A Summer in the Psalms
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
~ Psalm 91:1-4 ~
I suspect that after the 23rd Psalm, Psalm 91 is the next best-known and best-loved Psalm of them all. This is a Psalm that the church has traditionally prayed every single day. Eastern Christians pray it at noon because of the spiritual threat that it describes as stalking us at midday (v. 6), and Western Christians have prayed it at night because of the reference to the “pestilence” that dwells in the darkness, the “terror at night” (v. 5). There is evidence that our spiritual mothers and fathers, the Jews, used Psalm 91 as part of the exorcism rituals. It was regarded as a prayer for protection in a universe that was “crowded” with principalities and powers, both seen and unseen (Ephesians 6:10-17). This may explain why the adversary quoted it to Jesus during the temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of His public ministry (Matthew 4:5-7; Luke 4:9-12).
When I was a young Christian, I regularly prayed Psalm 91. It was my standard answering prayer to my fears and anxieties, and it gave me real strength. I have felt myself sheltered under the spread of God’s protective wings. I have felt myself lifted up and carried out of danger by the agency of God’s personal knowledge of me and His great care for me. “On Eagle’s Wings” – a hymn based on Psalm 91 – was sung at both my mother’s and my father’s funerals because it was the word of God’s promise that my sisters and I needed to hear the most at those particular moments. I know Psalm 91 intimately, and I love it deeply.
But, for all of the strength and comfort that Psalm 91 has provided me through the years, I must also admit that it has also confused me at times, and that it has left me feeling terribly uneasy at other times. You see, the promises that Psalm 91 makes are just so extravagant, and when I hear people invoking them magically, believing that they are somehow a Divine guarantee that they will never be touched by tragedy, suffering or loss, I can’t help but fear that they are setting themselves up for a great big spiritual fall, a devastating and unnecessary crisis of faith, and that sooner or later God is going to be getting the blame for failing them, when in fact, He hasn’t, and He doesn’t. You see, as precious as Psalm 91 is to us, it can be just as big a problem if we aren’t clear in our understanding and expectation of what it is promising us.
In 1980, in my very first year out of seminary, I read Gustaf Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Church (The Muhlenberg Press – 1960). I have since read longer, even better systematic theologies (Calvin’s Institutes and Bavinck’s Dogmatics come quickly to mind), but I can honestly say that this volume has been the most defining systematic theology for my personal faith. It put some foundational pieces for my life and ministry into place that are still firmly planted now some 33 years later. And one of those firmly positioned and unmovable boulders in my spiritual foundation is what Gustaf Aulen identified as “the prayer of militant faith” (356-360). Because the kingdom has not yet fully come, and God’s will is not yet being done on earth as it is in heaven, we must be very careful to avoid what Gustaf Aulen described as “the unwarranted anticipation of the ‘church triumphant,‘” the conflict between the world as it is and the world as God intends it to be, and is right now in the process of bringing about, being “swallowed up by victory prematurely” (358). Among other things, this means that not everything that happens to us is going to automatically be expressive of God’s purpose for us. As Christians we get no exemption from the fall. We are still broken people who have to live in a broken world, and this means that brokenness is still going to characterize our existence until the project of God’s healing is complete, which I understand to be the meaning of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Until that day when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our God, and of His Christ (Revelation 11:15), we are going to have to live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet,” between the promises that God has made to us and their fulfillment which is still in the process of unfolding. This includes the promises that Psalm 91 makes.
I don’t find the perfect fulfillment of what Psalm 91 promises until I get to the new heavens and the new earth of Revelation 21 (and its parallels in places like Isaiah 65:17-25). To act as if that cosmic “then” is my personal “now” is to be guilty of what Gustaf Aulen called “the unwarranted anticipation of the church triumphant.” But just because all of that is “not yet” doesn’t mean that there aren’t elements of it that are “already.” There are episodes of the literal fulfillment of the kinds of things that Psalm 91 promises in our lives and in the lives of the faithful in all generations. Their perfect fulfillment is yet to come, but that’s not to say that we don’t have occasional, partial and temporary experiences of their fulfillment right here and now. These are what we call miracles, signs and wonders, and they happen, they really do, albeit neither as often nor as permanently as we would like. But every time they do, they are a reminder of the day that’s coming for us all and a renewal of the promises that have been made to us. And until that day of final fulfillment, our present experience of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit – the “comforter,” the “counselor,” the “helper,” the “advocate” – is the “earnest,” God’s down payment that guarantees that everything God has promised to us is going to find fulfillment eventually. And this means that while the full and final literal fulfillment of everything that Psalm 91 promises us is still out there somewhere in the future, that nevertheless, right here and right now, they are being spiritually fulfilled. I think that this is what Paul meant when he told the Romans – “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (8:18), and the Corinthians – “Therefore we do not lose heart, even though the outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day, and our momentary light afflictions are producing in us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison and so we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are not seen, for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). This is what Jesus meant when in Luke 21 when He told His disciples that some of them would be put to death for His sake, but that not a hair on their heads would perish (vs. 18-19). As a cancer patient once told me, “this disease may very well kill me, but it is not going to destroy me!”
And so, with all of this in mind, how do I pray Psalm 91?
