Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 14, 2016
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 Commentary
Psalm 91 has what Karl Jacobson calls a “checkered” history. On the one hand, it has been a source of inspiration and comfort to millions of Christians. The great theologian Athanasius said to Marcellinus, “If you desire to stablish 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 91st Psalm.” When I preached on this Psalm in my last church, several WWII veterans told me that their pastors had given them this Psalm as God’s Word for their coming battles, and they were heartened by it.
On the other hand, our Lectionary reading from the Gospels (Luke 4:1-13) on this first Sunday of Lent tells us that the Devil quoted Psalm 91:11 and 12 in his climactic attempt to move Jesus to sin at the very beginning of his ministry. Focusing on the promises of protection that emboldened my combat veterans, Karl Jacobsen writes that some have accused this Psalm of making promises so remarkable that the unwary reader might be lured into superstition or foolish confidence. For example, English clergyman Leslie D. Weatherhead went so far as to say, “It’s just not true.” And he discarded Psalm 91 as unfit sermon material.
So what do we do with such a checkered Psalm? Well, it is clear to me that Psalm 91 is a very fitting passage for the beginning of our Lenten journey. Even as the temptation of Christ in Luke 4 reminds us that Jesus’ journey to the cross was filled with difficulty and danger from the very beginning, Psalm 91 addresses the dangers we face when we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. “Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come,” and all Christians know there are more to follow. Quite apart from the particular dangers of the Christian life, the whole world is living in a time filled with “the terror of the night.” Who can’t relate to “the pestilence that stalks the darkness and the plague that destroys at midday?” Psalm 91 speaks directly to a world fixated on safety and security. So, we shouldn’t discard it just because it is difficult.
But how do we handle this Word of God rightly (II Tim. 2:15)? Well, we could focus on the fact that Psalm 91 shares a common theme with the other lectionary readings for this first Sunday in Lent, namely, the importance of calling on the name of the Lord when we’re in trouble. According to Deuteronomy 26, Israel did that when they were in their Egyptian Bondage, and the Lord delivered them. Romans 10 promises that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Our Psalm is filled with deep faith in God. “I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”
So we could use Psalm 91 to encourage a frightened and insecure people to call upon God in deep faith. The Psalm gives us good fodder for that emphasis with its opening words about God. In verses 1 and 2 the Psalmist uses four of the most common and powerful words for God: Most High (elyon in Hebrew), Almighty (shaddai), Lord (Yahweh), and my God (elohim). Each word emphasizes some dimension of the Divine that can encourage us in dangerous times. Because he is high and lifted up, he is not caught up in the cause and effect of the world. Because he is our faithful covenant Lord, he will not forsake us in the fray. Because he is “my God,” he will not lose me (the “you” of Psalm 91 is always singular) in the melee of humanity.
Our people already “dwell in the shelter of the Most High.” That is probably a reference to the Temple, the house of God, the place where God’s people gather to worship. We can encourage our gathered worshippers to “rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” When you call on him in the heat of battle, God will “cover you with his feathers,” like a mother hen or, better in this context, like a mighty eagle. God is, indeed, our refuge in times of trouble. Call on such a God and he will deliver you.
But that brings us face to face with the great problem of Psalm 91. How will God deliver us? The Psalmist makes some sweeping promises of protection. “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” Really? Were no Christians killed in a hail of arrows/bullets in WWII, after being given this Psalm by their pastor? “You will not fear… the pestilence… or the plague…?” Weren’t there any Christians among the thousands who died of Ebola in Africa? “Then no harm will befall you, no disaster will befall you.” Then no believers died in the Twin Towers on 9/11, and no child of God lost everything in Superstorm Sandy, and there were no Christians slaughtered in the mass murders that have recently terrorized the world?
