Psalm 91: No Escape from Suffering

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.’

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Psalm 91

I’m writing this on Holocaust Memorial Day. Many of the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis would have known this Psalm, but it proved no protection against starvation, exhaustion, gas or bullet. Although the Psalm has been used in both Jewish and Christian devotion as an amulet it obviously fails in that respect.

Occasionally you hear testimonies of those who walk away from the wreckage of a plane crash or who escape a mass killing and who describe their escape as a miracle. These survivors no doubt see themselves as the inheritors of the promised protection and chosen by God (v. 7) but such claims raise unnerving questions about all those who perished alongside them. Were those who died less loved by God? Did God not have a plan for their lives? Anyone who thinks this Psalm gives blanket insurance against suffering obviously hasn’t being paying attention to what they’ve been reading in the Psalter so far!

It is perhaps telling that it is this Psalm that is found on the lips of Satan when he tempted Christ to jump from the Temple. Yes, it is important to know the Bible but it is equally important to know that scripture can be twisted, and sadly there have been many occasions of that happening throughout the centuries and still today.

It is clear from everyday life that those who walk closely with God, who trust in him and try to do his will are not given any immunity from suffering. We know that from our experience. We should also know it from the Bible. Faithful women and men in both the Old Testament and the New Testament shared in the normal pains of living in a fallen world and suffered and, in addition to that, they faced rejection because of their faith.

Hebrews 11 speaks of those ‘who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword’ but in the same chapter there is a recognition that ‘there were others who were tortured…faced jeers and flogging, chains and imprisonment…were put to death…(were) destitute, persecuted and mistreated.’

The anonymous writer adds, ‘none of them received what had been promised’ (Hebrews 11:39). Ultimate protection and rescue belongs to the future, to the day when Christ will return to transform this world into a new earth, where justice will rule (2 Peter 3:13). That isn’t wishful thinking or pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die but a hope fully anchored in the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Verse 15 speaks of ultimate deliverance, of a time when every tear will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4). We wait for that day, we long for that day, we work for that day but the same verse also tells us that God is with us on the journey. 

It was this knowledge that enabled St Paul to write: ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed’ (2 Corinthians 4:8, 9). He knew that Christ had turned down angelic assistance (Matthew 26:53) to go to the cross to defeat our enemies, to conquer death, to save us, to bring us eternal life (v. 16) and, by his Spirit, Christ is ever present with us.