Picture with me a scene in the Temple of Yahweh. The priest is robed in all his finery. The people of God are waiting with bated breath to hear the promise of the Lord. The priest picks up the (fourth) book of the Psalms and rolls down to the 91st Psalm, and begins to read:
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
Across the court of the Temple, God’s people cheer these words!
A soldier, preparing to go into battle, has fashioned a rolled up scroll with the words of the 12th verse and has tightly wound them around his right arm. They will be his strength as he enters into the fray against the enemy. God’s promise of protection will carry him, as he places his helmet on his head and brandishes his sword for battle.
A few feet away in the Temple court, a faithful disciple sings a song of joy. The promise of Psalm 91 is clear that his sick father back home has already been healed. The Psalm leaves no question that those who are faithful will receive God’s never-ending blessing, and so he runs home singing, praising God as he goes.
A across the Temple court, a pilgrim who has travelled to the Temple from his home many miles away, rejoices in these words of protection. He knows now that he and his family will be safe as he returns through dangerous wilderness road back to his home. God’s promise of protection will carry him, as he places his pack upon the family’s donkey and straps his young son to the top, smiling and giggling along the way.
The message that they all hear is the same. If you trust God enough, God will protect you. And yet.
Before the next Sabbath, disaster has befallen all three of these faithful disciples.
The solider is one of thousands slain at the hands of a stronger army. As he lies dying on the battleground, his now-bloodstained homemade scroll of Psalm 91 flaps in the wind, and he wonders where is his protector now!
The faithful disciple returns home with a song on his lips, but it disappears when he nears the home to see the parade of mourners carrying out his father’s lifeless body. He falls to the ground and asks where are the angels of Yahweh!
And the pilgrim and his family are attacked by thieves on the dangerous wilderness road. He and his wife are left for dead as the donkey and all of their possessions are pirated away. His young daughter is dumped off the donkey, where she cries, face covered with dirt, as the man looks up and screams with his last breath, “what has happened to the Yahweh’s promise of protection?”
Scholars tell us that this very scenario could have very easily happened on any given week in the life of the faithful followers of Yahweh. Scholars suggest that Psalm 91 was used by many of God’s people in this way: sort of a magical, hedge of protection against the difficulties of the world. They would fashion its words as an amulet as they went into battle, or in their homes to ward of danger or disease. Just like the old vampire movies that would use a cross to ward off Dracula, the words of this Psalm took on a magical quality: quoting the words “quote from Psalm” became a literal incantation to bottle God’s power and use it against one’s enemies.
The world of the psalmist was an incredibly dangerous one. Disease, war, thieves and robbers, this is only the beginning of the struggle that the people of God faced. Oppression. Violence. Death in childbirth. Experience tells us that even those who prayed the words of this psalm, or used it as a magical amulet or incantation, were simply not always protected from physical or bodily harm.
How do the people of God read a Psalm like this, in light of a very different set of experiences in their own life?
Maybe we don’t have to work too hard to guess. After all, how many of us do the same thing at one level or another? We, too, yearn for some easy answer or powerful protection.
We offer special words or prayers, almost as magical incantations, believing that God will honor our faith and give us what we want – from the new job to the new car to the healthy loved one.
We wear a special cross around our neck. It is a meaningful symbol to be sure, but does it ever cross over into the realm of a superstitious or magical amulet? Are we ever afraid of forgetting it on the dresser and thus leaving its power of protection behind?
We say a prayer for God to offer a hedge of protection when we travel, for “Jesus to take the wheel,” for guardian angels to watch over us.
What happens when those incantations or amulets fail to work?
When the prayers of mothers and grandmothers and the whole small group at church seem to go answered and there is an accident on the highway.
When the faithful, praying missionary family loses everything, including dear family members, in an accidental fire.
When the unarmed Sunday-schooler is shot by police, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When the chemo and the prayers don’t work.
When there are no magic words to make the broken relationship whole again.
The good news is that in spite of this ancient interpretation of Scripture, it is not the only way to read these words. For several weeks, I talked about unhealthy or unhelpful interpretations of Scripture in our Misinterpreting Scripture series. But I never went as far as to name any interpretation as Satanic. But this passage has been interpreted in ways that are, in fact, espoused by the Devil.
