God Shelters the Faithful: The Prayer of Psalm 91
A Temple Psalm
Psalm 91 opens with a Temple motif:
תהלים צא:א יֹ֭שֵׁב בְּסֵ֣תֶר עֶלְי֑וֹן
בְּצֵ֥ל שַׁ֝דַּ֗י יִתְלוֹנָֽן׃
Ps 91:1 He who dwells in the Most High’s shelter,
in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night—
Interpreters agree that this opening line is one of several allusions to the Jerusalem Temple that appear in the psalm. Some suggest that the psalm is an entrance liturgy, i.e., a poem recited by worshippers who are about to enter the Temple precincts (cf. Pss 15; 24; 84). Alternatively, some see it as a psalm of refuge, recited by an individual who sought protection in the Temple (cf. Pss 27; 31). Others understand the temple language to be metaphorical rather than literal, and Psalm 91 as an expression of trust in God’s protection anywhere.
The Subject of Verses 1–2
In MT, this psalm lacks a superscription (a heading which identifies the author, context, or purpose of the psalm), though LXX, followed by the Vulgate, adds one.  In lieu of the missing psalm superscription, it may be best to read verse 1 as a general introduction, setting the stage for the psalm and introducing the speaker of verse 2.
Even so, the line is enigmatic. The sentence feels cut off. Who is this individual and what are we being told about the psalmist’s situation? Although we might expect all this to be clarified in the next verse, we are instead faced with what seems like disconnected, first-person speech:
צא:ב אֹמַ֗ר לַֽ֭י־הוָה
91:2 I say of YHWH,
“My refuge and bastion,
my God in whom I trust.”
What is the relationship between the speaker in verse 2 and the person being described in verse 1? This problem so bothered the LXX Greek translators that they—or their Vorlage—adjusted the verse to the 3rd person: ἐρεῖ τῷ κυρίῳ “He says (=יאמר) of the LORD.” Nevertheless, changes in voice (enallage) are not uncommon in biblical poetry. The likely meaning, therefore, is that the person who lives (ישב) under the protection of God’s shelter and spends the night in the shadow of Shaddai in verse 1 also exclaims that YHWH is his refuge and bastion in verse 2.
Part One of the Psalm: God Protects
Following the introduction, the psalm can be divided into two parts. The first, which ends at v. 13, continues the words of the speaker in verse 2, who goes on to express complete assurance and trust in God. Speaking in strong confessional language, the psalmist declares with confidence that what God has done God will do for others:
צא:ג כִּ֤י ה֣וּא יַ֭צִּֽילְךָ מִפַּ֥ח יָק֗וּשׁ
91:3 For He will save you from the fowler’s snare,
From the disastrous plague.
צא:ד בְּאֶבְרָת֨וֹ׀ יָ֣סֶךְ לָ֭ךְ
צִנָּ֖ה וְֽסֹחֵרָ֣ה אֲמִתּֽוֹ:
91:4 With his pinion He shelters you,
And beneath His wings you take refuge,
A shield and a buckler, His truth.
The opening word כִּי has the emphatic sense of “truly,” and the psalmist here expresses trust in YHWH, for He alone can save from danger. Verses 3 and 4 are linked by the unusual bird imagery (cf. Deut 32:11).
Verses 5–6 and the Powers of Death
The crux of the speaker’s message comes in verses 5–6. Indeed, the psalm’s history of reading was determined largely by the interpretation of these two verses. In verse 5, at the center of the psalm, the poet begins to name the hostile forces:
צא:ה לֹא־תִ֭ירָא מִפַּ֣חַד לָ֑יְלָה
מֵ֝חֵ֗ץ יָע֥וּף יוֹמָֽם׃
91:5 You shall not fear from the terror of night
nor from the arrow that flies by day,
The two clauses form a single sentence, arranged in perfect symmetry, and introduced by the assurance formula, “You shall not fear.” In his commentary on Psalms, the German theologian and Bible scholar, Erich Zenger (1939–2010), writes:
The psalm evokes the chaotic, lowering danger of death by having it act as personified powers of evil that practice their wickedness night and day.
The phrase “terror of night” (פחד לילה) occurs only here in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Song 3:8; Ps 64:2) and remains unclear. Similarly, the exact meaning of the second expression, “the arrow that flies by day” (חץ יעוף יומם), is uncertain. The poet seems to have a greater interest in emphasizing that the mortal dangers are multiple and constant, night and day, than in informing us of their exact nature.
We are on safer grounds with the two perils in verse 6:
צא:ו מִ֭דֶּבֶר בָּאֹ֣פֶל יַהֲלֹ֑ךְ
מִ֝קֶּ֗טֶב יָשׁ֥וּד צָהֳרָֽיִם׃
91:6 from plague that stalks in darkness
nor from scourge that rages at noon.
