God as refuge
Psalm 91.1-6, 9-16
[Published in Mennonite Weekly Review, 11/8/10]
Psalm 91 contains one of the Bible’s great affirmations of trust in God. Verse one gives us a powerful image that has echoed through the ages: you who live “in the shadow of the Almighty.” This “Almighty” is the psalmist’s “refuge and fortress” (91:2), one who “will deliver” (91:3) and whose “faithfulness is a shield and buckler” (91:4).
As a consequence of trusting in this trustworthy God, the believer “will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day” (91:6). God speaks directly: “Those who love me I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name” (91:14).
A dangerous Psalm?
These powerful words of hope and affirmation certainly provide encouragement for those who confess the Bible’s God as their God. However, might they not also be dangerous words?
Imagine the contrast between reciting this psalm as King Ahab of Israel and as prophet Elijah. Both of these leaders called upon the God of Israel as their God. However, their trust in God led to quite different ways of life (see 1 Kings 16–22). King Ahab’s god blessed Ahab’s ever-expanding power, his shaping Israel into a society that allowed at least some people to prosper greatly, and his close relationship with the nation’s religious leaders who supported his strong leadership. Elijah’s god challenged him to confront corruption in Israel and the movement away from central teachings of Torah. As a consequence of following the message he received from his god, Elijah faced harsh persecution and isolation from many of his fellow Israelites.
As with so many of the Bible’s teachings, the meaning of Psalm 91 varies according to the context in which we read it. The assurance of God’s protection provides powerful encouragement for those who hear God’s word as a call to challenge idolatry and injustice—and face at time painful consequences. On the other hand, as we see in the Bible itself (see the book of Amos) and in post-biblical times, assurance of their god’s “protection” can also encourage tyrants in their oppressions and wealthy church-goers in their apathy toward the plight of the poor and vulnerable.
Psalm 91 becomes dangerous when it is read as a blank check for wealth and power and separated from the radical call of Torah (and Jesus’ teaching) for justice for the oppressed.
How true are these promises?
Another challenge in relation to the message of Psalm 91 arises when we do read it as directed especially toward those who put their lives on the line for “justice’s (or righteousness’s) sake” (Matthew 5:10).
How literally are we meant to take these promises of deliverance and protection (not to mention “long life,” 91:16)? Many other parts of the Bible seem to indicate that those who follow God will suffer and possibly even die as a result of their faithfulness. For just one example, note the use of “faithful witness” throughout Revelation in a way that clearly equates with “faithful martyr” (the Greek word for “witness” is martys).
The Apostle Paul gives us some food for thought in relation to this question: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35, 37).
Reading Psalm 91 in light of Romans 8 challenges us to trust in God—not in the sense of an avoidance of suffering for justice’s sake but in the sense of affirming God’s presence even in this suffering.