Psalm 91: A Psalm of Safety
My experiences in my recent trip to India gave me a new appreciation for an article I read on my return.
Of Snakes and Tigers and Sending Churches
We were returning from a meeting at Vanar. It was 10 PM and we had to trek 5 Kms through the thick forest braving the cold in order to reach Pipalpada. A bright flashlight and a petromax lit our path. As we were climbing a steep rugged narrow path, Premakar, our home missionary of Dangs cautioned us, “Wagh, Wagh” (tiger). We stopped and our torches flashed at the beast which was 200 yards away. Its glittering eyes menacingly glared at us. In spite of the blinding lights it was advancing towards us. Helpless we turned to Jesus in prayer. To our great relief the beast slinked away. We continued our journey. But within a few yards our petromax failed. Just imagine our plight! It seemed ages before the petromax was fixed. After a short while a poisonous snake slithered past us and the promises of Psalm 91 sustained us.145
Thankfully the cobras and other poisonous vipers were in hibernation during my stay in the mountain village of Chikaldara. The tigers and bears, while inhabiting the area, did not harm me either. Nevertheless, my sense of danger was much more intense while walking in the darkness or through the tall grass, where some creatures could be lurking.
Psalm 91 is familiar to us, in its words, for we often sing it in our worship service, and yet both its symbols and its promise of security are foreign to us. First, the poetic portrayals of danger are not common to us. We never fear snakes or wild animals in the streets of Dallas. Neither arrows flying in the daytime nor pestilence stalking at night are a common dread, such as they would be to others of another time or place.
Second, the security of the saint is unesteemed because most Western Christians know little about danger of any kind, and so the safety of which this psalm speaks is rather abstract. In this message I will try to deal with both of these difficulties, and to suggest ways in which we may find this passage more relevant to our own experience. This psalm is also noteworthy because of the fact that Satan quoted it in his temptation of our Lord (Matt. 4:6). Since he sought to misinterpret and misapply it in the life of our Lord, he will likely attempt to distort its message in our lives. Consequently, we will also consider some of the abuses to which the assurance of our safety can be applied. Let us then consider carefully the message and the meaning of Psalm 91.
The Structure of Psalm 91
I have chosen to follow the paragraph structure (and the translation) of the NASB in this exposition.146 Verses 1-4 introduce the theme of the psalm, the security of the saint. Verses 5-10 pursue the implications of the safety which we have in God. Our safety is further explained in verses 11-13; through His angels God intervenes to come to our aid. In the last section, verses 14-16, God Himself assures us of His intimate care for our safety, promising both help in trouble and ultimately, deliverance from trouble.
The Source of the Saints’ Safety
1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!” 3 For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper, And from the deadly pestilence. 4 He will cover you with His pinions, And under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark. (NASB)
While verses 1-4 introduce the subject of the saints’ safety, the major emphasis falls upon God Himself. He is our refuge and strength. It is His love and His power which keep us. In verse 1 God is called the “Most High” and the “Almighty” and both terms stress His position and His limitless power.147
Verse 2 is the psalmist’s personal confession of trust. The One in whom the anonymous author148 urges us to place our trust is the One the psalmist has personally found to be trustworthy.
Verses 3 and 4 poetically develop the theme which has been introduced in the first two verses. God is our deliverer (v. 3). His keeping power is portrayed by the use of two images, a mother bird and metal armor (v. 4). The mother bird safely tucks her young under her wings. There they are secure. There is a very tender touch here, stressing the warmth of God’s love and concern.149 Not only is there a tenderness in God’s care, there is also a toughness, as is seen in the imagery of the metal armor (v. 4). From the perspective of the protected, God is warm and tender; from the vantage point of the attacker, God is as strong as steel.
The dangers are likened to a trapper’s snare and a deadly pestilence (v. 3). We should understand these two figures of speech as highly symbolic, emphasizing the elements of surprise and danger.150 The trapper’s snare is not seen until it is too late. The deadly pestilence is fatal. Whether the danger is invisible or incurable, God’s protection is ever adequate.
The Implications of the Saints’ Safety
The first four verses have turned our attention to the source of our safety; verses 5-10 urge us to consider the confidence such security inspires. No matter what evil threatens (or appears to), we are safe in the shadow of the Almighty. In these verses the more negative or preventative aspects of our safety are explored. Later on, the more positive dimensions are discussed. The results of resting in the shelter of the Most High can be summarized by two expressions: no fear (vv. 5-6) and no fall (vv. 7-10).
