Psalm 91 – Tread on Lions and Vipers
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. One who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, abiding in the shadow of the Almighty.
2. I say to the LORD, “My refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I trust.”
3. It is He Who will save you from the snare of the fowler, from the devastating plague.
4. With His pinions He will cover you, and under His wings you will find refuge; a shield and buckler, His faithfulness.
5. You shall have no fear of the terror by night or of the arrow that flies by day,
6. of the plague that stalks in the darkness, or of the scourge that destroys at .
7. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand—it will not come near you.
8. You need but look with your eyes, and the recompense of the wicked you will see.
9. 1-Indeed, You, LORD, are my refuge. The Most High you have made your haven-1;
10. no harm will befall you and no affliction approach your tent,.
11. For He will give His angels charge of you, to guard you on all your paths.
12. By hand they will carry you, lest you hit a stone with your foot.
13. You will tread on lions and vipers; you will trample young lions2 and asps.
14. “Because he adores Me, I will deliver him; I will raise him up, because he knows My name.
15. He will call on Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in distress; I will rescue him and I will honor him.
16. With length of days will I sate him, and cause him to see My salvation.’’
1. Alternatively, “Because you made the LORD, my refuge, the Most High, your haven,” or “Indeed, You, LORD, are my refuge, on high You have set Your haven.”
2. “Young lion” is a synonym for “lion,” possibly indicating a type.
Psalm 91 is often taken to be a single-minded, unwavering expression of faith. “Psalm 91 is the most impressive testimony in the Psalter to the strength that springs from trust in God,” states Weiser. “The author… has a profound faith,” summarizes the Interpreters’ Bible. Meltzer calls this a “psalm of assurance.”
On a second level, however, Psalm 91 is not as simple as any of these descriptions imply. Rather, it is a subtle, complex piece, a reflection on confidence with underlying disquiet. A close reading of the psalm reveals a speaker who is less than absolutely sure of his contentions and a psalm that conveys both tension and criticism through the medium of different voices. To allow deeper probing, I first reflect on the literature of Psalm 91, including comments on metaphors and specific verses. I then proceed to the indications that this psalm has a second level beyond the firm expression of confidence, and then to the underlying tone of the poem. Following this revised overview, I comment briefly on the irony in the use to which the psalm was put in generations past the date of its writing.
Psalm 91 is marked with a particularly rich variety of voices. By way of overview, a title verse is followed by a first person declaration (v. 2) and then an address to "you" (second person singular), followed by the same two stages again: declaration (v. 9) and address. In the last three verses, God speaks of his devotee to an anonymous audience.
Clarification of Select Verses
Verse 3. The two metaphors (snare, plague) imply protection both while on the way and at home, from human and natural enemies.
Verse 4. (a) The metaphor is of a mother bird protecting her young, though there is possible reference here to the wings of the cherubs that stretched over the
in the Ark . (b) A shield and a buckler literally surrounded a warrior in battle, Temple
Verses 5–6. (a) The terms (night/day, darkness/noon) encompass all times. (b) “Fear,” “plague,” and “scourge” might be personified, reflecting folk belief in evil spirits (so Rashi and others). (c) Note that arrows are more dangerous by day, when the archer can see his target. (d) It is also of note that in pagan traditions, a god causing a pestilence would make use of an arrow (Reshef in Canaanite literature and, much later, Apollo in Greek literature). History also knows of gods bringing death and destruction through home visits at night (the Babylonian God Nergal, possibly connected loosely to the tenth plague in
Verse 7. (a) It is uncertain whether the numbers (thousand/ten thousand) refer to arrows falling, individuals dying from a plague, enemies or allies in war. (Several commentators are very uncomfortable with the possible reference to allies, which would seem incredibly egocentric.) The two numbers are the largest known to the Bible, and thus represent vast hyperbole. (b) The larger number for the right hand reflects the fact that most warriors are right-handed.
