In our Psalm summer so far we’ve come across many different kinds of Psalms expressly fit for every season of the soul. Today, as Psalm 91 lies open before us, we come to what many call a Psalm of consolation.These Psalms express deep relief and comfort, but because they tend to focus so much on God’s protective care over His people these Psalms can often feel like a rousing pre-battle speech. Psalm 91 in particular has an unusual quality about it: being that it appears on Hallmark cards very often as well as being the only Psalm quoted by Satan (not to imply a connection between the two). Nevertheless, Psalm 91 cheers the soul immensely. Its tone is elevated and triumphant, its message is fearless, and it presents faith at its best from start to finish.But as encouraging and bolstering as it has been to many, it has also given some much vexation and frustration. Why so? Because the promises of God contained in it, some say, are so remarkable that they’re simply untrue.And on the surface many do believe that these promises, especially v7-8, bring some unanswerable interpretive questions to the surface. But as we’ll see this morning, Psalm 91 is a masterpiece about how our strong and sovereign God holds us fast.
We do not know the events that gave rise to the words of Psalm 91, there is no setting given before in v1a. Many speculate on various seasons of David’s life these words fit into, some say since Moses wrote Psalm 90 he also wrote 91 and 92 as a kind of threefold introduction to the fourth book within the Psalms, while others believe it was used as something of a back and forth responsive reading in the worship of Israel. While we can see potential in all of these explanations we shouldn’t give ourselves too heavily to any of these opinions because we just don’t know for sure. So, like many other Psalms we take this one as it is, glad that it can fit into a variety of settings for all of God’s people throughout all time.
There are three movements to Psalm 91, all having to do with God as our refuge.
God our Refuge Affirmed (v1-2)
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
v1 is forms a kind introductory trumpet call for the whole Psalm to all who have ears to hear while v2 is the suitable response to it. In v1 the call to God’s people is to not remain at a distance from God but to come near God and take up a permanent residence, or dwell, in Him and near Him. If this call is obeyed do you see what is promised? For all who come to dwell in the shelter of the Most High, they will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. And all those who dwell there will not only be reminded of but will state confidently how firm a fortress and refuge God is for His people. This God isn’t like any other weak idol of the nations, no. This God, because of who He is, can be trusted by His people. Shelter and shadow is here paired with refuge and fortress, forming a stunning promise of protection for God’s people. That’s what v1-2 says, and this is the rousing beginning of v1-2.
Many people and often we ourselves at times in conversing with others will casually ‘name drop.’ As well intended as we may be, the reason someone drops a name is to bring about a certain kind of awe or astonishment in those we’re talking to. Whether it’s the name of a close relative or family friend we usually desire to be seen as important because of our connection to them. Church, notice not just what v1-2 says but how it says what it says. Witness here in v1-2 ‘name dropping’ at its finest. While speaking of the great benefits and security offered to those who dwell in Him, four times in v1-2 the Psalmist gives us different names of God. In v1 God is the ‘Most high’ (Elyon) and God is the ‘Almighty’ (El Shaddai). In v2 God is the ‘LORD’ (Yahweh) and God is ‘my God’ (Elohim). Why do this? Why go into such detail about who God is with an extensive list of His names? To bring about a certain kind of astonishment in us about all that our God truly is. Each name of God reveals part of His character and all He is in Himself. Because of this, out of all the connections God’s people have in this life it’s our connection to God that we should prize the most. Why? Because all that God is, is more than enough for all that life will bring God’s people.His complete plenty is enough for our incomplete lack. While the bird has its nest, and the fox has its hole, the believer has the Lord Himself.
God as our refuge has been affirmed in v1-2, now see…
God our Refuge Described (v3-13)
Let’s begin with v3-6, “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, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.”
