By Joe LaGuardia
For preachers who use the lectionary, Psalm 91 is scheduled for the First Sunday of Lent in Year C. This article comes a bit early for that, and you may not find this until you research for that particular cycle, but I have some insights that may benefit you.
Many scholars argue that Psalm 91 is a hymn that pilgrims recited while entering the Temple in Jerusalem. One commentator, for instance, posits that pilgrims sang verses 1-13 while entering the gates of Jerusalem, only to have priests recite verses 14-16 back as a “response” that confirms God’s provision.
Several clues tip the scales in this theory’s favor: In v. 1, the language of “shelter” is synonymous with the Temple. “Pinions” and God’s “wings” might allude to the cherubim that decorated the top of the ark of the covenant, wings that–according to some OT visions–“shielded” God’s radiance and blinding brilliance from humanity’s view. Verse 10 mentions a tent, that which pilgrims used as they traveled from afar.
Satan recited parts of Psalm 91 when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:5-7). It was upon the “pinnacle of the Temple” where this temptation took place.
What if Psalm 91 was not a liturgy for Temple, but instead was a sort of battle hymn for soldiers heading to war? Perhaps the “refuge” and “pinions” did not refer to fixed objects of Temple, but to God’s ark and tabernacle that accompanied the wandering Israelites in battles over the Promised Land.
Surely, soldiers stayed in tents and took refuge–as David did throughout 1 Samuel–in caves, “secret places” (KJV, v. 1), and “fortresses.”
The mention of fallen soldiers, shields, and arrows also point to a violent, uncertain context in which this Psalm may have been recited. Perhaps it was a liturgy, not of parishioner and priest, but of soldier and commander, a battle march with the familiar 3+3 poetic cadence with which the Hebrews were familiar.
A uniquely divine hope certainly surfaces in the last section of the psalm (verses 14-16), as the poet sings God’s prayer back to us. Preachers who use various translations may want to pay close attention to v. 14: The NRSV reads, “Those who love me, I will deliver.” In attempting to keep things gender neutral and change the singular pronouns to plural, the translation misses the beautiful language that this verse evokes regarding our intimacy with God and God’s intimacy with us.
Better is the Revised Standard Version: “Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him.” Sure, its gender exclusive, but certainly you can take liberty with that in your sermon to get at this amazing language of abiding, cleaving, and seeking. It is where the psalm’s spiritual impact comes to a crescendo and climax.
Whether the psalter designed this psalm for worship at Temple or the battlefield, it became a comforting hymn that has spanned the life of God’s people in Palestine as well as Christ’s Church. Even Athanasius, one-time bishop in the early church, stated that Christians who wish to know confidence and make the mind fearless would do well to rehearse Psalm 91 as a part of their worship and liturgy to God.
Indeed, regardless of our garb–battle fatigues or clerical robes–we can all take comfort in God’s provision and presence with us as we abide with God in the shadow and care of His love.