Psalm 91: Trust in God
Several years ago Susan Jacoby wrote a book, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age (Vintage Books, 2012). In this book, she wants to serve as a reality instructor. She wrote this book because she is very concerned about how our culture denies the reality of death and aging. She doesn’t hold back from communicating the stark realities about chronic, degenerative, irreversible diseases. With great sadness, Ms. Jacoby does not hide her political or religious convictions in the book. She long ago shed any notion of belief in God or the supernatural and seemingly grew cynical and bitter because of the stark realities of death and disease. She notes that this especially takes its toll upon widows and older women that often in our society do not have the financial wherewithal to take care of themselves. Indeed, she ends up advocating increased taxation of citizens so that the state, through greater governmental care, can bring aid and comfort for old age. Even more alarmingly, she became a strong advocate of doctor-assisted suicide in order to ameliorate the problem.
In the last year, we also have all been reminded about the fragility of life and the uncertainties that can come with disease and death: COVID, a plummeting economy, violence in the streets almost unparalleled in history. Often in such times, we turn to the Psalter for comfort. Today, I’d like to take the reader on a brief survey of a familiar Psalm: Psalm 91.
“Psalm 91 has answers for those big questions. He has sure promises to which we can cling.”
But one can only wonder, “Does this Psalm promise too much?” Can a Hebrew of old, or a Christian in the New Covenant really affirm some of these statements: “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 (vv. 9-10); “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you”(v. 7); “With long life I will satisfy him, and show him my salvation” (v. 16)?
If these promises are taken as promising too much, and God really can’t, or will not, deliver on them, then perhaps we too will be reduced to shedding our faith, becoming bitter, and writing books or commenting to other folks about life’s ultimate questions with nothing more than a scolding attitude, angry tirade, and bitter anger. Should we jettison our hope in God—as Ms. Jacoby counsels—and merely fall back on doctor-assisted suicide for the aged and infirm? Well, Psalm 91 has answers for those big questions. He has sure promises to which we can cling, and we see them in this Psalm.
Many commentators claim that the compositional context of this Psalm was some destructive disease. However, the ambiguity of many of the statements and the precise use of the language here may have connoted something different for this ancient audience than it does for us speaking in English. In fact, it is probably best to recognize these threats in a more general than specific manner.
For it is He that rescues you
From the trap of the fowler
From the pestilence of destruction (v. 3)
This trap of the fowler designates the cunning and power of enemies often in Scripture.
With His Wings He covers you
And under His wings you may seek refuge
Shield and buckler are His faithfulness
You shall not fear the dread by night
Nor the arrow that flies by day
Of the pestilence that walks by darkness
Of the destruction that destroys at noon-day. (vv.4-6)
Notice in this wonderful poetry an order of climax. Verse 5 speaks of the dangers of the night and the day, verse 6 of the mischief of the blackest darkness and the bright noonday. Thus, verse 6 speaks of times that are pregnant with disaster.
Verses 5 and 6 now name other terrors against which the Lord protects the one who seeks God in his sacred area. There are many plausible suggestions for the range of dangers suggested here: “terrors of the night” (v. 5), the ”arrows that fly in the daytime” are destructive forces that cause sickness (cf. Ps. 38:2; Lamentations 3:13; Job 6:4); but the reference may also be to sunstroke (Ps. 121.6). Others say the plague and the scourge in verse 6 are metaphors that suggest attacks of illness, whereas the terror and the arrow of verse 5 suggest the attacks of human enemies.
We do not know with absolute certainty; however, although the language and exact nature of these threats remain elusive, we may say that the description is to invoke a host of potentially lethal happenings. This is probably confirmed by verse 7:
A thousand may fall at your side
Tens of thousands at your right hand,
Yet, it will not draw near to you.
What is the subject of “it will not draw”? It is probably not specially disease, but evil, or destruction in general.
In short, then, this Psalm in some sense picks up right where Psalm 90 left off. All of us are subject to the dreadful effects of the common curse, which may include real enemies, disease, chronic sickness, people that slander us in public, etc…. So how are we to understand the confident promises that I alluded to above in light of the fact that it just did not seem to match Israel’s experience nor does it often match ours?