Verses 11–13. (a) These verses seem oriented toward travel and lead some interpreters to connect this psalm to pilgrimage (which seems to me to be too limited). (b) Angels are messengers in the Bible. This was a necessity for monotheism, which only had one God, whereas in paganism, there are always other gods to undertake tasks. (c) Note the poetry of contradiction in verses 12 (where the speaker is carried) and 13 (where he is walking). (d) The imagery of verse 13 implies conquest and/or lack of fear.
Not Simple Assurance – Verses 2–13
The major challenge to the absolute confidence expressed in verses 2–13 is found in the final oracle (vv. 14–16), which I discuss below. However, even within these verses as first read, two elements undermine the ostensibly unqualified confidence.
First, the psalm rests on widely varied and hyperbolic metaphors, creating a fantasy of sorts, not to be taken literally. The addressee is lifted up and yet tramples on animals, and, at that, animals he scarcely could or would walk over! Indeed, one might well ask how anyone facing the content of verses 5 and 6 could “have no fear.” Even as metaphor, this grand hyperbole may be an example of “I think he does protest too much.”
Second, the fairly consistent use of the second person is striking and revealing. (Only verses 2 and 9, which echo each other, use the first person.) It is not clear who is speaking to whom when the anonymous second person is used. Does the person who originally states his belief in verse 2 then speak to others; does someone (an anonymous audience) respond to him; or does he speak to himself? If it is either of the last two (i.e., addressed to the speaker), the very need of the first speaker for such reassurance might bespeak a certain lack of trust, despite the opening statement.
If, on the other hand, the speaker of verses 2 and 9 addresses other people in the other verses, one must ask why. There are linguists and psychologists who indicate that a switch to the use of the second person often indicates an underlying lack of confidence by a speaker. Reassuring an outside party is often a way for a speaker to reassure himself in light of doubts.
In short, all three interpretations of the use of the second person might bespeak hidden qualms.
The Clash of Voices and the Underlying Message
The sharpest change of voice occurs in verse 14, the beginning of the oracle from God. Citing God's words is not unusual in Psalms. The question in each case is the role played by the citation. The oracle in Psalm 91 is often seen as a strong corroborative climax, but I suggest that it would seem extreme to quote God for mere restatement. It is more likely that assurance is needed beyond that of the human voice, reflecting again an underlying lack of confidence, as noted above.
The dissonance between the last three verses and those that went before, however, is greater than simply the identity of the speaker. This last section abandons all metaphor and repeats only one term that came before. In fact, it is more similar to many other psalms than it is to the first section of Psalm 91, and it may be a citation of a pledge recorded elsewhere. In any case, in its sober presentation, it promises less than the body of the psalm (as Broyles notes). The one who “adores God” in these last verses either is or will be in trouble. The promises of the first section (again, even accounting for the hyperbole) simply do not hold! Until these last verses, God keeps all troubles away. In the last three verses, He extracts the speaker from those very troubles.
As such, there is a second level of meaning to these last verses, beyond reassurance. The oracle is almost a critique of what came before. In its exaggeration, its absolute belief, and its declaration that no evil can befall a devotee, perhaps the first part of the psalm had gone too far. Indeed, as noted, there are even overtones here of an approach to God as an amulet that automatically keeps all evil far away. The final verses, then, come to return the psalm to the mainstream of biblical faith, which is somewhat more complex. Salvation, yes, but some of that is a matter of belief, not observation, and certainly to some degree it has yet to arrive. In any case, troubles do occur, even to devotees.
This alternative, in turn, renews attention to verse 1. As first translated, verse 1 is a title citing the devotee of God, about whom the psalm speaks. However, reading the final oracle as a call for a more sophisticated faith allows for an alternative translation (as some interpreters propose), applying it not to the devotee, but to God himself: “He dwells in the hidden place, does the Most High; in shadow does the Almighty abide” (cf. Ps. 31:20f.). The second understanding, which emerges only after reading the oracle, emphasizes that God does not “work” as an amulet that keeps all evil away. His ways are “hidden” and “shadowed.” This second reading reinforces the effort of the final oracle to bring the devotee to a less concrete conception of faith. Verse 1 thus becomes two titles—one for the words of the believer and one for the correction according to God’s oracle!