How many of you recognized verses 11-12 from another context in the Bible? “you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Some may recognize it as the verses that are quoted by Satan in the temptation of Jesus. In both Luke and Matthew, Satan quotes these verses to Jesus as he encourages him to jump from a high place. Satan is using this ancient interpretation of this verse as a magical protection from physical danger. The same interpretation that the solider and the pilgrim and the disciple with the sick father would have done. If you trust God enough, God will protect you.
That is the interpretation…of Satan. But notice here what Jesus says in response to Satan. I am reading from Luke, but Matthew is about the same…“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” In other words, this Satanic interpretation of Scripture, in which our level of trust determines our level of protection – from pain and heartbreak and illness and injury – is false. It is putting God to the test and trying to prove not God’s power, but our ability to manipulate God’s power. In these magical, incantational acts, God is not honored or glorified. We are. And Jesus would have none of it.
So, how are we to read these words, then? Interpret Psalm 91 for our lives? The first 13 verses of this psalm are a profession of trust in God. But it is the last three verses that proclaim why God is worthy of our trust. They are spoken from the voice of God, and name why God is indeed trustworthy.
J. Clinton McCann points out in his commentary on this passage that the Hebrew words in the last section of the Psalm are all relational words. When the psalmist says, “those who love me,” he or she is conveying a sense of “being connected to” or “being attached to.” These are words that are about yearning and becoming one – relational words of intimacy, often associated with deep and even romantic love. He says that rather than suggest that the protection of God are the reward for loving God, instead, it is the relationship itself that is the deliverance. God’s Presence is the salvation. God’s Presence is the rescue. Knowing that God will never leave us or forsake us – that is how the psalmist defines the blessing of God.
For me, verse 15 is perhaps the most profound: “I will be with them in trouble.” The way I view this passage, and my relationship with God, is not that a greater level of trust leads to a greater level of protection. (That’s Satan’s interpretation.) But instead, a greater level of trust leads to a greater understanding of God’s Presence. “I will be with them in trouble.” The final word of the Psalmist is not that our trust in God means that we will not have trouble. But that when we have trouble, we will have One who is ever-present and ever-loving.
In these last three verses from God’s voice, seven “I statements” are used. “I will deliver…I will rescue…etc.” And as many of us know from the Bible, whenever we see the number seven, it is meant to represent perfection or completeness. In other words, the psalmist is saying that the Presence of God is the complete and perfect salvation for anything that life throws at us. Trust God for God will never leave you or forsake you. With deep and intimate love, God yearns to the divine Presence in every aspect of our lives!
And so, with a new interpretation of the Psalm, let us return to the stories from the Temple go-ers. What if those in the courts of the Temple approached this Psalm differently?
The solider dressed for battle hears this Psalm and comes to trust God more fully and in new ways. In fact, he goes home and re-examines his motivation for heading to war in the first place. Instead of trusting in violence and power to overcome evil, he starts to trusts a loving God working throughout history to bring peace? Without blindly assuming that his cause is right and just, he prays to God for wisdom, and chooses a different way. The way of peace.
The faithful son who prays for his father returns home to the sackcloth and ashes of grief. But instead of cursing God to fail to protect his father, he celebrates his well-lived life! He rejoices that his father’s legacy of faith and service and kindness have now been passed onto him. As he looks around at the house full of mourners, he is able to celebrate that his father was so beloved, and shared that legacy with every one dressed in sackcloth, packed into the house. He is left with a feeling of joy! While he cries deep and profound tears of loss, they are tears of trust, for he knows that God will never leave him or forsake him!
And the pilgrim who is left for dead looks up into the eyes of his infant daughter crying on the ground. As the next pilgrim family down the road stoops to care for him and his family, he does not rail against God for failing to protect his family. Instead, he thanks God that her young life was spared. As they wipe her tears, he entrusts his daughter to their protection, and ultimately to God’s loving Presence. And he closes his eyes in peace, and enters the eternal Presence of his Lord.