Today’s post is by my Baylor colleague Philip Jenkins, writing at the Anxious Bench blog:
In 1874, legendary Baptist leader Charles H. Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers,” published a commentary on Psalm 91, under the title “The Privileges of the Godly.” That psalm famously includes the lines
Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. . . .
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. . . .
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
As Spurgeon remarked,
“A German physician was wont to speak of [Psalm 91] as the best preservative in times of cholera, and in truth, it is a heavenly medicine against plague and pest. He who can live in its spirit will be fearless, even if once again London should become a lazar-house, and the grave be gorged with carcasses.”
A lazar house or lazaretto is a quarantine place, originally for lepers. Now that’s a timely image. (By the way, there is an interesting recent post on Spurgeon’s reaction to the actual cholera outbreak that occurred in London in 1854.)
I have long followed the uses and readings of Psalm 91, and on occasion I have even contemplated writing a whole book-length history of how the psalm has resonated in different eras. There is just so much material. In various ways, it has been one of the most quoted texts from the Bible, and that is true now more than ever, around the world.
The story goes back to the New Testament. Cast yourself down from this high place, said the Devil to Jesus in the wilderness. Don’t you know the Scripture?, asked Satan. God’s angels will protect you, so that you won’t dash your foot against a stone. Satan is quoting Psalm 91. . . .
For many centuries, Psalm 91 has supplied both Jews and Christians with a refuge in time of trouble of all kinds, including supernatural assault, deadly plague, and worldly violence. It imagines the believer surrounded by threats, but nevertheless passing through unharmed, defended by angels. Thus girded, the faithful would encounter supernatural enemies, yet remain secure. As the psalm declares
I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
That verse gave Martin Luther the basis for the hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” [“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”], arguably the greatest work of its kind from the Reformation era, and the anthem of German Protestantism through the centuries. The hymn’s verses include multiple references to that theme of resisting and combating Satan and his demons.
Through much of Christian history, the psalm retained that element of exorcism, of spiritual warfare, and by extension, of healing. “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”
For obvious reasons, this is also known as the Soldiers’ Psalm. It was massively used in the First World War, when it acquired a whole body of legend and mythology, such as this story from the Military Christian Fellowship of Australia:
I found a story circulating that tells of a Brigade commander in WWI who gave a little card with Psalm 91 on it to his men who were in the Brigade of the same number—91st Brigade. They agreed to recite this daily. The story goes that after they started praying this prayer they were involved in three of the bloodiest battles in WWI yet suffered no casualties in combat despite other brigades suffering as much as 90%.
In the standard version of this much-told tale, the soldiers were from the United States, and the three battles were Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, and the Argonne. But that is only one story of many, which have found a whole new life on the internet. Psalm 91 materials, cards, and memorabilia continue to circulate, and were popular in Vietnam, and the war in Iraq. . . .
The psalm has acquired a whole new life in the churches of Christian Africa and Asia, which find a powerful resonance in the promise of protection from spiritual evil. Even the reference to serpents has an additional power in tropical regions where snakes and other deadly creatures are a far more familiar quantity than in the North, giving a special relevance to the comparison with diabolical forces.
The African love affair with Psalm 91 can be traced back to the ancient Coptic churches. St. Antony, the third-century Egyptian founder of monasticism, used the psalm to scatter those demonic enemies who manifested as lions and serpents; 1,700 years later, modern Africans likewise treasure the text. . . .
As Nigerian scholar David T. Adamo notes, the Bible offers many promises of protection, “but in Psalm 91 all the promises seem to be brought together in one collection, and forming a covenant.” The phrase “I pray Psalm 91” over a particular city or nation has become a natural reflex to disaster.
Read the rest of Jenkins’s post here.