Since the source of our safety is God Almighty, no threat or danger, no matter how great, is mightier than God’s keeping power. The dangers which we face are in no way minimized by the psalmist. In fact, a broad range of poetic imagery is employed to encompass the entire range of danger which one might dread. Some have attempted to give a specific interpretation to each image. I do not see this to be either biblically defendable or necessary. The “arrows,” “pestilence” and “destruction” are all poetic devices describing danger, rather than specific definitions of the kind of danger we face. In other psalms human opposition is described in terms of “lions,” “arrows” and “snares” (cf. Ps. 57:4-6; 64:1-6).
Verses 5 and 6 refer to night and day, the darkness of night and the light of day. I understand the psalm to be assuring the saint that God gives us 24-hour protection. There is no threat, whether seen or unseen, anticipated or unexpected, which can catch God unaware and unable to protect us.
In verse 7 the security of the saint is portrayed in a different way. Even when men are “falling about us like flies” (my liberal paraphrase), God is able to keep us. Insurance companies are very interested in statistics. They want to know if you engage in dangerous activities like skin-diving or sky-diving or motorcycle racing. Statistics don’t impress God, nor do they impede His protection. No matter how disproportionate the odds, God’s protection is certain.
There is perhaps no better historical illustration of the truth of verse 7 than the exodus. In Exodus 7–12 the plagues were poured out upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In every case, the Egyptians suffered, but not the Israelites who trusted in God.
“But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing will die of all that belongs to the sons of Israel.” And the Lord set a definite time, saying, “Tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land.” So the Lord did this thing on the morrow, and all the livestock of Egypt died; but of the livestock of the sons of Israel, not one died (Exod. 9:4-6, NASB).
Hail destroyed the crops, the cattle, and the servants of the unbelieving Egyptians, but the Israelites were not harmed (Exod. 9:18-26). The first-born of the unbelieving were all killed by the death angel, but those who believed God, applying the blood of a lamb to the doorposts and the lintel of their house, were not touched (Exod. 12).
This brings us to another aspect of the dangers from which every saint is secure. Not only are we safe from the opposition of wicked men and the forces of evil, we are also protected from the righteous wrath of God. In Psalm 90:7-10, Moses saw man’s suffering as a deserved punishment for sin from the righteous hand of God. Those who “dwell in the shelter of the Most High” need not fear God’s wrath, which is the most awesome danger of all. I believe that this is the primary thrust of verses 8-10: “You will only look on with your eyes, and see the recompense of the wicked. For you have made the Lord, my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place. No evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your tent.”
The wicked will reap divine wrath, which is their recompense (v. 8), but those who have placed their trust in God (v. 9) will never suffer God’s righteous wrath (v. 10).
The protection of those who abide under the shadow of the Almighty should wipe away all unwarranted fear. With God as our shield, we need not dread the opposition of either human or superhuman forces. With God as our refuge we should not fear and we cannot fall. We will certainly not fall under God’s wrath and neither will we fall under the terror of any other. In the words of the New Testament:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:31-39).
This does not mean that the saints will never suffer, for Psalm 90 has already spoken of the condition of man in this present world. In verse 5 we are not told that there is no night terror, but only that we need not fear it when we are under the Divine wings of protection. We are not guaranteed success in every venture nor told that we will never fail, only that we will not fall from God’s purposes and from His protection.151 Kidner’s comments are well worth repeating:
This is, of course, a statement of exact, minute providence, not a charm against adversity. The no less sweeping promise of Romans 8:28 … does not exclude ‘nakedness, or peril, or sword’ (8:35); cf. again the paradox of Luke 21:16,18.152
The Instrument and the Implications of God’s Protection
11 For He will give His angels charge concerning you, To guard you in all your ways. 12 They will bear you up in their hands, Lest you strike your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread upon the lion and cobra, The young lion and the serpent you will trample down.
I have suggested that the broadest range of opposition and danger is implied in the poetic description of verse 3 and verses 5-10. This would include both divine retribution and demonic opposition. While we know that God’s judgment is no longer our destiny, how is demonic and other opposition thwarted? Verses 11-13 comfort us by reminding us that God’s means of protection are greater than Satan’s means of opposing us. God employs His angels to watch over us. They guard us in all our ways (v. 11).
