In the Believer's Bible Commentary, William MacDonald begins his comments on Psalm 91 by telling of a five-year-old boy who was dying of diphtheria in 1922. As his mother turned her back so she could not see him take his last breath, her brother-in-law knocked at the door. He said, "I've come just to tell you that you don't have to worry about the child. He is going to recover, and God is going to save his soul." He then explained that the Lord gave him this assurance as he read Psalm 91.
MacDonald, the author of the commentary, was that dying boy. God spared his life. Thirteen years later, God saved him. And for many decades, God used him to preach and write the gospel. MacDonald labeled his comments on Psalm 91 as "My Psalm." He stated his willingness to share the psalm, but insisted that it was his psalm. So it is with every believer who knows what it is to live in the protective custody of God.
An 'orphan' messianic psalm
Psalm 91 is one of the so-called "orphan psalms." We do not know the author of this psalm. The Septuagint ascribes it to David, while others ascribe it to Moses, but no one knows for sure.
Likewise, we do not know the occasion that prompted the writing of this psalm. Nothing in the psalm points to its historical background. Even the structure of this psalm is somewhat hard to ascertain, as multiple voices apparently speak in this psalm. Yet the message of Psalm 91 is clear: the Lord will protect the one who trusts in him.
Psalm 91 is considered a messianic psalm that finds its fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ. In Matthew 4:5-6, Satan applies this psalm to Jesus. Jesus does not deny that it is about him, even though he resists Satan's temptation to put God to the test. The promises of God in this psalm are ultimately fulfilled in Christ.
But Psalm 91 is good news for everyone who trusts in God. Psalm 90 is a warning about the reality of death, but Psalm 91 is a promise of protection for life. Martin Luther called this psalm "the most distinguished jewel among all the psalms of consolation." This psalm must not be used to turn true faith into religious superstition, but the message of this psalm is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The Lord will protect the one who trusts in him. What does it mean to live in the protective custody of God? It is a life of confident trust, total security, and divine assurance.
A life of confident trust
In 1952, the American missionary Jim Elliot traveled to Ecuador to share the gospel. On January 8, 1956, the natives he was visiting brutally murdered Elliot and four of his fellow missionaries. Elliot was 28 years old, with a young wife and a daughter who was not yet a year old. In 1958, Jim Elliot's widow Elisabeth published the life and testament of her husband. She called it The Shadow of the Almighty.
This title is a reference to Psalm 91 and helps us to properly understand the message of the psalm. This psalm does not guarantee immunity from trouble in life or tragedy in death. It celebrates the benefits of confident trust in God. Trust in God will not keep you from experiencing bad things in life, but it will keep you as you experience bad things in life. In verses one to two, the psalmist declares the truth and testimony of a life of confidence trust.
The truth of a life of confident trust
Psalm 91 begins with a general statement of trust in God: "Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High / will rest in the shadow of the Almighty." What is this secret place? It is a person, not a place.
This divine person is described in two ways in verse one. He is called "the Most High"—the possessor of heaven and Earth. He is higher than the kings of the earth and the false gods of the nations. He is also called "the Almighty"—the living God who alone has omnipotent power. Safety and security cannot be found in self-defense, sinful people, ideal circumstances, material resources, or defensive weapons. It is only found in God. In Psalm 90:1, Moses sings, "Lord, you have been our dwelling place / throughout all generations."
God is a shelter to those who trust in him. Psalm 27:5 says, "For in the day of trouble / he will keep me safe in his dwelling; / he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent / and set me high upon a rock."
Likewise, God is a shadow for those who trust in him. A human shadow produces fear; the divine shadow gives comfort. It means God is near to provide relief. Warren Wiersbe wrote: "The safest place in the world is a shadow, if it is the shadow of the Almighty." But you must dwell in the shelter of the Most High to abide in the shadow of the Almighty. God is a homemaker, not a hotel manager. You cannot merely check in with him on Sunday mornings. Rather, you must dwell and abide in him every day. The protection of God is accessed through communion with God. James 4:8 says, "Come near to God and he will come near to you."
The testimony of a life of confident trust
Verse one is a general statement of trust in God. Verse two is a personal testimony of trust in God: "I will say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress, / my God, in whom I trust.'"
