PC: Theological Challenges in the Psalms 1

I’ve been furiously writing since I’m coming up on a deadline for Psalming Christ. I put up a section on Patreon yesterday for those who support me, but I thought I’d put this up here too, because I need some feedback. I’m tackling a touchy issue—how to address some of the theological challenges that modern Christians are bound to encounter in the psalms. Here, at the risk of offending many, I tackle what may be a favorite psalm, discuss my problems with it, then how I come to terms with praying it.

Please—let me know what you think.  Does it bother you? Does it offend you? Or, conversely, does it help you? Let me know!

(The next Liturgical Look Forward will follow later today…)

After years of negotiation, Psalm 91 and I have finally come to an arrangement. I promise to pray it faithfully when it comes around in the psalm cycle; it—in turn—has agreed to be about feelings.

The reason why this accord was necessary is because I find Psalm 91 to be one of the hard psalms in the psalter to pray. I realize that this may well be an unusual psalm to have problems with; there are no babies getting their heads bashed in (Ps 137), no calls to slay the wicked or a desire to hate with a perfect hatred (Ps 139), nor even a wish to bathe my feet in the blood of my enemies (Ps 68). No—my issue is the picture it paints of the divinely-charmed life. Consider the first several verses:

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 will 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. (Ps 91:1-8)

The picture it paints is of the blissful protection of the faithful by God, whatever may come.

I have dutifully read this psalm for years. It is one of the standard psalms for the Compline office (Night prayer) which means that I sometimes pray it several times each week. Now, I’m certain that there are people who love this psalm deeply—and I’m not trying to take that away from anyone. It is beautiful; it is comforting. Perhaps it’s due to my own issues and temperament, my own lack of absolute trust, but I take exception to the literal sense of the text: trust in God, and you will be protected from all harm. That faith in God will act as some kind of magic charm that will save you from all adversity.

In the Episcopal tradition, the psalms can be prayed through every month with set psalms assigned for morning and evening prayer of each day; Psalm 91 is appointed for use at Morning Prayer on the 18th of each month. On the night of July 17th, 2015, a White Supremacist hoping to spark a race war opened fire at a Bible study inside Mother Emanuel Baptist Church in Charlotte, murdering nine and wounding three others. The next morning, the lectionary forced me to pray Psalm 91.

I couldn’t.

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 honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation. (Ps 91:14-16)

While I respect the literal sense of the biblical text—the basic meaning of the words on the page—I do not know a way to pray this psalm in its literal sense and to believe it. Because, to take this psalm literally means one of two things: either God failed those nine people in his promise to protect them, or that they were not faithful enough, not good enough, not loving enough for God to honor that promise—and I simply refuse to believe that.

Psalm 91 is just one of a number of psalms that promise tangible, material benefits to the faithful. Some psalms promise physical safety and security to devotees who keep God’s covenants. Alternatively, other psalms request such aid and protection, often promising vows of sacrifices or praise of God in the midst of the assembly in return.

What do we do with these? How do we understand these promises and requests?

Part of the art of biblical interpretation, the work of hermeneutics, is figuring out how to hear these words for the up-building of our faith and those around us. Do we try to take these texts literally—at their word—and how do we understand the results when the hoped-for outcome does not happen?

One approach to hermeneutics uses the image of a three-legged stool: that Christian understanding of God’s ways is rooted in Scripture, tradition, and reason—and that all three are necessary. (A formulation attributed to Methodist founder John Wesley—the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—includes “experience” as a fourth part.) Sometimes this “three-legged stool” is invoked in order to discount the importance of Scripture, suggesting that if our experience doesn’t match what we read in the text, Scripture can and should be jettisoned and our own reason (or experience) should become our primary guide in the spiritual life. But that’s not what this phrase means, and is not how it was intended to be used. Rather, Scripture is always the foundation, and the other two (or three) help us as we wrestle with it: tradition (how the Church has read this text in the past) and reason (how we think through the text as informed by our own God-given mental faculties and assisted by the Holy Spirit) guiding our encounter with the Word of God.