Verse 12 dramatically describes the extent of God’s care through His angels. Even in minimal danger (“Lest you strike your foot against a stone”), God’s servants, the angels, could bear us up so as to avoid it. Now quite frankly if God is promising that we would never stub our toes, I must be doing something wrong. The promise of protection is stated in a figure of speech to emphasize the minute matters to which God’s care extends, but it is not meant to imply that “toe-stubbing” is never the lot of the saint. While God’s protection extends to the smallest matters, His prevention may include trials both great and small.
In verses 5-10 we saw that God’s protection was intended to put away unhealthy fears and to prevent us from falling (but not from stumbling). These were primarily negative benefits: no fear and no fall. In verse 13 we observe the positive results of the safety that God provides through His angels. Here we find much more than a passive protection. We are told that we will kill cobras and trample down lions.
Now this is something entirely new and exciting. Fear is a paralyzing force. It causes us to become passive, rather than to be aggressive. Fear keeps us from taking initiative and doing anything which isn’t “safe.” Once our inhibiting fears are swept aside by an appreciation of our safety in God’s care, we need not be reticent and retiring. We can boldly confront and even defeat the most fearful opponent. We will take on “lions and cobras” because we know we are safe in God’s keeping, even in the midst of danger. This confidence can be taken to unbiblical extremes, as we shall see later in the message.
God’s Promise of Protection
14 “Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name. 15 He will call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him, and honor him. 16 With a long life I will satisfy him, And let him behold My salvation.” (NASB)
In the final analysis, our safety is only as certain as the guarantee of the God who promises it. We are not safe because we hope so, but because God says so. Just as a buyer is assured by a written guarantee from the manufacturer, so we are assured by God’s personal promise to protect us in verses 14-16. This is the “last word” in terms of our safety. We must be able to answer two questions before we can appreciate the promises found in these verses: “What exactly is God promising to do?” “On what basis does God promise to do it?”
Let us consider what it is that God has promised in verses 14-16. Two terms, “deliver” (v. 14) and “rescue” (v. 15), indicate that God has promised to deliver those who are in danger or great peril. Either God will spare us from a dangerous circumstance or he will bring us safely through the danger. God’s promise is that we should not fear for we cannot fall (vv. 5-10), and He cannot fail (vv. 1-4).
More than just to help us, God has promised to honor us. God says of the one who knows His name, “I will set him on high” (v. 14, KJV).153 In verse 15 He promises to honor him. This means that God will do far more than merely “save us by the skin of our teeth”; He will deliver us with dignity and glory. God’s deliverance of Israel at the exodus was glorious. David’s deliverance from the hand of Gath was divine (1 Sam. 21:10-15; cf. Ps. 34), but it was not dignified.154 In verses 14-16 God promises deliverance and honor.
God promises not only His protection from disaster, but His presence in danger. This is the assurance of the words, “I will be with him in trouble” (v. 15). At times He will pluck us from danger, but when He chooses to preserve us through it He does not abandon us. The three young Hebrew men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were not alone in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace (Dan. 3:25), nor was Daniel alone in the lion’s den (Dan. 6:22). Our Lord personally appeared to Paul during the night as he was imprisoned, threatened by an angry mob (Acts 23:11).
Verse 16 takes God’s deliverance one step further. God will not only save us from death, He will give us long life. I believe this promise should be understood in the light of the Mosaic Covenant (e.g. Deut. 28:1-14) and the other Old Testament assurances that faith and obedience toward God tend toward longer life and prosperity. This, however, was not a guarantee nor a simple formula for success. I understand the term “salvation” to cover a very broad range of meaning, from deliverance out of danger, to long life, to the eternal life which the saint has by faith in God (even though the Old Testament saint did not understand this as fully as we do today).
God therefore promises help, honor and a hope for eternal life. To whom do these promises apply? Who may receive them and how are they obtained? Verses 14-16 also answer these questions.
The promise of help, honor and hope are for those who are in peril. The word “deliver” (v. 14) implies danger. Verse 15 promises that God will answer and be with the one in trouble. It is those in peril who receive God’s help. That is precisely why the woman caught in the act of adultery was forgiven, but the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees received scathing words of rebuke (cf. John 8:1-11; Matt. 23). Only the sick need to be healed (Mark 2:17) and only those in danger need deliverance.
The promise of God’s help is for those who are personally related to Him. “Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him” (v. 14). The second half of this verse goes on to explain that God exalts the one who has known His name. It is only those who intimately know God and love Him who “dwell in the shelter of the Most High” (v. 1) and therefore have assurance of God’s presence and protection.
Finally, those whom God protects are those who petition Him to do so: “He will call upon Me, and I will answer him” (v. 15). Those who ask will receive, and to those who knock the door will be opened (Matt. 7:7-8). Those who recognize their peril and ask for God’s protection, receive it.
Man’s most urgent need is deliverance from the ultimate danger—eternal judgment and separation from God’s presence forever (2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 20:12-15). If you have never come to a personal faith in God, you must first recognize your sinful condition and the danger which this creates (cf. Rom. 1–3). You are a sinner, condemned by God’s righteous law, and destined to eternal punishment (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). Jesus Christ offers you the forgiveness of your sins and the safety of eternal life in the presence of God by acknowledging your sin and trusting in Christ’s death in your place (Rom. 3:21–5:21). By calling upon Him for salvation, you will be delivered from the danger of divine wrath and given the free gift of eternal life in the presence of God (Rom. 10:9-13).
I assume that most of my readers have taken this first step of trusting in Christ and calling upon Him for salvation. If this is not true, what I will now say has no application to your life. If you have experienced the forgiveness of sins in Christ, you can experience the safety and security which this psalm promises by “abiding in the shelter of the Most High” (v. 1).
There are two extremes which Christians should avoid in the application of this psalm to their lives. The first danger is not to take God’s protection seriously enough. Psalm 90 has shown us a healthy, life-giving fear, the fear of God. On the other hand, Psalm 91 exposes a paralyzing fear—the fear of failing and falling under opposition. This fear keeps us from serving God and obeying His word.
Abraham’s fear caused him to lie concerning the true identity of Sarah as his wife (Gen. 12:11-13; 20:11). Moses was afraid to go to Egypt and lead Israel out of captivity (cf. Exod. 3–4). The Israelites feared the “giants” in Canaan and did not possess the land God promised (Num. 13–14).
While there are those who faint due to fear, most of us live so conservatively that we don’t think we have much to fear. We have insurance for our life, our health, our retirement, our wage-earning ability, and so on. We fail to live dangerously and thus we have little danger to fear.
May I suggest to you that living obediently means living dangerously. Discipleship is dangerous. Jesus always discouraged the person who sought the path of least resistance, and encouraged would-be disciples to count the cost (cf. Luke 9:57-62). Paul warned that godly living brings persecution (2 Tim. 3:12), as was evident in his own life (2 Cor. 4:11-13; 2 Tim. 3:10-11).
I want to suggest to you, my Christian friend, that you will never come to appreciate the promises of Psalm 91 until you have experienced the peril of living for God obediently. Look at the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. These are all men and women who lived dangerously by obeying God’s commands. Abraham was instructed to leave the refuge of his home and family. Moses left the security of his position in Pharaoh’s palace. On and on we find that living by faith is living dangerously.
Have you read through the Sermon on the Mount recently (Matt. 5–7)? If you would dare to live in accordance with our Lord’s teaching I can tell you it is dangerous. The reason why most of us fail to appreciate the dangers of this present age, seen and unseen (cf. Eph. 6:10-20), and the safety which God promises (as in Ps. 91) is because we have failed to live in obedience to His word.
To some, I can confidently say, you should live much more dangerously—but not to all. There is another extreme to be avoided. Some seem to love danger for danger’s sake. They may not be driving race cars at breath-taking speeds or jumping chasms on a motorcycle, but they always seem to be flirting with disaster. To any who might fall in this category, let me remind you of Satan’s abuse of Psalm 91 in the temptation of our Lord, as recorded in Matthew 4. Satan took Jesus into the Holy City and stood Him on the pinnacle of the Temple (Matt. 4:5). In verse 6 we read, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down, for it is written ‘He will give His angels charge concerning You and on their hands they will bear You up, lest You strike Your foot against a stone.’“ Here Satan is quoting Psalm 91:11-12. Satan is saying to the Lord Jesus, “If You are really the Son of God, then You, of all people, can live dangerously. Do you see this pinnacle here? Jump!” Jesus responded in a very interesting way. His reply indicates that while the servant of God may live dangerously, this is not an excuse to live presumptuously. That is why Jesus spoke to Satan about not tempting God.
The life of faith is obeying God, doing what is right, and trusting God to protect us. God didn’t instruct Jesus to “jump,” Satan did. If the Lord Jesus had jumped from the pinnacle of the Temple God would have been forced to act.
Some Christians today like to engage in what I call “Christian gambling.” They are gamblers at heart who have learned to sanctify their actions with Scripture. They love to live on the thin edge of peril. Every time things get dull they precipitate another crisis. “The Lord has told me that I need to buy this or that thing,” they tell us, even though they don’t have a penny. They claim they have acted on faith, trusting God to provide for what they presumptuously purchased. In reality, they have jumped off a financial pinnacle.
Now if God said to you “Do this,” then whether or not you have the means, you had better do it. But many of us give God credit for jumping off of pinnacles that are simply our way of manipulating God and saying to Him, “I’m going to put Your reputation on the line God, and if You don’t come through and do it my way, You are going to look bad.” This is putting God to the test, by demanding that He rescue us from self-made danger. That is not faith, but presumption.
Notice that Jesus said to Satan, “On the other hand, it is written …” (Matt. 4:7). Here our Lord reminds us of an important principle in the interpretation of any passage of Scripture. We must always correlate any Scripture with the entire Bible. The great danger of those who love to live dangerously is that they do so on the basis of isolated passages. Often the excesses of some Christians are the result of taking a single verse and leaping from it, without balancing its truth with other truth. Let us be careful not to confuse faith with foolishness.
One final word. This Psalm teaches an important lesson concerning the strengthening of our faith. The most important thing about faith is not its amount, but its author. Many Christians who wish to grow in faith focus on the identity of their faith, rather than in the quality of faith’s object. If we want to see our faith grow let us dwell upon the Person in whom our faith is rooted, the Almighty, the Most High. He is our security!
146 One factor that must be taken into account in the study of the structure of Psalm 91 is the change in personal pronouns. In verses 1-4 God is the focus of the psalmist’s attention; in verses 5-10 it is the reader who is central; in verses 11-13 we have an interplay between God’s angels (“they”) and the reader (“you”); in verses 14-16 there is an interplay between God (“I”) and the reader (“you”). While a variety of explanations (and translations) result from the change in pronouns, this suggestion is most interesting: “It has also been suggested that the Psalm was intended to be sung antiphonally; one voice or choir chanting vv.1,2, and another answering in vv. 3-8; the first striking in again in v. 9a, and the second again responding in vv. 9b-13, while a third recited the Divine speech in vv. 14-16.” A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982 [reprint]), p. 554.
I should confess that I find the outline proposed by Kidner a very tempting alternative. His view entitles verses 1-2 “my refuge,” verses 3-13 “your refuge,” and verses 14-16 “God’s pledge.” This very nicely handles the change of pronouns in the psalm. Cf. Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), pp. 332-333.
147 “Most High is a title which cuts every threat down to size; Almighty (Shaddai) is the name which sustained the homeless patriarchs (Ex. 6:3).” Kidner, p. 332. Kirkpatrick writes of these same two terms, “Significant titles, chosen to emphasize the power of the Sovereign Ruler of the world to defend His people.” Kirkpatrick, p. 555.
148 No author is named. Among the list of possible authors I would like to add Moses. The language of all three psalms (90-92) is similar, as Kirkpatrick points out (p. 553). This psalm beautifully compliments Psalm 90, as Kirkpatrick (p. 554) also has noted.
149 Christ also displays His tenderness toward Jerusalem by the figure of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing (Matt. 23:37). Tenderness does not rule out toughness, as anyone knows who has ever incurred the wrath of a mother bird by molesting her young.
151 The mantle of divine protection may sometimes be temporarily removed. Satan was allowed to test Job, for example. Yet this was for Job’s ultimate good. So, too, the protection of God is sometimes removed in order to discipline a disobedient Christian, but this, too, is for the good of the wayward saint (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5).
153 The NASB renders the second line of verse 14 in such a way as to stress the deliverance of God. God lifts us up, as it were, beyond the reach of our adversaries. This is a very legitimate translation and true to the way the Hebrew expression can be rendered. It can also mean “to lift up” in the sense of “exalt” (cf. Ps. 69:30; 148:13). I personally think both senses are intended in Psalm 91:14. God not only lifts us up to deliver us, but to exalt us, as verse 15 (“honor”) clearly states.
154 Psalm 34 clearly indicates that God’s deliverance from Achish was accomplished supernaturally in spite of his faining insanity. David’s rescue from Gath was not dignified because David was not depending upon God but upon his own clever intentions. Psalm 91 teaches us that God delivers and honors those who call upon Him for assistance. When we resort to our own foolish devices, God may graciously deliver us, but He will certainly not honor us.
Related Topics: Comfort