Let's do this: Psalm 91

all too easy to bandy Scripture texts around. And that particular one from Psalm 91 is one which I find particularly problematic

Here are "those" verses, v5-7:
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.

What's that doing there? How do we explain it and other similar passages? How do we explain it to the people who keep sending it to us via WhatsApp?

Comments

  • A timely thread.

    I attended an Anglican Compline service, the last before church services were closed. The set Psalm that evening was Psalm 91. I looked around at the handful of elderly congregants and found myself wondering how it applied, and indeed how it has ever applied in any way other than a piece of poetic rhetoric.

    Religious believers have never been immune to viruses. Not when that Psalm was written, never before that and never since.

    The question is, why should we take it literally? Was it taken that way when it was written? It is it akin to a 'Celtic Blessing'? May the sun ever be before thee and the wind at your back?

    It certainly raises all sorts of questions of theodicy if we take it as some kind of cast-iron promise or insurance policy.

    I seem to remember that the Puritan Richard Baxter noted in his memoirs how some 'professors' - ie those who profess belief - maintained that the Plague would pass them by when it broke out in London in 1665. If I remember rightly, he noted, 'They were soon disabused of this notion.'

    As for anyone who sent me these verses as a text or WhatsApp message, I'm afraid that my response might not be as polite as they wished.

    There are some whacky memes going round which well meaning people are sharing ...

    No, I would be polite but I wouldn't argue the toss, simply leave them to find out for themselves.

  • I will confess that that Psalm has me stumped, and the best I can do with it is to suppose it is a bit of gnomic literature. In other words, a wisdom statement meant to be taken as a general rule of thumb--NOT to be taken as covering every individual's case.

    But it makes me itch. Please nobody send it to me when I'm suffering.
  • Or any other simplistic "God is in control, everything will be fine" meme.
  • MrsBeakyMrsBeaky Shipmate
    As someone whose shadow side is prone to considerable anxiety the key word for me in these verses is "fear". I was reared in the tradition of Lectio Divina and learnt to let the Scriptures speak to me so what I am saying is not to be read as a fixed theological position but what I take away is the promise that whatever shit comes at me God will not let my fear overwhelm me.... "the not come near you" bit is more problematic as can be read as as a "no suffering" thing but even that lands in my heart as a comfort that despite the hideousness there will be a possibility of it being a *teflon* scenario as regards my fear
  • Yes, both a gnomic and lectio divina approach make sense to me.
  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    My own take in it, which does not flow from some great wisdom or depth of study, is that there is something essential about who I am as a person, indeed as a child of God which is kept safe by God, come what may.
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    Yes, @BroJames, that’s more or less how I read it too.
  • LuciaLucia Shipmate
    Just coming back to this thread with a thought reading Matthew 4 this morning, that Psalm 91 is the scripture quoted to Jesus by the devil. It clearly has potential to be misused! That should be warning enough to us to be careful with it! And take Jesus' response as our pattern.
  • Paging @lilbuddha to the thread (context)...
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    Well, I'm not sure the psalm is to be taken literally as a protection against plague or anything else, in the sense that we won't die from it.

    The Psalmist uses allegory (if that's the right word) throughout. Is God an actual fortress? A military stronghold from which you seek shelter from your enemies? No.

    Is anyone here or in ancient times at serious risk of being snared by a fowler? We are not chickens, or partridges. We are people.

    Does God have actual wings, which God literally spreads out? Maybe, but I don't think that's what the psalmist is saying.

    So why, when we get to verse 6 do we suddenly start to take the psalmist literally, rather than allegorically? Or poetically, if that's not the right word? I mean, every plague I have ever heard about takes no account of the time of day whatsoever.
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    I think the right word might be metaphorically.
  • Gramps49Gramps49 Shipmate
    In the book A Layperson's History of Christianity, the author writes about how Rome converted to Christianity because when the plague hit Rome around 300 CE and all the rich people fled into the countryside, it was the Christians who stayed behind who dealt with the sick and dying largely because they believed they were destined for a better place.

    That said, what the Psalm is telling me is that from the earliest of times, when people are bunched together, pandemics happen. We are fortunate something like the current pandemic has not happened since 1918. They come and they go, but God is still there.
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    I think the right word might be metaphorically.

    cheers Nick, brain fade.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    Here's a thought...

