No evil shall befall you
| Deuteronomy 32:1-43
|Sun, September 30, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Psalm 91 is a gorgeous song of faith. Three hundred years AD the famous Christian bishop Athansius writes: “If you desire to stablish yourself and others in devotion, to know what confidence is to be reposed in God, and what makes the mind fearless, you will praise God by reciting the ninety-first Psalm”. For that matter, when Dianne Anderson discovered that we would be reading Psalm 91 this morning she sent the following testimony: “It was this psalm I read daily to get me through the days of my separation and divorce ... There were months of crying ... I never stopped reading this psalm for a whole year. Psalm 91 got me through the toughest time of my life thus far.” When Gerald and others were shaping the rich collection of hymns that is now called ‘Voices United’ they were searching for songs like this one. They were wondering: “What will our children sing when they are living in old folk’s homes? What beloved hymns and psalms will they have to carry the faith in their old age?” ‘On Eagles’ Wongs’ - the setting of Psalm 91 that we are about to sing - feels as though it will become one of those beloved favourites. It is a powerful song of faith in our God who will protect, who will answer and who will save. It is just the text that seems called for in the midst of fearful times.
Or, perhaps you have already noticed that there is trouble written all over this beloved song of faith. I wonder how many here found themselves choking over “though thousands fall about you, near you it shall not come”. Is this really how it works? Those who “dwell in the shelter of God, who abide in God’s shelter for life” will not suffer disaster? We can understand why Premier Campbell said ‘thank God’ this week as he recounted how his son overslept on September 11th ... and missed his planned trip to the top of the Twin Towers. But was ‘sleeping-in‘ really the doing of a guardian angel and, therefore, something to ‘thank God’ for? And what of those who did not sleep in ... what of those who made it to work high in the towers on time that morning ... or who rushed through traffic to catch their doomed flights? Did not one of them place their trust in God? Were they all abandoned by the angels charged with guarding their lives? Of course, the problem runs deeper than that. It runs to the children suffering in Mamolete’s beloved Lesotho .... so many children orphaned by the cruelty of AIDS which devours the land. It runs to the Dominican Republic where Jan will, when she lands there this week, once again see the injustices of the world lived out in such heartbreaking relief. This problem of trusting in a good and just God in the face of the unmistakable presence of evil on the earth is not a new one. Yet after the eleventh of September we North Americans cannot pretend nearly the blindness to such trouble that we did just one short month ago. What, then, of Psalm 91 with its apparent naivete? Shall we silence all singing of such child-like faith? No. We will sing Psalm 91 because it is our precious inheritance, one of the songs of our ancestors that has given voice to God’s Word in the past ... and may yet speak God’s living Word today.
But before we sing let us pay some attention to all of this Psalm ... because the version we read and sing in ‘Voices United’ has been edited for use in worship. Opening the unedited version in the Bible we hope for something that will solve the problem ... some word or phrase that will ‘fix’ everything. Instead, we find that the full text makes things only worse:
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the LORD,“My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you shall find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation. (NRSV)
Listen to the trouble. It fills this Psalm of faith. This people sing about all sorts of worry: “the snare of the fowler”, “the deadly pestilence”, “the terror of the night”, “the arrow that flies by day”, “the pestilence that stalks in darkness”, and “the destruction that wastes at noonday”. For all of its talk of safe refuge this Psalm reeks with the knowledge of trouble. It is the song of a people who have been awakened by the terror of the night ... by the same sleepless demons of gut-wrenching fear that we confront now. Psalm 91 speaks of what it knows - that its world, like ours, is rife with danger. The people of ancient Israel know, as we do, that life is filled with the threat of death at every turn.
But the people of ancient Israel also know the source of protection from trouble: “Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” It is the central line in the Psalm. The Psalm’s most daring declaration of faith: “No evil shall befall you”. It is unfortunate that this bold overstatement slipped through the editing cracks and is not included in the Psalm as it appears in ‘Voices United’. Unfortunate because none of us should be saved from confronting the trouble provoked by Psalm 91's outlandish claim: “no evil shall befall you”. Oh, really?!
