Since starting this journey of writing through the psalms, Psalm 91 has stood before me like a giant wall blocking my way to the psalms beyond. This isn’t because it’s difficult to understand but because of its connection to certain events in my life.
At 25 years old, I found myself as a recent college graduate and making good money as I worked my way up up the ladder to a high level management position in a medium sized company. By most accounts life was good, but then my dad got sick. At first we thought it was just a virus, in fact that’s what the doctors said, but when things got worse over a very short period of time we got a second opinion and found that he had pancreatic cancer.
For the most part, I’ve processed my grief from this time, but there was something that happened then I’ve never fully understood. I had gone to see him at the hospital, in fact I believe it was the last time I saw him alive, and he told me he had been reading Psalm 91 and explained how it was a source of encouragement to him. He wasn’t a “name it and claim it” sort of person, but he did say he was praying for God’s promises in this psalm. I think he knew he was close to death and he was grabbing hold of God’s word in Psalm 91 as he passed from this life to the next, but in my eyes at the time the distinction between earthly protection and afterlife protection was not clear. It was not long after this conversation that I attended his funeral.
I’ve often wondered since then whether my dad was looking for healing or if he had resigned himself to death. I’ve also wondered what I would do in the same (inevitable) situation. Will I hold onto God’s promises as found in Psalm 91? Will I believe that God will guard me in all my ways, even as I lay in bed dying? Will I believe that God protects me and answers me in my hour of need? Will I sense God’s love, or will I feel abandoned and wonder where God is?
I think there’s a good chance my last days will be lived in tension between God’s promises for protection and my experience of pain and feelings of abandonment as I see death and decay looming on the horizon. I’d like to say I’ll face the end of my days in the same way my dad did, but who knows how I’ll respond until I’m in that exact situation.
I think I know how the psalmist would respond, however. With Book III being full of questions about God’s presence in the midst of trouble, Book IV is filled with praise psalms. I don’t think the psalmist disregards life’s trials, rather he concludes the only way to handle them is to sing God’s praises. I’m sure some might find this to be a naive approach, thinking that praise merely avoids the realities of a difficult world, but I’m not so sure these skeptics have much ground to stand upon.
We can listen to the skeptic and spend our energy focusing on those trials and struggles in life in which we are embroiled, all of which will be over at the end of our life, or we can focus on praising an eternal God who does not change and whose loving arms await us on the other side of death. Essentially, we have a choice of either focusing on the temporary or focusing on the permanent.
I’m pretty sure this is the root cause of why I’ve dreaded writing about this psalm. I know my father made the right choice. He made the difficult choice to focus on the fixed and eternal arms of love awaiting him instead of the temporal bed of death surrounding him. But for me, I don’t think I have the same strength. My approach, in lesser matters, has been closer to that found in Psalm 88: my heart is more captured by the darkness and depression of sin and failure than the gracious love of my savior.
This is about much more than merely having a positive attitude. This is about trust: real trust in God’s power of resurrection. David’s words in Psalm 23, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” are exactly what Psalm 91 represents to me. Psalm 91 is the last thing a dying man, (my father) held on to as he moved through the valley and into the shadow of death. It represents one who looked to the permanent arms he couldn’t see instead of the temporary bed which he could see. It represents faith, the sort of which I struggle to maintain. And, to be quite honest, it represents my failure to continually maintain that faith.
Will I face death the same way as my father? I don’t know. I don’t know if I will hold onto the pain. I don’t know if I will feel waves of anger and regret. I don’t honestly know. But even as I write these words, there lurks in the back of my mind and at the periphery of my heart the hint of one thing I know: God’s arms of love await me on the other side, whether I feel that truth or not. And, ironically, now that I’ve written these words, I think that might be comforting enough to help me endure my own failures.