Updated: Jun 16, 2020
Psalm 91; Exodus 32:11
Text: Jan Michael Joncas (1951- ). Tune: (Jan Michael Joncas (1951-)
1. You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, Who abide in His shadow for life Say to the Lord: "My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!"
R/And He will raise you up on eagles' wings, Bear you on the breath of dawn, Make you to shine like the sun And hold you in the palm of His hand
2. The snare of the fowler will never capture you And famine will bring you no fear; Under His wings your refuge, His faithfulness your shield
3. You need not fear the terror of the night, Nor the arrow that flies by day. Though thousands fall about you, near you it shall not come
4. For to his angels he's given a command
To guard you in all of your ways, Upon their hands they will bear you up Lest you dash your foot against a stone
And hold you in the palm of His hand,
And hold you, hold you in the palm of His hand.
Horton Foote’s 1985 movie Trip to Bountiful, starring Geraldine Page, received many accolades, with Page winning the Oscar for Best Actress. It treated the longing of an older woman to return to Bountiful, the town and the farm home where she grew up. Her son and daughter-in-law weary of her yearnings, knowing the home has been abandoned. Her memory is somewhat sketchy and she irritates her daughter-in-law and son with her constant wish to return there.
Finally she escapes their clutches and goes to the railroad station to buy a ticket home and is astonished to discover there is no train to take. She somehow finds a bus to Bountiful and boards it with hope and joy. Sitting next to her is a young war bride played by Rebecca De Mournay. She listens attentively to the young woman’s story. After hearing it, Page comforts the young woman by reciting Psalm 91:1-4 “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty…He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.”
This language to describe how God protects us goes back to Moses, Deuteronomy 32:11. There God is like an eagle who lifts us up, on whose wings we ride and who shelters us underneath them. Jesus in some way suggests he is God when in Matthew 23:37, he wishes he could gather those in Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen.
Few contemporary Christian songs are as popular as this one. Millions have sung it at regular services; it has become a common funeral hymn, used especially in funerals for the victims of 9/11. It was sung at the funeral of Luciano Pavarotti and also at Kobe Bryant's.
Many popular hymns focus on God’s keeping us safe during troubled times. Rock of Ages, A Mighty Fortress, The Lord is My Shepherd and What a Friend we have in Jesus, etc. That is not surprising. We want protection. Many of us today want to return to Bountiful, our childhood homes that seem so secure now. After we have discovered our vulnerability and our inability to save ourselves, it is natural to look toward a higher power as the AA motto puts it. We need sheltering on our way forward. We know we can't go back..
The hymn follows quite closely the language and imagery of the Psalm. God is our refuge and rock, the one who lifts us up, that keeps us from famine, from harm, all that threatens us; even if we fall from high places, angels will catch us.
This last stanza repeats the language Satan used to tempt Jesus to fall down from the highest places and trust the angels will catch him. It colors how we hear the stanza, maybe. Jesus rebukes Satan, who knows his Scripture, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Jesus is teaching us, don’t risk anything just to see if God is there. I knew some people who did that—it always seemed outrageous to me. “We just drive 95 mph all the way to Spokane,” they told us, "and let the Lord steer the car for us.” It didn't seem like trust; they were testing God, it felt like, not trusting him.
When out of the depths of pain and sorrow, feelings of abandonment and powerlessness, we cry to God, "Are you there? help me," we can be confident that he is there, sheltering, lifting up and keeping us safe in the midst of dangers we had not known before. He holds us in the palm of his hand.
It is natural to long for Eden, back there when things were perfect, or seemed so. God promises to keep us safe as we move forward through difficulties and trials.The song assures us that "he will raise us up, bear us on the breath of dawn, and make us shine like the sun." With him, we will live more fully and securely than ever we did in Bountiful.
There are two similar stories about when this most famous hymn was written: in 1976 for the funeral of the father of one of his friends, or in 1979 to be sung at the wake of another friend's father. Joncas wrote it while an MA student at Notre Dame, he says. A gifted musician, he later attended the Pontifical Liturgical Institute for Music in Rome. These were great decades for Catholic hymn writers. The decree by Vatican II that the language of the mass be in the vernacular created a need for hymns and songs. Some of the most enduring songs of the early contemporary movement were written at this time, mostly by clergy looking to supply the need for hymns. They were almost always songs and texts by the composer to be played on guitar and contemporary instruments. In order to get Catholics to sing in church, which they were not used to, the composers frequently relied on a cantor who would sing the stanza and lead the congregation in the refrain. Joncas wrote this hymn using that form. He was surprised to hear congregations were quite able to, and did, sing both stanza and refrain with gusto. About a month ago, Joncas wrote a new song to speak to the quarantine with many of these same themes, "Shelter me." More on that later.
Marty Haugen, David Haas, Michael Joncas with congregation
Catholic Fellowship Jakarta Virtual choir