Psalm 91 was written by an Old Covenant follower of Yahweh who is reflecting on incidents of miraculous protection which he has either personally experienced or heard about others experiencing. We often find David writing similar words after he has just experienced a miraculous rescue from danger. This psalm reads like a diary entry written by someone who is on an emotional high due to recent good news. The language is exaggeratory and is not meant to be taken literally.
This psalm is widely misapplied, with many statements being interpreted as firm promises from God. It is very important to note that God is not the One doing the talking in this psalm. We are not reading the words of a prophet here, but rather the words of an excited musician. Would you take the lyrics of a song on the radio to be literal facts? “I can’t breathe without you. Our love is perfect in every way. I’m in heaven when I’m with you.” Of course you wouldn’t. When we are listening to music, we expect to hear very exaggeratory descriptions of reality. Songs try to convey the emotions of life instead of providing factual reports of events. The psalms are no different. They are also songs, written by emotional artists who are constantly swinging between super highs and super lows. We can’t just pick out any phrases we like and slap the “promise” label on them. We have to examine context.
In the psalms, we don’t find Yahweh talking directly to us. We find people talking about Yahweh and sometimes putting words in His mouth as a way of making their point. While there are many true principles about Yahweh in the psalms, there is also a ton of exaggeration. We must read with caution and look to the Holy Spirit to help us pick out the truths that are useful to us.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. (Ps. 91:1)
Some translations say “the secret place of the Most High.” Either way, our psalmist has birds on his mind as he begins this song and the image he is starting to construct is that of a baby bird hiding in the protective shelter of his father’s wings.
I will say of Yahweh, “He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust!” For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge; (Ps. 91:2-4)
As the metaphorical parent bird, Yahweh protects His young from the traps put out by bird hunters. He keeps them safely hidden under His wings where nothing can harm them.
His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. (Ps. 91:4)
Have you ever had God do something amazing in your life that defied the natural order of things? What happens? You go out and tell everyone you know. For a little while, you feel invincible. Nothing can touch you when God is with you. This is how our psalmist feels. He describes God’s faithfulness like a military shield or manmade wall (a rampart) which is impenetrable. Now in real life, is God always going to protect us from every form of pain and suffering? Of course not. This psalmist isn’t speaking rationally here, he is speaking in emotional extremes.
You will not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day; of the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noon. A thousand may fall at your side; and ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look on with your eyes; and see the punishment of the wicked. (Ps. 91:5-8)
This description gives us a pretty good idea of what the psalmist has experienced. In the Old Testament, we find many accounts of God giving Israel miraculous military victories which would inspire a psalm like this. Our psalmist sounds like he has some personal experience on the battlefield—perhaps David himself wrote this song. It’s quite likely that our psalmist was in a battle in which Israel was massively outnumbered, and then he saw Yahweh unleash some incredible destruction all over the enemy.
If you say, “Yahweh is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, no evil will befall you, nor will any pestilence come near your tent. (Ps. 91:9-10)
The reference to a tent also adds to our picture of a military camp. God often strikes His enemies with terrible diseases and plagues in the Bible. When you see everyone dying around you but you personally aren’t harmed, it leaves a lasting impression. Our psalmist has experienced God’s saving power up close and he is in awe.
For He will command His angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. They will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. (Ps. 91:11-12)
It’s quite natural to wonder what’s happening in the spiritual realm when God pulls off some miraculous rescue. Here our psalmist paints a picture of Yahweh commanding His angels to come to the aid of humans. Has the psalmist really received instruction from Yahweh that this is how things work in the spiritual realm? Of course not. These are musings written by a man who is not at all concerned with trying to educate us about the mechanics of how God works behind the scenes. The point of this psalm is to express awe over things that Yahweh has done. And as is often the case when God pours out some amazing blessing, we get greedy. We try to claim that our lives will always be a picnic from now on. Notice how in the line above the psalmist claims that “no evil will befall you.” He doesn’t set a time limit on this idea—he is boldly claiming the perfect life from now on simply because he has tasted something that he really wants to experience again. Does he have Yahweh’s Authorization to declare that God will keep certain people in a cocoon of pure joy and perfect health for all of their days? Not at all. The claims being made in this psalm completely deny real truths about the way that God operates. God intentionally makes our lives a mix of sorrow and joy, but here the psalmist wants to pretend that those rules have permanently changed now that Yahweh has raised everyone’s expectations about the kinds of blessings He can come up with.
