As I recently waited in line at Disneyland to receive my COVID vaccine, I prepared Psalm 91 with commentaries. Verse ten read: “Evil will not befall you and plague will not come near your tent.” The commentary cited the Talmud (Shevuot 15b) where this psalm is named, “the song of plagues.” I had coincidentally chosen the right psalm to study for this particular moment.
The Talmud in that discussion records that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (Israel, 3rd century) would read these verses each night before falling asleep. Later rabbis would explain that the words provided protection from evil spirits and bad dreams. Across time for Jews and Christians alike, this Psalm would be used for protection from foe and fear.
Psalm 91 presents three voices: a person in prayer, a chorus or reassuring priest, and finally God. The only time that God’s intimate name (YHVH) is used is by the person in prayer. Most of the words provide extreme assurance, using multiple metaphors for God’s total and immediate protection. Yet when God speaks, the promise is more familiarly Biblical: you will face troubles and in due time, God will protect. In rereading the opening verse, ambiguity becomes apparent. It begins with a pronoun (and in Hebrew we do not know if a pronoun is capitalized), which can be read as either describing the person in prayer or God. If it is describing God, then it conveys God’s mystery, lending to a caution against spiritual certainty.
Lines of this Psalm have been put to music by many, including Felix Mendelssohn and the Grateful Dead (see the YouTube below). It has been used as a recitation or even an amulet for protection for soldiers (see the 2007 article below from the Orange County Register). You might also consider a recent NPR on a contemporary hymn based on Psalm 91 that President Biden recently referenced to describe his faith in America: https://www.scpr.org/
We dedicate this study to Amy Robinson Katz, our prayer leader (Ba’alat Tefillah), who will share a melody from the Taize community of France applied to the opening line.
Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead sang verses five and six as part of the song, “My Sisters and Brothers” (we will make it to the Promised Land). Click here to hear the song.
Psalm 91 is known as the Soldier’s Psalm or Soldier’s Prayer. On the making of bandanas with the words of the Psalm (in the packet pictured) for soldiers in Iraq, consider reading this article in the OC Register by clicking here.