to be ultimately about him.
Those who rightly know God, will set their love on him. In hope, they will call on her. In response, God’s promise is to deliver his loved ones out of trouble, and in the meantime be with them in trouble. We move through life in partnership with God for our given time. A person may die young, yet be satisfied with living. A wicked person will not be satisfied even with long life. In due time our conflict ends and we are done forever with trouble, sin, and temptation.
Under the thumb of principles
The problem with this psalm, especially for anxious people who are looking for that out-of-reach security they crave, is piled up in the middle. In that part the poet gives an extravagant description of what God will do for us in hard times – like when the nation is stricken with a virus.
It says she will do things like give us courage when “pestilence…stalks the darkness or destruction lays waste at noon.” It says “A thousand may fall at your side”…but no “plague” will “come near your tent.” Like the devil quoted to Jesus, it says angels will bear you up so you won’t even stub your toe.
I think most people know these are not verifiable principles to apply to the present plague. Even the good doctors are dying! So many say God is a fraud when Christians claim such statements are inerrant – and often pretend they are completely true, even when they are sick!
On the one hand, no one knows just how much God is personally sustaining us or angels are caring for us. I can’t measure God’s care but I shamelessly rely on it. All my hope is built on the love and truth demonstrated in Jesus.
On the other hand, like Jesus told the devil, we must not test God to see if we are being cared for according to our standards, tempt God to see if she fails us, prove God as if he were a theorem. The devil went for the obvious proof, “Show that you are loved by God by demonstrating God’s care as you throw yourself off this pinnacle.” How many of us dive off our mountain of anxiety, daily, and are daily disappointed at God’s lack of response! Jesus comes back with the deeper scripture, the more-personal and less-principle Deuteronomy 6:16. That verse recalls the Israelites arguing with Moses about water, as if the Lord had not provided for them every step of the way. Don’t keep testing God as if water couldn’t come out of a rock any moment, as if you weren’t thankful for the gift of life — and an eternal one, at that!
We might not be able to fix it
Anxious, controlling people want facts they can rely on, since they feel stuck in the middle of a mess they are consigned to fix. Americans, especially, might be effectively chastened, for once, by the present crisis and decide they aren’t the light of the world after all. We don’t live in the shelter of what we build for ourselves — at least not for long.
Psalm 91 shines a light on God, our shelter, from beginning to end. It starts
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
In Robert Alter’s more literal and immediate translation:
He who dwells in the Most High’s shelter
…..in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night. –
I say of the Lord, “My refuge and bastion,
…..my God in whom I trust.”
It is a basic anxiety-reliever to adopt a preferred narrative and keep rehearsing it until one’s mind can conform to it. This post is like exposure therapy for people locked in principles that damn them or deprive them of a faith they can’t live up to or believe in.
This small part of Ps. 91 could be a new mantra to replace the rehearsal of fears that dominates one’s inner dialogue. In these verses, the names of God could provide a budding reassurance that might flower in the midst of trouble.
Where do I live? In the shelter of the Most High. The Hebrew word Elyon suggests a supreme monarch, one who is elevated above all things. It is first used in Genesis 14:18, describing Abraham’s encounter with the priest/king Melchizedek, “He was priest of God Most High.” Melchizedek gives us a picture of Christ in several ways (Heb. 7), Jesus the king and priest who did not fit the principles. Our shelter is greater than the umbrellas of our understanding.
How are my needs met? By the Almighty. The Hebrew word Shaddai primarily suggests a powerful God who is strong beyond our imagination and is more than capable to supply our every need. This is the God who parted the sea and moves in all creation. In the all-sufficient name of Shaddai, there is no need that cannot be met, and no circumstance that won’t, ultimately, be overcome. My physical needs lead me to spiritual needs which, when addressed, help me sort out my physical needs.
Who knows me and still loves me? It is the LORD. This personal name for God was considered so sacred in Judaism the original pronunciation is uncertain, only that it contained the letters YHWH (JHVH in Latin). It has been translated as Yahweh, Jehovah, and more often as the LORD (in all caps). This represents a relatable God who calls Moses from the burning bush and wants all of us to know her love. Every joy and fear in our hearts is important to the Lord. In Jesus, we see just what a friend we have. God calls my name and it is joy to respond. It is good to have the hairs of one’s head numbered, even if I feel my scalp itching.
Who can I trust? My God. The Hebrew word Elohim appears at the very beginning of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It is technically a plural word. The creator is one, yet plural (Father, Son, Spirit). The God we trust is the same God who creates all things, the first and the last, the God who is forever faithful to his creation. The creation is infected, but it is good. My first reaction may not always be trust, but I can get to a deeper place where I meet the author and protector of my faith.
God’s ways are higher than our ways, yet we can love her as a friend. God is unsearchable yet so very near to us. In His shelter, we find strength, comfort, and rest for our souls. If you are anxious, that assurance might seem like nice poetry meant for someone else. I hope this little piece shows ways to deconstruct such an unhelpful narrative in your inner dialogue and strengthen a new narrative informed and empowered by God’s Spirit, alive in you in perilous times.