Psalm 91: Upheld by God
Mar 06, 2022
First Sunday in Lent
Text: Psalm 91:1-2 and 9-16
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
We are beginning five weeks on the Psalms; I’m unsure if I should be pleased about that or perturbed. No doubt I’ll have a better idea which one is the case in about three weeks. However, since I’m the one who chose the sermon focus, I guess I cannot complain. So, let’s begin by considering what Psalm, or verses of Psalms, you have committed to memory.
The only Psalm I can recite completely is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd….” However, verses of Psalms are probably known to many of us.: “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118: 24) “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2) “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1) “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
Let’s pause for a moment to think of others that you may know. As a Lent discipline, you might consider committing a verse or two of various psalms to memory. Doing so will put us in line with the intent of the Book of Psalms since it was the hymnbook of ancient Israel. The psalms were sung, not read, so that they would penetrate the hearts and minds of the faithful as only music can do. Did you ever notice how much easier it is to memorize something – like the books of the New Testament or States in the Union – when the list is put to music?
The Psalms were written in Hebrew and used in worship by the people of Israel, and then eventually by Jesus and the early Christians. In medieval times, the Psalms were the most familiar part of the Bible for most Christians, probably because the faithful remembered what they sang repeatedly, but could not read.
It is absolutely astounding, I think, that we continue to use these songs (or poems) that were written over centuries, mostly between the years of 1000 to 450 BCE. Remember, the Psalms came to our ancestors in ancient Hebrew, and were eventually translated into Greek, Latin, Coptic and modern languages, so the English versions are imperfect at best. No doubt our friends at Temple Israel, who use Hebrew in worship, could give us a better understanding of the original sound and meaning of the Psalms.
With all that in mind, and more background on the Psalms yet to come in future weeks, let’s take a look at today’s offering, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16.
There’s an Israeli scholar who writes that Psalm 91 is an “amulet psalm” which is the term that developed in both early Jewish and Christian communities of placing bits of Psalm 91 in amulets so that the wearer would feel God’s nearness and be reminded of God’s care in times of trouble. (1) That explanation probably puts that tradition in the “best light”; no doubt there was some superstition involved, as if wearing the psalm would provide a supernatural protective covering.
That “hocus-pocus” happened because of the Psalm’s bold language: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, no evil will befall you, no shall affliction come near your dwelling.” (vs.9-10) That’s the negative side of this psalm – when it is viewed as an iron-clad guarantee, as if being a faithful follower of God will give people an automatic pass in all of life.
The positive side of this psalm is when the psalmist is viewed as proclaiming that we can rely on God; we can have confidence that God wants what is best for us.
So, let’s look at the negative side first. We all know that everyone, including the faithful, encounter danger and difficulty. But, the Psalmist makes it sound, writes commentator Scott Hoezee, as if you could get drafted to fight in a war, and the Lord himself would be your flak jacket. Yet, we all know of a Christian person who went to war and came home draped in a flag. As he says, “If becoming a believer provided insulation from every danger in the world, millions would flock to churches first thing tomorrow morning. (2) So, how do we make sense of this Psalm?
To answer that question, let’s switch for a moment to the Gospel lesson in which Jesus, having just been baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, is led into the wilderness where, for 40 days, he is tempted by “the devil” (or Satan, or the power of evil). In the third temptation, Satan took Jesus to Jerusalem and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple and taunted him. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,” then the Power of Evil refers to Psalm 91, “God will give the angels charge over you, to guard you in all your ways. Upon your hands they will lift you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” (vs. 11-12)
Jesus’ response is that he will not test God, a reminder that the promises in the Bible should not be the basis for dares, and especially not a way to challenge God to come through for us. Or, to put it another way, the promises in Psalm 91, as one example, are not to be “tested”, with the end result being that if things go wrong it indicates that either your faith or God’s power is lacking.
Instead, let’s now move to a positive way to view the Psalm, which is summed up well by Scott Hoezee:
“What Psalm 91 does say is that no matter what happens, if God is your bottom line, your refuge, the place you most want to be, then there are several wonderful things that can never change. First, God loves you and wants you to flourish. God does not wish harm on any of his children. Whatever else Psalm 91 says, it lets you know that if you make God your refuge, you can be assured God will receive you. When you run to embrace God, he is going to hug you back, not slap you in the face! No, God is for us. God is with us. God wants the best for us and will deliver that once and for all one day.” (3)
We need this message of hope. The people of Ukraine need this message of hope. And, the Russians need this message of hope too. God will not ultimately allow suffering and death to separate us from God’s love and care.
At the end of each sermon in Lent, I’m going to quote a verse from the Psalm, and then have you join me in quoting it. That’s your “memory verse”, although I cannot promise that you’ll get a special pin if you remember them all, as might have been the case in Sunday School years ago. No, the idea is for you to begin to build a library of verses that you can access, especially in challenging times.
Look with me at verse 14: God says: “I will deliver those who cling to me; I will uphold them, because they know my name.” Now, let say it together: God says, “I will deliver those who cling to me; I will uphold them, because they know my name.” AMEN
(1)“Commentary on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16” by Amanda Benckhuysen, www.workingpreacher.org
(2)“Sermon Commentary, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16” by Scott Hoezee, March 6,2022, www.cepreacher.org
(3)Same as #3