I sometimes speak of particular psalms as works of art, that is, as real works of art! Psalm 91 is certainly in that category. It has so many rich and vivid images. “You will not fear the terror of the night… or the destruction that wastes at noonday… You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.” But we’ll get to all those in a few minutes!
It also has a personal connection for me. Psalm 91 is my mom’s favorite. She has spoken of how she sometimes inserts her name where the appropriate pronoun appears. For example, “Ida will not fear the terror of the night.” “The young lion and the serpent Ida will trample under foot.” (Banu reminded me it is also her favorite, which she recites and does the same thing my mom does.)
I can speak of a quite intimate moment. It happened when she was about to have surgery to implant a pacemaker. Banu and I were in the hospital with her just before they were ready to roll her away and knock her out. We prayed this psalm with her. As you go through verse after verse, the promises of the Lord keep adding up, until we get to the end, “With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation” (v. 16).
This is a song, or a poem, of trust and confidence. The writer is assured of victory, of obstacles overcome. This assurance isn’t based on anything within herself or himself. This assurance, this conviction, is based on living “in the shelter of the Most High, [abiding] in the shadow of the Almighty (v. 1).
The word “Almighty” comes from the Hebrew שַׁדַּי (shaday) Shaddai.
It’s like the Amy Grant song, which was written by Michael Card and John Thompson. “El-Shaddai, El-Shaddai [“God Almighty”] / El-Elyon na Adonai [“God in the highest, Oh, Lord”] / Age to age, You’re still the same / By the power of the name.” And of course, the song goes on. There’s a good case of a psalm inspiring a work of art.
Shaddai is the “self-sufficient one,” the “one who suffices.” That’s a shelter impervious to the storms of life. One who needs nothing else.
And yes, our psalmist, our poet, has seen some tough times. There’s been the threat of being snared by the fowler—the danger of being trapped, like a bird rendered helpless. Who knows what snares, what traps, have lain in wait? What has been escaped?
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Who can speak of the “deadly pestilence”? Our writer has been set free—has been protected—from that which would leave desolation in its wake.
We’re told by Gregg Braden the ancient rabbis held that “Psalm 91 protected the prophet Moses the second time he climbed to the top of Mount Sinai, which is when he received the Ten Commandments. [He] was enveloped during his ascent by a mysterious cloud of unknown substance of unknown origin. The cloud became so dense that he could no longer see ahead of him, nor could he be seen by those watching him from below the cloud…”
“It’s during this time of uncertainty and fear that Moses composed and recited Psalm 91 for his protection. For reasons that he attributed to the power of this prayer, Moses, in fact, was protected.” While it’s not likely Moses actually wrote the psalm, we can see how it was regarded to have served as a shield.
I spoke of rich and vivid images, including verses 5 and 6. There is defense from dangers of night and day. No “terror of the night,” no “arrow that flies by day” will bring harm. In verse 6, we once again hear about pestilence. The psalmist is told to not fear “the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”
The destruction that wastes at noonday. Many have seen that as a reference to “the noonday devil” or “noonday demon.” Now that’s a colorful character. Throughout the centuries of church history, it became associated with one of the seven deadly sins, the one known as sloth. We might be tempted to laugh it off as mere laziness, but it is more than that. It is the condition called acedia. In Latin, it literally means “lack of care.” It is a refusal to act on the demands of love.
Andrew Michel is a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He says, “As an absence of care, acedia can seem harmless enough since it is not an observable…offense. However, whenever there is an absence of care in the world, an absence of intentionality, then someone is left lacking—an elderly person unattended, a starving person unfed, a woman battered, a child uneducated, a life’s gifting uncelebrated.” It might seem the only person harmed is the one afflicted by it, but as we see, it spreads outward. It is not a victimless crime!
“Therefore,” Michel continues, “acedia is difficult to notice because it [deals with] an absence. Perhaps this is the reason it has been associated with the Psalmist’s noonday demon, who seems to terrorize his prey in the light of day, not fearing being seen or noticed.”