    The Psalmist himself was basically the equivalent of the people today who are passing his poem around via WhatsApp, ie. a jingoistic beefhead who really thought that his tribe was so effing special that they'd be immune to a plague that was killing everyone else? Or, at least, wanted his readers to think that way?

    In other words, someone with nothing much to teach us today, either about plagues or about how to protect ourselves from bad things generally. And who, going by Lucia's post above, was implicitly rebuked by Jesus during his Temptation.

    (Not saying Lucia would agree with what I've written here just a hat tip for drawing my attention to the OT allusion in that NT passage.)

  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    Simon Toad wrote: »
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    I think the right word might be metaphorically.

    cheers Nick, brain fade.

    Even if it's a metaphor, I'd say the message being conveyed is still a pretty ugly one. In a situation where everyone around me is experiencing extreme suffering, the main thing on my mind should be how I am so important to God that he won't let anything bad happen to me.
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    edited April 22
    stetson wrote: »
    Simon Toad wrote: »
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    I think the right word might be metaphorically.

    cheers Nick, brain fade.

    Even if it's a metaphor, I'd say the message being conveyed is still a pretty ugly one. In a situation where everyone around me is experiencing extreme suffering, the main thing on my mind should be how I am so important to God that he won't let anything bad happen to me.
    14 Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
    15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble;
    I will rescue him and honor him.
    16 With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation

    This is how the psalm ends in the ESV. I don't see metaphor here as clearly as it is in the other sections of the Psalm. I see the reward of loving God stated boldly. "With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation."

    That is an earthly reward as I see things, and it goes against my earlier characterisation. The Psalmist does seem to be saying that you will in fact have a long life. That is a problem for me. It goes against the criticism of pious advice that I think is condemned in Job. And it isempty, pious advice, a promise which can't be fulfilled. Is it a statement of faith and not a promise? I want it to be a statement of faith and trust, but I don't trust myself to draw that conclusion. I want it too much that I worry I will force the text.

    I guess the whole psalm is troubling and difficult after all.
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    Nope, I thought I had a fix, but it's just more sophistry.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    I've just been reading through Psalm 91 in its entirety. Really, it's just Prosperity Gospel. "The shelter of the most high" comes off sounding like a gated community, where you're protected from all the crap those losers outside the walls have to deal with.
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    Rubbish! There is no support there for that evil money hoover of an idea.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    edited April 23
    You means there is no support for the idea that I can gain protection from all the bad shit happening to everyone around me simply by following God? I think that's pretty clearly right there in the text.
  • HedgehogHedgehog Shipmate
    Simon Toad wrote: »
    14 Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
    15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble;
    I will rescue him and honor him.
    16 With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation

    This is how the psalm ends in the ESV. I don't see metaphor here as clearly as it is in the other sections of the Psalm. I see the reward of loving God stated boldly. "With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation."

    That is an earthly reward as I see things, and it goes against my earlier characterisation. The Psalmist does seem to be saying that you will in fact have a long life. That is a problem for me. It goes against the criticism of pious advice that I think is condemned in Job. And it is empty, pious advice, a promise which can't be fulfilled. Is it a statement of faith and not a promise? I want it to be a statement of faith and trust, but I don't trust myself to draw that conclusion. I want it too much that I worry I will force the text.

    I guess the whole psalm is troubling and difficult after all.
    It is those closing verses that make it troubling. Prior to that (and just to save trouble, here is the full Psalm 91), verse 2 makes it clear that it is an exhortation, possibly by a priest saying "This is what I say that the Lord is like..." Now that could be argued away as just an over-enthusiastic fan. And, really, much of this reads as just the flip side of the belief that illness and such are the results of sin ("This man was born blind. Who sinned: him or his parents?"). If you can believe that all bad stuff is the result of sin, then it might seem (to some) to follow that if you don't sin then only good stuff will happen to you. (It doesn't actually follow, of course. Even if sin does bring physical illness, that does NOT lead to the inescapable conclusion that illness is ONLY caused by sin.)

    But it is those last verses that that approach gets problematic, because in those verses it is indicated that it is God saying it, not just some priest. I suppose it could still be read as the priest shoving words in God's mouth. Wouldn't be the first time that that has happened. Nor the last.