The “plague” (דבר), which already appeared in verse 3, and the “scourge” (קטב), are both deadly epidemics. The latter, often rendered “pestilence,” occurs four times in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 91:6; Deut 32:24; Isa 28:2; Hos 13:14), while דבר, “plague,” is attested more than fifty times, for example as the fifth plague in the exodus story (Exod 9:3).
Deadly Spirits and Demons
Many interpreters, from ancient times to the present, have understood the two perils in verse 6 not to be epidemics but rather malevolent spirits, or demons. The idea is already attested in the LXX, which translates the final phrase as “the misfortune and evil spirit (daimon) of midday” (ἀπὸ συμπτώματος καὶ δαιμονίου μεσημβρινοῦ).
It would appear that the LXX’s Vorlage read וקטב ושֵׁד צהרים, as Hebrew šēd means “demon.” As qeteb is together with this demon, it may be that, for the Greek translator, this hostile power is also a demon, and not a mere disease. In fact, many scholars assume that the term qeteb, and even dever, refer to demons or minor malevolent deities, if not here, then at least in other biblical passages (see Deut 32:24, Hab 3:5, and Hos 13:14).
Power Against Demons
Once the connection with demons was made, Psalm 91:5–6 was read persistently as a promise that God protects the faithful from demonic attacks. Among the psalm fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, a variant form of Psalm 91 is attested in a scroll known as 11QApocryphal Psalms (11Q11), a text from the first century C.E. This is a collection of four songs, possibly intended to exorcise demons. The inclusion of Psalm 91 in it suggests that it, too, has served as a protection against demons.
The Gospel of Luke also attests to the first-century use of this psalm against demons. In Luke 10:19, Jesus appoints seventy of his followers and confers on them the assurance of Ps 91:13 (“On lion and viper you tread”). When they return, they report back to Jesus, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (Luke 10:17). For Luke, those who receive the assurance of Psalm 91 derive from it the power to ward off demons.
The rabbis, too, found in Psalm 91 an assurance against the evil working of demons. In the Midrash on Psalms, first the flying arrow is interpreted as a demon:
אמר ר' ברכיה יש מזיק שהוא פורח כעוף הזה, וקושט כחץ,
R. Berechiah said: “There is a demon that flies like a bird, darting forth like an arrow…”
Later in the midrash, the next phrase is also interpreted as referring to a demon:
רבנן אמרי שד הוא... אמר ר' הונא בשם ר' יוסי קטב מרירי עשוי קליפין קליפין שערות שערות, (ושל) [ועל] עין אחד הוא רואה, ועינו תוך לבו,
The rabbis say “It is a demon.” … R. Huna said in the name of R. Yossi: “The demon ‘Bitter Destruction’ [qetev meriri (Deut 32:24)] is covered with scale upon scale and with shaggy hair and he glares with his one eye, and that eye is in the middle of his heart.”
There is, then, a long history of reading Psalm 91 as a poem about demons. That history is as old as the Greek variant, and it all depends on how one understands the powers of death in verses 5–6.
The Requital of the Wicked
The psalmist does not invoke this scene of (demonic?) terror and death to frighten, but, on the contrary, to instill trust, to comfort the audience and to assure them of God’s protective presence. Verse 7, which immediately follows the descriptions of the demons/epidemics, makes this point very forcefully:
צא:ז יִפֹּ֤ל מִצִּדְּךָ֨ ׀ אֶ֗לֶף
אֵ֝לֶ֗יךָ לֹ֣א יִגָּֽשׁ:
91:7 Though a thousand fall at your side
and ten thousand at your right hand,
you it will not reach.
Not everybody is as fortunate as the poet. Robert Alter must be correct when he writes, “the setting evoked is a raging epidemic in which vast numbers of people all around are fatally stricken.” Tens of thousands will fall, but the faithful will be spared. The next verse, v. 8, leaves no doubt about who the unfortunates are:
צא:ח רַק בְּעֵינֶ֣יךָ תַבִּ֑יט
וְשִׁלֻּמַ֖ת רְשָׁעִ֣ים תִּרְאֶֽה׃
91:8 You but look with your eyes,
and the wicked’s requital you see.
The dead are “the wicked ones” (רשעים), as everyone can plainly see with their own eyes. What is more, their death is a form of divine retribution (שלומה), a repayment for their wickedness. Yet, these wicked ones remain incidental: they are the unfortunate, unnamed people who die in obscurity. If anything, their deaths serve to make the divine promise stand out even more, when the faithful miraculously survive unscathed.
Verse 9 returns to the imagery in the opening verses. Yet again, the psalm uses enallage, as the speaker, implicitly in the first person, starts by addressing God in the second person, but then shifts to being addressed in the second person:
צא:ט כִּֽי־אַתָּ֣ה יְ־הֹוָ֣ה מַחְסִ֑י
עֶ֝לְי֗וֹן שַׂ֣מְתָּ מְעוֹנֶֽךָ:
91:9 For you [=YHWH], YHWH are my refuge
The Most High you [=the psalmist] have made your abode.
