1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’
3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
5 You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
9 If you say, ‘The Lord is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
14 ‘Because he[b] loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
15 He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.’
When I heard that the Mockingbird was leaping again this year and that the prompt would be Brueggemann’s idea of Psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation, it send me scurrying back to the Psalms and a refreshingly different Advent devotional discipline from the usual prophetic and gospel passages. But there was nothing leaping out that I wanted to write about, until I tripped over Psalm 91 twice in one day… Once in my own reading, where it was mildly comforting, and the second in the funeral service of a friend’s mother… Where it was read, without much comment, in that peculiar form of speaking that is the preserve of a certain tradition of preacher in this part of the world.
I’ve never used this Psalm in a funeral myself (so far as I can remember), but it’s promise of God as a refuge echoes many others that I have used frequently, especially Psalm 46 that was read at my own mother’s funeral many years ago. But for some reason there was something really disorientating about this particular Psalm being read at this particular funeral at this particular time (in this particular way).
I was left wondering whether the Psalmist (whoever, whenever or wherever he was) really believed what he was writing… that belief in God Almighty was an insurance policy against the afflictions that affected everyone else?
And do we as we read it? And what are we saying when we read it at a funeral, with its promises of protection while everyone else is dropping dead? Are Christians really immune from pestilence and plague? Are Christians guaranteed a long life? How long is long?
And moving in out of the context of a particular funeral, what does it say to us in the midst of a period of national and indeed global uncertainty. Is it the scriptural equivalent of all those facebook posts telling us “Don’t Fear! God is in control!” And if he is in control is it only his people who need not fear, because whatever despot is on an earthly throne, those who cower under the Almighty’s throne will be protected by him, spectators as evil-doers are struck down?
Yet what does that say about those of God’s people who have suffered and died and continue to do so under earthly regimes? Should we sit so lightly to the material world that all that happens here to us or to other does not matter to us?
Of course many of those responses are extreme, ignoring the wider witness of scripture and illustrating why it is dangerous to build a theology on one small Psalm…
Which brings me to the Devil’s use of this Psalm in both Matthew’s and Luke’s temptation narrative. He suggests that God will protect his chosen one, but Jesus refutes his usage, not in terms of the Devil’s exegesis, but in relation to creating an artificial crisis to test God’s faithfulness. In this there is clearly an acknowledgement that at the time of Jesus this Psalm was widely regarded as a Messianic promise… But it isn’t one that we often read in the advent liturgies, because in the end Jesus did not enjoy a long earthly life… although we do teach that God’s salvation is revealed in him…
I haven’t read Brueggemann’s take on this Psalm, but whilst I suspect that the Psalmist is seeking to orientate his readers to a protective Almighty God, I personally have been left decidedly disorientated by it…
But at this early stage of advent, in this particular year that is maybe not a bad thing. There is a tendency in times of trouble to retreat immediately within walls, to batten down the hatches emotionally, theologically and liturgically… taking shelter under the throne of God…
But as a late colleague said of a former church building when it was erected at the top of a hill, there is the world of difference between a fortress to be defended and a stronghold to sally forth from… into a profoundly disorientating world…
If you want a modern hymn based on this Psalm Timothy Dudley Smith’s “Safe in the Shadow of the Lord” is a good one, though it smooths over some of the unsettling elements of the Psalm in it’s original form.
Below is my own paraphrase… Writing these is a discipline I use to help me avoid dodging the difficult bits of such Psalms.
You who reside under the protective roof of God on High,
And shelter under the shadow of the Almighty One’s throne
can confidently say this
“The great I AM is my hiding place, my safe space
The God to whom I entrust my life.”
Will he definitely protect me from life’s booby traps,
and deflect all disease and disaster?
Like a mother sheltering her children behind her skirt,
Will God shield me from all who would harm me?
Do not fear the terrible things that happen by night
Nor those who would attack you in broad daylight.
So I should not dread the disease that snatches people away in the darkness,
nor the accidents that hit when all seems bright and breezy.
Even though thousands drop dead around me, falling like flies to right and left,
I will come through it all unscathed,
Only an eye-witness to the punishment of the wicked.
You only have to say
“The Great I AM is my hiding place, my home is God on High.”
Then no harm will befall you and your household will be free from danger.
For he will command his angels to guard you wherever you go.
If you stumble, they’ll be there to catch you before you hit the ground.
You’ll trample over terrifying beasts and crush the most deadly of creatures.
The Great I AM says
“My name is on his tongue and his heart therefore I will rescue him.
He calls so I will respond.
I will grant him long life and demonstrate my salvation through him.”