You will tread upon the lion and cobra; you will trample the young lion and the serpent. (Ps. 91:13)
This is major exaggeration. If our psalmist were to actually go out and try to step on a lion or a cobra, he’d end up dead. But these metaphorical images let us know just how jaw-dropping his experience of God’s miraculous power was. Whatever the psalmist witnessed, in his mind it was equal to a man treading on lions and venomous snakes.
“Because he has loved Me,” declares Yahweh, “I will deliver him. I will set him securely on high, because he has known My Name. He will call upon Me, and I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble, I will rescue him and honor him. With a long life I will satisfy him; and let him see My salvation.” (Ps. 91:14-16)
This isn’t Yahweh talking, it’s our psalmist putting words in Yahweh’s mouth for Him—words that he feels explains Yahweh’s motivations for being so generous. Under the Old Covenant, Yahweh promised an abundantly blessed life in return for people’s sincere devotion. Here the psalmist suggests what Yahweh must be thinking when He comes to peoples’ aid: “Because they love Me, I’m going to protect them from all harm.” Yes, certainly God listens to us, helps us, and blesses us in life. But He also stretches us, tests us, and intentionally puts us in all kinds of upsetting situations. Some of us will die young. Some of us have terrible diseases. Some of us feel like God is on Mars when we pray. Are these things consistent indicators that God is upset with us? Not at all. Blessings are not always a sign of approval–sometimes God heaps on the blessings as a way of punishing people. In the same way, trials are not always a sign of disapproval–God will often put His most devoted souls through all kinds of terrible ordeals in order to draw them closer to Him. We can never just look at our circumstances in life and think we have enough information to decide how God feels about us. We need to listen to the convictions the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts. When God is displeased with us, He will always tell us. When He is pleased with us, He will often be very quiet about it. Don’t fall into the trap of assessing your spiritual progress by examining your circumstances. If God breaks out the miraculous rescues, we will certainly appreciate it. But when He decides not to give each day a happy ending, it doesn’t mean He has rejected us.
In this psalm, we are presented with a very warped picture of how Yahweh operates. God does not always rush to the aid of those who are faithful to Him. The prophet Elisha died of a disease—obviously some form of pestilence reached his “tent” yet this was hardly because the man was unfaithful to Yahweh. Elisha was very faithful to God, yet his life was not a bed of roses. Throughout the Old Testament we find countless prophets being beaten, mocked, and brutally slaughtered. In the New Testament and in the world today we find devoted believers having the same kinds of problems. Is this because the angels are slacking in their duties? Not hardly.
Angels serve God, not humans. Certainly God orders His angelic army about, but our psalmist is guessing wrong about what kinds of commands Yahweh gives. As much as we’d like to fantasize that we are the center of everyone’s world, we’re not. The angels do not revolve around us, nor is our personal welfare their top concern in life. The popular notion that we each have our very own guardian angel is complete rubbish. There is no biblical basis for claiming this—there are only egotistical theories that are based on verses we have completely taken out of context. Don’t be led astray. God detests the idolatrous obsession with angels that is so prevalent in the Church today. As Christians we should not be admiring any created being—only the Creators: Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit
As we listen to our psalmist telling us that life will always be perfect for those who love Yahweh, it’s pretty obvious that he was blinded by his own adrenaline at the time he wrote this. When we humans get very excited about something, we say some pretty ridiculous things. When wonderful things happen to us, our outlook of the future gets all rosy and bright. When we’re down in the dumps and everything is going wrong, we suddenly feel like our future looks grim and hopeless. It is human to swing about like this and the psalmists were humans. Not only that, but they were highly emotional musicians, which only adds to their tendencies to exaggerate. You can’t look to the psalms for accurate descriptions of reality. The psalms are about processing emotions, venting grief, basking in joy, and trying to describe the way that God moves our souls.
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