It is one thing to be able to talk about the Lord. It is another thing to be able to talk to the Lord. With confident trust, the psalmist testifies about his personal relationship with the Lord using possessive pronouns: "my refuge and my fortress, my God." This is provocative language that virtually overthrows the master-servant relationship humans have with the divine. But the Lord graciously condescends to be the possession of the one who trust in him.
Is this your testimony? Have you run to the Cross to put your trust in the blood and righteousness of Christ for salvation? Can you call the Lord "my God" through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?
Lord Craven was a Christian nobleman who lived in London during a plague that ravaged the city in the 15th century. Craven determined to flee the city for his country estate to escape the spreading plague. But as he prepared to leave, he overheard a servant innocently say to another, "I suppose by my Lord's quitting London to avoid the plague that his God lives in the country and not in town." Convicted, Craven cancelled his journey, declaring, "My God lives everywhere and can preserve me in town as well as in the country. I will stay where I am." He remained in London to help the plague victims but never caught the disease himself, because God is a refuge and fortress to those who trust in him.
A life of total security
In verses one to two, the theme of Psalm 91 is boldly declared: the Lord will protect the one who trusts in him. In verses three to thirteen, this theme is comprehensively explained. A life of confident trust is a life of total security. No evil can harm the one who trust in the Lord unless it is permitted by the Lord. The fact that the Lord permits it is proof that he reigns over it. The follower of Christ is untouchable for two reasons.
The Almighty is watching over you
What does it mean to have the Lord watching over you?
God provides perfect protection. Verses three says, "Surely he will save you / from the fowler's snare / and from the deadly pestilence." The snare of the fowler refers to the plans and plots of the enemy. It is the hunter who stalks his prey. The deadly pestilence refers to diseases, plagues, and epidemics that touch everyone in their path. But God will deliver you from enemies and epidemics.
Verse four says, "He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; / his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart." The image is of a mother bird who protects her fledglings from severe weather and stalking predators. In Matthew 23:37, Jesus laments, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing." May it never be said of you that God would, but you won't let him. Trust in the Lord. His faithfulness will be your shield and buckler in the time of battle.
God provides perpetual protection. Verses five to six say, "You will not fear the terror of night, / nor the arrow that flies by day, / nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, / nor the plague that destroys at midday." In the face of terrors, arrows, pestilence, and destruction, the believer refuses to succumb to fear. This is not personal courage; it is confident trust. Courage is only fear that has said its prayers. Psalm 23:4 says, "Even though I walk / through the darkest valley, / I will fear no evil, / for you are with me; / your rod and your staff, / they comfort me." The emphasis of verses five through six is on the timing of trouble. Night or day, darkness or noonday, there is no reason to fear. Psalm 121:5-6 says: "The Lord watches over you— / the Lord is your shade at your right hand; / the sun will not harm you by day, / nor the moon by night." The believer is under round-the-clock protection, under the eternal surveillance of God.
God provides prevailing protection. Verses seven to eight say, "A thousand may fall at your side, / ten thousand at your right hand, / but it will not come near you. / You will only observe with your eyes / and see the punishment of the wicked." During a raging battle, spreading disease, or tumultuous storm, a thousand fall dead around you. Or ten thousand—the largest number in Hebrew—fall at your right side. But the death and destruction does not come near you. You will only be a spectator of the recompense of the wicked.
In Exodus 14:13, Moses said to the children of Israel at the Red Sea, "Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again." This is key to Psalm 91. It is about more than protection from bad circumstances; it is about protection from divine judgment. We are all wicked people who need protection from a holy God. But John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
The angels are watching over you
Verses nine to ten say, "If you say, 'The Lord is my refuge,' / and you make the Most High your dwelling, / no harm will overtake you, / no disaster will come near your tent." Using language employed in earlier verses, the psalmist restates the message of the psalm: the Lord will protect the one who trusts in him. But the repetition does not diminish the message. One commentator notes, "Love loves to repeat itself. The deepest emotions, like songbirds, have but two or three notes, which they sing over and over again all the long day through."
The Lord watches over those who trust in him. The Lord also dispatches holy angels to watch over those who trust in him. Verses 11-12 say, "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."