These extravagant promises of protection from harm and danger just don’t seem true to our lives. What’s more, these promises don’t seem to mesh with other parts of Scripture. To pick just one, Romans 8 seems to say that danger and difficulty will always threaten the true believer. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’” God does not keep all these bad things from us. But, Paul continues, God will keep us in all these things, so that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
So, if our experience and our Bible tell us that we are not protected from danger the way Psalm 91 says we are, what shall we do with Psalm 91? Discard it, as Weatherhead suggests? No, we should read it more carefully in the light of the rest of Scripture. So we could, for example, treat this Psalm as a piece of wisdom literature, like the Proverbs. Proverbs aren’t promises; they are careful observations of what is usually true. They don’t guarantee what will happen; they tell us what will generally happen. If it is legitimate to read Psalm 91 as wisdom literature, then it isn’t making universal promises; it is simply telling us what is usually true. More often than not, those who call on the name of the Lord will be kept from harm. Typically, believers are more secure than non-believers. We would all like that to be true. But is it? Is that our experience? Is that the teaching of the rest of Scripture? And is Psalm 91 really wisdom literature?
Another approach to this Psalm would be to focus on the qualifiers of the promises. These promises come true for those who actually meet the conditions the Psalm spells out. The Psalm begins by speaking of the individual “who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,” who says, “I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.’” Verse 9 is very specific. “If you make the Most High your dwelling….” And verse 15 is similarly pointed. “Because he loves me…, I will rescue him; I will protect him for he acknowledges my name.” These promises are for those who genuinely trust and love and acknowledge the Lord God. Could it be that the apparent failure of the promises is actually due to the failure of our faith?
I don’t think so. In fact, such an interpretation puts us perilously close to the “name it and claim it” theology that devastates so many believers. “If you don’t receive, it’s because you didn’t believe.” But grace is not contingent on faith. Faith receives grace, but grace is sovereign. God is perfectly capable of acting when we have little faith and he often acts precisely to create greater faith. God is not a cruel parent who dangles a gift just above the reach of a needy child saying, “Just jump a little higher and it’s yours.” Psalm 91 calls us to believe and it promises protection to those who do, but it doesn’t set a high bar and tell us that we can have the protection only if we can jump so high.
So what are we to do with this Psalm? I think the key is in verse 8. After promising that all the trouble in verses 5-7 “will not come near you,” the Psalmist says, “You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.” Is that the trouble from which God will surely protect us– the punishment of the wicked? Are all of the military dangers of verses 5-7 and the natural dangers of verse 13 simply an Old Testament way of promising the spiritual salvation of the New Testament? Can we legitimately interpret “the great lion and the serpent” as the Devil, that ancient serpent who goes about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour? Think of the Devil trying to derail and defeat Jesus in Luke 4. Should we read “tread and trample” in the light of the first Gospel promise in Genesis 3:15?
In other words, should we see these extravagant promises of protection from all sorts of enemies as yet another example of the way the Old Testament pointed forward to God’s great act of deliverance in Jesus Christ? Heaven knows that the New Testament is full of such “spiritualizing” of Old Testament history, people, ceremonies, and promises. A text like this can help us give color and texture and specificity to what it means to be saved by God through Christ.
The concluding oracle from God in verses 14-16 certainly fits with such an interpretation with its general words: “I will rescue him, I will protect him, I will answer him, I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life (eternal life?) I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” Should we read those verbs in the light of our lectionary reading from Romans 10:13? “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Earlier I quoted from Romans 8 where Paul simply assumes that believers will be plagued with trouble of all kinds. But remember that he ended that litany of woes with a litany of victory. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is, even if pestilence stalks in the darkness and plague destroys at midday, even though arrows may fly and bombs may explode, even when physical harm and natural disaster devestate our lives, God will deliver all true Christ followers from the spiritual dangers that will come upon the wicked. As Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27, 28)
That is a way to take this “checkered” Psalm seriously, though not literally, and point to Jesus Christ as our only security in a danger-filled world.
After the multiple murders in Colorado Springs and the slaughter in San Bernardino, President Obama went on live TV to address the concerns of a shaken America. He acknowledged that it is very difficult to stop committed terrorists and lone wolf psychopaths, but he said that we are safe. He urged us not to be afraid, but to be vigilant. Many wondered how we are supposed to live by that kind of advice. How safe are we? That is the question confronting America right now. It is the question that has haunted the human race ever since sin introduced violence into the story of humankind. It is the question to which Psalm 91 suggests an eternal answer.
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