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“Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.” — Psalm 91:14
Who Needs a Rescuer?
Did you ever wish you had a magic cape, something like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, that would protect you from the world’s harms?
Through the years, many people have read Psalm 91 in precisely that way, reciting it as a comforting mantra, believing (or at least hoping) that God will surround them with protective angels. We know, however, that such a belief flies in the face of reality: trouble comes to everyone, no matter how pious or trusting. Sickness, accidents, and heartache may affect us all. What do we do with a psalm that appears to promise more than it delivers?
A trustworthy claim(vv. 1-2)
Few people in ancient times could have read the psalms for themselves. An average Hebrew would not have known how to read, nor would he or she have been able to afford a handwritten parchment scroll. While we may read and ponder the psalms at our leisure, the Hebrews of antiquity may have heard psalms only when they came to worship, or if a singing priest happened by. It was important, then, that psalms be memorable.
Psalm 91 was almost certainly used in Israel’s temple worship, a psalm of trust and assurance for those who faced difficult days. Some writers have argued that it may have been used in a special service focused on the king as he prepared to lead the nation into war or during troubled times. In that sense, it would have served as a combination worship liturgy and pep talk to raise the king’s confidence as a leader.
Others imagine that it could have been read as a psalm of assurance for anyone in need of courage, or used as an instructional psalm, similar to a sermon, calling worshipers to confidently put their lives in God’s hands.
The psalm appears to have a liturgical form, with multiple speakers. The first two verses would have been spoken by the worship leader (or perhaps a worship leader and an individual testifying of his trust in God), followed by a choral or congregational response in vv. 3-13 (possibly spoken antiphonally), and concluding with a divine oracle that could have been pronounced by a priest or cultic prophet who spoke for God (vv. 14-16).
The first two verses set the theme: one who intentionally dwells in the divine shadow finds God to be a refuge and a fortress. Four divine names appear in the first two verses, including ‘Elyon (Most High), Shaddai (the Almighty), Yahweh (the LORD), and ’Elohim (God). ‘Elyon and Shaddai are old divine names that may originally have been used by other cultic groups and only later identified with Yahweh, possibly attesting to the psalm’s antiquity.
The key to understanding these verses is found in the first two verbs, “dwells” and “abides.” The psalm is not addressed to part-time believers, to persons who pray only when in trouble, read scripture when fearful, or practice ritual aspects of religion with little reference to faith in their daily life. Rather, it concerns those who consciously seek God’s presence all day, every day.
The psalm’s location in the temple might lead one to think the poet was encouraging people to live in the sanctuary, but that would be impractical. While Israel thought of God as being “enthroned above the cherubim” in the Holy of Holies, the people understood that God’s presence was not limited to the temple.
Amazing promises(vv. 3-13)
The response in vv. 3-13 cites a number of specific situations in which the one who lives in God’s presence could survive dangers or overcome obstacles. Verses 3, 9, and 11 all begin with the Hebrew word ki, which is normally translated as “for, because, or since.” It could also be used as a positive asseveration, however, leading some translators to render it as “indeed,” or “truly.”
While some of the situations may be understood literally, others are metaphorical. The promise in v. 3 that God would deliver the faithful “from the snare of the fowler” does not speak to the danger of traps set to catch birds, but of any danger that springs up unawares. “Deadly pestilence” literally means “destructive thing,” a translation that forms a better parallel to the snare of a fowler.
The image of escaping a trap for birds surprisingly morphs into a metaphor of finding shelter beneath the divine wings, as chicks might seek shelter beneath the mother hen’s wings when danger lurks (v. 4a). The psalmist may have had in mind the wings of the cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant as a symbol of God’s protective mercies. In either case, the image speaks of intimate care, in which God’s faithfulness “is a shield and a buckler.”
The imagery of vv. 5-6 emphasizes God’s power to protect at any hour, day or night: the faithful one need not fear terrors by night, arrows by day, pestilence that stalks the dark, or trouble that strikes at noon. Notice the alternation between day or nighttime dangers. The words used could suggest epidemic plagues, famine, hail, fire, or enemy attacks: God is on guard, as we like to say, 24/7.
Verses 7-8 up the ante, at least in terms of numbers. Pestilence or war might strike 1,000, even 10,000 neighbors, but the one who dwells in God’s care will remain untouched. The implication is that those who fall belong to “the wicked” who do not trust in God and thus receive punishment rather than protection.
The assertion of vv. 9-10 recalls the opening verse: it is because the person in question has made Yahweh a refuge and “the Most High” (‘elyon) a dwelling place that “no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”
The picture that comes to mind with vv. 11-12 is a familiar one, the promise that God will send angels to protect and guard the faithful, to the point of preventing even a misstep that would lead to a stumped toe. With such protection in place, the trustful one could confidently walk through the dangerous wilderness, not only avoiding unmoving stones but also trampling confidently upon all dangers, from crawling snakes to pouncing lions (v. 13).
A word from God(vv. 14-16)
Could the promises of vv. 3-13 be real? A priest or cultic prophet who speaks for God insists it is so. Note the first-person pronouns: “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name” (v. 14). The oracle appears to promise answered prayer: “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble; I will rescue them and honor them” (v. 15).
If that is not enough, the final verse adds “With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation” (v. 16).
But we know good people who loved God but died young. We know people who have prayed for physical healing or financial help and didn’t find it. How, then, should we read this psalm?
On the one hand, we might read it as a source of encouragement for those who face times of trial. From this perspective, we can recognize the promise of perfect protection as hyperbole – an overstatement for effect. God may not in fact protect us from all danger, but those who choose to dwell in God’s care can be sure that God is present with them through all things.
Consider this: if the psalm truly promised a long and trouble-free life in return for loving God, any “love” for God would be selfishly motivated: we would be in it for what we could get out of it. Such an approach does not love God for God’s sake, but seeks to use God for the person’s sake.
We note that when this psalm is quoted in the New Testament, it is on the lips of the devil, who tempts Jesus to throw himself from the highest point of the temple, trusting angels to catch him (Matt. 4:6, Luke 4:10-11, quoting from Ps. 91:11-12). Jesus, however, recognized the temptation for what it was. Gaining popularity and influence through angelic deliverance was not Jesus’ way: he would experience human life even as we do, complete with suffering.
Jesus’ rejection of a literal reading of the psalm suggests that we should also approach it, not with an expectation that God will give us all we ask for or keep us from all harm, but as an assurance that in all the ins and outs and ups and downs of life, God is with us, and that remaining within God’s will is more important than living in a protective bubble.
Indeed, if we go back to the beginning of the psalm, the challenge and promised blessings are for those “who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” Abiding in God is more than seeking protection: it is a surrender of life that changes our priorities. Jesus made it clear that those who follow him should not be after personal gain, but are to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” adding “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
Reading Psalm 91 through a New Testament lens helps us to understand that the end of being faithful is not to avoid all present danger, but to serve a Lord whose care extends far beyond the pitfalls of our earthly life. BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for February 14, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Psalm 91
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Our students pray for a lot of different things. Many times their prayers are lists of what they want from God. When their prayers aren’t answered how they want to them to be, they get frustrated and want to turn their backs on God for not doing what they want God to do. Psalm 91, at the first reading, might bolster their argument that God is supposed to protect them from all the bad stuff that happens around them. Remind your students, with the first verses of the psalm, that we are to remain in God’s presence and shelter to abide in God. We are comforted in knowing that God is with us.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Invisible Cloak” from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Psalm 91