Posted by: mikebackup | October 19, 2012

Getting protected

Psalm 91:9-16

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.

When reading the psalms it is important to ask who is speaking to whom about what? In Psalm 91.1-13 we have the psalmist speaking to someone or a group, maybe the people, the king, an individual Israelite He speaks about the protection that God offers to ‘those who know my name’ (v.14). Some have thought that the original recipient might have been the king, but the last verses suggest a more general audience, including you, the reader. In verses 14-16 God speaks to ‘those who love me…who know my name…’ about what he will do for them.  

Some have thought this a royal psalm, others that it was recited by a priest as he entered the temple for worship. The Targum (groups of Jewish commentators) thought it was a dialogue between David and Solomon, but it is impossible to date this psalm or give it a clear context. It has a timeless content. Verses 9-13 follow the same theme as Job 5.19-24,

19 From six calamities he will rescue you;
in seven no harm will touch you.
20 In famine he will deliver you from death,
and in battle from the stroke of the sword.
21 You will be protected from the lash of the tongue,
and need not fear when destruction comes.
22 You will laugh at destruction and famine,
and need not fear the wild animals.
23 For you will have a covenant with the stones of the field,
and the wild animals will be at peace with you.
24 You will know that your tent is secure;
you will take stock of your property and find nothing missing.

Verses 11-12 are quoted in Matthew 4.6 and Luke 4.10-11,

6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[a]

You may recogonise that extract, because they are words said by Satan as Jesus is tested in the wilderness. As we continue our reflection it’s helpful to hold onto what Jesus replies with:

 “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

The mention of lions would have meant a great deal to those first listeners. The menace of lions is well illustrated in the stone reliefs of eighth-century BC Assyrian lion hunts, which can be seen in the British Museum[1].

 

Immediately the biggest tension we have is how we interpret what we read here. Do we literally have the power to trample snakes and lions? Some Christians will say yes – perhaps like these ones:

How about Snakes in worship –

Personally I think that’s ignoring Jesus’ warning of putting God to the test.

Interpretation of the Bible is a very important part of your own faith to analyse as it’s likely to throw up some personal difficulties to work through. If you don’t read this part literally but do other parts you’re not being consistent and what does that say about your approach to the Bible? It’s very hard to work out and a sign of mature discipleship when you’re happy to say you wrestle hard with the Bible and its meaning.

Wrestling with this passage you have two problems with interpretation – what lived experience says in response and Jesus’ request to take up our own cross and become a suffering servant.

Lived experience says that God provides no force field or literal protection against attack. Here’s two stories that I found hard to read recently:

Peter Lewis, a member of Albany Road Baptist Church for nearly 20 years, was fatally stabbed in the stomach in the communal hallway of his Cardiff home. He was 68.

The incident happened at around 2.40am. Peter, who had learning difficulties, was able to press his alarm, but by the time the ambulance arrived it was too late. He died in hospital. Police have said there was no apparent motive for his murder[2].

Then this:

Just two weeks after Kenyan churches filed suit against their government for failing to protect them from religiously motivated violence by al Shabaab, the rebel group is suspected of attacking a church in Nairobi with grenades.

Reuters reports that a nine-year-old boy was killed when rebels tossed a hand grenade into a Sunday school session in St. Polycarp’s church in Nairobi.

On Tuesday, the Archbishop of Kenya condemned the attack, which also wounded three other children, and repeated previous calls for increased government security to protect citizens[3]

Out of anyone on this planet who deserved some sort of divine protection I’d put an elderly vulnerable adult and a God seeking child pretty near the top. No they were mindlessly murdered instead. Any Christian that says ‘well it must have been God’s plan’ presents a terrible faith and a terrible God.

One way to look at this is to reflect on Jesus, the best example we have of understanding God more. Jesus didn’t deserve to be betrayed, abandoned, mocked, tortured and murdered. Yet as a human he used God’s protection all the time to keep him on the right path. He knew God was with him and that meant he knew that he was following and illustrating the extreme sacrificial love at the heart of God. To show God’s love meant sacrifice. Jesus then said to his followers then and now that we will have to take the same path, that of the servant prepared to suffer for God. That then asks the question ‘why have we got to suffer?’ Well the reason why God came to us in Jesus is because he hasn’t given up hope that we all can truly know God. The problem lies in that so many choose not to know God and they have their God given freedom to do what they want.

Sacrificial, unconditional love doesn’t command power over others, it’s completely vulnerable. That’s God and that’s what God calls us to even though it’s so hard. What this Psalm therefore says is that if you make God your dwelling place you will be kept in the centre of his love and that will protect you against making those life diminishing decisions that others so easily take. By staying in that refuge you are able to help others make their way to that centre.

Prayer

There are some who rejoice in this season, Lord.
The harvest past, we welcome the darker nights
and the joys of home and family:
cosy nights by the fire,
talent shows on the television,
and groups and societies in full swing.
Thank you, Lord, for the joys of autumn.

But for others, this season is dark in more ways than one.
The days diminish, and the nights are long;
some are lonely, finding no solace
by empty fireside of noisy TV;
going out in the darkness is fearful,
a primal anxiety which grips the soul.
We pray, Lord, for those who suffer as autumn sets in.

For some, this is a time of settling:
settling of the year, settling of the spirit.
For others, it is unsettling,
as the shadows creep and fall.
Lord, take us all into the shelter of your being;
let us dwell in the shadow of your love.
Amen.


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