A Mighty Fortress

Whoever lives under the shelter of the Most High
will remain in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “You are my refuge and my fortress,
my God in whom I trust.” (Psalms 91:1-2)

Some call Psalm 91 the “Soldier’s Psalm,” and appropriately so. The psalm’s military origins are clear.

Psalm 91 declares that God is a place of safety and a fortress (metzuda). Modern English speakers know the word as Masada, the name of the famous Jewish redoubt in the war with Rome. Here in Germany, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many outdated military fortifications, from 20th century bunkers to medieval castles to the remains of the Roman defensive line known as the Limes. An old castle is a very pleasant place to spend a few hours, have a meal and drink a glass of wine from the nearby vineyards. The castle, however, can no longer protect anyone from anything. All human fortresses eventually fall into ruins. Long before that, they lose their ability to protect those who run to them for safety. No human fortress stands forever. God alone is the feste Burg – the strong fortress – that will never fail.

The Psalmist says that God’s faithfulness is a shield and an encircling protection (personal armor or defensive wall) (Psalm 91:4). The two biggest threats to ancient soldiers on campaign were disease in the camp – which historically took more lives than combat – and the weapons of the enemy. The Psalmist declares that the person of God does not need to fear either one.

You will not be afraid of the terror by night,
Or of the arrow that flies by day;
Of the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
Or of the destruction that lays waste at noon. (Psalms 91:5-6)

Hebrew parallelism reveals just what the author envisioned as the terror that comes at night: sickness. Both plague and combat can be extremely deadly.

No matter what your eyes may see or your ears may hear or your panicked brain may tell you, God’s word can be trusted.

A thousand may fall at your side
And ten thousand at your right hand,
But it shall not approach you. (Psalms 91:7)

When the battle is fierce, or when disease is raging, the one who trusts in God need not fear. Multitudes may fall, but God’s person is safe.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Psalm is a favorite of soldiers and others who live in close proximity to danger. I carried the words of Psalm 91 with me throughout out my time in combat in Iraq to remind me of God’s promise.

Over the past several years, there has been an explosion of Psalm 91 books, pamphlets, jewelry and knick-knacks aimed at soldiers and their families. I’m afraid that much of it is severely misleading, not in what it says, but it what it doesn’t say. Here is the theoretical foundation of what follows:

The words of Scripture, when they are removed from the Biblical story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation that centers on Jesus Christ, no longer necessarily function as the word of God. They can, in fact, function as the words of Satan.

With Psalm 91, we really don’t have to wonder how its promises fit into the larger picture of salvation in Christ. The New Testament is quite clear. On whose lips do these words of Psalm 91 appear in the gospel narratives?

For He will give His angels charge concerning you,
To guard you in all your ways.
They will bear you up in their hands,
That you do not strike your foot against a stone. (Psalms 91:11-12)

It is Satan who tempts Jesus with the words of Psalm 91. As I wrote in Temptation: Cast Yourself Down,

The Psalmist envisions a God who protects his own and delivers them from death. As Jesus looks forward to walking the way of the cross, he must wrestle with the promise of Psalm 91. Can a God who makes the promises of Psalm 91 allow his chosen one to suffer and die? Can such a God be trusted? Is God’s word in Psalm 91 true, and if so, how can it true be true in the shadow of the cross?

Jesus answered Satan with the words of Deuteronomy 6:13, which point back to Israel’s experience at Massah during the Exodus. At Massah, the people faced an impossible situation: they had no water in the hot, dry desert. They feared for their lives and did not believe that God could provide for them under these circumstances. Exodus says that the people “tested the LORD by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?'” (Exodus 17:7) The desperate situation led some to doubt that God was with them  at all. The LORD called the people of Israel to put their faith in him despite the apparent impossibility of the situation. In similar fashion, God called Jesus to trust him throughout the coming difficult days. Jesus’ resurrection would ultimately fulfill the promise of Psalm 91, but not without a journey to the cross.

