Psalm 91 - You have made the Lord your refuge

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 honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
Psalm 91:9-16 (NRSV)
1st Sunday of Lent, Year C, verses 1-2, 9-16
Proper 21, Sunday between September 25 and October 1, Year C, verses 1-6, 14-16

"You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in His shadow for life, say to the Lord 'My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!'" (Michael Joncas, "On Eagle's Wings," paraphrase of verse 1). I suppose most people now know this psalm through the well-known song, used in church services, weddings, and funerals. The song touches people, and brings the faithful ideas closer to people. Yet I confess a preference here for a more literal translation.

The psalmist may live a little closer to eagles, and does not want to be raised up on an eagles wings. That's what happens to prey that the eagle is carrying away in its talons. Instead, God is envisioned as a mighty eagle, a fierce defender, sheltering its young under its powerful wings. God is a defender who smashes enemies underfoot.

These are words of confidence to those - who may not feel themselves in a position of security - who trust in the Lord.

Hebrew poetry does not rely much on rhyming, but on repetition. Throughout the Psalms (and Proverbs) you will see these paired couplets. The same idea is stated, then restated. Almost everything is repeated. All the same, there is an awfully long list of perils. The snare of the fowler and the deadly pestilence. The terror of the night and the arrow that flies by day. Lions and serpents, pestilence, destruction, evil, scourge.

Against this is set a simple declaration. For all who dwell in the shelter of the Lord Most High, God will protect you. "Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name." Period.

The psalm promises what no earthly power could dare. With God on your side, you won't even stub your toe, God will send angels to lift you over obstacles, to guard you in every way. No evil shall befall you.

We know it does not always work out so smoothly. But the psalm aims straight at the experience of faith. God has been faithful. God stands with those who love the Lord. Can we also stand with God in faith, even when shaking with fear? "When you call to me, I will answer you; I will be with you in trouble, I will rescue you and honor you."

Credits:
Ellen Mary Rope, photo of plaster panel of guardian angel, St Peter's church, Blaxhall, Suffolk. (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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