The answer to that question lies in rightly interpreting this Psalm. The vast promises described in verses 3-13 of Psalm 91 must be understood most immediately in the light of the covenant that God had made with Israel. At Sinai, God had promised to bless Israel if she obeyed and threatened that He would curse Israel if she didn’t obey. In short, the blessings of God for the people of Israel as well as the curses were “conditional based upon the response of God’s people” (Richard Belcher, The Messiah and the Psalms: Preaching Christ from all the Psalms, Mentor, 2014, 59). This point is clear not only from an overall understanding of the Mosaic covenant, but from Psalm 91 itself (cf. verses 9 & 14):
Psalm 91:9-10: “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.” (ESV)
Psalm 91:14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name” (ESV)
It is not only clear from these verses, but from the close connections and allusions between Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 and this Psalm. These chapters, in particular, show the stipulations (commands) and sanctions (either blessings or curses) that were associated with the Mosaic covenant and Psalm 91 (see, e.g., Lev. 26:6; 7-8; 26:11); for obedience, the blessing of “harmful beasts removed” (Lev. 26:6); but for disobedience, “I will let loose harmful beasts against you!” (Lev. 26: 22). As a curse for disobedience, God said, “The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you” (Deut. 28: 21). Many other connections could be suggested as well. And of course the ultimate curse that fell upon the Israelites was that they lost their land and they were cast out into the world wilderness in the form of exile and indentured servitude to the tyrants of Assyria and Babylon.
And lest you think this is merely a sermon that is a kind of redemptive history lesson, you must remember that the history of Israel is given for our instruction. In other words, all of humanity is written there in miniature. Just because we were not there molting the metal for the golden calf or participating in whoring after every other spiritual lover, (e.g., Baal, Molech), nevertheless, we are all cut from the same cloth. Israel is but a picture of all humans gone astray. And left to ourselves, we are deserving of death, the wrath of God and all the horrible slings and darts associated with this sad world cast into misery by our representative and federal head, namely Adam. Israel never experienced the fullness of covenant blessings. She forfeited not only the promised land of Canaan, but many in her midst.
Yet, the faithful God who wanted to heal her sent prophets to her time and time again to warn her to repent and believe! You see, part of the very reason for the being of the Mosaic covenant was to demonstrate to the people that they just could not obey on their own. They needed not only a penalty payer for their sins, they needed a probation keeper who would fulfill all righteousness and lead them into Canaan, the heavenly Canaan.
“Nevertheless, Christ prevails. That is what this Psalm teaches, and that is why you can trust with your whole heart in the living God even in a dangerous, uncertain, and hostile world.”
Thanks be to God that there is another servant, another son, who would come and be a faithful covenant servant. Although life has its travails. Although Israel fails. Nevertheless, Christ prevails. That is what this Psalm teaches, and that is why you can trust with your whole heart in the living God even in a dangerous, uncertain, and hostile world.
Just as the first Adam had a probation in which he failed to succeed, so too did Israel fail in their probation. But Christ does not. As the writer to the Hebrews 5:7-8 says:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (ESV).
Did you notice the two familiar verses from this Psalm that are quoted in the New Testament (in several places) regarding Jesus’ temptation? Let us choose Matthew, for example (4: 5-8), where the devil takes Jesus to the Holy City and to the very pinnacle of the temple and says “Throw Yourself down!” for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Now there is a quote of vv. 11-12 of Psalm 91.
But our Lord and savior, the great “head-crusher” God/Man, recognized the bait and did not fall for the hook; rather, he responds with confident trust in God, fully obeying, not turning back from his mission, not wavering in his duty, nor shirking his great task for which He had come: to destroy the works of the devil, to be a propitiating sacrifice for his own, to fulfill all righteousness, to be the Captain of our faith and lead a whole train of captives to the other side of the Jordan and into the world to come. Although Israel fails to keep the terms of the covenant. Although we fail to do all that God commands as well, nevertheless, Jesus Christ’s obedience secures for us the blessings of the covenant and moreover the promises of this Psalm, ultimately.
But then the question is raised again for us as it was at the beginning, “Has the Psalm promised too much?” No, the better question is, “when will we experience the fullness of these hard-won blessings and promises?”
The answer of course is not in this life alone. Has COVID and many other uncertainties brought hardship for many, and even death for some? Yes, there is a great antidote against bitterness and lashing out in angry tirades in the midst of life’s uncertainties: the sure promises of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The fact of the matter is that Christ has inaugurated His kingdom and He already has and does bring some measure of blessing in this life, some measure of substantial blessing. We believe in a pilgrim theology, which believes in a theology of glory to come when Christ arrives at his second coming. At that time, He will bring the fullness of covenant blessings which He has merited on our behalf. Then the blackness of sin, disease and pestilence, marauding enemies attacking us and slandering us, loneliness and heartache, the effects of the common curse with all its frightful horrors in this life will come to a complete end. That is the glorious message we have to offer and what we are trying very hard to help our students communicate, whether they join us in the classroom, or are forced for a myriad of reasons to join our classes online during this extraordinary time.
In closing, let’s remind ourselves of the glorious summation found in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 9 (Q & A, #26):
What do you believe when you say: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth?”
A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ his Son. I trust him so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world. He is able to do this because he is an almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.
Originally published in UPDATE Magazine Fall 2020
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