Psalm 91: Encouraging, Yet Confusing

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High

will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,

my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare

and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with His feathers,

and under His wings you will find refuge;

His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of the night,

nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,

nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side,

ten thousand at your right hand,

but it will not come near you.

You will only observe with your eyes

and see the punishment of the wicked.

If you make the Most High your dwelling

— even the LORD, who is my refuge —

then 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 ways;

they will lift you up in their hands,

so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

You will tread upon the lion and the cobra;

you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

“Because he loves me,” says the LORD,

“I will rescue him;

I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.

He will call upon me and I will answer him;

I will be with him in trouble,

I will deliver him and honor him.

With long life will I satisfy him

and show him my salvation.”

Ps. 91:1 – 16

So many things to notice about this psalm. For one thing, it’s one of the better-known psalms. The hymn “Under His Wings” is taken from it. And it’s worth noting that this poem portrays God as … a chicken. This is not the only place in the Bible where God is portrayed as a mother hen protecting her chicks under her wings. (Or, given the mention of the “fowler’s snare,” maybe in this poem a wild game bird is in view.) This is one example of how, though He is called He, the Old Testament God is also shown to be maternal.

Another thing that stands out to me is how the ancient Israelites felt just as helpless as we do in the face of violence, “disaster,” and the “deadly pestilence.”

One of my most vivid memories about this psalm came during an orientation activity when I had just arrived in Asia. A seasoned missionary read the entire thing to us, and then went on to tell a bunch of stories about times when he and people he knew had not been protected from various kinds of disaster.

Jesus knew this as well. Satan actually quotes this psalm to Him, “He will command His angels concerning you …” in Luke 4, to get Him to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. Jesus does not jump.

This is a poem. It is strangely heartening to read.

Yet it doesn’t always happen this way.

Yet it is the word of God.

I don’t understand it either.

A Tyrant is A Tyrant, on Whatever Continent

Lord Pacal of Palenque, today located in southern Mexico

I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, a sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Fun project: write a send-up of Ozymandias that stars Lord Pacal instead.

Sources

Evergreen Verse, selected by Hilary Laurie, J.M. Dent, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1998. Ozymandias on p. 89

The Magnificent Maya, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1993. Photo of Lord Pacal on p. 85

Anointing

Then Mary took a pint of nard

in an Egyptian alabaster jar;

she snapped its slender neck, and poured

its oily sweetness on Thy head

and on Thy feet, and wiped them with her hair;

the scent o’erpowered all the feasters there.

Mary was rich; a rich gift she could bring

as if Thou wert a dead man or a king.

And rich, too, was Thy friendship to her kin:

the hours she spent drinking Thy kind voice in,

Thy visits to their house in Bethany,

sweetness of knowing Thee.

Most recently, Thou raised her brother too –

and so she searched for something she could do.

She smears Thy head with pure and fragrant nard;

it is no purer than Thy head.

She hears, not heeding, tongues wag in the gloom;

Thou’st told her priests are plotting for Thy doom,

and she believes.

But at this feast

the oil of gladness she’s released

caring only to see Thou smilest at it

and hearing Thy pronouncement that ‘tis fit

for this dark week, when off to death Thou ride …

And when they pierce Thy hands, and feet, and side,

to high priest, Herod, Pilate, Calvary

her fragrant gratitude shall go with Thee

and powerful though silent witness bring

that Thou art a dead man and a king.

The Best Commentary on James 2:14 – 26 that You Will Ever Hear

My boys and I have been memorizing the book of James. The whole second half of chapter 2 is taken up with a blistering discussion about how “faith” means nothing if it doesn’t express itself in actions.

Here is the beginning of it:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and in need of daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

James 2:14 -18

Now, here it is translated into modern parlance by the musical genius Rich Mullins:

Happy 1st Day of Spring on Thursday!

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.

A.E. Housman, (1859 – 1936)

“Book, Don’t Fail Me Now”

The following is a poem by Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet. Bradstreet was a poet and a mom. This poem compares publishing a book to sending your child out into the world: you dress the kid as best you can, attempt to wipe his or her face, and just pray that he or she doesn’t embarrass you out there.

