(CC) [Notes from the Global Church] Philip Jenkins–Psalm 91 in every time and place

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.

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Posted in Church History, Theology, Theology: Scripture