Despite the confusing shift of perspectives, the point is again that trusting in God makes the speaker safe. Then, in the vein of vv. 3–8, the speaker continues to describe how God protects the faithful:
צא:י לֹֽא־תְאֻנֶּ֣ה אֵלֶ֣יךָ רָעָ֑ה
וְ֝נֶ֗גַע לֹא־יִקְרַ֥ב בְּאָהֳלֶֽךָ:
91:10 No harm will befall you,
Nor affliction draw near to your tent.
Here the speaker refers to negaʿ, a term used in many places in the Bible. In Leviticus 13–14, for example, the term is used to describe contagious skin disease. In Ps 38:12, the psalmist’s friends and companions keep their distance. We are left wondering whether this is out of indifference to the psalmist’s plight or for fear of the contagion. This strengthens the possibility mentioned above that the speaker is envisioning a plague.
How God Protects the Faithful
The poet then describes how God protects the faithful:
צא:יא כִּ֣י מַ֭לְאָכָיו יְצַוֶּה־לָּ֑ךְ
91:11 For His messengers He charges for you
To guard you on all your ways.
צא:יב עַל־כַּפַּ֥יִם יִשָּׂא֑וּנְךָ
פֶּן־תִּגֹּ֖ף בָּאֶ֣בֶן רַגְלֶֽךָ:
91:12 On their palms they lift you up,
Lest your foot be bruised by a stone.
In direct response to the threat of the personified demons in verses 5-6, the speaker now describes divine messengers protecting the faithful. God has ordered "His messengers" to walk with the psalmist and to protect the psalmist "on all your ways," geographical or metaphorical. The faithful will even be protected from wild beasts that may be hiding on the way, as the final verse of the psalmist's speech makes clear:
צא:יג עַל־שַׁ֣חַל וָפֶ֣תֶן תִּדְרֹ֑ךְ
תִּרְמֹ֖ס כְּפִ֣יר וְתַנִּֽין:
91:13 On lion and viper you tread,
You trample young lion and serpent.
This time, the danger is not plague or pestilence, but wild animals. Nevertheless, the point remains the same. Only God can stop a lion or venomous snake.
Part Two of the Psalm: God Confirms the Truth of the Speaker’s Claim
In the last three verses of the psalm, God responds in the first person, presumably speaking through a priest or a cultic prophet, and confirms the poet’s expressions of trust.
צא:יד כִּ֤י בִ֣י חָ֭שַׁק וַאֲפַלְּטֵ֑הוּ
אֲ֝שַׂגְּבֵ֗הוּ כִּֽי־יָדַ֥ע שְׁמִֽי:
91:14 For Me he desired and I freed him,
I raised him high, for he has known my name.
צא:טו יִקְרָאֵ֨נִי׀ וְֽאֶעֱנֵ֗הוּ
91:15 He calls Me and I answer him,
I am with him in his straits,
I deliver him and grant him honor.
צא:טז אֹ֣רֶךְ יָ֭מִים אַשְׂבִּיעֵ֑הוּ
91:16 With length of days I shall sate him,
And show him my rescue.
The psalm ends with God promising protection, honor, long life, and rescue or “salvation.” In other words, the speaker who had previously promised the listener that God will protect the faithful from the plague is correct.
Psalm 91 and COVID-19, and the Nature of Confessional Language
I am writing these lines in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has already killed far more than “ten thousand” (Ps 91:7) people in the U.S. alone, and more than ten times as many globally. Some groups (not the wicked!) in society are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and die at a higher rate: the elderly in long term care facilities; the disabled who cannot practice social distancing; the poor; the prison populations; communities of color; those with compromised immune systems and other preexisting health conditions.
Taken literally, the psalm’s language feels highly insensitive to victims of the plague. But the psalm’s language is not intended to express God’s lack of care for the tens of thousands who have died. Rather, the purpose of such confessional language is to express the worshiper’s feeling of hope and trust in God’s protective care at a time when the news about death can seem overwhelming.
Confessional language of righteous versus wicked in the book of Psalms is not designed to give an objective description of specific groups of people, let alone a theological statement about the justice of God’s actions. Instead, it is meant to express an individual’s personal plea against fear and despair, as well as the worshipper’s praise and gratitude to God for being the sole source of hope and salvation. Much of the strength of the psalm derives from its personal nature, and it has long functioned as part of the Jewish and Christian liturgy, especially in times of despair, as it still does today.
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May 14, 2020
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Prof. Matthias Henze is the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism at Rice University. He holds a M.Div. in Protestant Theology from the University of Heidelberg and a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism from Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He is the director of Rice's Jewish Studies program, which he founded, and has won multiple prizes for teaching excellence. Henze is the author of a number of books such as, Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus (Fortress 2017) and Jewish Apocalypticism in Late First Century Israel: Reading Second Baruch in Context (Mohr Siebeck, 2011), and is the editor-in-chief of the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha.
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