What Do We Do with Psalm 91?
by Jacob Hudgins
Psalm 91 contains rich and surprising promises for those who trust in Jehovah. “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”(Psalm 91:4-6). “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot”(Psalm 91:13). “With long life I will satisfy him”(Psalm 91:16).These promises create a problem: If they are not always true, how do we believe them? If they are always true, what do we make of our experience? What do we do with Psalm 91?
Danger: Testing God based on Psalm 91. If God tells me I can “tread on the lion and the adder,” bring on the snakes! Yet this is the tone in which Satan quotes Psalm 91 to Jesus (Matt 4:5-6). Since God has promised that his angels will catch you (Psa 91:11-12), why not jump off the temple? Jesus responds, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’”(Matt 4:7). When we take God’s promises and try to force his hand, we test him and show him tremendous disrespect. Manufacturing a crisis to try to make God prove himself is not a proper way to apply Psalm 91. God will not be manipulated.
Danger: Ignoring God because Psalm 91 seems farfetched. This spirit takes Psalm 91 as a series of over-the-top promises that don’t relate to the “real world.” “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”(Psalm 91:9-10). Since we see people with some regularity—both in the Bible and in our own experiences—who trust God yet endure evil and sickness, we simply ignore these words. We begin to attribute healing to medicine and doctors—safety to planning, research, and luck—blessing to our own ingenuity. This psalm gives God credit for deliverances we experience; ignoring that fact dishonors him.
A proper reading: Our relationship with God blesses us! This psalm pictures blessing as a function of a rich relationship with God. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High”(Psalm 91:1). “I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust”(Psalm 91:2). “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name”(Psalm 91:14). God is not promising new powers to his servants but reassuring us that our relationship means something. He will be there for us in our times of need. Such blessings are not viewed as a business transaction—as if we serve God in order to have his protection—but as a fruit of our sincere commitment to him.
We do need to address the fact that some of these promises are not literally true. “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”(Psalm 91:9-10). Is there an example of anyone in the entirety of the Bible who lived this literally? David, the author, did not. Jesus, Paul, and the apostles had evil befall them. It is better for us to see promises like these as figurative expressions of how sweeping God’s protection is. There might be negative and hurtful things that happen to us, but we still belong to God and inherit eternal life. God protects us from the evil one and his attempts to draw us away from him (see Rom 8:35-39, John 10:28, Heb 13:6, Matt 10:28). David uses these vivid examples to articulate just how God blesses his people. It is likely that we can take our own experiences—the deliverances we have received from our own desperate situations, slavery to sin, and heartache—and sing alongside David.
What do we do with Psalm 91? We trust that the God David spoke of still blesses his people. We pursue a relationship with him in full confidence that he will always watch over us!