The 91st Psalm, which we read just moments ago, is an eloquent profession of faith intended to inspire confidence and trust in God’s people. With its language of safe place and safe journey, settings that include night, day, darkness, and noonday, and descriptions of surprise attacks, disease, demonic powers, violence, war, wicked enemies, and wild animals, the psalmist affirms that no place, no time, and no circumstance that befall us is beyond God’s ability to protect us. That is a very reassuring message indeed.
Whenever I read the 91st Psalm and meditate on the imagery of God’s angelic protection in the midst of life’s threats, I think of a scene in the madcap movie The Great Race. Do you remember the time when all the main characters meet up in the Bavarian bakery? What ensues is perhaps the single largest pie fight in cinematic history. While everyone else in the scene is being pelted from every direction on the compass, the film’s dashing hero, The Great Leslie (played by Tony Curtis), is able to pass through all the flying pastries and pies without getting so much as a single smudge on his flawless white outfit.
Is that the kind of protection God’s people can expect? Should we believe that no misfortune or injustice will strike us simply because we take God as our refuge and stronghold? Should we take this Psalm at face value? Should our theology be built around the expectation that no danger, no harm, and no disease will come upon us? Should our hope be that our enemies will never get the upper hand because God is on our side? When the pies of life fly, should we Christians expect that we will not get creamed?
Practical experience tells us that being a Christian does not make us immune. If we interpret Psalm 91 literally, and base our theology on that interpretation, then we will be left with several possibilities when we discover that we are not pie-proof:
We will have to assume that we did not trust enough in God,
or that we did something wrong causing God to withdraw protection,
or all of this talk about God’s power and protection is a fraud.
None of these options seems consist with a God who loves us, who accepts us in our weakness, and who remains actively involved in our lives.
Here is another reason to be leery a literal interpretation. Did you know that the only time the bible says Satan spoke the words of Scripture he quoted the 91st Psalm. It is recorded in the Gospel reading for today. After Jesus has fasted in the wilderness for 40 days Satan comes to tempt Him. Our Lord rejects the first two temptations by quoting Scripture. So for the third temptation, Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and challenges Him to jump, thereby placing His whole trust in God. After all, says Satan, quoting Psalm 91:
For he shall give his angels charge over you,
to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you in their hands,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
Now that is about as literal a reading as is possible! Jesus, however, refuses to interpret the Psalm as a fail-proof guarantee that no harm will ever visit us. He knew that any person, no matter how faithful, including God’s own Son, who hurls himself off a high precipice, will have a painful meeting with the hard ground below.
In our Old Testament lesson for today we heard the ancient creed of the Old Testament. It was for the covenant people of that time what the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds are for us.
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
This Creed, told in story form, affirms at least two things. First, the journey for the people of God was not always easy and smooth. Second, while they knew hardship and affliction, God was with them all the time working to bring them to a better place.
When I think of Biblical figures who combined a strong sense of trust in God with a healthy dose of reality I think of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abennego. They refused to bow down before the gold statue of a Babylonian god and as a result Nebuchadnezzer ordered that they be thrown into a fiery furnace. Before their sentence was carried out, the three men made this famous speech:
Your Majesty, we will not attempt to defend ourselves. If the God whom we serve is able to save us from the blazing furnace and from your power, then He will. But even if he doesn’t, Your Majesty may be sure that we will not worship your god, and we will not bow down to the gold statue you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18)
That phrase, “but even if He doesn’t”, has been described by at least one commentator as being the most important clause in all of Scripture. It ties two opposites together: that God protects those who are close to Him and that sometimes bad things happen to people who are close to God. Even if the latter happens, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abennego will not be shaken in their faith. There’s is a marvelous witness and an instructive teaching.
The 91st Psalm can be a tremendous strength and encouragement to us. It is not intended to be an ironclad guarantee or a fail-proof insurance policy. It expresses a confident assurance that God is intimately involved in our lives; that God is working to keep us safe, and should harm befall us, God will hold us close. Our prayer this day is that God will come quickly to help us when we are assaulted and that in our weakness we will find God mighty to save.
The last portion of the Psalm contains God’s response to the poet’s faith and trust:
Because he is bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my Name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him;
I am with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and bring him to honor.
With long life will I satisfy him,
and show him my salvation.
God brings those who call upon Him to honor by making us God’s children and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom. God satisfies us with the spiritual food of the Body and Blood of Christ. God comforts us with the promise of abundant life in this world and everlasting life in the life to come.
I call upon you to dwell in the shelter of the Most High, and to abide under the shadow of the Almighty. Say to Lord, “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.” He will cover you with His pinions, and you shall find refuge under his wings; his faithfulness will be a shield and buckler.