Living in the shadow of the almighty
Psalm 91 (NRSVA)
1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2 will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
Psalm 91 is a response of faith and trust to the bleak facts of exile and general human limitation of Psalm 90, which frames book 3 of the Psalms, when Israel is starting to come to terms with the failure of the David project, kings gone wrong as forecast by the prophet Samuel long before. So in verse 1 we live in the shelter of the Most High, under the shadow of the Almighty.
In the Hebrew context, shadow is altogether positive, as with the chicks gathered under a mother’s wings (verse 4 and Matthew 23:37). In English, shadow by itself has a darker meaning, and some people reading this psalm might be aware of times when life was not guarded in the manner of this psalm. The late Professor T.F. Torrance was a chaplain in the 1939-45 War, and describes how on one occasion the soldiers on either side of him were killed by enemy bullets (verse 7). “At that time,” he said, “I was conscious that my life was being spared for a purpose, and I determined to find that purpose and fulfil it.”
The psalm, of course, is not a pledge of freedom from danger, but a statement that even in danger, God will be with us — in the spirit of Hebrews 11:32-38, where some are wonderfully protected, others not, but all are models of faith. The devil quoted verses 11-12 to Jesus, but our Lord knew that the evil one could misuse scripture, and refused to let the Bible be used as a test of God — or as we might put it today, the Bible rests on the faithfulness of God, rather than the faithfulness of God resting on the Bible; the scriptures do not prove the love of God to an unbeliever, but they certainly show the love of God to anyone willing to listen.
To live in your tent, to camp out with you in the desert, to stay safe in your shadow, to coorie down under your wings, such intimacy is blessing indeed, Lord God Most High. To share the faith of Israel, to ride the coat tails of so many men and women of faith who have gone before us, to be gathered into such a great crowd of followers, such fellowship is grace beyond anything we deserve, a purple passage not of words alone but of your great and loving purpose, Lord God Almighty.
May the glorious name of God be praised in the trials of this morning, the troubles of the afternoon, the temptations of this evening, and in the shadow of night. Amen.