In this middle portion of Psalm 91 we see what it means for God to be the refuge of His people, to be our refuge. The tense and person changes in v3. It’s no longer one speaking personally as it is in v2 but one speaking to another instructing about God’s protection. So, in v3 God is said to be the Deliverer of His people, from the snare of the fowler, or the deadly trapper, specifically delivering His own from the traps of deadly pestilence or disease. In v4 God Almighty, in whose presence no sinner can be, stands forth as loving mother bird, covering us under His feathers, giving us refuge under His wings. This is an image we know don’t we? God actively protecting us with outstretched wings, like a bird with his young?This imagery, by the way, is exactly the same imagery Jesus uses at the end of Luke 13 as He wept over Jerusalem because the people were unwilling to gather under His wings as a hen gathers her young. But notice as v4 begins with the image of a mother bird it concludes with the image of God’s faithfulness being our protection and defense, literally our shield or buckler. Why the change from bird imagery to war imagery? Well, think of what a shield does. It comes between us and our enemies to protect us. Is this not exactly what a mother bird would do for her own? Now we see what v4 is up to. God as our great protector not only shelters us under His wings and gives us refuge in Him there, He also stands in front of us as a faithful and sturdy shield so our enemies can’t even reach us!Combined in this one verse is both great love and great might securing a comfort for God’s people. Because of this massive reality in v4 we then find v5-6 saying God gives a steady peace to His people not only in the midst of arrows that fly and the destruction that wreaks havoc by day, but the terror that stalks in the darkness of the night. These contrasting images of day and night function to teach us the extent to which God’s wings stretch out to protect His people.Or to say it another way, these contrasting images of day and night teach us that there is no attack which the shield of the Almighty cannot handle.So, with Isaiah then we joyfully affirm, “His arm is not too short to save” (Isa. 59:1)!
Now we come to v7-10, “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place—the Most High, who is my refuge—no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.”
Historically these verses have caused such trouble from some interpreters and some traditions that they’ve flat out rejected them as being too out of bounds to be true. Do you see why this passage vexes some? It seems as if this is a promise that no harm or evil will ever come to God’s people. Is that true? Some conclude that such a promise just isn’t realistic, that the people of God do suffer greatly, and sometimes they suffer more than the wicked in this life, so they skip ahead past this portion. We certainly don’t want to do that, so it seems we’ve got a question before us. What are we to do with this? Taking into account that v15 mentions we’ll encounter trouble in this life there are a few ways we can interpret this. We can simply say this passage needs no explaining away, it is plain and clear, and common sense tells us what it means. This is a promise of an absolute exemption from all that endanger life, and that it is true of none but Jesus.Or we can say that eternallythis passage is true. Thousands and thousands will fall around us but because the Lord is our refuge no evil will come near us, eternally or ultimately. We’ll only look on and see the fate of the wicked at the final judgment and rejoice that such a fate won’t ever eternally or ultimately come near the people of God. Or we could say that though we as God’s people won’t be delivered from every trial in this life, every trial we do encounter in this life will be turned to our greater good, and so the greater we suffer in this life the greater sight we’ll have of God turning all around. The result of this is what v7-10 teaches, no evil can touch God’s people because God our refuge turns the evil intending to harm us into servants of our joy in Him.Therefore, loss serves to make us rich, sickness is eternal medicine, bearing dishonor is our honor, and finally when it comes to it death is gain.
Taking the Psalm in these directions then it is no surprise that the Church in Western Europe looked to no other Psalm but Psalm 91 for comfort and courage when the plagues broke out. The black plagues in Switzerland and France in the 16thcentury, cholera in London and Germany during the 1850’s, or the various respiratory diseases and deaths that resulted from the industrial revolution in large cities on both sides of the Atlantic. In all of these cases for Israel, for these historical moments a few hundred years ago, and for us today Psalm 91 proves true, and is a potent reminder that nothing will ultimately touch God’s people because He’s sheltered us under His wings.
Lastly in this middle portion concludes with v11-13, “For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.”
v11-13 without a doubt the most well-known portion of this Psalm. It is particularly known for its mention of angels guarding God’s people, but probably most well-known for how it was abused and misused by Satan as he quoted it to Jesus near the end of His wilderness temptation trying to get Jesus to believe that the Father’s care of Him had failed. But Jesus knew the trick of twisting sacred Scripture to a wicked end. Perhaps then it isn’t all that surprising to find that Psalm 91 has so often been misinterpreted. Satan did it first, and many have followed suit since. So what do these verses teach? Well first see angels. Angels that guard God’s people. This means part of way God shelters us is through His angelic host. Many from this verse see a proof text for each of us having guardian angel but that’s not quite what’s being said here. We find that God certainly does command His angels to guard His people. But note that it’s angels (plural) and not angel (singular), so the image in view is that of the angelic host carrying out a zone defense for the people of God as we go about life. Recall the moment when the king of Syria was warring against Elisha in 2 Kings 6. Syria came up against the city with a vast host, so vast that Elisha’s servant was terribly afraid. Elisha taught him a lesson saying, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). After this God opened the servant’s eyes and he beheld the mountains full of horses and chariots of fire all around them he and Elisha. Guardian angels? Don’t think so small! God commissions the whole armies of heaven to keep watch over every individual believer.We stagger and stumble through all of life, but they bear us up and see to it that we don’t ultimately fall. And then v12, the angels defense remains true even though strong and sneaky trials come are way. The king of jungle might attack us with his strong might, or the adder (meaning snake) might attack us with his secret malice. Will these bring us down? Ultimately, no. Through God’s sheltering us in His shadow and through being strengthened by the host of heaven we will walk, in a Genesis 3:15 like manner, trampling down all the foes that come against us!
