Psalm 91. So beautiful. It reaches into your most vulnerable places. It offers you comfort. And then, subtly, it turns your heart right around, and puts you to work.
Listen to the first line: Yoshev b’seter elyon. Yoshev, to dwell or to sit; Seter, a secret, a shelter; Elyon, the most high—sometimes a name for God but sometimes not.
Yoshev b’seter elyon: You—not you, God, but you, human. You who keep your secret fears and worries so deeply hidden…
B’tzel Shaddai yitlonan. Tzel, a shady place, a shelter; Shaddai, a name for God. Some say it means “the all-powerful God.” Others say it means “the God with shidayim, breasts,” that is, the nurturing mother God. Yitlonan, will lay down for the night and rest.
B’tzel Shaddai yitlonan: You, who normally keep your secret worries so deeply hidden: you can rest in the shelter of your mother’s arms. Maybe the arms of your own precious mother. Or the arms of an ideal mother, who can love you as your own mother never could.
Because you are like a little baby bird—baby eagle, an eaglet—and God will save you from the fowler’s trap. No hunter can trick you, not while God covers you with divine pinions. With wings so strong, they carry your mother, the eagle, up to the heavens. And there, she patrols the world, keeping you safe.
B’evrato yasech lach: God will cover you with these pinions. The same ones that God, the eagle, uses to brake, as God hovers over the nest where God’s eaglets wait (Deut. 32). In the same way that the spirit of God hovered over the waters (Gen. 1), as she helped God birth the world.
This is your cosmic mother and she loves you and she cares for you and she will be with you.
Even when arrows whiz by you on the battlefield; even when disease rips through your makeshift camp; even when your comrades and your enemies alike fall all around you…God’s angels will carry YOU in the palms of their hands. You won’t so much as trip on a stone.
No, your steps will be power steps. And you will trample bears and vipers and lions and asps. So you never have to be afraid on the battlefield.
And when God calls, you will answer! You will join the just war. And you will not be alone.
And Yes! Many of us serve in wars—just wars and unjust wars—sometimes by choice and sometimes without a choice. And we want to be protected from bears and vipers and lions and asps—that’s a kind of poisonous snake. And they do represent enemies here.
But these same animals, in the hands of another poet, represent future friends. And you, the little child, you don’t need to trample them. You are safe with them. And you can help them play together.
This is another vision of protection, in Isaiah chapter 11.
A wolf shall visit with a lamb, a leopard lie down with a kid. A calf, young lion, and fatling together, and a little child shall guide them. A cow and bear shall graze; their young lie down together. And a lion, like an ox, shall eat straw. A baby shall play over a viper’s hole; and over an adder’s fang, a toddler shall extend its hand. No one will do evil or destroy, anywhere on My holy mountain. For the land shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD as water covers the sea.
Of course it won’t be automatic. It will take work. That’s what the animal metaphors tell us.
Fierce, powerful people—the lion and the ox—will have to cooperate, compromise, and change what they consume. Citizens freed from oppression—the lambs—will not seek revenge on the wolves who now live among them as guests. Instead, they will turn away from that destructive impulse, and educate youth in peaceful values.
Mothers with grieving hearts will be the first to reach out. The cow—a mother whose child is taken by the farmer—and the bear—in the Bible, almost always a bereaved mother looking for her lost cubs—these two will now share their food and raise their children together.
Then, the community will recognize the power of peace. Adults will share the abundance of the land. Children will play together in safety. They will grow up without trauma. And no evil will be done, not in God’s name, and not anywhere on God’s earth.
Place these two visions side by side. Psalm 91 and Isaiah 11.
Psalm 91, a hymn to God, the fierce mother eagle who protects you from bear and snake and lion.
Isaiah 11, a vision from God, a vision of fierce mother bears and cows, who make peace with wolf and lion and snake, so that you can grow up in safety. So that you won’t need protection.
In our fractured world, of course we yearn to see both faces of God. But I think we need a lot more Isaiah 11.
So did the 19th century American artist Edward Hicks. He loved Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom so much that he painted more than 50 versions of it.
One of them hangs in my office at VST. On top of a hill, the lion and the lamb and the children relax together peacefully. Down in the valley, Indigenous Chief Tamenend of the Lenape nation and Quaker settler leader William Penn celebrate the Shackamaxon Treaty of 1682.
Up on the hill, a heavenly vision. Down in the valley, a real earthly treaty that kept the peace for 72 years.
Sometimes, I imagine the eagle of Psalm 91, soaring above the scene. She’s watching us grow up, and she’s proud of us.
And I imagine her singing these words, ever so slightly adapted from Exodus chapter 19. I imagine her singing them to all of creation:
I carried you on eagle’s wings, and I brought you back to me. You will be my precious ones, for all the earth is mine. You will be a sacred family, in touch with the divine. Forever, for all time.
Credits: Bald eagle by Richard Topping; Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom from Wikimedia Commons; “Eagle Wings” lyrics based on Exodus 19 by Jack Gabriel.
Originally delivered as a sermon on Vancouver School of Theology, Sept 22, 2022.