"In the whole collection," says Spurgeon, "there is not a more cheering Psalm, its tone is elevated and sustained throughout, faith is at its best, and speaks nobly." He's describing Psalm 91, a poem he earlier calls "this matchless ode."
Dozens of hymns, I'm sure, offer variations, but the one most familiar to me--because most sung--may well be "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty," which was--as YouTube will be glad to point out--one of the majestic hymns sung at Westminster Cathedral for the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. I'm an old three-chord guitar strummer myself, but--trust me!--no crooning troubadour does that exalted hymn justice because it requires a pipe organ and some ancient, soaring cathedral.
A thousand worship services have engraved that 17th century hymn's text forever in my memory. I know that hymn, in that grand old phrase, "by heart." So when you suddenly stumble on a new stanza, the effect is jarring, as it was last Sunday, when we sang that old classic in a tiny congregation in a staid old church nothing like the Westminster Cathedral.
Here the one I'd never seen before:
Praise to the Lord, who hath fearfully, wondrously, made thee;
Wings of His mercy did shade thee.
Health hath vouchsafed and, when heedlessly falling, hath stayed thee.
What need or grief ever hath failed of relief?
You don't have to be Robert Frost to see that those middle two lines border on the archaic; we don't regularly vouchsafe things anymore, or if we do, we don't use that word. What's more, both lines feel remarkably like log-jams; they don't fall trippingly from the tongue. They are, in the vernacular, just plain clumsy, hard to get thy lips aroundeth.
That's what I'm thinking anyway, as we sing the lines. But then there's the last--"wings of His mercy did shade thee."
How often I haven't sung those words from Psalm 91, "this matchless ode"? Hundreds of times. I even titled a book with that image--In His Feathers, a story drawn from the journals of a woman who died from ovarian cancer.
He will cover you with his feathers,I don't know why, but singing that line suddenly took me out at the knees: God almighty as a goose. A dozen of them are sitting right now, at dawn, in the bean field between our house and the river, clumsy fat guys silent as church mice for a change. In a minute, when they get a hankering, they'll take wing and start the kind of bickering honkers think of as a music. No right-thinking palace guard would have let 'em in to the Queen's Sixtieth, that's for sure.
and under his wings you will find refuge;
"Under His wings"?--some respectable editor should have caught that monstrosity long ago and red-penciled it right out of Psalm 91. God as a goose? It's weird enough to think of the Holy Ghost as a goose, but one of our most beloved biblical metaphors pictures the Creator of heaven and earth, the one God eternal, the I AM of eternal history as a fine, feathered friend--a goose or a banty hen.
But then, the neighbor says that about an hour before a torrential rainfall late Sunday afternoon, the local gaggles all parleyed and all those geese left the water, swarmed up from the river and the sand pits like the people of Israel, and waddled, with their young, into the middle of the bean field, as if some goose meteorologist had warned of the deluge to come. Inside of an hour, the river rose two feet.
There they were, he said, prophesying, proclaiming salvation beneath a nasty sky, keeping their young under their wings and in their feathers.
Must have been beautiful.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, King of creation, who is, in addition to everything else, King of the Geese.
All of that is worth my morning thanks: a drama based on Psalm 91 right here in our river valley cathedral.