The Refuge of the Righteous

June 12, 2011

Psalm 91
I usual don’t have much time for anonymous notes but I will make an exception this time. Unlike the first five psalms we looked at we don’t really know who wrote Psalm 91. There are a couple of different opinions but we don’t know for sure. In the first five Psalms in this series it said in the introduction “A Psalm of David” and some were even more specific, telling us who the Psalm was written for and what the circumstances were surrounding the Psalm.
But not here, nary a clue. Some Jewish scholars take the view that if a Psalm is unnamed then the author should be presumed to be the last named author, in this case we would go back to Psalm 90 where we read “A prayer of Moses, the man of God” And if that is the case then this Psalm is about 400 years older than the Psalms written by David and Solomon. It would also put a different slant on the Psalm, because instead of being written after Israel had become a nation and was establishing herself on the international playing field it would have been written during the time when Moses was leading the people through the wilderness after having escaped the slavery of Egypt. Perspective truly is a wonderful thing.
And seeing how the Jews had this Psalm first let’s look at it from the perspective that Moses indeed wrote these words.
So you know the story, Joseph one of Abraham’s great grandchildren is sold into slavery by his brothers for being annoying, although I don’t think I was annoying I’m sure there were times that my sister would have willingly sold me into slavery. So Joseph ends up in Egypt as a slave and after a series of interconnected events ends up as Pharaoh’s top advisor. It is in that capacity that he is able to provide a haven for his parents and siblings and families when a drought and famine strikes their home in Canaan. They come to Egypt, settle down and become productive members of Egyptian society, this is all recorded in the book of Genesis. And it’s amazing how fast a dozen people and their households can multiply, maybe not that amazing when you do the math. Eventually the Israelites had become a sizeable minority in Egypt and if we fast forward ahead 400 years or so and skip into the book of Exodus and we read Exodus 1:8 Eventually, a new king came to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph or what he had done.
And it was under this new King, or Pharaoh that persecution broke out against the Israelites, their property was taken away and they were forced into slavery. And after a period of time God rose up a champion named Moses who challenged Pharaoh with the words “let my people go.” Of course the answer was “no”, a series of plagues ensued and eventually the Jews were granted their freedom, only to have the Egyptian army pursue them, the Red Sea parts before them allowing them to escape and drowns the pursuing Egyptian army.
That was the condensed version. The trip could have been relatively quick however because of the people’s unbelief it ended up being a 40 year adventure. That was the condensed version, but it will help you to understand some of the references in Psalm 91.
Psalm 91:1 Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
It Starts with a Condition This Psalm isn’t for everyone, it’s only for a select few. The great thing is that those few aren’t chosen by chance they are chosen by a decision. If you want to find rest in the shadow of the almighty then you have to live in the shelter of the most high. This spring most of us haven’t been looking for shadows to rest in, but I would suspect that in the desert that was home for the Israelites for the forty years between their escape from Egypt and their final destination that shadows were a welcome respite from the heat of the sun.
Throughout the bible “Shade” is used to describe a place of rest and a place of safety and in a land where the sun can be relentless that is understandable. When I teach in Africa I’m always looking for a shady spot, next to a wall under a tree, anywhere I can find that is out of the sun. But you can only find shade by being close to whatever it is that casts the shadow. Can’t stand in the middle of a field and find shade, it doesn’t work that way.
Are you familiar with this? Some of you know it as Ayer’s Rock, named by surveyor William Gosse who named it after Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers, when Gosse discovered it in 1873.
We white people are really full of ourselves. Long before Gosse stumbled across this monolith, it’s not a mountain it’s a rock, The aboriginal people considered it a sacred place and called it Uluru. I wonder if the reason it was considered sacred was because of the shade it provided in the middle of the outback? Just a thought.
And so the author talks about find rest in the shade, but not just any shade but in the shadow of God, and here is the condition, you can only find rest in the shadow of God if you are close enough to God to be in his shadow.
James the brother of Jesus reminds us in James 4:8 Come close to God, and God will come close to you. But we have to be willing to make that step, there is that nasty old free will again.
You know it works in the physical world as well, in your marriage if you stay close to your spouse, spiritually, emotionally and physically there is less chance you will be tempted to cheat. Some people say “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” But the reality is “Absence makes the heart grow wander.” The major reason people give for cheating on their spouses is to find what is missing in their marriage. Whether that missing element is physical or emotional. If you want to maintain a healthy marriage then stay close to one another. If you want to maintain a healthy relationship with God then stay close to him. Your prayer life, reading his word, worshipping with his people.
Then the author of the Psalm changes directions, and mixes his metaphors, in Psalm 91:4 He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armour and protection. No this does not mean that God is a bird, this is another illustration that the author uses that tends to be lost on us today. Really the closest most of us will come to a bird is when we are unwrapping the Styrofoam tray that it is packaged on.
But time and time again in the scriptures this word picture is drawn of chicks being drawn in close to their mother and protected under her wings. And what is it they find under their mother’s wings? Warmth, comfort and safety from birds of prey. But that doesn’t happen when the chicks are far from their mother. When the chicks wander it doesn’t mean their mother doesn’t care about them it means the chicks have made a choice to leave the protection that their mother offers.
There are even times that the Psalmists manage to combine both of these images Psalm 63:7 Because you are my helper, I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings.
When Jesus was looking across Jerusalem in the days before he would face his death we read this, Matthew 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.”
He still wants and we still won’t. But if we want safety we have to be willing to accept it. We can’t have it both ways; we can’t be on our own, do it our own way and go where we want to go and yet still want the safety that comes with being close to God.
