Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 18, 2015
Psalm 91:9-16 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 91 is a profession of God’s protective care. It’s a deeply beloved psalm, particularly by people who find themselves under some kind of duress. In fact, the church father Athanasius reportedly told a colleague, “If you desire to establish yourself and others in devotion, to know what confidence is to be reposed in God, and what makes the mind fearless, you will praise God by reciting the [ninety-first] psalm.”
Yet as Karl N. Jacobson notes, the history of Psalm 91 is a bit “checkered.” People have accused it of making promises that engender either superstition or false confidence. In fact, English pastor Leslie D. Weatherhead publicly concluded that the psalm “just is not true.”
Perhaps, then, those who preach and teach Psalm 91 shouldn’t be surprised that while the Revised Common Lectionary draws attention to it twice, in neither instance does it include verses 7’s most lavish promises that may make some people uncomfortable. It’s as if once again, as some critics have claimed, the Lectionary simply avoids the Scripture’s most problematic verses.
Yet Psalm 91’s difficulties aren’t limited to verses 7-8. As Old Testament scholar James Mays notes, the psalm as a whole can be viewed in a superstitious way. For example, some deduce from it that God gives each person an individual angel. Sometimes that results in that angel rather than the living God becoming the object of devotion.
So those who preach and teach Psalm 91 have an opportunity to help hearers reflect on the appropriate use of Scripture. It gives them a chance to reflect together on proper (and improper) hermeneutical principles for interpreting the Bible. Such an approach will help open the way for a more biblical understanding not only of Psalm 91, but also of all Scriptures, including those that are vulnerable to misinterpretation.
The Revised Common Lectionary appoints only Psalm 91:9-16 for this particular Sunday. But a few introductory comments to its first eight verses seem in order. First, verses 1-2 use four names for the God in whom the psalmist urges worshipers to join her in trusting. That’s appropriate because the One who is the Most High, the Almighty, the Lord and the psalmist’s God is clearly this psalm’s central character. Those names tell us something about the psalmist’s God who, in fact, speaks the psalm’s final four verses. This God acts and delivers in ways that render the Lord trustworthy.
The images the psalmist uses to describe God are all protective ones. The poet speaks of God as a shelter, refuge, fortress and large presence who casts a protective shadow. This God rescues those under God’s care and protects them like a mother bird. This variety of images is important because the threats to worshipers that Psalm 91 describes are also diverse. They include terror that threatens 24/7. Those threats include things like war, pestilence and plagues. They even cause great destruction.
The dangers Psalm 91 describes are very appropriate for Israelite worshipers who were constantly menaced by military, political and even religious threats. However, its protective imagery invites those who preach and teach Psalm 91 to reflect on threats to modern worshipers. To what might we compare “the fowler’s snare” and “deadly pestilence” today? What sorts of night’s terrors and day’s arrows menace the Lord twenty first century sons and daughters? On what threats do worshipers “tread” as they follow Jesus?
In the verses 9-16 of Psalm 91 to which the Lectionary calls worshipers’ attention, the poet insists that God protects God’s adopted children from those threats. That protection takes varied forms. In verses 7 and 10 the poet implies that God erects a kind of protective “hedge” around worshipers so that threats won’t come near, harm won’t befall and disaster won’t strike them. In verses 14 and 15 the poet insists that when evil strikes, God rescues and protects God’s children, as well as delivers and honors them. God, the psalmist adds in verse 15, answers worshipers’ calls, stays with them in trouble and grants them both long life and salvation. It’s perhaps worth noting the description of God’s protection is far longer than the list of threats to worshipers.
In verse 13 the psalmist insists that God’s protection extends even throughout the realm of nature. Even when worshipers somehow walk through jungles’ dangers that lions and cobras pose, God protects them. Franz Delitzsch notes that those threats are symbolic of both nature’s destructive power and God’s immense protection. That protection comes, says the psalmist, in the form of ministering angels. They, after all, guard God’s children in all their ways. Angels, in fact, catch worshipers so that they don’t injure themselves.
Psalm 91’s narrator changes in verse 14. It’s no longer the psalmist but the Lord who now speaks. Yet God’s message there echoes the psalmist’s in verses 1-2 and 9. Verses 14-16 use three vivid images to describe the protection that God promises in them. They speak of “deliverance,” “rescue” and “salvation.”
Yet those who preach and teach Psalm 91 must be honest about the extravagant nature of its promises. It’s a message of what Jacobson calls “shade from the heat, of release from the snare, of freedom from fear, of protection from powers bold and powers subtle. It is the message of a refuge promised and a refuge close at hand.” So how might we think about that message in the light of the misery that those who love the Lord sometimes experience?
What does this have to say to the dad whose wife abandons him and who, as a result, only gets to see his children sporadically? How does Psalm 91 speak to the woman who wrestles with mental illness whose sharp, dark edges medication only softens? How does it comfort those whose family members and friends seem nearly as far away from them as those loved ones seem from the Lord?
This psalm certainly won’t let us take its promises of protection lightly. Yet it seems to offer more than God sometimes delivers. Perhaps, then, worshipers and worship leaders who like their texts cut and dried should do their best to avoid Psalm 91. However, those who are willing to wrestle with it will find messages of hope and comfort, even though they aren’t necessarily unambiguous.
“Angels Online” is a website that refers to itself as a “popular reservoir of stories about extraordinary experiences that are submitted by people from every walk of life and from all over the world.” It includes stories of encounters with angels, spiritual awakenings, self-discoveries and healing miracles.
Yet those who read those stores can’t help but notice the misplaced devotion that some of them describe. While Christians believe that angels are ministers of God’s grace and protection, few of “Angels Online’s” stories reflect any connection between angels encountered and the living Lord.
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