Commentary on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Israeli scholar Yair Hoffman once characterized Psalm 91 as an “amulet psalm.”
The term originated from a practice that developed in both early Jewish and Christian communities of placing bits of Psalm 91 in amulets so that the wearer would feel God’s nearness and be reminded of God’s providential care in times of trouble.
While today we might consider such a practice superstitious, this custom draws attention to the heartbeat of this psalm, the unwavering testimony of the psalmist that God is our refuge and our strength, the one in whom we can put our confidence. An individual psalm of trust, the psalmist pulls out all the stops and holds nothing back in this confession that God will indeed cover the psalmist with divine protection such that “no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent (verse 10).”
It is not immediately clear what precipitates the psalmist’s song. The psalmist opens with images related to military protection — “refuge” and “fortress” (verse 2a), which would suggest that the psalmist is under attack and physically threatened. Verse 6, however, moves beyond military threat to include “pestilence that stalks in the darkness” and “destruction that wastes at noonday.” The impression given is that whatever danger the psalmist may encounter in this life, whether it be persecution, physical or mental threat, or even illness, the psalmist will find safety and shelter under the wings of the Almighty God.
Some have struggled with the hyperbolic language of this psalm and its strong statements about God’s saving action. Certainly, our earthly experience, which is full of trials and tribulations, doesn’t seem to reflect the psalmist’s testimony. A few notes, however, may help to clarify what the psalm does and doesn’t say about God’s care for his people:
- Psalm 91 is not a doctrinal statement. The psalmist isn’t teaching a course on the Doctrine of God. Instead, the psalmist is professing faith in the same God who has shown himself to be faithful throughout the history of God’s people, delivering them from slavery in Egypt, from their enemies in the land of Canaan, and from all who would seek to destroy them as a people. Through the ages, God remained faithful to his covenant so that the psalmist can say with confidence that God will continue to sustain his people. The point is that while God’s protection did not mean that Israel never suffered pain or went through difficult times, in the broad scheme of things, God did “guard his people in all their ways” (verse 11).
- Reading this psalm in its literary context and particularly in relation to Ps. 90 lends nuance and perspective to Psalm 91. Psalm 90 begins Book III of the psalter. The superscription associates this psalm with Moses, reflecting on the fragility and brokenness of human life in relation to the eternal goodness and grace of God. Psalm 90 ends with the cry, “Have compassion on your servants! … Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands” (verse 13b, 17a). Psalm 91 is a response to this prayer. It is a statement of conviction and trust that though we are dust and “our years come to an end like a sigh” (verse 9b), yet God, the Most High, invites us to take up residency in the shelter of the Almighty. Reading these two psalms together shifts attention away from the distress of the psalmist to the astonishing fact that the Most High, the Almighty and everlasting God notices, responds to, and cares about our suffering. Though we are dust and our life is but a fleeting moment, still the Creator of the universe commits himself unfailingly to his people so that the psalmist can say with confidence, “he is my refuge and my fortress.” The remarkable truth that the psalmist professes is that through the trials and challenges of life, we are not alone. God is on our side.
- When the evil one quotes Psalm 91:11, 12 to Jesus in the wilderness, goading him to throw himself off the temple, Jesus rejects any notion that God is at his beck and call. Responding with Deuteronomy 6:16, “do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Jesus spurns the suggestion that one can presume upon God’s saving power for one’s own gain. The testimony of Psalm 91, then, is not that God’s people are immune to suffering, especially when that suffering comes as a result of folly or sin. Instead, it is that God will not ultimately let suffering or even death separate us from his love and care.
- And this is certainly the emphasis at the end of the psalm. Structurally, the psalm can be divided into two main sections: verses 1-13 and verses 14-16. The first section is the psalmist’s confession of trust. The second, however, reflects not the psalmist’s voice but God’s. Strikingly, God’s words assume that his people will experience hardship and suffering. “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble” (verse 15). In some ways, God seems to be offering a bit of a corrective here to the psalmist’s theology, redirecting the psalmist toward a conception of God’s providence as protection and presence, not necessarily immunity from suffering.
As we read this psalm during the season of Lent, it serves as a reminder that with God at our side, our trials and tribulations won’t overcome us. More than that, as we look to Jesus and his journey to the cross, we are reminded again of how seriously God took his word to be with us in our suffering. Taking on our sin, our sorrows, and our suffering, Jesus bore them on the cross and laid the foundation for their ultimate defeat. In Christ, God truly has rescued us and shown us his salvation.