BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is the last in our three-week study of psalms, a book of the Bible that has been called “the hymnal of the Second Temple.” We continue to remember that the psalms are poetic and we think originally musical texts, that had a use in the worship life of ancient Israel.
This psalm gives us no clues as to when during the long history of ancient it was composed – except that the names it uses for God in verse 1, El-Elyon or “Most High” and Shaddai, translated here, as usual, “Almighty,” are old – scholars think ancient Canaanite names for God. The fears that trust in God protects from are general, not suggesting any particular historical event, but the timeless human condition.
We don’t usually think of the psalms as having other texts as their context, but in this case Psalm 91 may read like an answer to the prayer of Psalm 90, which also identifies God as a “dwelling place.” The first-person speech in Psalm 91:14-16 may answer the petitions in Psalm 91:13-17.
From a readerly perspective, this psalm is a particular and popular favorite. I personally never read it without remembering myself as a little girl, sitting in the back seat of my grandmother’s big old green car one day after school (I suppose), holding her big old Scofield Reference Bible, while she drove up some shady street in Pasadena explaining the words of this psalm (“the snare of the fowler is a trap,” “pinions are legs – this is like a bird hiding and protecting her babies,” “pestilence is sickness – see, that is every time of day, night or day, midnight or noon”) – because it was her favorite. So, for me, my first thought about Psalm 91 is always “oh, Nanny’s favorite.”
But it’s many people’s favorite, as it turns out. Partly, in our own time, this is because of the extremely popular hymn and anthem “On Eagle’s Wings,” which combines the words of this psalm with other references to scripture (Exodus19:4 and Matthew 13:43) and which is the tune that plays in the back of my head when reading this psalm. (The story behind that hymn is interesting in its own right. For more on that, here are a recent interview with the composer, Fr. Jan Michael Joncas, and some background on the hymn courtesy of the United Methodists.)
But mainly, I think, people love this psalm because the closing of Psalm 91 delivers one of the most direct, emphatic, unambiguous, divine promises in scripture:
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 91:14-16, NRSV)
Furthermore, unlike Jeremiah 29:11, this promise is addressed to a generalized audience who seems to be in no one particular time or place, so – potentially anywhere, any time – even wherever the reader is, at whatever time the reader is reading.
CLOSER READING: Verse 1 opens with the ancient names for God “Most High” (El-Elyon) and “Almighty” (Shaddai); El-Elyon repeats in v9, as well as YHWH, the proper name of the God of Israel, making these names synonyms for one another. This happens again in verse 9.
Verse 2 in Hebrew is a first-person declaration of trust in YHWH: “I will say” – that God is my refuge (which repeats in v4 and 9) and fortress – a defensive position, sometimes translated “stronghold” or “castle.” Then, the psalm switches to “you” – and reads as a consequence of this declaration. The “you” forms are all singular, not plural: the psalm is addressing an individual.
[It might be worth noting that some of the “you” forms (in v4 and v11) are feminine singular. Or not. The text critics will probably suspect scribal error. The second person singular subject everywhere else is masculine singular, and if we didn’t have the NRSV v1 would read “He who dwells …” so the psalmist seems to have a masculine singular refugee in mind. Still … my grandmother read the KJV, and she felt the psalm was addressed directly to her, too.]
Verses 3-6 blend and develop three different images of protection: the image of the bird, the image of warrior, and … something else.
The reference to the fowler, a hunter who stalks and catches birds specifically, the pinions, which are technically wings rather than legs, alas for my memory of my grandmother, and the wings all position the reader as a nestling (maybe high up in a rocky place, if we are still under the influence of the “shelter” and “shadow” of verse 1) under the protection of its parent.
The shield and buckler is presumably some kind of military equipment; Rashi identifies it as a special type of shield that surrounded the person on four sides; my grandmother explained it as a shield and an additional piece of equipment that held the shield secure (“you buckle it on”) but we’ve determined she’s unreliable. Google says “buckler” is a medieval word, so whatever the ancient Israelites were using, it probably wasn’t that particular middle French instrument of warfare. Whatever it is precisely, it resonates as the warrior’s protection from the danger of the arrow that flies by day in v5, although birds might also have reason to fear arrows.
The references to pestilence (v3, 6), terror (v5), and destruction (v6) are all, according to Rashi, references to demons. My grandmother, who hadn’t consulted Rashi, said it was sickness. A lot of things can be pestilential, as we know. Whatever their origin, demonic or natural, these things to fear are there night and day, in the depths of darkness and in the glare of noonday. In other words, all the time.
Everyone seems to read the thousands and ten thousands in v7 as the wicked in v8. In other words, the “you” being addressed here is surrounded and seriously outnumbered by the wicked.
Verses 11-13 are famous enough that Satan quotes them at Jesus in Matthew 4 & Luke 4. [Speaking of Jesus, Christian readers may want to let what we know about Jesus’ story inform our understanding of these verses. They evidently do not signify that the one who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will never experience crucifixion. Jesus’ response to Satan in the wilderness may even suggest that.]
God’s first person, direct, unambiguous promises in vv14-16 are, similarly, not promises of trouble-free experience, but of God’s presence in trouble, and of ultimate rescue, honor, and salvation.
Long life (v16), literally “length of days” or “long days,” is one of the explicit promises. If trouble is a battle we are in the thick of, this promise is encouraging – in much the same way, I suspect, as the way I take the fact that there are eight seasons of the Netflix series I’m watching as an unfailing promise that the main character will escape the peril in season 3. [Again, a Christian reader here may be inclined to think “eternal life would be long life.”]