In this psalm, the images of a refuge and fortress, and of being raised up on eagles' wings reflect the strength and power of how God holds us in his love.
Psalm 91 – Be with Me Lord when I am in Trouble
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
Be with me, Lord, I pray.
You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord Most High,
who abide in the shadow of our God,
say to the Lord, “My refuge and fortress,
the God in whom I trust.”
No evil shall befall you, no pain come near,
for his angels stand close by your side,
guarding you always and bearing you gently,
watching over your life.
Those who cling to the Lord live secure in his love;
lifted high those who trust in his name.
Call on the Lord, he will never forsake you.
He will bring you salvation and joy.
© 1980 Marty Haugen GIA Publications
Be With Me Lord by Marty Haugen – www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKzmYk6x4kE
‘My refuge and my fortress, the God in whom I trust’ is the essence of this powerful and consoling psalm. It is possible that the psalmist is speaking on behalf of someone who has taken refuge in the Lord, possibly within the Temple precincts during a time of danger. The psalmist is utterly confident that God’s presence will protect the people in every dangerous situation.
As a passionate walker, I often spend time hiking over the rugged land of Dartmoor in Devon. Walking these paths is always challenging but frequently awe-inspiring. It is easy to engage with the deeper issues in life away from the crowds and the demanding deadlines of work. On Dartmoor the weather can change in a very short space of time and walkers are warned to carry essential equipment for emergencies. Clear blue skies can quickly turn to dark and threatening clouds which lead to low mists and dense rain. It doesn’t take much to become disorientated and lose the path, especially when one, like me, is a poor map reader. If one is lucky, a rare outcrop of rocks will appear and become a welcome place to find shelter and protection.
It was on one such occasion that Psalm 91 came to mind. I was feeling tired, frustrated and a little scared, longing for a break in the clouds to enable me to re-discover the path. As I prayed the psalm I realised that the rock within which I had found shelter was the rock of refuge that God offers to be for us. God was with me. God was protecting me as God does. I felt a deep sense of reassuring peace in the safe knowledge of God’s love for me. I could believe that no harm would come to me. In my trouble God had come to me. It wasn’t the case that God was going to beam me up like Scotty and out of danger. No, I would have to wait out the storm. The difference was that I wouldn’t be doing it alone. The psalm reminds us that God will not abandon us in times of trouble. It does not mean we will not experience problems or difficulties, but faith, hope and trust in the Lord will enable us to get through them more easily.
When psalms are sung as a responsorial with a cantor singing the verses and everyone else singing the refrain it is helpful if the response means something to us. If it is easy to sing we will remember it and find ourselves repeating it at other times by way of consolation or petition. Marty Haugen’s version of Psalm 91 has a simple refrain, “Be with me Lord, when I am in trouble. Be with me Lord, I pray” This easy response is like a mantra that we can all pray, even when we cannot remember the verses.
Do you have a place of refuge for when you want to escape the demands of life?
When facing a challenge do you pray or panic?
What words in this psalm resonate most with you?
Psalm 91 – On Eagles Wings
You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord
Who abide in His shadow for life
Say to the Lord
“My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!”
And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings
Bear you on the breath of dawn
Make you to shine like the sun
And hold you in the palm of His hand.
The snare of the fowler will never capture you
And famine will bring you no fear
Under His wings your refuge
His faithfulness your shield.
You need not fear the terror of the night
Nor the arrow that flies by day
Though thousands fall about you
Near you it shall not come.
For to His angels He’s given a command
To guard you in all of your ways
Upon their hands they will bear you up
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.
© 1979 Michael Joncas OCP Publications (New Dawn Music)
On Eagle’s Wings by Michael Joncas – www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXP-FsNUWOc
On Eagles Wings is one of the most popular musical compositions based on Psalm 91. The psalm itself is one that appears in the night prayer of the Church. It is particularly poignant at night time because of its reassuring nature. The image of us being raised up on eagle’s wings reflects the strength and the power of how God holds us.
Eagles have an enormous wingspan sometimes as big as six or seven feet, so it is easy to imagine how an eagle could carry a human being. The eagle’s wings are symbolic of God’s protection and life transforming power. To fully appreciate this it can help us to think about how an eagle trains her young to fly, catching them on their wings when they are falling and showing them how they can soar to great heights. Eaglets are not so different from humans. They enjoy the comfort of the home and the food provided for them. But this is deceptive. The babies have to learn to fly and so to coax them when they are ready, the mother removes the soft lining of the nest and gently pushes them to learn to fly.
Our spiritual life is a little the same. We can stay in the comfort of what is safe and known to us or we can respond to the initiative of God to go deeper and shed our lives of those things which trap us and which lead us away from God, especially when we are vulnerable or emotionally overwhelmed.
I first came across this psalm at a funeral of a friend. I was moved by the power in the music to give a sense of being lifted up and carried. Its power takes us beyond ourselves and into a greater sense of hope and mystery. ‘Eagle’s Wings’ is a popular choice for funerals probably because of the absolute certainty of God’s protection for us within the refrain and the verses. With God at our side, nothing and no one can harm us. Of course we have to place our vulnerable selves into God’s hands. God is not a God of force or oppression. God invites us to trust in the angels who have been sent to guard us. Angels have had a bad press in recent years, often seen as the domain of New Age spirituality. They are, however, both messengers of God and the spirits that align themselves to us particularly when we face difficulty or are in distress or threatened. Through our dependency on God and in the protection of the angels we are guaranteed safety and security. It can, indeed, make us shine like the sun!
In what sense would this psalm help you when faced with the death of someone you love?
Have you ever felt raised up and supported – how did it make you feel?
Who are your angels? How do they support you?