I was introduced to this poem in an American Lit class in college, and even then I thought it was clever. At the time, of course, I had no children and had not published anything.

In the years since, I’ve thought of this poem once or twice whenever I do manage to publish something and find that it can look very different staring up at you from a newspaper than it looked on my laptop. Truly, works of literature, like children, when we turn them loose on the world do not always behave the way we hoped they would.

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,

Who after birth didst by my side remain,

Till snatched from thence by friends less wise than true,

Who thee abroad, expos’d to publick view,

Made thee in raggs, halting to th’press to trudge,

Where errors were not lessened (all may judg).

At thy return my blushing was not small,

My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,

I cast thee by as one unfit for light,

Thy visage was so irksome in my sight;

Yet being mine own, at length affection would

Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:

I wash’d thy face, but more defects I saw,

And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.

I stretched thy joynts to make thee even feet,

Yet still thou run’st more hobling then is meet;

In better dress to trim thee was my mind,

But nought save home-spun Cloth, i’ th’ house I find.

In this array ‘mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam.

In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come;

And take thy way where yet thou art not known,

If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none:

And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,

Which caus’d her thus to send thee out of door.

The Author to Her Book, by Anne Bradstreet, via poetryfoundation.org

Complete Nonsense, Delightfully Expressed

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Should’st rubies find; I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the Flood;

And you should if you please refuse

Till the Conversion of the Jews.

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires, and more slow.

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze

Two hundred to adore each breast;

But thirty thousand to the rest;

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart.

For lady you deserve this state;

Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wing-ed chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Thy beauty shall no more be found,

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song: then worms shall try

That long preserved virginity:

And your quaint honor turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust.

The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

And while thy willing soul transpires

And every pore with instant fires,

Now let us sport us while we may;

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour,

Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

Let us roll all our strength, and all

Our sweetness, up into one ball;

And tear our pleasures with rough strife,

Through the iron gates of life.

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

“To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678)

Did any of you fellas talk like this when you were dating your lady?

Perhaps you did. This is, after all, just a better-expressed version of the old line, “Do you want to die a virgin?”

That’s why I call it complete nonsense. Come on, Andrew Marvell. Was this girl really expecting you to wait centuries for her? Or was she just hesitating for a few weeks? I’m guessing probably the latter. And you decided to bring the specter of mortality before her in order to guilt her in to your bed immediately.

But I honestly can’t dismiss this poem because, oh my gosh, it is so well expressed! I hope you laughed several times while reading it, because so many of the lines are funny and clever. The AA BB CC rhyme scheme is flawless, and the rhymes, together with the four feet instead of five per line, run through the middle of sentences in order to hurry us along through the poem. We want to get to the next rhyme, just as Marvell wants to get to the next … thing. And many of these images are so evocative that they get quoted frequently: “deserts of vast eternity” … “time’s slow-chapped power” … “all our strength and all our sweetness.”

I think the content of this poem is a huge piece of eye-roll worthy male manipulation. But the form is so terrific that I love the thing despite myself. I almost have it memorized. It’s a 17th century ear worm.

Marvell has taken a quintessential line, and he has elevated it, through the magic of poetry, into something else entirely.

Limes Are Love

A poem by me.

Photo by Lovefood Art on Pexels.com

The season for fruit is suddenly through.

The only regret is that is left to you,

you didn’t go out and gather more limes

but left them there for another time.

The lime tree’s thorns are painful, yes,

but they should not deter the determined guest.

And the lime itself may be far from sweet

but in soup it rewards those who dare to eat.

And so with love: we often find

regrets at what we’ve left behind,

repulsed by a thorn, a pucker or two,

that would not mean much if we’d pushed on through.

Fun fact: during the month or so at a time that I used to stay with a host family in a remote village in Borneo, they actually had a small lime tree. And it actually had thorns. To pick the limes, I had to climb through the brush, balance on the bank of the little creek that ran behind their house, and avoid the thorns. Most of the limes were small, dry and pulpy … but so worth it.