I've loved studying the names of God and have placed particular emphasis on El Shaddai, given the really interesting and impactful ways in which this name appears in Scripture. I thought I'd do one more blog entry on El Shaddai, this time with the exquisite Psalm 91.
Three names of God are listed in the opening two verses!
He who dwells in the shelter of Elyon will rest in the shadow of Shaddai. I will say of Adonai, "He is my refuge and fortress, my god in whom I trust."
Now we know why Amy Grant includes all three Names of God in her song, "El Shaddai" (https://youtu.be/kxlhr8-_6vQ)! Before we go on, we should review what Shaddai means. In addition to what I posted here (https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/el-shaddai), here's Matthew Henry's explanation:
The God with Whom we have to do is a God that is enough. He is enough in Himself; He is Self-sufficient; He has every thing, and He needs not any thing. He is enough to us, if we be in covenant with Him: we have all in Him, and we have enough in Him, enough to satisfy our most enlarged desires, enough to supply the defect of every thing else, and to secure to us a happiness for our immortal souls.
And here's another Spurgeon quote on the implications of what this name means for us:
El-Shaddai, God all-sufficient, the God who nurtures and provides. We will never know the utmost power of God for supplying all our needs until we have cut connection once for all with everything that is not according to His mind.
And it's with this understanding that we look back at verse 1 in Psalm 91. We're told to rest in Shaddai's shadow. The site "Got Questions" beautifully describes what it means to rest or dwell in God's shadow (https://www.gotquestions.org/shadow-of-the-Almighty.html):
Dwelling in the shadow of the Almighty is the everyday experience of someone who, although persecuted or threatened by danger, is thoroughly at home in the protection, comfort, and safety of Yahweh, the God of absolute power.
Psalm 91 does not provide immunity from life’s threats. It does not promise God’s protection from danger and trouble; it offers the promise of God’s protection amid hardship and peril.
The theme of Psalm 91 focuses a spotlight on absolute trust in God and loyalty to Him. This kind of trust suggests intimate friendship with God...It is the attitude of one who clings to the Lord at all times, saying, “For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock” (Psalm 27:5, ESV). The person who is always thinking about God and trusting in Him has the Almighty as a constant companion. The Lord stretches His “shadow” or “protective shade” over the man or woman who sets up camp in His presence.
I love this description so much. If you've been following this blog, you know I often circle back to what faith and belief actually mean and how "abide" and "trust" and "holding onto" are often better words to substitute because our modern religion has relegated faith to just intellectual assent to a series of statements. Psalm 91 packs all of these together in these opening verses. It's a perfect image of faith.
And, in studying this name of God, we actually see a perfect image of ourselves in relationship to God. We're like a tiny bird, quivering in a hostile environment, as we find shelter behind this enormous Rock, Mountain, or Fortress. But this Shelter is not just a thing, not an inanimate object that just passively is there as we quiver and struggle. He is Adonai, or "my Lord" (actually, it's even cooler than that, from a Trinitarian standpoint...like many of the Names of God, it's technically a plural, as in "My Lords"). He's personal, in that He interacts relationally with us, such that we can say, "my Lord" and, as the New Testament explains further, God can say, "My child."
When we pray to God, I wonder whether we're really aware of this--do we approach God like a Thing in the Sky, an inanimate object that we fire requests off to, or He is Shaddai and Adonai to us?
Remember from prior posts that Shaddai connotates mountain or breast. The imagery in Psalm 91 pulls in a little bit of both. We're sheltering under God's enormous protection and we also see some mama bird imagery here. This sheltering is personal; we are cared for as we abide in this safe place. Here are verses 3-4:
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
In really hard times, this imagery can be so comforting. God is not far off. Rather, the Lord is surrounding us with his own body. He is our refuge. I love the mental image of God actually surrounding us with His body, being our literal Refuge. I so often pray for myself and others for the means by which someone will be made safe, or healed, or delivered, often neglecting to just ask God directly for His intervention. Our prayers may reveal our hearts, that we imagine God to be far-off, so we need to call His attention to something that we secretly wonder whether he knows or cares about. Yet, Scripture shows us that God is much more directly involved in His creation than we realize. Psalm 91 is telling it like it actually is, of the reality that is under the reality that we can see, hear, and touch.
We need Him desperately, and we don't even know the half of it. Speaking of the unseen, it's probably actually a good thing that we don't see all the unseen things! Because Psalm 91 has long been used in both Jewish and Early Christian circles as a prayer to ward off unseen, supernatural harms. The list of calamities that starts in verse 3 may actually refer to demonic activity. "Pestilence" and "Destruction" were pagan deities in the ancient world. Many sources (both Jewish and Christian) describe this. Here's one (https://marktabata.com/2022/03/24/the-demons-of-psalm-91/). Remember the plagues of Egypt, which many scholars note seem to intentionally "take on" Egyptian deities one-by-one, showing YHWH's triumph and greatness over lesser, demonic beings.
I look at that calamities list in Psalm 91 and whether they're metaphors for earthly things or references to demonic things, it's all bad! Snares and pestilence, night terrors, arrows, plagues, thousands falling.
All of this is uncomfortably reminiscent of the past two years on planet earth. I thought for a moment, early in the pandemic, that people might turn to God. That it would be an awakening out of our mind-numbing selfishness. But, then things took a turn. I still believe, however, that the kingdom of God is "forcefully advancing" (Matthew 11:12) and, just like in Jesus' time, it looks rather invisible to the naked eye. It's in the small places. As always, God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. But, for now, it seems that the so-called wise are crumbling. Just like the possibly spiritual forces in Psalm 91 and the gods of Egypt, all of our idols are crumbling: Government Might, Science, Personal Health and Happiness (Note: I'm not saying these things are inherently bad, only the worship of them). Are they worth putting our trust in? Why would we choose these refuges when we have Shaddai? When we have Adonai?
I just want to end by calling out one particular "god" that is mentioned in Psalm 91---the "noonday demon." We don't see it in modern translations, such as the NIV, which translates it as "the plague that destroys at midday." But, again, the early church long viewed this psalm as one speaking to deeper spiritual realities, and as early as the 4th century, this "noonday demon" had a name: Acedia.
This term holds a special place in my heart because it's tied to a bit of a spiritual awakening and the onset of my love of the contemplative tradition. More on that in a future post! I just want to mention this one now, because I think we're in the time of year where it can be particularly lethal. Acedia is spiritual apathy and sloth.
For much of church history, it was considered to be one of the worst of the sins. Not so anymore. It is quite common for Christian people to tell one another that they don't feel like reading the Bible or praying. They go to church or don't go to church and just generally feel, meh. To some extent, it's the great temptation for us all.
For now, I'll just say, while Psalm 91 speaks of acedia later on in the passage, it gives us the solution to it right there in the opening verses.
Make Elyon (God Most High) your shelter.
Rest in Shaddai's shadow.
Experience Adonai as your refuge and fortress, and trust in Him.
If we do nothing else in our spiritual walks, these things would be enough. As we approach the New Year, it's a great time to assess--to let go of what is not helpful and to embrace the good. For those seeking greater meaning and truth in their lives, for wholeness, for peace, for rightness, this is the starting point.