Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 17, 2021
Psalm 91:9-16 Commentary
For some reason on this occasion the Lectionary would have us skip the first 8 verses of Psalm 91, which is too bad in that those verses contain one of the most lyric images of God’s providential care of us in the whole Bible. We are the baby birds who find shelter under the wings of God. My colleague Neal Plantinga once wrote a lovely sermon on that image and you can read it here and also find a lot of musical and liturgical ideas for a service that features Psalm 91.
Personally I find it curious that this psalm and all of its iron-clad promises of no harm coming near us is paired in the RCL with a passage from Job. Surely if Job proves nothing else, it is that even those who try to take shelter in the shadow of the Most High God can and do now and again have harm befall them.
And it’s not as though Psalm 91 denies that. After all, if it is good news to hear that God will eventually rescue us from our woes, it goes without saying that is good news only because we do encounter woes from which rescue is required! The main message of Psalm 91 is “Times are bad even for believers now and then but for that very reason your confidence in God needs to be stronger than ever!” The threats around us make people nervous, uncertain, afraid, and cynical. Psalm 91 conveys a counter-message: the poet who composed these words wants to tell us that instead of letting the wider world determine how we feel, we need to let our ultimate confidence in God become the lens through which we view the wider world. God, not current events, is what shapes our viewpoints, informs our hopes, and brings us a confidence that avoids cynicism.
Throughout this psalm God is presented in several ways but all of them deliver the same message: security. Assurance. The God of Israel is said to be like a fortress, a refuge, a high tower in whose shadow you can be concealed from those who are out to get you. God is compared to a mother bird who will cover you with the feathers of her wings. The faithfulness of God is compared to a shield, a fortified rampart or wall. God is a kind of “safe house” where angels are at work to keep evil at bay and to catch you even if somehow you do still fall.
To put it mildly, the language of Psalm 91 is unstintingly confident. There is no hesitation here. There is not even the hint of a proviso, caveat, or conditional phrase. Nowhere does the psalmist say, “Well, OK, maybe you will get killed but then God will whisk you to heaven.” The rhetoric here is far more crisp than that. Listen: he will save you; you will not fear; a thousand may fall but it will not come near you; no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near you; you will not strike your foot upon a stone.
If you were to take all of this straightforwardly, it sounds like an iron-clad guarantee. It makes it sound as though being a faithful follower of God will give you an automatic pass in all of life. If someone shoots a sub-machine gun into a crowd, the bullets will always miss you. If someone with COVID sneezes on you, the microbes will always die before you get infected. The plane you are flying in will never be high jacked, if you get drafted to fight a war, the Lord himself will be your flak jacket–you will come home in one piece.
That’s what this seems to be saying yet when we read this, in the back of our minds we immediately think, “But we know things don’t always work out this way.” We all know counter-examples of a Christian person who did get sick and died, who was not spared when a plane crashed, who went to war and came home in a body bag.
If becoming a believer provided insulation from every danger in the world, millions would flock to churches first thing tomorrow morning. And not a few of us have been powerfully bothered by fellow believers who use some level of this kind of confidence in God as a reason not to take prudent safety precautions during the COVID pandemic or to refuse to get vaccinated. There has been too much of a “Faith vs. Fear” simplistic framing of all this going on the last year and a half.
We ought not use Psalm 91 as an excuse for recklessness. But neither should the presence of bad things in someone’s life be a reason to suggest something must be lacking in that person’s faith since, after all, this psalm says God won’t let it happen if you REALLY take refuge him God. So where does that leave us in terms of making sense of this psalm?
Maybe a good place to begin is to remember that Psalm 91 is not the only psalm in the Bible. There are 149 other psalms, and to understand any one of them, it’s a good idea to keep in mind what you can learn from the others. As most of us already know, there are lots of psalms that admit and lament that many times, even for followers of God, life is difficult and we are not spared every harm and injury and sickness that may come our way.
All you have to do is back up three poems to Psalm 88 and you can read there the darkest and most dreary psalm in the Bible. Psalm 88 is almost exactly as long as Psalm 91 but there is not one happy verse in the whole thing. It looks like the mirror opposite of Psalm 91. Psalm 88 goes on and on about how bad life is, how much the psalmist is suffering, how far away God seems to be. Psalm 91 says, “No harm will come near to you.” Psalm 88 says, “From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death . . . I am filled with despair.” Psalm 91 concludes with “He will call upon me and I will answer.” Psalm 88’s last line is “You have taken my loved ones from me; the darkness is my best friend.”
