Magazine article The Christian Century

The Travels of Psalm 91

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Travels of Psalm 91

Article excerpt

Cast yourself down from this high place, said the devil to Jesus. 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 here, but modern readers may not appreciate the multiple ironies of the text. In Jesus' time, that very psalm had long been one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of Jewish exorcists. In this instance, though, the devil himself is quoting it. Hearing that speech is rather like seeing a modern cinematic vampire waving a crucifix. Today this ancient psalm enjoys unprecedented popularity around the world, and for very much the same reasons as in the earliest church.

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 may tread on supernatural enemies--lions and serpents--yet remain secure. Through much of Christian history, the psalm retained the element of exorcism, and its words commonly appear on amulets and inscribed on buildings. Right up to the 19th century, legends told of pious Christians who used the prayer to survive epidemics that killed thousands. As the psalm promises, "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.

In the United States, this psalm is still among the most frequently invoked Christian scriptures, especially in time of warfare. It was much quoted after the 9/11 attacks. The psalm has acquired a whole new life in the churches of Africa and Asia, which find a powerful resonance in the promise of protection from spiritual evil. The reference to deadly 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 it 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. Modern Africans likewise treasure the text. …

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