The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The King’s God

In what way does God really protect us, from what is God able to keep us safe?

by Russell Rathbun

Psalm Reading: Psalm 91

For Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010: Year C - Ordinary 26

A twenty-first century American president is not the corollary of a B.C.E Palestinian regional king. Nor is that kingdom in any meaningful way similar to the contemporary Untied States of America. Like, for instance, we don’t have our own god that claims our country as its children or to whom the country claims allegiance. So in a biblical reading like Psalm 91, one would have to do a lot of exegetical gymnastics to find in it a witness to the Word of God.

It’s Good to be King

This week’s psalm is a royal composition of trust and protection. The king is enthroned in the shelter of the Most High, and as a result enjoys the protection of his god, from every kind of danger. No one will be able to sneak up and attack him at night; the archer’s arrows won’t reach him during the day. Thousands will die around him, but he will be just fine. To quote Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the king!”

This psalm of reassurance and comfort does neither for me. The notion of a god that is on the side of a particular political power gives me the theological heebie-jeebies. Of course, I can understand the cultural context of the writing, and without too much of a back bend open the words of the psalmist to all people—I can apply them to me. I like that a little better. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation. It is something that I want out of a god. A protector. I want a really big guy who promises to answer my call when I am in trouble.

But, I really am very rarely in any physical danger. That is not true for a large group of people who don’t have the kind of privilege that I do, who live in countries ruled by despots or occupied by forgiven armies. I would gladly let them use my god for a while. But as long as I am going to apply these words written for the B.C.E King to myself, I can go one step further and take all the military imagery as metaphorical. I may not be in need of a big guy to protect me from physical attack, but I do need other kinds of help. I feel despair, doubt, fear, worry, sadness, and shame. When the plague of anxiety is at my tent will my god promise to keep it from me?

The Hardest Question

Scripture has long served to give comfort, peace, reassurance. Prayers of intercession are a regular part of many faiths. But my hardest question for this text is, in what way does God really protect us, from what is God able to keep us safe?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Chad Delaney says:

    As a parent sends their college student away to school, so does God send us out into the world. The protection offered is only found in the wisdom and values we have learned from our Holy Parent. We take with us all that we have learned and understand from scripture and trust that God’s spirit surrounds us and goes with us. Through this leading we may allude the snare of consumerism and idolatry. We may be swayed from self-indulgence and hatred. The snares made for and the attacks made on the spirit of each and every one of us, maybe avoided, deflected, shot down.

    But protection from physical harm is another matter completely. To call upon the Most High to protect us from earthquakes, car accidents, starvation, and flying rocks into windowshields will leave us often disappointed and hollow. Is this letting God off the hook? Are we only “spiritualizing” the text? Perhaps.

    In the end, however, I trust that God’s redeeming presence will be WITH me through whatever I might face…whether attacks on my spirit or body. The protection I feel is the knowledge that I am known and that I am loved.

  2. Chad, your reading reminds me of this Midrash:

    “I am with him in trouble” (Psalm 91:15)

    Rabbi Yudan said: A parable! To what can this utterance be compared? To a pregnant woman who had a quarrel with her mother, and her mother went upstairs. And when she was giving birth she was crying out downstairs, and her mother, upstairs, was listening to her voice and she was crying out also, echoing her. The neighbour women were saying to her, “What’s going on? Are you giving birth along with her?” She said to them, “My daughter is having trouble giving birth. Even though she has made me angry, I cannot bear her crying out, so I am crying out along with her.” Thus, the Blessed Holiness says: “My House is in ruins and My children’s necks are in chains — shall I not be troubled?” And so it is written, “Now, what is left for Me — declares HaShem — since My people have been taken away as worthless?” (Isaiah 52:5)

How do you read?