“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1). Does that strike you as redundant, or am I the only one? I used to meditate on this verse and try to ascertain the difference between “the shelter of the Most High” and “the shadow of the Almighty.” I would stretch my exegetical muscles as far as they could stretch, but try as I might, I came up with nothing. I finally put it down as one of those weird Hebrew literary things and moved on to easier exegetical acrobatics.
I recently read an article by Elmer Martens that gave some new insight on this psalm. Martens spends some time drawing attention to references to the glory cloud (The visible manifestation of God’s covenantal presence in the form of cloud and fire) in the Old Testament, and I think this psalm has one of those references. You’ll remember that during Israel’s wandering God led them with a cloud for covering from the sun by day, and a pillar of fire for light by night. Wherever the children of Israel went in their sojourn, they were protected from the fierce desert heat and the harsh desert sun by this cloud. The presence of God overshadowed them in a very tangible way.
For those Israelites with eyes to see, this must have been incredibly comforting. It’s difficult to imagine being bothered by anything when God’s literal presence hovers over you day and night for forty years. We know, of course, that this was not felt by all Israel, but I think the remnant were aware of how safe they were in God’s presence.
I think this psalmist is, as the psalmists so often do, riffing off of the Pentateuch in Psalm 91. Read the Psalm with the glory-cloud in mind and you’ll see what I mean. The references to “by day,” and “at noonday” contrasted with “at night” and “in darkness” speak of God’s unique presence to bless his people day and night. The language of being covered by his wings is reminiscent of the exodus as well.
As so often happens, the author takes the exodus account and both expounds upon it and particularizes it. In many ways, this psalm is an unpacking of what it means to be under the cloud. Under the cloud of God’s presence, we are not just protected from heat and sun, but plague, attack, destruction, enemies, terror– this is absolute security. The Jew reading this psalm during the reign of the kings may have recognized that even though the cloud of God’s presence was not literally over him, God’s presence to bless was still with him, since it stood over all Israel at the temple.
So the tautology is intentional in the first line of this psalm. It’s emphatic. If you’re under the cloud, you’re under the cloud. He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High abides–actually abides!– in the shadow of the Almighty. You don’t get better shelter than that.