Commentary on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Whoever dwells in the shelter of protection can find rest and comfort.
In reflecting on the Psalmist’s poetic metaphor, I wondered about the people of the earth who have never sat down on the dusty ground within a naturally occurring rock shelter, found refuge in a cave or rock overhang from a thunderstorm, or walked through the gates of a human-made fortress of stone meant to protect them from enemies both unseen and seen, unknown and known. I have had these experiences, but I suspect most have not. I would venture a guess that most people on the planet are currently less connected with the natural environment and more connected with urban landscape environments or virtual world realities.
For an increasingly urban population, the shelter metaphor works for some, but would seem a bit unrecognizable by a large number of others. Maybe the image of a home — however it is defined — could work.
However, many of the homes I have lived in or visited on the earth provide only a modicum of shelter from the elements and don’t promote a sense that they could withstand a hurricane, earthquake, or preserve someone from harm. They are easily broken into by thieves and enemies, twisted and torn by tornados, blown or washed away by hurricanes and floods, and burned to the ground by electrical wiring problems, fireplace sparks, or natural causes such as lightning. The idea of a home as a fortress of strength is weak in my estimation. If it cannot protect against naturally occurring or human-made threats, then it could not serve as an apt metaphor for the activity of God.
For the people living in the Middle East the idea of rocky outcroppings providing shelter from the hot sun or enemies would have been well known. Yet unlike a rock shelter or fortress that can be overrun with a degree of effort, the Psalmist declares that God cannot be overtaken by anything we may encounter that threatens our life or the lives of those whom we love. The notion of God as a protective refuge provides a mental image that coalesces well with the idea of a rock shelter or fortress.
God as refuge
The psalmist may have been hoping to convey something about how the life of faith works. Regarding the LORD as your personal refuge is a decision to place your habitation — your life itself — in a place that cannot be broken by the stresses and strains of life. Yet the psalmist’s poetic flourish after the midway point of the reading seems a bit off.
No harm or disaster will befall you, angels will guard you and your ways, you will be protected from things that would threaten to undo you, and furthermore you will be able to thwart the threatening possibilities that arise in the natural environment. This section of the Psalm is that which we hear in the New Testament — Matthew 4:6 and Luke 4:10 quoted by the devil to Jesus. There, as well as here, it seems that the issue isn’t so much the physical, but the faithful dimension of human experience.
God’s love is found in relationship. God’s protection is discovered in relationship. God has a commitment to people who are in relationship with God. Prayer to God is a means for calling on God and God will provide an answer. However, there is no assurance that the answer will be yes. It may be no. And we will then need to trust that God knows better than us the effects of the yes and no answers.
I think in part the psalmist is affirming that God will be with people in trouble, but may not make the trouble go away. God will deliver and honor those in relationship and will provide a means through the trouble. God will satisfy the faithful with life abundant and grant salvation.
Where is God?
One of the curious things about the Psalms is that there is often a declaration to the effect that if one is trusts God then no harm will come to them. Unfortunately, experience teaches something quite different. People of faith do get cancer, heart disease, heart attacks, and die from any number of diseases. People of faith are crushed in spirit by acrid verbal attacks, broken in body and mind by physical and emotional abuse, and find themselves in a hospital or die as a result of all forms of violence. People who do trust in God are acquainted with poverty, lack of food and clothing, and experience starvation. So is the Psalmist correct here? What shall we make of such an assertion?
When I was involved with professional ministry I regularly encountered people who claimed that if you had enough faith then no harm would befall you. But they too experienced all of the maladies and brokenness known to humankind. The theological ideology didn’t preserve them from harm. So what is the psalmist’s claim about?
If we look at the text from the vantage point of poetics then perhaps the murky water becomes a bit clearer. Maybe the declaration isn’t as much about a personal “you” and “him” but is a reference to a plural “you.” Calling people to commitment is a common refrain in the Psalms. The people of Israel had a propensity — like people in all ages — to become sidetracked, distracted, and distorted in their faithful following of God.
Committing corporate life to God is a greater calling than a solely personal one. Viewing God’s comments as plural rather than singular suggests that God’s love is for the people and God wants to rescue, protect, deliver, honor, and satisfy those who love God. There is a relationship at stake here. It isn’t simply a matter of me being right with God. It is a matter of us being right with God. The Psalmist pushes us to push out the boundaries and discover something about the refuge of God that can cover more than one. It can cover everyone.
The refuge that is found in God alone will sustain people even if the body is destroyed. This refuge will provide rescue from those things that would harm our relationship with God. The refuge is precisely that. It is a refuge of solace that can provide an inner strength to endure the harshest trials of life. In that sense, God’s presence is a refuge. Since God is ever present in all circumstances of every waking and sleeping moment, then there is a refuge that one can experience in the here and now, and in the future yet to unfold. God is our rock shelter of hope.