Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

It is not surprising that Psalm 91 is often read, frequently set to music, and much-loved.

Storm Over Lake Otsego
Storm Over Lake Otsego, by John Steuart Curry, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source:

October 18, 2015

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Commentary on Psalm 91:9-16

It is not surprising that Psalm 91 is often read, frequently set to music, and much-loved.

It offers the reader a straightforward and thorough expression of trust in the providence and protection of God, even and especially under trying or dangerous conditions, and does so using as rich and powerful a set of images as are found anywhere in the Bible. Most readers will have little difficulty apprehending and appreciating the gist of the text. Accordingly, the task of the interpreter of this psalm is not so much one of explanation as it is one of appreciation and application. Exposition should seek to lead the congregation to a deeper understanding of the evident good news offered in the text, and to help them steer clear of pitfalls that may, ironically, trap the reader even as the text celebrates the Lord’s protection against such snares.

In aid of the first part of the task, the interpreter might note the following:

  • The reading as set forth in the Revised Common Lectionary includes the essential thrust of the opening movement of the psalm, with verses 9-10 serving as something of a summary of verses 1-8: Those who take refuge in the Lord are protected from evil. However, the omission of these opening verses robs the reader and the preacher of a wealth of imagery that far better illustrates the breadth, power, and above all, the tenderness of this protective care. For example, the image of the faithful being sheltered under God’s wings (verse 4) displays the warm, parental side of God’s defense of the people, and also offers a wide range of connections to other texts, including Ruth 2:12, Psalm 57:1, and Matthew 23:37/Luke 13:34, that employ the same image.
  • Verses 14-16 move beyond the description of God’s care by the psalmist and report God’s own words, which validate the psalmist’s claims. It may be worthwhile to emphasize here that God promises deliverance, protection, answering, presence, honor, and salvation without any mention of prerequisites or merit, only specifying that those who know, love, and call upon God will receive these blessings.

The second part of the interpreter’s task, that of application, may, in the case of this psalm, partake more of warning against misapprehension than anything else. To wit:

  • The psalm’s buoyant celebration of God’s protection certainly intends to instill confidence in the hearers. However, it is crucial that this confidence not be misplaced. As illustrated by the use of verses 11 and 12 by Satan in the story of Jesus’s temptation (Matthew 4:5-7, Luke 4:10-11), it is a very small step from confidence that God’s protection is extended under all conditions to confidence that God’s protection can be forced to operate at our beck and call. Jesus’s response in the gospels offers a sound principle for drawing the line: trust in God is not a license to test God. Put another way, our confidence in God’s protection does not give us license to assume God’s endorsement and support of our willfulness or reckless behavior.
  • Related to this misplaced confidence, and perhaps even more dangerous in the long run, is a reading of the psalm that concludes that God’s protection will prevent any and all discomfort or misfortune from affecting God’s own, and that therefore the experience of misery and trouble in life must indicate that the sufferer is not, in fact, among God’s people. Against such misunderstanding the interpreter might note the overwhelming testimony of the Psalter as a whole, in which God’s people over and over again call out to God while suffering, and also might note that God’s validating speech in verses 14-16 specifically describes God’s actions for his people when they are calling out, “in trouble,” and in need of rescue. Such would hardly be the case if God’s people are never to be in those situations! The promise of the psalm is not that we will never suffer, but that trouble and trial will not conquer, and will not make an end of us.
  • Less pernicious, but still to be guarded against, is possible overemphasis on the angels mentioned in verse 11. This passage, among others, has sometimes been cited in the development of elaborate hypothetical systems whereby individual angels are assigned guardianship of individual believers. In the current text, there is simply no such implication to be drawn. The angels mentioned here (always in the plural) are simply the heavenly host, the unseen agents of God’s power, through whom the text envisions God exercising the defense of God’s people. The chief value of the image is to demonstrate that however numerous the threats and challenges around us might be, our protection is not outnumbered or overmatched.
  • Finally, the promise of verse 16, “with long life I will satisfy them,” must be handled carefully. We know, all too well, that God’s people do not always enjoy a long life as we reckon such things. In particular, those who are bereaved, and especially those who have seen a loved one die young, may find this claim difficult to credit. The interpreter should emphasize the parallel promise to “show them my salvation,” and remind the congregation that for God’s people, the span of days spent on earth is only a sliver of the life that is guaranteed by God’s saving providence.