Ps. 91: Entering the Text

Whenever I read or recite Psalm 91, I can’t help but hear the tune of “On Eagle’s Wings” (1977), a popular hymn based on the psalm. I don’t know how widely it is used in liturgies today; I haven’t heard it in a long time, but that may be because I’ve spent the last few years at masses geared for kids (and the last few months at no masses at all). But if you, like me, grew up attending a suburban parish in the 80’s and 90’s, you know the lyrics by heart. In that case, you also know Psalm 91. At my parish the song was sung most often at communion and at funerals, but the psalm speaks to anyone who could use God’s help during a difficult time.

Psalm 91 is distinctive for its didactic style. It is not a lament in which the speaker expresses anguish and petitions God for assistance. Most of the psalm is an instruction, spoken from one person to another, teaching the listener what to expect from God when a crisis arises. It is structured around three promises of divine assistance. The first two are promises of God’s shelter from various perils (verses 1-8) and of protection by God’s angels (verses 9-13). 

The last promise is the most startling because the speaker shifts the human teacher to God, who guarantees divine rescue for the one who places trust in God (verses 14-16). Though short, this last section packs a punch. It consists mostly of verbs, seven in all (plus a nominal sentence), whose subject is God. This litany of action verbs is a powerful testament of God’s dynamic presence in the world.

Two key images in Psalm 91 are rooted in the Exodus story. The first is the wings mentioned in verse 4. Although the image may be a general metaphor of divine protection (see, for example, Ruth 2:12) or possibly a reference to the winged cherubim that stand guard before the Holy of Holies (see Exodus 25:20), it more likely alludes to the divine wings that brought Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness (Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11). Secondly, the guardian angels mentioned in verse 11 echo YHWH’s promise of an angel who will guard Israel and bring them to the Promised Land (Exodus 23:20, 23). As we find so often in the Bible, YHWH’s saving action in the Exodus is the basis for Israel’s hope and trust that YHWH will again raise them up on eagle’s wings.     

 Key Terms:

  • Shaddai in verse 1 is a regular divine epithet for YHWH with an interesting history and meaning. In most English translations it is rendered “Almighty,” a translation that is found as early as the Greek version of the Bible (i.e., the Septuagint).  This rendering seems be based on a creative rabbinic interpretation, which breaks the epithet into two words – sha (“who”) and dai (“enough”). According to this reading, El Shaddai is “God who is enough,” i.e., self-sufficient and therefore almighty. More likely, however, the epithet Shaddai comes from the Semitic word for “mountain,” so that El Shaddai is “God of the Mountain(s)” and alludes to the ancient tradition in the Levant of deities residing on mountaintops.
  • Verses 5-6 include two word pairs that denote “all the time.” The first is night/day, and the second is darkness/noon. The pairs are an example of merism, a literary device in which two polar opposites occur together to denote totality—like the English expression “searching high and low,” which means “everywhere.” 

Questions for Reflection:

  • Which words or images in Psalm 91 are most striking to you?
  • Are there historical and/or personal events that serve to bolster your faith in difficult times?
  • Who do you turn to for advice when you need spiritual support?
  • How might you translate this psalm into your own words? What would you change?

 

 

Psalm 91

Source Sheet by Marilyn Stern

 

 

Psalms 91

(1) O you who dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide in the protection of Shaddai— (2) I say of the LORD, my refuge and stronghold, my God in whom I trust, (3) that He will save you from the fowler’s trap, from the destructive plague. (4) He will cover you with His pinions; you will find refuge under His wings; His fidelity is an encircling shield. (5) You need not fear the terror by night, or the arrow that flies by day, (6) the plague that stalks in the darkness, or the scourge that ravages at noon. (7) A thousand may fall at your left side, ten thousand at your right, but it shall not reach you. (8) You will see it with your eyes, you will witness the punishment of the wicked. (9) Because you took the LORD—my refuge, the Most High—as your haven, (10) no harm will befall you, no disease touch your tent. (11) For He will order His angels to guard you wherever you go. (12) They will carry you in their hands lest you hurt your foot on a stone. (13) You will tread on cubs and vipers; you will trample lions and asps. (14) “Because he is devoted to Me I will deliver him; I will keep him safe, for he knows My name. (15) When he calls on Me, I will answer him; I will be with him in distress; I will rescue him and make him honored; (16) I will let him live to a ripe old age, and show him My salvation.”