So even within the Book of Psalms there is reason to conclude that despite all its grand, sweeping promises, Psalm 91 must not make us forget that even faithful believers suffer. We also know that if we look at the rest of the Bible, there are many examples of God’s servants suffering. Jeremiah and most of the other prophets did not have an easy time of it. The last great Old Testament prophet, and the first great New Testament character, is John the Baptist, who had his head lopped off by Herod. Jesus promised his disciples that they would suffer for his sake, and from the murder of Stephen onward, we know that most of the apostles were arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and finally executed.
But if all of that is true, what do we make of Psalm 91? Where is this high-flung rhetoric supposed to lead us? Maybe we can start to figure that out by recalling the most famous time that Psalm 91 was ever quoted. Ironically, the single most well-known recital of this psalm came from the lips of the devil himself. Satan led Jesus up to a very high place atop the Temple and tempted Jesus to step right off the edge because, after all, didn’t God promise in Psalm 91, “He will give his angels charge over you so that you will not dash your foot upon a stone”? The devil knows the Bible. He knows the parts that look like blank check promises just waiting to get cashed. “Give it a whirl, Jesus,” the devil sneered.
But Jesus refused. Jesus knew what we also need to remember: the promises we find in the Bible are not supposed to become fodder for some divine “fear factor”-like dare. We are not supposed to base our faith on whether or not we can force God to come through for us. If we insist on testing and proving every article of faith, there will be no end to it. Jesus knew that is the wrong way to read and use the Bible.
Psalm 91 is not something you are supposed to go out and try to prove. Psalm 91 is not supposed to be a type of litmus test as though you are supposed to think that if your life does not already look exactly this safe, secure, and completely snug, then there is something wrong with your faith.
What Psalm 91 does say is that no matter what happens, if God is your bottom line, your refuge, the place you most want to be, then there are several wonderful things that can never change. First, God loves you and wants you to flourish. God does not wish harm on any of his children. We can ponder where God is when bad things happen in our lives. We can argue back and forth for a long time whether or not God ever “permits” bad things to come our way. And we can affirm that God is able to use unhappy events to make us stronger so that we can in turn help others. That may be so, but based on the witness of the Bible we need to know that God does not desire us to be hurt. Whatever else Psalm 91 says, it lets you know that if you make God your refuge, you can be assured that God will receive you. When you run to embrace God, he is going to hug you back, not slap you in the face!
Psalm 91 is a call to confidence in God and so is a call away from the cynicism of our age. At a time when many people seem to live only for the moment (because beyond that, who knows what will happen), Psalm 91 is a call to confidence in a God who, if you make him your resting place, will never leave you. Nothing will separate you from this God because it is the very power of God that fuels his determination to be with you always, even if the worst somehow comes, even when one day you die as we all must. Psalm 91 shouts a loud “No” to the cynics who say that you cannot rely on anybody. You can rely on God! You can have confidence that he wants the best for you.
There are maybe a million whys and wherefores that come up when bad things do happen to followers of God. And there are no easy answers. But Psalm 91 is here to proclaim that whatever reasons one may try to advance to explain bad things, there is one that can never be allowed to stand: the idea that bad things happen because God wants them to or because God is indifferent to suffering. No, God is for us. God is with us. God wants the best for us and will deliver that once and for all one day. Psalm 91 tells us to trust that this much is true. And that’s not a small thing to know.
Lewis Smedes once wrote that we should avoid being fake or hypocritical and just admit that deep down what each one of us wants is some enjoyment in life. Deep down we hope that the day may come when people will stand up and cheer over something we did. We want the bells to ring and the Hallelujah Chorus to sound for us, too. Smedes even said that anyone who claims otherwise, anyone who says he could care less about whether or not anything good ever happened to him, such a person is not only being dishonest but is probably a bit of a nasty person.
Our great God created us for joy and one day, as C.S. Lewis predicted, joy itself will be the serious business of heaven. So as Psalm 91 reminds us, already now we can be confident that our God wants us to feel joy. God wants us to make him our very home, the place we want to be more than anywhere else.
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