When we read these psalms alongside the Church, we read them with and through the Christian experience of martyrdom. The nine faithful gunned down in Charlotte that dreadful night were neither the first nor the last to be killed for their faith or in its exercise. Every Christian sanctoral calendar recognizes the presence of martyrs through the centuries: those witnesses who would rather die than betray the faith. The formative years of the church in the first few centuries of its existence were scarred by persecution and death which did not hinder its growth but, paradoxically, accelerated it leading Tertullian to proclaim “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.[Paraphrase of Apology 50.13. Technically the line just says “the seed is the blood of Chistians” but the common expanded version conveys what Tertullian intended.]” Indeed, in those early days martyrdom was seen as a primary means of imitating Christ. Let’s not forget the very origins of our faith—the confession of a crucified Messiah by twelve apostles who, according to church tradition, all likewise suffered martyrdom with the exception of John who died in exile.

Speaking of Jesus himself, it’s not an accident that Psalm 91 plays a central role in the stories of his temptation as told by both Matthew and Luke (Matthew 4:1-11|Luke 4:1-13). The way I read these stories, not only is Jesus rejecting the temptations directly offered by Satan—sustenance, safety, and power—but also the literal meaning of the psalm itself. Jesus turns his back on a reading of the psalm that promises security and protection to those who align themselves with God’s will; instead he calls his followers to daily take up their cross and follow him. If Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God—and Christianity insists that he is—then we cannot read the psalms in a way contrary to the experience of Jesus, the righteous sufferer.

Since this is the grounding of the Christian tradition and experience, we have to be able to read the language of this psalm in more than literal ways. Be careful here: I’m not suggesting that we ignore the literal sense. I do believe that God helps and protects those who call on him. But I also acknowledge that that’s not always the way things work out, and that such a result should not be attributed to a lack of faith or integrity on the part of the fallen. It’s not our place to judge the fidelity of others. Rather, we need to be open to other ways to hear these texts, and understand God’s faithfulness towards us.

The way that I’ve made peace with Psalm 91 is to hear it as a description of how the experience of faith can make us feel—has made me feel. There are times in our religious experience where we feel so completely covered by the love of God that we feel as if nothing in the word can touch us, when we experience so directly Paul’s words that nothing can sever us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). I hear Psalm 91 not as a contract—believe in God and God will keep you safe—but as a description of the way that faith can make us feel—intoxicated with the love and presence of God.

6 thoughts on “PC: Theological Challenges in the Psalms 1

  1. Fr. John-Julian, OJN

    I think we must simply face the fact that the Psalms represent a theology, a sociology, and a spirituality which has often been supplanted first by the life and teachings of Jesus (which take precedence over ANYTHING else) and, secondly, by the insights of modern science and psychology. We must say plainly that in their literal sense there are parts of the Psalms which are simply offensive and dead wrong. They represent an ancient Hebrew theology that is often in conflict with Christian teaching and practice. And we must simply admit that and not fool around with endless analogizing and poeticizing to force them to fit (like Cinderella’s lost slipper). I have always dealt with the Psalms the way we deal with the fifth-grade art work of our kids—it comes home from school and we put it up on the refrigerator door. Do we do that because it is great and splendid art? No—we do it because it is the good and well-meant work of our adored fifth-grader—and often it may actually be quite good (for a fifth-grader). So, too, the Psalter—it, too, is quite good (for a 500 BCE set of authors/compilers). And I can live with that—meanwhile letting myself think, “These are our roots and they ought not to be dishonored or forgotten, but thank God, we’ve come beyond all that!” (And now and then there IS a fantastic insight—I’ve been reciting the daily Psalter for 65 years—and STILL encounter new insights….at least weekly..)

  2. Peter

    I’ll comment because you specifically asked, Derek. Not cuz I have much to offer, I’m afraid.

    As a newbie to praying the daily office and the psalms, I find discussions like this immensely helpful. Clearly, there are things in the psalms which are not literally true. And there are things in the psalms (and in the OT, for that matter) are plainly contrary to modern Christian sensibilities.

    My personal approach so far has been to plow forward and trust in the process. As my spiritual director told me, “If you come across something that you’re not sure you understand or agree with, put it aside… you don’t have to resolve everything.” I’m just a “normal guy”… no theologian. There’s TONS of stuff I don’t understand. So…. I find this commentary (including fr. John-Julian’s comment, by the way) both reassuring and instructive.

