A friend wrote a fantastic question on a Facebook post, what follows is my response:
The LORD will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (Psalm 121:7-8)
What does the psalmist mean when they say all harm? At surface level, such a proclamation does not align with my experience of reality.
Excellent question, here are a few quick reflections.
All scripture must be understood in light of its genre, that is, the type of literature. A psalm is a poem, which is, by definition, condensed language. This scripture shouldn’t be read as if it was a scientific fact. E always equals MC squared (I’m told), but the truth of this verse isn’t found in the literal, definitive meaning.
For example, if the only way to discover the truth was in the literal interpretation of every scripture, then the following scripture would mean it’s impossible for the godly to be submerged in water (which would be cool for Christian water polo players and a bummer for Christian Navy Seals) or burned by fire (this would be cool for everyone):
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. (Isa. 43:2)
The only time everything is literal is in something like a scientific journal or detailed law codes…and even with millions of words to describe a thing, there is still the need for interpretation. This is why we have lawyers and courts and scientists arguing with one another.
But now I’m going way off the field, talking about things I don’t know about—law and science—so let’s return to the real problem.
If we can’t understand a scripture literally, how can we ever discover the truth? This is a slippery slope, is it not? Doesn’t this mean that everyone can interpret things however they want?
Not really. While language is flexible, it still has rules. Every word has a range of meanings. For example, STRIKE could be a type of pitch in baseball (go dodgers), or it could be the act of hitting someone, or it could be a bunch of people deciding not to work. The range of meaning is narrowed by context.
Our brains are amazing, we do this all the time constantly and we usually aren’t aware of it. When we remove the context, the meaning becomes more difficult to discern. For example, when I say “lead sinks,” what am I talking about?
The fact that lead is heavier than water or about some sinks that are crafted of lead.
Understanding a word requires understanding the sentence, the paragraph, the book, etc. To understand a word, you must “hold” the entire sentence (and as much of the greater context as possible) in focus.
Discerning a truth in scripture happens in the same manner. We must “hold” at one time, many scriptures on the same subject. This is why we must rely on the scriptures as a whole, and not just a part. When you admire a diamond, you don’t just look at one side. Instead you turn the whole thing around to see the whole thing sparkle.
At this point, we could look at several scriptures about God’s protection and the pain caused by the world. But that’s for another day.
Perhaps it would be more accurate (but less poetic) for the psalmist to write, “The LORD will keep you from all the most terrible and long lasting, everlasting, harm” … because ultimately, no matter what bad things happen to us, all (the important) things will be restored. Like Job. I don’t mean exactly like Job, it may not happen on this side of eternity, but on the other side there will be no more tears and no more death. (Ok, so I guess I just broke my rule in the previous paragraph and we looked at one more scripture).
The fact that the context mentions “evermore” supports this understanding.
But let’s back up for a moment. The psalmist is assuming the reader will still employ his or her common sense. “All harm” can’t possibly mean—literally mean— “all harm.” In the spirit of the psalm, I left that ambiguous.
More important than everything I’ve just written is the following:
WHY ASK THIS QUESTION? THIS PARTICULAR QUESTION?
It is a good thing to read a scripture and have a question. Too often we read scripture and falsely believe we understand it all. We need to pay attention to the moments when we say, “wait, that’s not true.”
What exactly does the psalmist mean by all harm…and why does this bother me? What is the HOLY SPIRIT trying to do in my life through the asking of this question?
For me personally, my mom died of cancer when I was 5. According to my dad she was a “strong believer” and even “led” three nurses to a saving faith during the final months of her illness. That’s an amazing thing, a great story. But it would be silly to ignore the fact that God allowed the harm to happen to my mother. She didn’t just die without being able to read this blog post, she was in terrible pain for the last two years of her life.
The difficulties of this world are a reality, and the Bible doesn’t hide this fact. It’s very honest about them. Sin is real. Jesus suffered. We will suffer. The Bible also teaches that God is bigger than the harms we experience (and cause in others)—at the end of time, we will be protected from all lasting harm.
ONE FINAL NOTE:
I’m a hack … all of this was a quick response … if you really want to improve your ability to read the Bible better by reading from the experts, check out this CLASSIC book: “How to read the Bible for all it’s worth.”