I’ve taken some time with this, because “the destruction that wastes at noonday” doesn’t have to be something dramatic. In fact, it can hide in the ordinary run of the day. We get so busy with busy-ness that we demonstrate the prayer of confession of sin in which we ask forgiveness, not so much for “what we have done,” but “what we have left undone.”
But there’s good news! As Michel contemplated studying acedia, he feared it “might turn into turn into a project in moralizing. Yet, to my delight,” he realized, “as I have explored the richness of acedia, I have paradoxically discovered that the concept is refreshing and illuminating. Rather than heaping judgment on a person, the recognition of acedia offers an invitation to abundant living.” The richness of acedia, the noonday devil: that sounds like a contradiction in terms! Refreshing? Illuminating?
Still, that is the hope the psalmist holds out. Fear not.
The promises of deliverance continue. Consider verses 9 and 10: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” The word for “scourge” is נֶגַצ (nega`). It has several nuances, but probably the best one here is “contagion.” That could include the contagion of acedia, that noonday devil.
The promise here is that “contagion…shall not approach into your tent.” It shall not rest in your home, because the Lord is in your home. Something we’ve become familiar with in this past year and a half is indeed contagion. It has swept through the land; it has swept through the world. It has visited so many of us. I wonder, though, is there a difference between visiting and taking up residence? Moving in?
Assuming we take verse 10 literally, at some level, we have no control over being visited by the contagion of Covid, or any other contagion for that matter. Of course, we take precautions, but there are no firm guarantees in this fallen, disease-infested world. (I guess I’m scaring all the germophobes!)
Still, as I just suggested, maybe there’s a difference between having a visitor and having someone walk in unannounced, go to the fridge, grab a snack, plop down in your favorite chair, and put their feet up.
So unfortunately, we have become familiar with contagion. It seems to have brought to the surface some disconcerting realities.
I’ve been reading a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. Bonhoeffer, as you may or may not know, was a church leader in Germany during the time of the Nazis. His best-known book was The Cost of Discipleship. He was arrested for his anti-government activities, including participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler. He was imprisoned for two years. Bonhoeffer was executed just a matter of days before the surrender of the Nazis.
In the book, Metaxas quotes Bonhoeffer on his thoughts about what the war has revealed. I would suggest in the place of the word “war,” we substitute the word “contagion.” (It’s kind of like what Banu and my mother have done with Psalm 91, inserting their names in various places.) Here are some of his reflections on the realities that World War 2 revealed:
“It is not war [contagion] that first brings death, not war that first invents the pains and torments of human bodies and souls… It is not war that first makes our existence so utterly precarious and renders human beings powerless, forcing them to watch their desires and plans being thwarted and destroyed… But war makes all of this, which existed already apart from it and before it, vast and unavoidable to us who would gladly prefer to overlook it all.”
Does it seem like I’m overstating the effects of the pandemic by comparing it to war? Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s by very much. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I think these past months have revealed how crazy we make each other! Lengthy traumatic experiences have a way of doing that.
Going along with Bonhoeffer, those realities and forces were already there. The divisions, the shaming of each other, the recriminations… Covid has given all that an elevated platform. Especially with the forced lockdowns, it has exposed in detail the economic inequality, the imbalanced opportunities for education, the scourge (yes, the contagion) of domestic violence.
Hasn’t this talk of the noonday devil and contagion been fun? Fortunately, there’s more to the story.
To those who love the Lord and know his name, these vows are made: “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them” (v. 15). The word for “honor” כָּבַד (kabad) is the same word for “glorify.” Imagine that: the Lord will glorify us! Plagues and contagions might surround us. That includes the self-imposed contagion of acedia, of sloth—the one that has us saying “no” to love, “no” to the Spirit.
God is ever present, wanting so badly to glorify us. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ says, “No contagion will harm you.” Glory be to God in the highest!
 also in Psalm 124:7
 Gregg Braden, The Wisdom Codes (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2020), Kindle edition, Chapter 1, section 2, paragraph 1.
 Braden, 1.2.2
 Andrew A. Michel, “In Pursuit of Sophia: A Pilgrimage with Depression and Acedia,” Acedia: Christian Reflection (Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2013), 29-30.
 Michel, 30.
 Michel, 29.
 Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 373.