There are those who believe that every person has a guardian angel to watch over him or her. Psalm 91 is cited to support this theory. But the psalm does not say believers have a personal angel to guard them: it says God commands his armies of angels to be the believer's bodyguards in the unseen spirit world. Psalm 34:7 says, "The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, / and he delivers them."
Psalm 91 is the only passage in Scripture quoted by the Devil. In Matthew 4:5-6, Satan quotes or misquotes this verse, tempting Jesus to climb the pinnacle of the temple and jump down. Jesus did not bite the bait. Quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, Jesus replied, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."
This is an important lesson. The Lord honors trusting obedience, not sinful presumption. God watches over those who do his will. If you jump out there on your own, you are on your own. But if you walk in the will of God, God will take care of you. Verse 13 says, "You will tread on the lion and the cobra; / you will trample the great lion and the serpent." The lion pictures violence. The serpent pictures craftiness. Be it open danger or hidden peril, you can tread over and trample them as you do God's will. The child of God is indestructible until his work is done. Don't be concerned about whether there are snakes and lions along the path: make sure you walking in God's will.
A life of divine assurance
The speaker changes in the final stanza of Psalm 91. As you read verses 14-16, it is obvious that God is now speaking. This is the way it ought to be; it is the way it is. God always has the last word.
In these closing verses, the Lord does not speak to the one who trusts in him. Rather, he speaks about the one who trusts in him. It is an open statement of divine assurance rooted in a mutual devotion between the Lord and the believer.
The believer's devotion to the Lord
Verses 14-16 are filled with the promises of God. But, as always, these are no blanket promises. The promises of God are fulfilled for those who live in devotion to him. In verses 14-15, devotion to the Lord is described in three ways.
Love God. Verse 14 states two motivating factors for divine intervention. The verse begins with the first: "Because he loves me … " This is not the typical Hebrew word for love. This word refers to zeal, passion, or deep longing. It is the difference between loving someone and being in love with someone. This love is evidenced by what you do, not by what you say. Consuming love causes the believer to hold fast to God. This is the one to whom the Lord gives assurance of protection. Romans 8:28 says, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
Know God's name. Verse 14 ends with the second motivating factor for divine intervention: "for he acknowledges my name." The Lord's name is more than a means of identification; it is his nature, character, and authority. To know God's name is to know God. It is to speak of the Almighty in the personal and intimate terms of verse two: "my refuge and my fortress, / my God, in whom I trust." The Lord does not fulfill his promises for the one who knows his promises. The Lord fulfills his promises for the one who knows his name.
Call on God. Verse 14 records two conditions for divine assurance. Verse 15 reveals that you can love God and know God's name and yet live without divine assurance if you do not pray. Verse 15 says, "He will call on me, and I will answer him." Many professing believers are functional atheists. They claim to trust God, but they do not call to him in faith, and they never receive answered prayer. James 4:2 bluntly states: "You do not have because you do not ask God." Do you want to live with divine assurance? It happens after prayer!
The Lord's devotion to the believer
In verses three, four, and eleven, the psalmist asserts "he will" to declare God's protective care of the believer. In verses 14-16, the Lord speaks for himself. The Lord says "I will" six times in these three verses. These "I will" assurances cover eight divine promises.
The promises of verses 14-15 are verifiable. God will deliver, protect, answer, be with, rescue, and honor you. But what about the promises of verse 16? Trusting and obeying God does not guarantee you will live a long life. The Lord Jesus Christ only lived 33 years. Yet this is the promise of God. Although there are obvious exceptions, the promise of God stands true.
Moreover, his satisfying joy transcends the length of life. Warren Wiersbe wrote, "It is one thing for doctors to add years to your life, but God adds life to our years and makes that life worthwhile." For God to satisfy you with long life is for him to show you his salvation. Salvation belongs to the Lord, and his salvation covers the past, present, and future. Romans 5:1-2 says, "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God."
A man was quite nervous as he took his first airplane flight. He made it through the takeoff and started to relax, until the turbulence began to hit. The man feared the plane would go down. Then he noticed a little boy calmly sitting next to him. He asked how the boy could remain so calm. He answered, "My father is the pilot of this plane. He knows that I'm on board. And he is not going to allow anything bad happen to me."
Is there turbulence in your life? Remember that your Father in heaven is the pilot. He knows that you are on board. And he will not let anything happen to his children.
H.B. Charles, Jr. is the Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida.