One of the more important and central of all psalms, Psalm 91 holds a revered place in the ancient liturgies and commentaries of the Church. It was analyzed by everyone from Irenaeus to Augustine in the early church, attributed to both Moses and David, and is practically ubiquitous in lectionaries, old and new.
Some commentators view Psalm 91 as a couplet with Psalm 90, Psalm 91 and its assurance of God’s protection is seen as the counterpoint to the laments of Psalm 90, and the two are often read together by churches that follow a secular calendar in planning worship. Psalm 90 is traditionally read on New Year’s Eve as the unfulfilled hopes of the previous year come to an end and Psalm 91 on New Year’s Day as a reminder that God’s care remains as steadfast and assured as ever.
Following the Christian calendar, other commentators (and most contemporary lectionaries), use Psalm 91 as a marker of the “calendar year” change at the beginning of Lent as the church begins the long march to Easter. Psalm 91 is used on the first Sunday of Lent to stand as a theological correction and counterpoint in the worship of God to Satan’s notorious quotation of verses 11-12 in his tempting of Jesus in the wilderness in Mark 4 and Matthew 4.
Still other sources view Psalm 91 and its powerful language imagery a God as refuge and protecter as the middle verse of a lament-trust-joy narrative that is traced through Psalms 90, 91, and 92. This poetic chronicle is read throughout the Lent-Passion/Easter/Resurrection journey as worshipful confession that God is always active, always caring, and our everlasting source of spiritual nourishment, both head and hard, thought and delight.
There is also the various witness of commentaries throughout Christian history that link Psalm 91 as a Messianic promise to Jesus’ ‘I am the True Vine’ saying in John 15.
However understood or used, it is clear that Psalm 91 is useful and provocative and offers many homiletical and pastoral opportunities for the preacher.
Psalm 91 employs a constellation of useful themes, concepts, and images for homiletical design. Some preachers may find it advantageous to pick a theme like refuge, deliverance, or salvation—all prevalent throughout the passage and easy to couple with the language of the David (vv.14-16), Moses (vv.1-4), or even Isaiah (vv.7-10)—to preach. Others may opt for one image making refuge or deliverance a single ideal to which can be added others more metaphorical images like snares or pestilence, for sermon preparation. Like most of scripture, the good news is that Psalm 91 works for either homiletical style and offers plenty of ‘food’ and material for the thoughtful preacher.
There are several other advantageous ways to preach Psalm 91. The preacher may choose to preach on stewardship and care of the worship environment, coupling it with Psalm 90 and borrowing from both the prevalent references to architecture and material culture as an allusion to the importance of the Temple to Israel and the worship environment in Christian churches. The theme of place in God’s life is an often overlooked preaching opportunity and a whole host of applications and images abound here—sanctuary, refuge, protection, and ‘heaven come to earth’ with even angels attending the space/place come to mind.
A way to build on the stewardship idea is to preach on the dual theme of protection/deliverance. These are powerful promises from God and Psalm 91 is an opportunity to help believers understand that rightly. Here, protection is God’s doing and comes as we abide in him—physically and spiritually--with real parameters of understanding. Protection/deliverance must be preached with care as the Psalmist delivers it. They are always linked to the history of God’s people, as portrayed here, collectively with illustrations from Israel’s past that are recounted in the Old Testament. When they become individual blessings, they are given at the discretion of God and not in every case. Discernment must be used not to over-promise on things that the Scriptures do not intend—not everyone who has cancer is cured and not everyone receives a check in the mail. Protection and deliverance are the ways God will ultimately deal with death and victory for all people and the preacher must take care when preaching on these themes.
Perhaps a useful way to point out right interpretation of Scripture is to preach Psalm 91 in its lectionary setting. When used within a lectionary sermon (this Sunday coupled with Deuteronomy 26, Romans 10, and Luke 4) it is important to note that Psalm 91 serves as a buttress to Satan’s misapplication of verses 11 and 12 as he tempts Jesus in the wilderness. Satan omits the very important “in all your ways” when he tempts Jesus to throw himself down from the heights, thus turning a confession of trust in God to determine which ways are his ways into an attempt to force God’s hand in meeting our demands at the moment. Psalm 91 reminds us that God’s protection is always in accordance with God’s purposes and must not be misused to distort Scriptural meaning or fit our own agenda. Scripture interpreting Scripture, as Luther noted, is the proper means to exegesis and understanding.
Another interesting way to preach from Psalm 91 is to use it as a Messianic illustration coupled with the ‘I am the true vine’ saying of Jesus in John 15. In the sermon the preacher will want to draw direct links between the shared language of the two pericopae. The word abide (Ps. 91:1 and Jn. 15:4) draws the clearest link between Jesus as the promised Messiah who provides the Psalm’s main themes of shelter and refuge. Other parallels are easily drawn between Ps 91:14, 15 and Jn. 15: 9, 16, 7 as to God’s fulfillment of love, petitionary prayer, and divine answer in the ministry and person of Jesus.
The narration of God’s story in Psalm 91 affords a gateway of opportunities to apply and reinforce themes of best pastoral practices through the sermon to the life of the church and believers. The Psalm is one of confession and assurance. It reminds us that God is always who God says he is, that is our confidence in Him is never misplaced, and God alone is trustworthy no matter the circumstances of life, one of the most powerful confessions of the church in its evangelist witness. Protection, rescue, salvation, and refuge in the midst of fear and danger from real enemies, natural and human, comes from the hand of God.
Theoretically and practically, the Psalmist reminds us of two things, one clear and the other overshadowing. Clearly the words of Psalm 91 underpin the pastoral care of God offered through the ministry of the church to those who for whatever reason are bound by fear and in need of protection. This is our pastoral duty and is a clear pathway to grounding our pastoral practices, including our preaching, in the life that God has lived in our midst and one that both the Old and New Testaments remind us of. We have the refuge of our buildings, the presence of God’s angels, and the promises of a God who acts decisively in history as refuge and protector to his people. The spoken word is a powerful way to remind ourselves of all that God has done and all that God is capable of doing for us.
Second, Psalm 91 stands as an overshadowing of the kind mentioned at the beginning of the psalm to those who live in the shelter of the Most High and abide in the shadow of the Almighty. It is a reminder that passages like Psalm 91 serve as a call to pastoral imagination in the challenges that we face today. Sanctuary for the refugee, rescue for the abused and troubled, and deliverance from fear and enemies is who God is and also what God does and his call to us as his people to be and do the same. This will take some preaching and some believing, but that is our work and the meaning of our worship—to be transformed more and more into the image and likeness of the one who is our refuge and salvation by practicing that which we preach.
Tate, Marvin E. Psalms 51-100. Word Biblical Commentary [WBC] Series. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990.