Jesus interpreted Psalm 91, then, in the light of the larger flow of the scriptural narrative in which God proved himself faithful even when it looked as if God could not be true to his word. The cross would appear to be the ultimate negation of God’s word in Psalm 91. Instead, Jesus maintained his faith; not even death could defeat God’s saving work.

Psalm 91 is not a talisman or a magic charm, but a promise of God’s ultimate victory. In this age, evil still has power. Consciousness of Psalm 91 will no more protect me from bullets and shrapnel than it protected Jesus from whips and nails. Do I believe that God acts in this world? Yes, but I think his ways are hidden from our understanding. I still pray for safety for myself and others, and I am still thankful for my daily deliverance from the dangers of this world. My hope and confidence, however, are in God’s victory on a cross and in an empty grave . The theology of the cross is at the center of the Biblical story. I believe that Jesus suffered, died and rose again to deliver the world from sin, suffering and death, but no,  I don’t believe that Jesus suffered so I wouldn’t have to. Until Christ appears at the close of the age, sin, suffering and death will continue to characterize the world in which we live. Christians are not exempt from their effects because Jesus wasn’t exempt from their effects.

Those Christians who interpret their experience of survival through the lens of Psalm 91 without the perspective of the cross of Christ err by making their own experiences the arbiter of God’s truth. For Christians, Psalm 91 is true whether one lives or one dies. To imply otherwise impugns the faithfulness of those saints who died from this world’s dangers. To imply otherwise endangers the faith of immature believers when life doesn’t work out the way that magical thinking predicts.

Unlike the most of the Psalm 91 literature that I see today, Martin Luther understood what this psalm meant in the light of Christ. The man who risked his life for the sake of the Word of God gave us the magnificent hymn Ein’ feste Burg:

Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, Ein gute Wehr und Waffen;
Er hilft uns frei aus aller Not, Die uns jetzt hat betroffen.
Der alt’ böse Feind, Mit Ernst er’s jetzt meint,
Gross’ Macht und viel List Sein’ grausam’ Ruestung ist,
Auf Erd’ ist nicht seingleichen.

Mit unsrer Macht is nichts getan, Wir sind gar bald verloren;
Es steit’t für uns der rechte Mann, Den Gott hat selbst erkoren.
Fragst du, wer der ist? Er heisst Jesu Christ,
Der Herr Zebaoth, Und ist kein andrer Gott,
Das Feld muss er behalten.

Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär’  Und wollt’ uns gar verschlingen,
So fürchten wir uns nicht so sehr, Es soll uns doch gelingen.
Der Fürst dieser Welt, Wie sau’r er sich stellt,
Tut er uns doch nicht, Das macht, er ist gericht’t,
Ein Wörtlein kann ihn fällen.

Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn Und kein’n Dank dazu haben;
Er ist bei uns wohl auf dem Plan Mit seinem Geist und Gaben.
Nehmen sie den Leib, Gut, Ehr’, Kind und Weib:
Lass fahren dahin, Sie haben’s kein’n Gewinn,
Das Reich muss uns doch bleiben.

This is a somewhat literal (but still lyrical and not quite exact) translation of Luther’s original German lyrics:

A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon;
He helps us free from every need that hath us now overtaken.
The old evil foe now means deadly woe;
Deep guile and great might Are his dread arms in fight;
On Earth is not his equal.

With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected;
But for us fights the Valiant One, Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this? Jesus Christ it is.
Of Sabbath Lord, and there’s none other God;
He holds the field forever.

Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none, he’s judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.

The Word they still shall let remain nor any thanks have for it;
He’s by our side upon the plain with His good gifts and Spirit.
And take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife,
Let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won;
The Kingdom ours remaineth.

And here are the words of the most famous translation of “A Mighty Fortress” by Frederick H. Hedge:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

That’s what Psalm 91 means to me.