You can hear the overtones of the Ancient Near East all through this lyric. The Almighty God, known as a “refuge”, a “rock” in the wilderness a place of “shelter”, one that provides a “shadow” in which to rest from the heat of the day ... the only place in which one can breathe and find comfort in such an unforgiving land. The author of the Psalm seems to have been meditating on the ‘Song of Moses’... an old ballad that sings of God raising up Israel as an eagle raises its young (Deuteronomy 32:1-43) ... and that tells of Israel running off to seek refuge in other gods ... gods that provide no security. So, in the Psalm, the Almighty is both “rock” of safe refuge and “eagle” sheltering and nurturing its young beneath its wing. Psalm 91 recites the poetry of faith. It is beautiful poetry ... powerful poetry ... but is it true poetry?
The ancients hoped so. They made Psalm 91 a talisman. Archeologists find scraps of Psalm 91 torn and folded inside tiny amulets that were worn around the neck ... a lucky charm ... an ancient St. Christopher’s medal for travellers ... a protection against all sorts of evil that is loose in the world. Perhaps this is why verses from Psalm 91 come so easily to the devil’s lips when tempting Jesus in the wilderness. Remember? “The devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command your angels concerning you, to protect you’, and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’” (Luke 4:9-11). Imagine the first generations of Christians - those first disciples on the Way - as they retell this story of temptation. They know it all too well. They are rightly afraid. Families are rejecting some of them. Neighbours are shunning others of them. Authorities are hunting more and more of them. The temptation to have hard proof of God’s trustworthiness is huge. Jesus says to the Tempter: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Luke 4:12). There will be no amulets or lucky charms, no experiments or collecting of empirical data, no proving or disproving the trustworthiness of God in the face of terror. It will all be by faith.
If you had not guessed by now, there is no easy way around the trouble. There is not ‘pat answer’ for the problem theologians call ‘theodicy’. Theodicy. It is the shorthand, compound word that combines the Greek words for ‘God’ and ‘justice’. Whenever the word ‘theodicy’ is mentioned one is meant to inevitably wonder: ‘If God is just then why is there so much injustice?’ I would be fooling you ... and you would know it ... if right now I were to offer a cute story or a glib answer that wrapped the whole infernal problem up in a way that rescued Psalm 91 from this sort of trouble. So I won’t.
Yet Psalm 91 does tell the truth. Not an easy truth ... but the truth, nonetheless. Truth which we can only tell by recalling our story of evil and of good, of death and of life. Notice that Jesus does not sing Psalm 91 at the moment of his death. Instead he recites another song ... the 22nd Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning (Psalm 22:1). In the moment of his great need for angels who will bear him up Jesus finds himself left alone. God’s own Messiah is slaughtered, the victim of state-sponsored terrorism. The Son of God, himself an innocent victim, shares in the fate of a world that seems hopelessly infected with evil. On Good Friday ... and on Holy Saturday ... no one can sing Psalm 91 because there are no angels and there is no refuge and there is every reason to fear “the terror of the night” and “the destruction that wastes at noonday”.
We know the awful tragedy of Good Friday. Our God knows the agony of unspeakable terror. But we are an Eastered people. Our community takes shape when the angels arrive on the scene of evil’s triumph, saying: “He is not here; for he has been lifted up”. This is the testimony that we have learned to trust. This is the amazing evidence that fuels our hope. This is the reason that we dare to sing the 91st Psalm in the face of so much trouble. In the end, evil does not befall God’s Beloved. God hears the cry of abandonment and sends angels and makes new. It is as simple as that ... and as hard as that. This is the impossibly good news we call gospel. To be honest, in a tragic world like this, such incredibly good news is hard to trust. That must be the reason that, in its closing verses, Psalm 91 turns. It stops being a mere description of God’s trustworthiness. The Psalm suddenly becomes the solemn, sworn oath of the LORD: “When they call to me, I will answer them ... I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them”. We recognize this voice. It is the Easter promise of Jesus Christ, the Risen One, saying to his frightened flock in every age: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). Thank God. Thank God.