Shadow of the almighty

These words, which open Psalm 91, also open the book The Shadow of the Almighty, Elisabeth Elliot’s account of her husband Jim’s life and missionary career among the indigenous peoples of Ecuador. Evangelistic work had already begun among the Quechua, who spoke of another, unreached tribe they called the “Auca.” The name meant “savages,” for the Auca — later to be known as the Huaorani — had a reputation for xenophobia and violence. It would be dangerous to try to bring the gospel to them. But Jim Elliot was determined.

At first, there were numerous difficulties even being able to put a team together. But eventually, Elliot and four other missionaries made contact with the Huaorani. The initial encounters seemed friendly enough. But soon after, the party of missionaries was attacked by a group of Huaorani warriors. Elliot and his companions were speared and killed.

As a missionary, Elliot knew the risks. But he believed that his work for the gospel was more important than the preservation of his own life. One of the best known quotes from the book, which I still remember for the impression it made on me as a young Christian, is “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” He wrote those words in 1949 as a college student, not knowing that seven years later he would indeed give his life for the gospel.

Jim and Elisabeth Elliot

But in that spirit, his wife Elisabeth continued his work among the Quechua and Huaorani. She even went to live among the Huaorani for five years before returning to the United States, becoming a prolific Christian writer. Elisabeth Elliot died in 2015, after a long and fruitful ministry.

Psalm 91, the psalm that gave Elisabeth Elliot the title for her tribute to her husband Jim’s faithfulness to God, is one of the most soaring and triumphant statements of the assurance of God’s protection in all of the Psalter. But it’s instructive, I think, to keep in mind that Elliot could use such a title without a trace of irony. She could see Jim’s life as lived fully in the shadow of the Almighty despite his martyrdom — and perhaps, even because of the way he met his death.

. . .

Psalm 57, as we’ve seen in previous posts, begins with language similar to Psalm 91: “in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by” (Ps 57:1, NRSV). One can imagine here the protective care of a mother hen, as suggested by Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. But most likely, it is a reference to the wings of the golden cherubim which sat atop the ark of the covenant. It was from the space beneath the wings of the cherubim that God would speak to Moses (Exod 25:22), and the ark became a tangible symbol to the people of the presence of God in their midst.

Also like Psalm 57, Psalm 91 addresses God as “the Most High,” the exalted One. Unlike Psalm 57, however, there is no complaint of trouble or threat. The psalmist’s words are confident and sure, teaching the people to trust in the sovereign protection of God:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
    who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
    my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
    and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
    or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
(vss. 1-6)

God is the people’s shelter, refuge, and fortress. These words are a common part of the psalmist’s vocabulary, together conveying the trustworthiness of God in providing a place of protection for his people. The people therefore “trust” in God; the word itself implies going to a place of refuge from danger. The faithfulness of God (in Hebrew, emeth, which also played a prominent role in Psalm 57) protects the people from traps set by enemies, and from threats like pestilence and plague; God shields them from terror and harm night and day.

Though God may punish the wicked, the psalmist teaches, no harm will come to his people (vss. 7-8). The psalmist then makes the most comprehensive statement of all:

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
    the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
    no scourge come near your tent
. (vss. 9-10)

Surely, you couldn’t ask for more than that. That’s better than the best insurance policy money could buy. Insurance policies pay damages, but they can’t keep damage away. Such verses have given enormous comfort to struggling Christians over the years.

Then again, we may still have to wrestle with the question, “But given what the psalmist says, why do Christians have to struggle at all?”

Or to put it more bluntly, if Jim Elliot lived so faithfully in the shadow of the Almighty, why did he die at the point of a spear? We’ll begin wrestling with such questions and their implications in the next post.