By Fr. Patrick Reardon
Psalm 90 (Hebrew 91) has always ranked among the more favorite and popular psalms of the Christian people, one of the very few, in fact, about which everyone in antiquity agreed that it should be prayed each day of the week. For all that, Christians have shown themselves less sure about exactly when, during the course of the day, this psalm should best be prayed.
Two specific periods during the day the night and the noontide are indicated in the psalm itself: "You shall fear no terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day; neither the thing that prowls in the darkness, nor the attack of the noonday devil."
Christians in the East, because of the references to daylight and high noon, picked this psalm to be prayed daily at the sixth hoour, a custom that prevails to the present time. According to Saint John Cassian in the early 5th century, some of the monastic elders of the East understood the "noonday devil" of this psalm to be a special temptation to spiritual weariness and dejection, that mysterious despondency and distress of heart known in ascetical literature as akedia (The Institutes 10.1).
Christians in the West, on the other hand, more struck by the references to darkness and the night, chose Psalm 90 to be prayed each evening at the canonical hour of Compline. One finds this usage in the 6th century monastic Rule of St. Benedict and in the traditional Roman breviary.
In either case, however, one observes the sustained persuasion that this psalm has to do with divine protection from satanic attack, speaking of deliverance from several sorts of demons: the noonday devil, the "thing" that prowls in the darkness, the "evil" that will not come nigh us, the "scourge" that shall not approach our dwelling, "the asp and the adder" that we will step upon, "the lion and the dragon" that we will trample underfoot.
With respect to the demons there is nearly no end of diversity. Again we read in Cassian: "Their variety is such that it would take a long time if we wanted to search all the Scriptures and to go through them individually, seeing which ones are designated by the prophet as onocentaurs, which as satyrs, which as sirens, which as enchantresses, which as screechers, which as ostriches, and which as urchins, which is the asp and which the adder in the psalm; which is called a lion, which a dragon, and which a scorpion in the Gospel; which is the prince of this world, and which are referred to by the Apostle as the rulers of this darkness, and which as the spirits of evil" (Conferences 7.32.4).
The satanic assault on our lives is manifold. "A thousand shall fall at your side," says our psalm, "and ten thousand at your right hand." Our experience of temptation, that is to say, very much like our experience of divine grace, is of variant texture, and there should be a corresponding variety in how we deal with it.
The great diversity among the demons is best explained, perhaps, by the fact that each of them is a fallen angel. When God made the myriads of angels, He created them to manifest the vast variations of His own splendor. The angels are thus so diverse among themselves that Thomas Aquinas even speculated that each angel is a separate species. And the demons, because they are fallen angels, represent a like diversity, as John Milton so marvelously portrayed at the beginning of Paradise Lost. Indeed, one even suspects that each of the fallen angels fell in a distinct and different way.
Whatever may be the case in the latter respect, there is no doubt that the demons attack our souls with a great assortment of trials, described in Holy Scripture with manifold symbols and metaphors. Once more Cassian explains: "We must not think that these names are given to them by chance or haphazardly. Rather, by using the names of these wild animals . . . the ferocity and rage of those other beings is denoted. . . . Thus one is called a lion because of his wild fury and raging ferocity, another an adder because of the mortal poison that kills before it is noticed, and still another an onocentaur or an urchin or an ostrich because of the subtlety of its malice" (Conferences 7.32.5).
Subtlety? Of course, and also irony, for Psalm 90, so descriptive of demonic attack, is the one psalm actually used and quoted by Satan to tempt our Lord (cf. Matthew 4:6)!