Faith continues. The psalm does maintain that a close attachment to God is ultimately rewarded in this world, and in that respect, it remains an assurance, just as it first reads. Nevertheless, Psalm 91 suggests a more nuanced faith, expressing certain underlying doubts about those who too loudly protest their belief, and offering reservations about faith too literally held. It is a critique of naiveté.
* * * * * *
Alter cites one scholar who calls this an “amulet-psalm.” It is, instead, as interpreted above, almost an “anti-amulet-psalm,” and it is therefore somewhat ironic to trace its use in history. In light of the hyperbolic faith articulated in the first section, the New Testament cites the Devil quoting it, urging Jesus to undertake risks in order to test God (Jesus refuses; Mat. 4:6; Luke 4:10). In the Talmud (Shavuot 15b) there is reference to Psalm 91 as a “Song of Afflictions (or Pestilence)” and it seems to be recited there to ward off evil on an occasion when
was expanded. It is also cited there as an individual’s prayer before going to sleep. (This later became a common practice.) In all of these cases, it seems that the text might have been used precisely in the way that the text itself criticizes—as an amulet to ward off evil! That misuse evidently continued apace. In a double irony, Kaiserin Elizabeth of Austria was murdered in 1898 while wearing a medallion inscribed with verse 5 (Seybold, p. 213, citing P. Hugger)! Jerusalem
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Jerusalem Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
א) יֹשֵׁב בְּסֵתֶר עֶלְיוֹן בְּצֵל שַׁדַּי יִתְלוֹנָן:
(ב) אֹמַר לַיהֹוָה מַחְסִי וּמְצוּדָתִי אֱלֹהַי אֶבְטַח בּוֹ:
(ג) כִּי הוּא יַצִּילְךָ מִפַּח יָקוּשׁ מִדֶּבֶר הַוּוֹת:
(ד) בְּאֶבְרָתוֹ יָסֶךְ לָךְ וְתַחַת כְּנָפָיו תֶּחְסֶה צִנָּה וְסֹחֵרָה אֲמִתּוֹ:
(ה) לֹא תִירָא מִפַּחַד לָיְלָה מֵחֵץ יָעוּף יוֹמָם:
(ו) מִדֶּבֶר בָּאֹפֶל יַהֲלֹךְ מִקֶּטֶב יָשׁוּד צָהֳרָיִם:
(ז) יִפֹּל מִצִּדְּךָ אֶלֶף וּרְבָבָה מִימִינֶךָ אֵלֶיךָ לֹא יִגָּשׁ:
(ח) רַק בְּעֵינֶיךָ תַבִּיט וְשִׁלֻּמַת רְשָׁעִים תִּרְאֶה:
(ט) כִּי אַתָּה יְהֹוָה מַחְסִי עֶלְיוֹן שַׂמְתָּ מְעוֹנֶךָ:
(י) לֹא תְאֻנֶּה אֵלֶיךָ רָעָה וְנֶגַע לֹא יִקְרַב בְּאָהֳלֶךָ:
(יא) כִּי מַלְאָכָיו יְצַוֶּה לָּךְ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בְּכָל דְּרָכֶיךָ:
(יב) עַל כַּפַּיִם יִשָֹּאוּנְךָ פֶּן תִּגֹּף בָּאֶבֶן רַגְלֶךָ:
(יג) עַל שַׁחַל וָפֶתֶן תִּדְרֹךְ תִּרְמֹס כְּפִיר וְתַנִּין:
(יד) כִּי בִי חָשַׁק וַאֲפַלְּטֵהוּ אֲשַׂגְּבֵהוּ כִּי יָדַע שְׁמִי:
(טו) יִקְרָאֵנִי וְאֶעֱנֵהוּ עִמּוֹ אָנֹכִי בְצָרָה אֲחַלְּצֵהוּ וַאֲכַבְּדֵהוּ:
(טז) אֹרֶךְ יָמִים אַשְׂבִּיעֵהוּ וְאַרְאֵהוּ בִּישׁוּעָתִי: