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What is Psalm 91?

Psalm 91 is a song of encouragement that is found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Bible. It offers hope and consolation to people facing fear and danger by assuring that God will protect and rescue those who love and trust in God. Throughout history, believers have turned to it to pray prayers of divine protection, inscribing its words on amulets and prayer cards for reference in times of doubt and fear. In Western Christianity, it was sung as part of the standard liturgy at Compline, the last prayer service of the day. The comforting themes make it a popular public Scripture reading in times of uncertainty, peril, and the desire for a long life.

The Book of Psalms is a collection of ancient Hebrew poetry intended for musical accompaniment during communal worship among the Hebrew people throughout their history. These poetic compositions continue to play a significant role in the corporate worship, songs, and personal devotional practices of both Jews and Christians to this day. Some Psalms are traditionally ascribed to David, an ancient Hebrew king who lived in the Near East around 1000 BCE. While Psalm 91 lacks specific authorship, some observers point out similarities in language and themes with Psalms 31 and 27, which are attributed to David. Additionally, in the Septuagint—a Greek translation of the Hebrew text—Psalm 91 is also credited to David.

The Context of Psalm 91 in the Book of Psalms

The book of Psalms is divided into five sections. Psalm 91 is located at the beginning of Book Four (Psalms 90-106). Book Three of Psalms is marked by numerous questions and complaints regarding the goodness and justice of God. Book Four begins by addressing these concerns. Preceding Psalm 91 is Psalm 90, which serves as a reminder to God’s people of His faithfulness throughout generations. Psalm 91 then follows with messages of hope and promises, emphasizing that if the reader remains faithful to God, His faithfulness will endure. The assertion of God reigning continues throughout Book Four, refuting the doubts raised in Book Three.

Themes and Symbolism in Psalm 91

To comprehend the context of the poem, it’s essential to consider two key concepts: the ancient notion of alliances between kings and the belief that the anointed Hebrew king was in a covenantal relationship with God. In the ancient world, alliances between rulers carried the obligation to uphold loyalties and oppose the enemies of allies. Regional military leaders in the ancient Near East, such as kings, frequently found themselves defending both their legitimacy against rebellious factions within their leadership and their territory from rival kings seeking to expand their influence.”

Covenantal Relationship: David’s Role in Psalm 91

David understood himself to be chosen as a covenantal son of God. This covenant, or sacred alliance, is spelled out in the final three verses of Psalm 91. This meant David had the intercessory responsibility to represent God’s character and God’s justice to his people and also bring the needs of his people to God for consideration. He and the people perceived him as an ambassador or a human intermediary between heaven and earth.

As a result of his faithful representation, God entered into a partnership with David and His people, establishing a steadfast alliance that protected him from enemies. This dynamic mirrors the arrangement where a more powerful king allies with a lesser king, offering military protection in exchange for tribute and allegiance. In this way, David saw himself as mediating his people’s relationship with God. Many psalms call the people to remember God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant with the people through their king, and they assure the people of the protection that this alliance with God will ensure.

Ancient Imagery and Symbolism in Psalm 91

The Hebrew poetry of the Psalms relies on certain conventional images that were associated with protection and great security in the ancient world, and we see these images used in Psalm 91 to invoke a sense of peace and a place of safety in God’s protection.

For example, the passage begins with a reference to the shelter of the Most High. Shelters, refuges, and fortresses (verses 1-2, 9) are buildings that provide protection from nature or wild animals as well as from human or spiritual enemies. A mother bird who hides or shelters her offspring under her wings (verse 4) is an image associated with God in various other psalms (Ps. 36:7, Ps 57:1, Ps 63:7).

In the time and place where this psalm was written, people lived in an arid environment, and exposure to the sun and wind in open desert wilderness areas could be dangerous. Shadow, shade, and physical barriers (like rocks or cliffs) that provide shaded protection from the elements are often invoked as protective images (verses 1, 4) even directly linking them to God as the source in phrases such as “the shadow of the Almighty.” Contrastingly, snares, traps, and ambushes under cover of darkness are often associated with enemies or evil people who conspire against innocent victims and cause suffering (verses 3, 5).

Assurance and Protection: Psalm 91’s Message of Hope

Sicknesses and plagues were often conceived of as a spiritual attack or a form of divine punishment,  people depended on their gods to protect their health (verses 3, 6, 10). Psalm 91 assures that the faithful will be safeguarded from evils such as “deadly pestilence” or the “Fowler’s snare.”

Military imagery such as shields, ramparts, arrows, soldiers falling in battle, and ambushes at night reflect the ancient idea that deities were like strong allied kings to defend their loyal subjects against attacking enemies. In the people’s conception, God commanded an army of angels that could be summoned to provide military support as His right hand for allies. (4-5, 7-13).

The imagery of unimpeded, smooth, or straight paths (where the person walking does not stumble over obstacles, trip, or fall) is often used to convey the idea of being accompanied by God or God’s protection in life (verse 12). Putting enemies under one’s feet, or crushing or trampling something was a conventional way of speaking of subduing enemies and claiming victory. The great lion and serpents were animals conventionally associated with threatening destructive forces, danger, and enemies (verse 13).

Understanding the meaning the images would have conveyed in their ancient context helps readers today appreciate the message of hope the psalm intends to communicate.

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