God as our refuge has been affirmed in v1-2, God our refuge has been described in v3-13, now see…
God our Refuge Confirmed (v14-16)
“Because he holds fast to Me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows My name. When he calls to Me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him My salvation.”
We now come to the crescendo of Psalm 91. In v14 the tense and voice changes once again just as it did before in v3, but it’s not another human speaker this time, no. In v14 God speaks confirming all that’s been said before. God begins with a clarification and then makes eight promises. Because he holds fast to Me, because he trusts in Me, and because he dwells in the shelter of My shadow, because he loves Me…this is God’s clarification describing the experience of one who obeys v1-2 and takes shelter in Him. And by sheltering in Him do you see all that God in His faithfulness promises to do for us? He will deliver us, He will protect us, He will answer us, He will be with us in trouble, He will rescue us, He will honor us, He will satisfy us with long life, and He will show us His salvation. These promises themselves form a kind of melody that rises as it progresses culminating with God showing us His salvation. Taking it all together teaches us, once again what v1-2 taught us: all that God is, is more than enough for all that life will bring God’s people.His complete plenty is enough for our incomplete lack.
So Church, whether our earthly life is long or short, the life God gives His own in salvation extends far beyond the narrow boundaries of this world.
I’d like to close with a question and a quote. Here’s the question: Who is Psalm 91 for? It may seem plain enough but it’s one that’s tugged at me all week studying this Psalm. Who is Psalm 91 for? In one sense it’s for Israel. In another sense it’s for all of God’s people throughout all time. And yet, in another sense it’s only for those among God’s people who obey the call to come and dwell in the shadow and shelter of the Almighty and experience the precious promises contained here. But in a far greater sense, and this is stunning, Psalm is only for Jesus Christ. Because He, in His redemptive work, trampled down all His foes in a true Genesis 3:15 manner. But surprise upon surprise, Jesus said all who turn from sin, believe in Him, and abide in Him (very Psalm 91 like language!) shall be with Him forever because He will abide with them! That means, in Jesus we have all that Psalm 91 promises.
Now for the quote. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Around the world the death of Jim Elliot and his four friends on January 8, 1956 was called a nightmare and tragedy. But Jim’s wife Elizabeth Elliot wrote, “The world did not recognize the truth of the second clause in my husband’s creed: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’.” She called her book about their story Shadow of the Almighty from Psalm 91:1because she was utterly convinced that the refuge of the people of God is not a refuge from suffering and death but a refuge from final and ultimate defeat. Is that not what we’ve seen today? God did not exercise His omnipotent power to deliver Jesus from the cross. He did not do the same to deliver Jim and his friends that day. Nor does He promise to deliver you and I from all sorrow and death. Even so, may you know Jesus, and may you feel what Jim felt long ago; that though we live in this life, our hope in Jesus goes infinitely beyond this life. Psalm 91 reminds us of such reality.
William S. Plumer, Psalms (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, reprint 2016) page 848.
Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David – vol. 2, part 2 (Mclean, Virginia: MacDonald Publishing, reprint) page 88
Roger E. Van Harn & Brent A. Strawn, Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009) page 236.
Reformation Study Bible, introductory notes on Ps. 91, page 939.
Van Harn & Strawn, page 236.
William P Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) page 201.
John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (accessed 7/13/19, via accordance Bible software), notes on Psalm 91:4.
Van Harn & Strawn, page 237.
Calvin, notes on Psalm 91:5.
Plumer, page 850.
The English Annotations, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, vol. 8: Psalm 73-150 (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2018) page 120.
Spurgeon, page 93.
Calvin, notes on Psalm 91:11.
Van Harn & Strawn, page 238.
Van Harn & Strawn, page 236.
Calvin, notes on Psalm 91:15.