To the leader. Of David.
1 In the LORD I take refuge; how can you say to me,
“Flee like a bird to the mountains;
2 for look, the wicked bend the bow,
they have fitted their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
3 If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
4 The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.
5 The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked,
and his soul hates the lover of violence.
6 On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur;
a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
7 For the LORD is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.
This is another Psalm where we do not know the threat that David (Psalm 11 is attributed to David) faces, yet the advice to flee like a bird to the mountains because of the strength of those opposing the speaker poetically evokes a mortal threat. Yet there is a defiance in the initial line which sets the tone for the rest of the Psalm, “In the LORD I take refuge.” The Psalmist trusts that, even in the midst of a life threatening situation, the LORD sees and will act. This Psalm, like many of the Psalms, revolves around the active move to take refuge in the LORD and to trust that the LORD will act. It means relinquishing control over one’s future and to stand in the trust that even in the midst of the speaker’s powerlessness that God can indeed act on behalf of the righteous and against the wicked.
This defiant stance, of trusting the LORD in the presence of danger, is a frequent theme of the Psalmist. For the writers of the Psalms they trust that God does see, act and judge. That God sustains the righteous and will in time punish the wicked. The author’s trust in God enables them to place themselves into the position of danger even when they may feel powerless. This poetic approach to faith that trusts in the midst of crisis has been a balm for many of the faithful across the generations. Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress’, which is inspired by Psalm 46 is an echo of this type of faith. Yet, the Psalms are poetic and not dogmatic and just because the poet is able to appeal to the LORD in the midst of their situation does not condemn a person who may flee in a different situation.
In 1527, during the early reformation at Wittenberg, a case of Bubonic plague was discovered. The students were sent home but Luther remained in the city and was busy with pastoral and practical care of the sick. Late in the year Luther wrote an open letter on ‘Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague’ where Luther can endorse the type of faith that is stated here in the Psalm, because in times of death someone must stay: doctors, nurses, preachers and others necessary to care for the afflicted. But Luther also allows that there will be those whose faith is not at this place and they should be allowed to flee and that those who are unnecessary may be acting on a natural tendency, implanted by God to flee death and save one’s life. (Luther, 1989, pp. 736-755) Luther’s caution was not to condemn those whose walk of faith allowed them to flee like a bird to the mountains nor those who for the sake of the neighbor walked into the place where death seemed to reign.