 

תהילים צ״א

(א) יֹ֭שֵׁב בְּסֵ֣תֶר עֶלְי֑וֹן בְּצֵ֥ל שַׁ֝דַּ֗י יִתְלוֹנָֽן׃ (ב) אֹמַ֗ר לַֽ֭יהוָה מַחְסִ֣י וּמְצוּדָתִ֑י אֱ֝לֹהַ֗י אֶבְטַח־בּֽוֹ׃ (ג) כִּ֤י ה֣וּא יַ֭צִּֽילְךָ מִפַּ֥ח יָק֗וּשׁ מִדֶּ֥בֶר הַוּֽוֹת׃ (ד) בְּאֶבְרָת֨וֹ ׀ יָ֣סֶךְ לָ֭ךְ וְתַֽחַת־כְּנָפָ֣יו תֶּחְסֶ֑ה צִנָּ֖ה וְֽסֹחֵרָ֣ה אֲמִתּֽוֹ׃ (ה) לֹא־תִ֭ירָא מִפַּ֣חַד לָ֑יְלָה מֵ֝חֵ֗ץ יָע֥וּף יוֹמָֽם׃ (ו) מִ֭דֶּבֶר בָּאֹ֣פֶל יַהֲלֹ֑ךְ מִ֝קֶּ֗טֶב יָשׁ֥וּד צָהֳרָֽיִם׃ (ז) יִפֹּ֤ל מִצִּדְּךָ֨ ׀ אֶ֗לֶף וּרְבָבָ֥ה מִימִינֶ֑ךָ אֵ֝לֶ֗יךָ לֹ֣א יִגָּֽשׁ׃ (ח) רַ֭ק בְּעֵינֶ֣יךָ תַבִּ֑יט וְשִׁלֻּמַ֖ת רְשָׁעִ֣ים תִּרְאֶֽה׃ (ט) כִּֽי־אַתָּ֣ה יְהוָ֣ה מַחְסִ֑י עֶ֝לְי֗וֹן שַׂ֣מְתָּ מְעוֹנֶֽךָ׃ (י) לֹֽא־תְאֻנֶּ֣ה אֵלֶ֣יךָ רָעָ֑ה וְ֝נֶ֗גַע לֹא־יִקְרַ֥ב בְּאָהֳלֶֽךָ׃ (יא) כִּ֣י מַ֭לְאָכָיו יְצַוֶּה־לָּ֑ךְ לִ֝שְׁמָרְךָ֗ בְּכָל־דְּרָכֶֽיךָ׃ (יב) עַל־כַּפַּ֥יִם יִשָּׂא֑וּנְךָ פֶּן־תִּגֹּ֖ף בָּאֶ֣בֶן רַגְלֶֽךָ׃ (יג) עַל־שַׁ֣חַל וָפֶ֣תֶן תִּדְרֹ֑ךְ תִּרְמֹ֖ס כְּפִ֣יר וְתַנִּֽין׃ (יד) כִּ֤י בִ֣י חָ֭שַׁק וַאֲפַלְּטֵ֑הוּ אֲ֝שַׂגְּבֵ֗הוּ כִּֽי־יָדַ֥ע שְׁמִֽי׃ (טו) יִקְרָאֵ֨נִי ׀ וְֽאֶעֱנֵ֗הוּ עִמּֽוֹ־אָנֹכִ֥י בְצָרָ֑ה אֲ֝חַלְּצֵ֗הוּ וַֽאֲכַבְּדֵֽהוּ׃ (טז) אֹ֣רֶךְ יָ֭מִים אַשְׂבִּיעֵ֑הוּ וְ֝אַרְאֵ֗הוּ בִּֽישׁוּעָתִֽי׃

 

 

Source Sheet created on Sefaria by Marilyn Stern

 

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