Last Tuesday I was on Pittsburgh’s WORD FM, a guest of John Hall and Kathy Emmons on their show “The Ride Home.” Actually it was my second time on the show, which was hugely flattering.
Anyway, the day before I was on, a guest had raised a good bit of controversy when she talked about praying for her kids using Psalm 91.
No problem there — it is a wonderfully comforting Psalm, and any parent would want to see God provide his or her kids the kind of protection it tells of.
But then the guest made some very bold claims about her practice. Apparently she claimed that God promises a hedge of protection for your children if you pray Psalm 91 over them — and that if you don’t pray Psalm 91 over your kids they are in genuine danger. It sounds like a variation on the “Name it and claim it!” approach. The implications, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy only three months before, were troubling. In rolled the emails, tweets and phone calls.
So, John and Kathy asked,
“What do you think about that? And how should we pray the Psalms?”
As always seems to happen on the air, I realize only later what I should have said.
I wish that I’d said that when we pray with the Psalms or other parts of Scripture we need to carefully discern what is promised and in what way. Yes, Psalm 91 makes profound promises of protection. We need to discern whether and how those promises apply to us.
- In the most literal straightforward and complete way, the promises apply to the person who wrote it and the community for which it was written. After all, today’s readers are listening in on a prayerful conversation from thousands of years ago.
- In some important way, though, it applies to us and can become our own prayer.
- We have to admit, though, that it is very possible to misuse Psalm 91 by taking its promise too personally, too literally.
Here’s how I know we can misuse Psalm 91: When Satan was tempting Jesus to jump off the top of the Temple, Satan quoted this very Psalm, Psalm 91:11-12 to Jesus as a promise of protection. Jesus said this was very very wrong:
“You shall not put the Lord your God to the test!”
were his words. (Luke 4:9-12).
It is a pretty simple thing to see that Psalm 91 is not a promise of literal permanent protection for every person in every time. Christians have prayed this Psalm for thousands of years. Imagine you had a way to identify every person, say 150 years ago, who prayed Psalm 91 over their child. Follow the course of life of each child, looking for God’s protection. You’d surely find lots of ways that God’s protecting hand could be seen — but you would also find that every single one of those children died. We all die. Sadly, some die far too young. There is no prayer that can guarantee that God will permanently protect you or your loved ones from death.
The core promise to cling to, the one that applies in every case, is the promise of the Gospel itself — that in Jesus Christ we know that God loves us, now and for eternity. Even facing death we know that we are in God’s loving forever care. In Psalm 91 itself, this promise of salvation is the ultimate hope — it is right there in the last verse. All the specifics of the Psalm communicate the particular ways God expressed this love to one person and community in a particular moment of history.
When we pray the Psalms we do far better to listen for the ways they tell our own real story — they put into the language of prayer the comfort of protection, the heights of joy and praise and thanksgiving, and the depths of despair and depression and anger. Praying the Psalms we find that God really knows us. The psalms name our feelings and experiences. Fully known, God invites us to speak the truth, and welcomes us as his own.
Name it and claim it? No. God names us and claims us.
How do use the Psalms in prayer?
What pros and cons do you see of praying the Psalms?