25 May 2022

Praying with the Psalms in Easter:
25 May 2022 (Psalm 91)

‘He shall cover you with his wings and you shall be safe under his feathers’ (Psalm 91: 4) … a modern painting on a ceiling in the Monastery of Rousanou in Meteora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections in this season of Easter, including my morning reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 91:

Psalm 91 is known in Jewish tradition as ‘the Psalm of Blessing’ and in Latin as Qui habitat. In the slightly different numbering system used in the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, this psalm is known as Psalm 90.

This is the most famous of prayers for deliverance of harm. As a psalm of protection, it is often invoked in times of hardship.

According to midrashim, this psalm refers to many types of demons that threaten humans, including ‘terror,’ ‘arrow,’ ‘pestilence,’ and ‘destruction’ mentioned in verses 5-6. According to the Talmud (Shevu’ot 15b), the following verse refers to the demons that would perish upon recitation of this psalm (‘A thousand may fall at your side,’ verse 7).

The psalm uses many images to God’s protection. To those who trust in him, he is shelter, shadow, refuge, stronghold. He protects us beneath his wings, and encircles us like a shield.

When we are in distress, he is with us. When we are in danger, we are not alone. Trust defeats terror, and faith conquers fear.

In this psalm, a priest or a prophet speaks in the Temple and depicts God is depicted as a bird protecting the young from a hunter or fowler, protecting faithful and those who trust in God: ‘He shall cover you with his wings and you shall be safe under his feathers, are protected from demonic perils’ (verse 4).

Perhaps a priest or temple prophet speaks the opening verses of the psalm. Worshippers are to trust in God to protect them. He will protect them from attacks by demonic forces day and night (verses 3-6); he will shield them as a mother hen guards her chicks. Many may succumb to evil forces, but not the faithful (verse 7).

Those who trust in God will see evildoers punished (verse 8). God will ensure that no harm comes to those who live a godly life (verse 9). ‘His angels’ (verse11) will be his agents, guarding the faithful in whatever they do. The roads of Palestine were rocky so the metaphor in verse 12 is apt. Not only will the faithful be safe from accidents, but they will also take the offensive in defeating evil (verse 13).

In verses 14-16, God speaks through a Temple official, confirming the teaching of the earlier verses. Knowing God’s name and understanding his ways includes seeking his help from him: he will help those who love him and know on his name. Knowing God’s name includes realising that he helps those in need. When they seek help, God will ‘answer them.’ Perhaps the ‘long life’ (verse 16) is the king’s: political uncertainty ensued when a king died.

Although no author is named in the Hebrew text of this psalm, Jewish tradition ascribes it to Moses, with David compiling it in his Book of Psalms. The Septuagint attributes it to David. The first speaker in the psalm is human; the second speaker is God himself (Sanhedrin 103 a).

The Midrash says Psalm 91 was composed by Moses on the day he completed building the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The verses describe Moses’ own experience entering the Tabernacle: ‘You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty’ (verse 1). Midrash Tehillim and Zohar teach that Moses composed this psalm while ascending into the cloud hovering over Mount Sinai, and that he recited these words as protection from the angels of destruction.

The former Chief Rabbi, the late Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, says Psalm 91 is a prayer for protection from danger and harm. The Talmud (Shevu’ot 15b) records opinions calling this psalm the ‘song of evil spirits’ and the ‘song of plagues’ (shir shel pega’im and shir shel nega’im) for ‘one who recites it with faith in God will be helped by him in time of danger.’

Since the Middle Ages, this psalm was said to drive away demons and evil spirits. The psalm was written in amulets by both Jews and Christians from the Late Antique period.

In Jewish tradition, Psalm 91 is said at the end of Shabbat as a prayer for God’s protection against the dangers that may lie ahead in the coming week and that God may bless our labours.

Psalm 91 is often recited as a prayer for protection. Some say it before embarking on a journey. This psalm 91 is recited seven times during a burial ceremony. As the coffin bearers approach the grave, they stop every few feet, repeating the psalm.

In the Gospels, verses 11 and 12 are quoted by the devil during the temptation of Christ (see Matthew 4: 6, Luke 4: 10-11). In the Revised Common Lectionary (Year C) Psalm 91 is appointed for the first Sunday in Lent, linking it to the temptation of Christ.

‘You will not fear the terror of the night’ (Psalm 91: 5) … a tribute to the poet Seamus Heaney seen at night on a gable end on Richmond Street in Portobello, Dublin, ‘Don’t be afraid’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Psalm 91 (NRSVA):

1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2 will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his 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 the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

11 For he will command his 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 honour them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Mission in Australia.’ It was introduced on Sunday by Peter Burke, Manager at Mission and Anglican Community Engagement AnglicareSA.

The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (25 May 2022) invites us to pray:

Let us remember and give thanks for the work of local parishes across the world, which serve their parishioners on a daily basis.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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