So the Psalmist begins with a condition, telling us that this Psalm is for the person who find shelter in the shadow of God, who stays close to God.
If the Psalm begins with a condition then we find that In the Middle are the Promises This Psalm is full of Promises, listen to what we are told “His faithful promises are your armour and protection”, “Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night”, “nor the arrow that flies in the day”, “Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness” “nor the disaster that strikes at midday”, “these evils will not touch you”, “no evil will conquer you”, “no plague will come near your home”, “For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go”, “You will trample upon lions and cobras”, “you will crush fierce lions and serpents under your feet”
That is a pile of promises and they are great promises; there are promises of protection from physical danger, from illness, from spiritual danger.
Some interesting things. The Psalmist tells us that we will be protected during the day from the things we can see and at night from the things we can’t see.
The terrors of the night. Interesting statement, it doesn’t say the terrors that exist at night but the terrors of the night; you ever notice how ordinary sights and sounds become terrifying at night. Bumps and thumps that you wouldn’t even hear during the day are amplified in the dark. You wake up suddenly and realize that there is someone in the room with you, only to discover that it the clothes you hung on the back of the chair before going to bed. I solved that problem, I just throw my clothes on the floor.
Perhaps he’s talking about those real troubles and the ones we only imagine
Did verses 11 and 12 sound familiar to you? Psalm 91:11-12 For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go. They will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.
The next time we find that promise is in the New Testament, coming from the most unlikely source, Matthew 4:5-6 Then the devil took him to the holy city, Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple, and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say, ‘He will order his angels to protect you. And they will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.'”
Don’t be impressed by someone’s ability to quote scripture. Even the devil can do that when it suits his purpose. And he is quite willing to take a verse out of context, I was taught in Bible College that a text out of context is a pretext. Remember the condition that this Psalm started with? You would be sheltered and protected by God when you stayed close to him, Jesus giving into the temptation of the devil wouldn’t exactly be staying close to God.
Psalm 91:13 You will trample upon lions and cobras; you will crush fierce lions and serpents under your feet! Here are natural fears, fears of the natural world.
There is a promise of protection from two terrifying predators the lion and the poisonous snake, in the KJV it is called the adder in the NLT the Cobra, it really is a matter of what we are familiar with and what strikes fear in our heart.
The word used in the original Hebrew word simply meant poisonous snake, in the UK there is only one poisonous snake and that is the Adder so 400 years ago when they were translating the KJV they used something that most people would be familiar with. Today when people think of a poisonous snake the picture that probably comes to mind is a cobra with its hood flared, or maybe a rattlesnake.
And in the King James version the second part of that promise refers to Lions and Dragons. That’s a lot cooler than serpent. And the Hebrew word that was used was (תַּנִּין)‎ Tannin and it simply means “Monster”. And we don’t know what type of creature might have been a monster for the Israelites wandering in the wilderness but for the translators 400 years ago monsters were dragons.
Are you getting the picture here? The Psalmist is claiming protection from all the things that would strike fear in the hearts of a nomadic people wandering through the wilderness. Their children getting sick, them being attacked by enemies, wild animals, poisonous snakes, monsters and whatever it is that hides under the bed in the dark and then he claims God’s protection over all of it.
If only it were true. Because it’s not. And we know that. We know that bad things happen to good people, we know that God’s children get sick just like people far from God. If we were to take this literally than we wouldn’t worry about Stephanie Barteaux, who grew up in Cornerstone and other Christ Followers who are serving in Afghanistan, although I am a little concerned about the company she is keeping. (Pic of her with the Prime Minister)
If we truly believed that we were always under the protection of God then we could let our kids play in the middle of the road, never take a family member to a Doctor and cancel our health insurance. Because we would be under the protection of God. It would be the greatest outreach possible and we would have to bar the doors of the church. Imagine, we could put on our sign, “Come to Cornerstone and never again have to worry about life.”
A hundred years ago Alexander McLaren wrote “We shall understand God’s dealings with us, and get to the very throbbing heart of such promises as these in this psalm far better, if we start from the certainty that whatever it means it does not mean that, with regard to external calamities and disasters, we are going to be God’s petted children, or to be saved from the things that fall upon other people. No! no! we have to go a great deal deeper than that.”
So if it can’t be taken literally than how should it be taken? I love the promise in Isaiah 43:1-2 But now, O Jacob, listen to the LORD who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.
You see we would like to think that if God is our God then we won’t go through deep waters, that we will never have to swim the rivers of difficulty that we will never have to walk through the fire of oppression, but that isn’t the promise.
The promise is that this isn’t it. That this life isn’t all of the story and that when we go through those things that remind us that we are part of the human race that we aren’t going through them alone. Because the dark isn’t nearly as scary when someone is with you
So it starts with a condition, in the middle is a promise and then we read Psalm 91:14-16 The LORD says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honour them. I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.”
It Finishes with a Condition You have to understand that this isn’t a psalm for everybody only certain bodies. And again realize that we often think that the story ends when our life on earth is over. The time we spend on this earth is finite, and not sure that anyone who is healthy ever thinks they’ve had enough.
On the other hand if we believe what we say we believe about heaven and eternity then we have to believe that for those who have chosen to follow Jesus and love God that the transition from this life to the next is simply the turning of a page. And maybe we could have written on our tombstone Psalm 91:14-16 The LORD says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honour them. I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.”
Ultimately this Psalm isn’t about being exempted from the trials of life, instead it is about refuge and rest and rescue and those can only be found when you trust the one who is in control.
Until you can believe that you are safe in the hands of God you won’t be content to be in the hands of God.