Commentary on Psalm 91:9-16
The psalm text for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost is the “promise” section of the famous Eagles’ Wing poem, Psalm 91.
The concrete, particular promises that this ancient liturgy proclaims provides a perfect opportunity for the preacher to reflect on the nature and quality of God’s promises and then to proclaim these promises anew.
Making God One’s “Refuge”
In a section that the lectionary committee opted not to assign, the psalm begins with an invitation for the one (the Hebrew uses masculine, singular forms throughout the psalms, which the NRSV pluralizes to “those” for the sake of gender inclusivity) who lives “in the shelter of the Most High” to “say to the Lord, ‘My refuge (shm) and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust'” (verses 1a, 2).
The psalm’s opening invitation is relevant to the week’s lectionary selection because it sets up the concluding cascade of promises with which the psalm baptizes the believer. Verse 9 of the psalm continues, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge (shm)….” The basis for the promises that ensue is the relationship that the psalm’s liturgy establishes (or reestablishes or reaffirms?) as existing between the worshiper and God–God is the one in whom the psalmist takes refuge.
The key word here is “refuge.” This little word may well slip past today’s casual reader or worshiper, but for the ancient psalmist, the word packed a powerful theological punch. In fact, Jerome Creach has argued that the word “is a filter through which the Psalter in its entirety can be viewed theologically.”1 In Creach’s view, if you want one handle by which to grasp the Psalter’s witness regarding the human-divine relationship, the concept of “refuge” is about the best place to start.
What this term signifies is that the relationship between God and humanity is one of dependence. Believers are those who seek shelter, refuge, and protection in God (and by logical extension, who do not seek shelter, refuge, or protection in the idols that we normally chase after). According to Creach, closely related to the concept of refuge is the concept of trust, confidence, and reliance.2 In other words, to turn to God as refuge is both to seek protection (forgiveness, blessing, hope, etc.) in God–and it is also to trust in God, to have faith that God will come through.
This is, after all, what much of the life of faith comes down to−putting one’s life in God’s hands and struggling to trust in and rely on God.
The Promises of God
But there is another aspect to the relationship–the aspect of promise. The concept of refuge is not simply about our trust in God. More significantly, it is about the promises that God’s makes to us, which is why the psalm culminates with such a soaring section of promise. According to the psalm, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge,” there are promises for you. Promises such as: “No evil shall befall you” (verse 10). And “he will command his angels…to guard you in all your ways” (verse 11). And “those who love me (better would be: The one who clings to me), I will deliver” (verse 14). And “when they call on me, I will answer them” (verse 15).
Such promises are, to the poet of Psalm 91, too marvelous, and not just in the sense that such promises are undeserved but also in the sense that–if left unqualified–such promises are untrue. As Leslie Weatherhead commented about the blanket assurance of Psalm 91, “men and women, it just is not true.”3 This leads to several reflections on the nature of biblical promises and the task of proclaiming these ancient promises to generations yet unborn.
1. The nature of a promise is that it is a relational commitment from one being to another. For a promise to be true, the one making the promise must have both the ability and the commitment to make good on the promise. If one promises something that one cannot deliver, or has no intention of delivering, then the promise is not and cannot be true. But when one has both the ability and commitment to fulfill a promise, a relational bond is formed.
2. Promises are true only in context. For a promise to be true, the promise cannot be dislocated in a willy-nilly fashion from the promising one’s context. Note the obvious contradiction in the following example: A parent promises a child on a Saturday, “I will take you to the park today.” The following Wednesday, the child says to the parent, “You said, ‘I will take you to the park today.’–so let’s go.” The promise, in the way the child is claiming it, is not true. Indeed, the very fact that the promises of Psalm 91:11 find themselves on the lips of Satan in Luke 4:10, shows rather definitively that promises that may be true in one context can be patently untrue in another context.
3. When a person acts in an intermediary role, speaking a promise on behalf of another being, the intermediary bears the crucial burden of proclaiming only promises that the “sender” has both the ability and commitment to keep. In its original context, the promises of Psalm 91 were most likely spoken by a priestly figure to an individual worshiper (perhaps a king or some other communal leader). In turn, today’s preachers make promises on behalf of God. When preachers proclaim words that God has no intention of keeping, the preacher lies not just for her or himself, but for God. In my own view, for example, if a preacher promises that God will grant “health, wealth, and success” to worshipers who “give their best to God”–I do not believe that God has any intention to keep such promises. Thus, in my view, such promises are worthless.
4. Thus, the task of proclaiming the promises of Psalm 91 (or of any biblical text) is the task of considering the promises in their ancient context and discerning what aspect of those promises can be spoken to believers today. Without doubt, the promises of Psalm 91:9-16 cannot be spoken universally, without qualification. The broader witness of the psalms, of scripture, and of Christian experience teach that God’s disciples bear no special immunity to evil. In fact, Christ’s disciples are called to suffer with the world and to pick up their crosses and tread in Christ’s footsteps. And yet, the psalms, the scriptures, and the church maintain that “the promises of the Lord are promises that are pure” (12:6).
The task of the preacher, then, is to be like the scribe trained for God’s kingdom who pulls out of the biblical treasure what is old and what is new.
1Yahweh as Refuge and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (JSOTSupp 217; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), p. 51 n 6.
2See Creach, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice, 2008), pp. 23-25.
3Leslie D. Weatherhead, Key Next Door (Nashville: Abingdon, 1960) 103.