Thoughts on Psalm 91

Caves throughout Palestine are big enough to shelter hundreds of troops. According to 1 Samuel, David and his Mighty Men used caves extensively to escape King Saul.

Caves throughout Palestine are big enough to shelter hundreds of troops. According to 1 Samuel, David and his Mighty Men used caves extensively to escape King Saul.

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.

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Bartimaeus: Persistance Pays!

bartBy Joe LaGuardia

As we make our way to All Saint’s Day, I have committed two articles to explore minor Bible characters that inspire us to grow closer to the Lord.  Last week I wrote about Titus. This week, we take a close look at Bartimaeus, the blind man whom Jesus healed according to Mark 10:46-52.

We begin with a statement for reflection: Let it not be said that when Jesus visits us, he leaves as quickly as he came without making a difference in our lives.

Persistence, courage, and passion–not a melancholy faith–are the ingredients for effective discipleship.

In Mark 10, scripture tells us that Jesus exited Jericho no sooner than he entered the city, another way of saying that he did not make much of a difference in the lives of people there.  He did, however, meet a blind man, Bartimaeus, on the roadside.

Mark’s concise artistry is telling: “They came to Jericho . . . he was leaving Jericho.  Bartimaeus was sitting on the roadside.”

Unlike the gospel of Luke, which informs us that Jesus had dinner with tax collector Zacchaeus while in Jericho (Luke 19:1); and unlike the gospel of Matthew, who mentions that Jesus ran into two unnamed blind men, Mark wants us to focus in on this peculiar individual.

It is Bartimaeus’s story that has lessons to teach us and shows the power of persistent faith in the face of all odds.

The first thing we notice about Bartimaeus is that he knew Jesus: he “shouted” out to Jesus and called him “Son of David.”

This is one of the few times Jesus is accredited with a royal title by a person in Mark’s gospel.  It speaks to Jesus’ growing influence, as well as Bartimaeus’ courage: It was not appropriate for a person on the margins or with a disability to approach a person of stature (rabbi or otherwise) without first being acknowledged by said Rabbi.

No wonder the disciples tried to silence Bartimaeus.  Even then, Bartimaeus did not give up in asking for a blessing: “Have mercy on me!”

There is something about Bartimaeus’s deep knowledge of Christ and his persistence that challenges our own search for God: Do we seek Christ’s face and mercy even in the face of steep odds, others who try to silence us, or situations that inhibit us from getting to Jesus?

Or do we let Jesus walk by without transforming us?

Bartimaeus’s persistence worked, and Jesus called him over.  The blind man threw off his cloak and “sprang up” to meet him.  He did not hesitate for a moment to come to Christ.

When Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he wanted, Bartimaeus bypassed mercy and expressed his deepest need, “Heal my sight!”  He did not mince words.

Too often, we hesitate to approach Jesus and tell him of our deepest needs.   We beat around the bush, stumble along, and ask Jesus what we need with half-hearted pleas common of mediocre faith.

This blind man risks everything in becoming vulnerable, exposing that which kept him outside of the city walls and beyond the reach of friends.

Jesus healed Bartimaeus and said that Bartimaeus’s faith was a factor in that miracle.  In other words, it was persistence, passion, and an unrelenting pursuit of Christ that made a difference.

But the story does not end there.  Bartimaeus “followed Jesus on the way.”

He could have easily entered Jericho, returned to family, or went to live a comfortable life in a city known for its bustling economy.  Instead, he followed Jesus without ever considering the destination, future, or outcome of that radical life of discipleship.

Although the historical accuracy surrounding this story is fraught with varying traditions among the gospel witnesses, Mark’s purpose is quite clear: He does not want us to be the type of people whom Jesus visits and leaves as quickly as he came without ever making a difference in our lives.

Mark wants us to follow Bartimaeus’s example by recognizing Jesus for who he is, being persistent in prayer and our relationship to Jesus, and following Jesus with unwavering faith.