The Shelter of the Most High
Psalm 91 is one the loveliest of the Psalms. It was meant to be read at bedtime before going to sleep. The word 'dwells' actually means 'to spend the night'. Conscious living relationship to God provides the shelter of God's presence and blessing. We need shelter from the climate but we also need shelter from the world. We need shelter from the news. We need shelter from others. We need shelter from adversity and the daily struggles of life and living. We need shelter from our own minds, thoughts, anxieties, worries and griefs. The shelter is the holy hidden place where we speak to God, pray and believe. It is our secret soul. The things of God are largely invisible but their effects, results and consequences are visible. No-one can see your Christian Faith but everyone can see your Christian life. So the Psalm assures us that we can rest, fall asleep in the shadow of the Almighty. Shadow for us is not usually a good word. We have phrases like 'a shadowy person', 'a shadow on the lung' and one used by footballers in their interviews 'without a shadow of a doubt'. But for the middle east person living in that hot and dry climate, a shadow was a very welcome sight. It meant a brief spell of respite from the heat, it meant cooler air, it provided rest. God's shadow is all of that for the Psalmist. For us in Scotland, we might say the opposite meaning the same thing, that we will rest in the sunshine of the Almighty. Song writers use this image a lot. John Denver wrote 'Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy'. He was not just thinking of the warmth but of a spiritual blessing which the warmth signified to him. Stevie Wonder wrote 'You are the sunshine of my life' meaning the spiritual warmth of human love. The hymn writer John Keble wrote 'Sun of my soul, my Saviour dear, it is not night if you are near' describing the light of Christ that accompanies through the night of rest and sleep. For the Psalmist the word 'shadow' expresses the same meaning.
He goes on to describe God as 'refuge' and 'fortress'. I suppose we do not think of ourselves as spiritual refugees but that it what is implied. If you are a deeply prayerful and pious person, you will understand this idea. Christians are refugees in this society and culture today. We know that there are actual Christian refugees who have fled Iraq and Syria and Egypt and Northern Nigeria and India and other places due to persecution. Hindu nationalism in India has increased persecution of Christians. There are 168 recently recorded incidents of violence against Christians; there are attempts at forced conversion to Hinduism and threats of death; there are cried of 'Bring in the Kingdom of Lord Rama'. But for the sincere Christian living in this country today he or she may feel like a refugee, no longer wanted or belonging and actively encouraged to opt out. 'God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble' says Psalm 46.
But God is not a canvas tent or a tarpaulin cover. God is a fortress. We do not live in makeshift spiritual houses exposed to the elements, wind blown, cold and vulnerable. Martin Luther discovered this after his excommunication as he was saved from assassination in 1521 by being taken to the awe-inspiring Wartburg Castle by Frederick the Wise where he was able to live and write while being protected. So he wrote the famous hymn:
'A safe stronghold our God is still, a trusty shield and weapon; he'll keep us clear from all the ill that hath us now o'ertaken. With force of arms we nothing can, full soon were we down-ridden; but for us fights the proper Man whom God himself hath bidden. Ask ye who is this same? Christ Jesus is his name, the Lord Sabaoth's Son; he, and no other one, shall conquer in the battle'.
The Christian lives in a fortress – within – strong walls – height – safety. It is God who is our fortress. That is something to remember before going to sleep. That is what the Psalmist here is saying. Verses 3 to 8 describe the state of fear that we are all prone to from time to time. We are fortunate to live in a civilised society. It is very unlikely that you or I will get a knock at the door in the middle of the night leading to our never being seen again. But that is the lot of many in the world today. In dictatorships and in totalitarian run countries government security services have absolute power over citizens. ISIS instils and rules by fear through appalling arbitrary cruelties and murders. The Romans in Jesus' time ruled by fear as well as by rule of law. Jews in Germany in the 1930's and 40's lived afraid of the Gestapo coming to their homes at night. Communist East Germany Stasi Secret Police terrorised citizens making everyone spy on their neighbours.
There was a short article in a newspaper last week saying that in North Korea a citizen was executed because he had not wept in public sufficiently while commemorating the death of a former North Korean leader.
Not many societies in history have allowed the people to have proper rights and representations. Judaism did order a proper community but human ambition and violence often wrecked that ideal based on the Ten Commandments. The middle east to this day is often times a lawless place. There always were roaming marauding tribes. You did not sleep easily in your tent. But here the Psalmist is saying that even when there is no guaranteed security God will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find safety. It is a state of mind he is talking about. Knowledge of God's love brings peace even in times of difficulty and adversity. The writer mentions disease and weapons of enmity and war itself as events over which God is sovereign. These occur and the psalmist is not denying it. He is saying though that within your own relationship to God, you can be secure.
'If', verse 9 begins. 'If you make the most High your dwelling...no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your way. They will lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone'. Now this may not be your experience or mine. These words seems to suggest that you will live this life trouble free. That is certainly contradicted elsewhere in Scripture. Jesus Himself said. 'In this world you will have trouble but do not be afraid – I have overcome the world'. Perhaps the meaning is the same. It is one of victory. The Psalmist is saying that nothing will finish you completely. Jesus words are pointing to eternal life. The Psalmist speaks of angels – guardian angels under the command of God. Angel is an overused word; it is used of small children; it is used on nurses; it is used of loving family members; it is used of people who do a good turn; it is used of people who make an especial help in difficult circumstances. You could describe some home carers as angels. Spiritualists speak of angels. Pop music is replete with references to angels. Some of you will remember Bobby Vinton's 1963 song 'You are my special angel sent from heaven above'. Abba sang a song in which they said 'I believe in angels – something good in everything I see'. Robbie Williams has a song called 'Angels'. 'I sit and wait does an angel contemplate my fate And do they know The places where we go When we're grey and old 'cause I have been told That salvation lets their wings unfold So when I'm lying in my bed Thoughts running through my head And I feel that love is dead I'm loving angels instead'.
Angel is a word often used in personal love. Jesus was ministered to by angels and talked about angels. In the Bible angels are guarantors of good within the providence of God. The Psalmist says God will send you guardian angels. Maybe you know this and can testify to this happening in your life. I can. Verse 14 says 'Because he loves me I will rescue him'. There is the clue. The subject is in some kind of trouble or crisis, perhaps personal difficulty or danger. But the long established personal relationship we have with God is our salvation. How many of us know God's rescuing? Maybe everyone here. It is worth loving God in this human life. It is worth witnessing for God as we live out our days on earth. Psalm 91 ends with a promise. 'He will call upon me and I will answer him...I will deliver him and honour him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation'.
That is surely true of some here today. You have been blessed with a long life, maybe longer than you ever expected, lived under the shelter of the Most High. And you see others around you not so fortunate, even your own flesh and blood, family members and friends. They have not dwelt and do not dwell in shadow of the Almighty. So rejoice and be thankful that God loves you and stay close to Him all your days. He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.