Well, to start with, I pray it. That’s the first and perhaps most important thing to be said. I always seek God’s presence and protection. Many mornings begin with me praying an Order for Morning Prayer that includes the specific petition: “Defend us from all dangers and adversities; and be graciously pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under Thy Fatherly care and protection.” I love the cadence of those words, and their intention. I understand that every single day both I “and all who are dear” to me will be facing unknown “dangers and adversities,” and so I unabashedly begin every day by asking for God’s “Fatherly care and protection.” I am not strong enough or brave enough to get out of bed in the morning without such assurance. I regard this request to be part and parcel of what Jesus told us to pray for as His disciples. “Lead us not into temptation” (maybe “testing” is a better translation), Jesus taught us to pray, “but deliver us from evil.” That’s got a Psalm 91 ring to it. And so I pray it, and I trust it. I put myself and all those who are dear to me under the shadow of God’s wings. As Dr. John Stewart, my professor of Old Testament at Brite used to say, “If we can’t trust God with our material needs, then why should we trust Him with our spiritual needs; If he can’t take care of our bodies, what makes us think that He can take care of our souls?” And so I pray the promises of Psalm 91 for myself and my loved ones, and I trust that God hears my requests for safety and security. My extraordinarily “blessed” life is a testimony to God’s faithfulness to me and mine. I can point to moments in my life when I have felt God’s guiding hand and His sheltering cover. Who knows what trouble I’ve been shielded from because of God’s watchful care? But even as I write these words, I know that when the trouble has found me that God’s presence in my life has not been in doubt and that His sustaining care of me has not failed.
Roger Olson down at Baylor’s Truett Seminary recently probed God’s will and prayer in a blog he wrote about healing (www.patheos.com). While the specifics of that blog are different, we’re thinking about protection and not healing here, it seems to me that the dynamics are exactly the same –
The Bible encourages confident prayer, not weak praying that lacks confidence in God’s desire to heal, to provide and to save. So long as petitionary prayer is prayed with understanding of God’s superior wisdom and sovereignty, attaching “if it be thy will” doesn’t, in my opinion, serve any purpose when the prayer is for something God has revealed to be his will. That something is revealed to be God’s general will doesn’t necessarily mean he will do it in every case when prayer is offered for it. Only God knows the total circumstances and whether something is possible even for him. (I’m not talking about his power here; I’m talking about his plans and purposes.) Generally speaking, in Scripture, healing of bodies is God’s will. But we are told that total healing is eschatological. Nevertheless, the apostles’ prayers and Jesus’ prayers for others’ healings do not normally come with the caveat attached.
When I pray for someone’s healing, especially if the person is suffering, I do not say “if it be thy will.” I understand that God doesn’t always heal in response even to powerful, confident prayer. God knows best; we simply have to rest in that at times. But Scripture models confident praying for healing. I would never presume to command God to heal a person (as some “faith healing evangelists” do). But to ask God please to heal someone is, I judge, thoroughly biblical. Adding “if it be thy will” implies that we’re not confident God wants to heal. Jesus always wanted to heal people, especially when they were suffering. Jesus is the revelation of the character of God. God’s character is that he wants to heal people. When he doesn’t, when we have prayed powerful, confident prayers on their behalf, we simply leave it in God’s hands and believe that God (has a good reason why) he couldn’t heal the person.
I know many people recoil at the word “couldn’t” in such a sentence. Can’t God simply do whatever he wants to do? Well, yes, if we mean “has the power to.” But, I believe, in his wisdom, God, and sometimes only God, knows why it would not be best to heal someone or answer another prayer that accords with his general character and desires for people. The apostle Paul reports that God simply said “no” in answer to his prayer for healing. Does that falsify everything I’m saying here? I don’t think so. We should always be prepared to accept a clear “no” from God. But to anticipate God’s “no” is, I think, wrong. James says that “the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man [person] avails much.” He also says “the prayer of faith shall save the sick and the Lord shall raise him up.” My point is that petitionary prayer, in Scripture, is said to change things, not just the person praying, and that anticipating a “no” when we pray is likely to reduce the power of the prayer. Saying “if it be thy will” does not seem consistent with the clear Scriptural instructions about praying. But I also know that there are no guarantees that God will, for example, heal. We have to live in the tension of powerful, fervent, confident prayer (for things God has revealed wants to do and give) and the lack of response to the prayer as it was prayed.
In line with this point of view, Daryl Witmer (http://christiananswers.net) explains that he reads the promises of Psalm 91 as a “a testimony of what God has chosen to do on occasion in the past, an assurance of what God is altogether able to do today, and a beautiful literary portrait of His awesome omnipotent capability for the future.” And when he appropriates Psalm 91 as a part of His own prayer life, he prefaces its promises “with a little qualifying phrase that is, I believe, clearly implied by the rest of Scripture and a common sense knowledge of life.”
Except that You in Your love and wisdom allow something to the contrary to occur for the ultimate good… God deliver me from the snare of the trapper, and from the deadly pestilence.
Except that You in Your love and wisdom allow it for the ultimate good… God, may a thousand fall at my side, and ten thousand at my right hand; but do not let it approach me.
Except that You in Your love and wisdom allow it for the ultimate good… God let no evil befall me, nor any plague come near my tent.
And it’s in that little nod to God’s “ultimate” purposes that the promises of Psalm 91 finally make sense. Everything that Psalm 91 promises us is sure; it’s just that we aren’t in full possession of all those promises yet. Ultimately – when the dust of life finally settles – we’re going to be able to clearly see how God has kept His word of promise to us. But for now we can only see through that glass dimly, and that means we’ve got to learn how to wait and trust.
“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”