1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
in the shadow of the All-Sufficient One, lie at night –
2 I say to YHWH, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For the One will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
4 The One will cover you with his pinions,
and under her wings you will find refuge;
her faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
9 Because you have made YHWH your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
11 For the One will command her angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
For the Word of God in Scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.
Natan Sharansky was a Jewish dissident held for nine years by the KGB. Sharansky’s sole possession in prison was a book of Psalms given to him by his wife. Though not particularly religious, he took to memorizing the Psalms, finding sympathetic voices of woe in its verses. He inhabited the Psalms and they inhabited him, becoming a source of comfort during those long years of imprisonment. In the words of Psalm scholar, Paul Anderson, “Their prayers of lament became his own and their hope of deliverance became a gleam of light in his cell.”
When Sharansky was finally released, he was taken to the airport to be paraded in front of the press. However, presumably as a final cruel joke, the guards had kept his book of Psalms. On realizing this, Sharansky collapsed in the snow and refused to move until it was returned. Not exactly the image the Russians wanted to present to the press, they decided to return the book.
On the plane, Sharansky kept a promise he had made to himself: to recite Psalm 30 as a first act of freedom:
I extol You, O Lord,
for you have lifted me up,
and not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O Lord, my God,
I cried out to You,
and You healed me.
O Lord, You brought me up from Sheol,
preserved me from going down into the Pit.
It is a powerful story, a story of courage and perseverance and, finally, salvation, but there is a problem here. It is unlikely that Natan Sharansky was the first imprisoned Jew to recite the Psalms. Yet six million were killed in Germany and Poland and Russia, by firing squad and gas chamber. They were torn from their homes, men, women, and children, and they were enslaved and they were killed. Among them, there are probably plenty of stories of courage and perseverance, but relatively few of salvation.
It’s easy to read Psalm 91 as a tale of God, our magical friend. The diseases that ravage the earth will not touch us. God will act as a shield for our enemies’ arrows. We can fight lions and poisonous snakes without consequence. We won’t even stub our toes on rocky ground. No evil will befall us at all. It is hard to say this because I know many do not want to hear it: it’s not true. We will get sick. We will stub our toes and twist our ankles. We should definitely not try to fight lions and poisonous snakes. It will end badly. Evil befalls us all, no matter how much we pray or sing to God. I have never been attacked by an army, but have I have felt the sting of insult and the fear of rejection. I have never been imprisoned, but I have felt desperate isolation. But I was born with a dark turn of mind. I can take the sunshine and cover it with rain. And I will like it that way. When things go badly, when the good that I long for, that I have imagined in my head, turns out not to be, it is a quick trip down a shadowy path. The negativity reinforces itself, spirals back on itself. I can no longer see the good in anything. I just want to stop. I just need a rest. Psalm 91 is that rest.
Psalm 91 is not a simple explanation that God can be trusted. No, God is a mother bird that shelters us under her wings. God is a shield that protects us from the arrows that fly at us by day. Poetry is hyperbole. The emotion is amped up, all human sorrow and joy is distilled, concentrated. Maybe I’m just having a bad day, but the Psalms take that frustration, that anger, that sorrow and they raise the stakes. They elevate our concerns into matters of the cosmic battle between good and evil. They take all that and lay it at the feet of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last work, completed while in prison for attempting to assassinate Adolph Hitler, was a book on the Psalms. The question that drove Bonhoeffer’s inquiry was, “How … can these prayers to God be, at the same time, God’s word to the people?” What is it that God is saying to us in our words to God? It’s a curious question. It reflects back on itself. In speaking to God, how does God speak to us?
Does anyone read the Psalms? What is your experience?
What are the angels doing here? It’s more than just a message.
Who is speaking here?
Where do you feel safe? What do you do with that safety?
What is God’s name?
The mystics speak of demons that whisper evil thoughts to us. Those voices incite us to sadness and anger, to gluttony and lust. But their real goal is to distract us from the voice of God. The purgation the mystics undergo on their path to union with God is intended to quiet those voices, to remove the fear of knowing God. There is a spark of the divine in each of us, the image of God. That image hears God calling to it and desperately wants to respond if we can just get out of the way. This is a somewhat banal illustration, but I used to be an active person. I used to mountain bike a lot. Occasionally, I wrecked. But most of my wrecks happened when I was scared. When I approached a trail with confidence, no matter how steep it was or how rocky, I came through. When I was scared and tentative and distracted by all the forces arrayed against me, I was guaranteed to fail. This is how the demons work on us. They sing songs to us, songs of failure and misery.
But when we rest in the secret place of the Most High, we see the world as God sees it. We peek out from that rocky outcrop from between God’s wings and we see a world filled, not with enemies but with friends, not with pestilence but with vitality, not with lions but with lambs. In speaking from the spark of God within, I hear the call of God from without. When I answer that call, I am transformed.
Prayer transforms us. It makes us into the sort of people that remain hopeful in dire circumstances, the sort of people who remain courageous in the face of unlikely odds. Natan Sharansky’s freedom was not affected by God. At least, not in the sense that God changed someone’s mind and made them release him. It was brought about by shifts in world politics, wherein the Soviet Union had more to gain by publicly releasing him than keeping him in prison. Nevertheless, Natan Sharansky may not have made it that far without the Psalms. There are lots of ways to meet one’s end in prison and he could have found them at any time. But in rehearsing the pain and joy of these ancient songs, he found strength to continue on. He found hope. For at least the brief moment of speaking that Psalm, he was no longer in a Russian prison. For that brief moment, he found the secret place of the Most High. He rested in the shadow of Shaddai, the All-Sufficient One. In that place, he was nourished by the word of God. He made YHWH, the One Who Is, his refuge. In peeking out from behind God’s wings, Natan Sharansky saw salvation.
And, though we are not in a Russian prison, we too can find rest in the secret place of God. In Psalm 91, we have a prayer of trust. In prayer, we can quiet the fears that make us see enemies and disease at every turn, wild beasts waiting to devour us. Those things may be out there. But from behind the wings of God, we need not react in fear. Instead, we can see the world as God sees it. When confronted with disease, we can bring comfort. When assailed by enemies, we can be peacemakers. God gives us strength and confidence because we know God’s name. And, like Jesus, Jesu, Yeshuah, Our Rescuer, we can show the world salvation.