This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.
Some poems play on a single metaphor, tracing the image through every permutation. Others weave multiple images together to create a tapestry of meaning. Psalm 91 is an example of the second kind.
Psalm 91’s dominant metaphorical field involves military imagery. God is a fortress, whose faithfulness is a shield and buckler protecting from the arrows of the enemy. Beneath this dominant metaphor lies a pervasive sense of nourishing and comfort. God is a refuge under whose shadow we abide, who covers us with wings like a mother bird, in whom we make a dwelling place, and who satisfies us (nourishes us to filling) with long life. God is both mighty warrior and nursing mother, behind whom we hide and in whose embrace we snuggle.
I could say that God has brought me to the brink of death dozens of times. Or I could say that God has snatched me from the brink of death dozens of times.
If we imagined God in Lord of the Rings terms (why not?), God would be both Helm’s Deep—a near-impenetrable fortress hewn out of rock—and the Shire—a cozy home, in which one feels safe and nourished.
In some ways, this psalm’s promises appear too good to be true. After all, I’ve dashed my feet against many a rock. I regularly cower in fear of night terrors, diseases, even my own failures and the consequences of my wickedness. It becomes all too easy to dismiss God’s care for us when our life is filled with pain and sorrow, when wickedness grows all around and the poor and oppressed cannot catch a break.
But the promise of this psalm is both more bleak and more hopeful. The psalm never promises no sorrow, but rather that we will survive the sorrow that does come. The evil and the scourge are all around us, but they need not overcome us or dwell with us. Instead, we can dwell with God.
I recently landed in the hospital and endured a frightening health episode. Reflecting on the experience, I wrote:
“It seems to me that most of life can be experienced in at least two ways. The first way encounters every moment as a potential threat. The second sees every moment as a potential gift. This is an oversimplification, of course. But I think most of us encounter life primarily in one of these two ways. For most of my life, I have walked the first way. I am a fearful person. I’m the first to admit it…. But the speaker of Psalm 71 has a different perspective. Later in the psalm we discover that she is advanced in years. She has lived a long life and prays with confidence that God will save her even in her old age. She can pray this way not because she has avoided trouble all of her life, but because she has survived that same trouble. ‘You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again.’ (71:20)…. I could say that God has brought me to the brink of death dozens of times. Or I could say that God has snatched me from the brink of death dozens of times.”
The end of Psalm 91 pivots beautifully from the confidence of the psalmist to God’s own voice, assuring the pray-er through a string of powerful verbs.
“Those who love me [those who cleave close to 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.” (91:14-16)
What a beautiful song for God to sing over us.
Robbie Seay, Psalm 91 – This arrangement of the final three verses, God’s promise to the psalmist, absolutely nails the beating heart of this psalm. The Hebrew root for the word “love,” holds a larger field of meaning that evokes “cling to, cleave to, join together.” Seay paraphrases this as “holds fast to me in love.” The song builds to a passionate climax, but the simplicity of words weaves through the whole as a chant. If you want to sing this song in the congregation and avoid exclusively masculine language, it is fairly easy to replace “he,” “his,” and “him,” with “they,” “their” and “them”:
Because they hold fast to me in love
I will deliver them, I will protect them
because they know my name.
When they call 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.
Loud Harp, Hold Me Together – This haunting song is not a direct paraphrase of Psalm 91, but it evokes the psalm’s spirit. The battle becomes more interior, threatening to pull the singer apart from the inside. God’s protection then becomes holding us together. Even better, the band provides free chord charts for their songs.
Anne Steele and Kevin Twit, Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul – This re-tuned hymn employs the “refuge” language of Psalm 91 to great effect. The link leads to the RUF Hymnal, with chord charts, PowerPoint, piano, musical demo, a Spanish language version and more.
Henry Lyte and Justin Smith, Abide With Me – Another wonderful RUF Hymnal re-tuned hymn. The link provides everything you would need for worship. Whereas the last song took its cues from the word “refuge,” this song pays more attention to God’s continuing protective presence, in life and even in death.
The Community at Taizé, Mane Nobiscum – When I visited Taizé two years ago, we sang this song nearly every day. It quickly became one of my favorites. The lyrics are incredibly simple and the melody adds to the feeling of home. The Latin translates to “Stay with us, Lord Jesus Christ.” But I prefer to nuance the translation: “Make your home with us, Lord Jesus Christ.” This can be sung with or without the solo floating over the top. I actually prefer it without. The Taizé Community also provides resources to learn the music for this chant here.
Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.