  3. Rev. Joel Hatfield

    Derek, this was quite a thought provoking piece, so much so that this is my first direct response to one of your posts. I believe that your final two paragraphs get us to solid ground in understanding Psalm 91 in context of the entirety of scripture. Most specifically, your final sentence. If you have ever watched the show, “Call the Midwife,” in the earlier seasons you occasionally hear the nuns chanting this psalm (snippets at least) at compline. In a small chapel with candlelight and tuned voices: a respite of peace in the chaos that surrounds them.
    In that vein, I see this very much as an aspirational Psalm. It is how we want God to be, how we want to feel about him, especially in the midst of the trials we face. However, this experience (as you noted) has to be balanced with the rest of the biblical witness about God.
    Rather than viewing the Psalms as wrong in places, second class scripture, or discounting them altogether, all of which puts us dangerously close to Marcionism; we need to view them through the person and work of Jesus Christ. This, as you artfully described, can very much be a struggle at times. The discussion of the martyrs and the sacrificial suffering of Jesus provide the balance we need in understanding how to place this Psalm in our thinking and our believing. The Psalms are not supplanted by Jesus Christ but fulfilled by him. Thank you for causing me to think more deeply about this particular Psalm and the Psalms in general.

  4. Marguerite Kirchhoff, ObJN

    Hi, Derek,
    It’s funny that you would have an issue with Psalm 91 because it is one of my favorites. My thoughts are very unsophisticated but here goes:
    Those nine faithful who were murdered in SC most likely had been protected and delivered throughout their lives, with or without their knowledge. We, too, have been so. God sustains us all every moment. But beyond that, there is a protection that surpasses simply not being struck by plague or killer, and I think that is the protection the psalm promises. This verse –

    For he shall give his angels charge over you, *
    to keep you in all your ways.

    promises, for me, a protection that is far greater than physical protection. I think of the verse
    “for what can flesh do to me?” from Psalm 56. What indeed?

    I see the psalm 91 as stating the fact of a oneness with God that cannot be touched by any sort of pain or harm on this earth. And, true, I speak from a position of privilege and safety, having never been threatened or even very sick. Thank you for your wonderful work with the psalms which truly are the Honey of Souls.


  5. Barbara

    I agree with your last paragraph – but in a more concrete way, I think. For me, this is a Psalm of David the warrior; it’s a warrior’s prayer. It’s full of martial images, and that’s what I think of every time I hear it. There are flying arrows, and thousands falling. (“Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”) I picture David in the wilderness, perhaps alone and separated from his army, with nothing save God to help him.

    So I don’t see it as a promise; I see it as a talisman against fear and death. I see it as David’s way of coping with his reality, and how central faith in God was in doing that. (If you’ve ever seen “Saving Private Ryan,” there’s another good example of this. One of the soldiers continually prayed the Psalms while he was in battle: “O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed, let not my enemies triumph over me.” And “Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teaches my hands to war, and my fingers to fight.” And “My goodness, and my fortress; my high tower, and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust…” There are a lot of Psalms with battle images, and to me they are speaking about David himself.)

    But I do know what you mean. The same day in 2004 that a tsunami killed thousands in Southeast Asia, we had Psalm 124 at the Eucharst:

    “1 If the Lord had not been on our side, *
    let Israel now say;

    2 If the Lord had not been on our side, *
    when enemies rose up against us;

    3 Then would they have swallowed us up alive *
    in their fierce anger toward us;

    4 Then would the waters have overwhelmed us *
    and the torrent gone over us;

    5 Then would the raging waters *
    have gone right over us.”

    I still think about that sometimes, actually…..

  6. Michelle Ziegler

    Catching up, and so very late here.

    A couple of random thoughts:
    It would not have been lost on earlier Christians that everyone dies of something and in more ancient times, the cause is more likely to have been acute (and infection > trauma). We have been spoiled by modern medicine’s ability to predict and often prevent death. As people used to say, when it is your time, it is your time.

    In some quarters, this is known as the plague psalm because it was it was instrumental in at least the English response to the Black Death and successive epidemics. Obviously, people would have known lots of good Christians and innocents like young children who died of the plague. If I recall correctly, this psalm was proclaimed from the street corners in London by order of Queen Elizabeth I during plague times.

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