    I wonder, though, if this might not be the equivalent of the Buddhist parable of the burning house. The house is burning and the father wants his children to escape. They don't realize the house is burning, so he lures them out by promising them gifts that he does not actually have. They come out. He then bestows on them gifts even more fabulous than what he had promised. The important thing was to get them out of the burning house first. The actual gifts come later.

    So, in this Psalm, the priest promises this-world earthly rewards to lure the unfaithful from the "burning house" of their unfaith. First get them to believe and trust in God. What then is the actual payoff? Heaven, where everything will be blessed and safe and even better than what was promised.

    [Fair warning: I am quickly dashing this off the top of my head, so I promise I will not be offended when you tell me I am overlooking the blindingly obvious flaw in the argument.]
  • Not blindingly obvious or in any way trying to offend anybody. I just really do not like this psalm. Which probably says a lot about me.

    Anyway--

    The primary problem I see is that, if you promise someone any-fucking-thing to trust in God, you have already undermined the trust relationship. It's rather like marrying someone for their money. The relationship is really about the goods at the bottom, and that's no way to live.
    Lewis would correct me and point out that there are certain "rewards" that don't cause a mercenary attitude, like kisses and such in marriage--a lover is not mercenary because he/she wants to kiss his/her lover. Kisses are the natural fruit of love.
    So I suppose we could say that certain things (God's love, upholding, comfort-for-certain-values-of-comfort, presence, etc.) are things you can safely promise people as a result of trusting in God--they are natural fruit of that relationship. But things like being plague-proof, nah. And of course, that's what we're getting in this psalm, unless we spiritualize it all to hell.
    So what to make of it? I have no freaking idea. It's one of those Bible passages I mentioned elsewhere, where I just leave it on the side of my plate as too hard for my digestion now. The frustrating thing is, bits like that tend to turn out to be hiding all sorts of treasure once I finally understand them, and this is probably no exception--but I haven't got the key now, and don't know if I ever will.
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    Two excellent posts.

    @stetson I responded to you saying that the psalm supports the Prosperity Gospel with emotional arrogance, my own shield it seems. But you are right. People can use this psalm to bully others into believing that if they just have enough faith, God will grant them earthly rewards.

    Naturally, I loathe the Prosperity Gospel, just as I loathe every televangelist I've ever heard about, as I'm sure my shipmates do too. I also loathe gated communities. I have ranted before about one just south of Monterey in CA.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    Simon...

    Cool. If it helps, I can withdraw the somewhat loaded phrase "Prosperity Gospel" and just say that Psalm 91 presents a transactional view of our relationship with God.



  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    transactional aaagrh!!!!! :)
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    Ido want to explore this a little bit more. Can anyone recommend a good resource for studying the Psalms? Academic stuff is good.
  • tclunetclune Shipmate
    Simon Toad wrote: »
    Ido want to explore this a little bit more. Can anyone recommend a good resource for studying the Psalms? Academic stuff is good.

    I am a fan of Robert Alter. If your interest is limited to the Psalms, you might like his translation with commentary on the Psalms. However, I would highly recommend his complete translation with commentary of the Tanakh. If you get the latter, the former is redundant, as he published his translation and commentary in parts as he was producing it.
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    wow, The Hebrew Bible looks fantastic. I've ordered the psalm specific one, but the hardcover will be going on my birthday wish list! Thanks tclune!
  • Anecdote/

    I live in a terraced house. This morning the neighbours either side of me have no power, but I do. I couldn't help thinking of this psalm (and thread)...

    /Anecdote
  • mousethiefmousethief Shipmate
    tclune wrote: »
    Simon Toad wrote: »
    Ido want to explore this a little bit more. Can anyone recommend a good resource for studying the Psalms? Academic stuff is good.

    I am a fan of Robert Alter. If your interest is limited to the Psalms, you might like his translation with commentary on the Psalms. However, I would highly recommend his complete translation with commentary of the Tanakh. If you get the latter, the former is redundant, as he published his translation and commentary in parts as he was producing it.

    We have his Psalms, and it's wonderful for study, but not so great for devotional reading, because the footnotes (which often take up more of the page than the text) are fascinating and wonderful, and distract (in me, at least) from the devotional use of the text.
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