Psalm 91: Should we pray and claim it for ourselves?
By Pastor-Elder Denesh Divyanathan
19 Feb 2020
In the last few weeks as fears over the spread of Covid-19 have heightened, I have heard Psalm 91 invoked repeatedly as the Psalm of protection that Christians should be praying at this time. Churches have either preached sermons on it, or called on their congregations to claim, pray, or memorise the Psalm.
The attraction of Ps 91 at this time is obvious: God appears to promise to “deliver” His people from “the deadly pestilence” (v3) such that they need “not fear…the pestilence that stalks in darkness” (v6). Indeed, v7-10 seems so applicable to what we are facing now with Covid-19:
“7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.”
But is that what Ps 91 is about? Is it really a blank cheque promise that Christians can pray and claim for themselves in this time knowing that they will definitely be protected from Covid-19?
Let us first unpack the Psalm before seeing how it applies to us today.
Ps 91 divides neatly into three sections: v1-2, v3-13, and v14-16.
v1-2 opens with a declaration of who God is and the absolute security of being under His protection. Four titles are used of God: “the Most High” which speaks of His authority, “the Almighty” which speaks of His power, “the LORD” which speaks of His covenantal love, and simply “my God” which speaks of the Psalmist’s personal trust in God. And matching the four titles are four images of how comprehensive is God’s protection for His people: “shelter”, “shadow”, “refuge” and “fortress”. What is obvious right from the get go of this Psalm is that God can and will protect His people.
v3-13 then applies this divine protection to the individual believer in virtually every area of life. This is evidenced by the shift in personal pronouns in v3-13 where “you” (singular) is repeated throughout this section. And just about every evil seems to be covered here: evil schemes (v3), pestilence and plague (v3, 6, 10), terror at night (v5), arrows by day (v5), destruction (v6), and evil (v10).
But how will God protect His people from all these myriad of evils? Well, angels is the answer. Look at v11-13:
“11 For he (God) will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.”
With that, our Psalm crescendos with certainty as it closes in v14-16. How can God’s people know that they are secure under God’s care? Answer: God will do it all. Look at the six “I will” statements which cement this divine certainty:
• “I will deliver him” (v14)
• “I will protect him” (v14)
• “I will answer him” (v15)
• “I will be with him” (v15)
• “I will rescue him” (v15)
• “I will satisfy him” (v16)
You could not ask for a greater assurance than that, could you? How can we be sure of protection? Because God Himself will do it!
But how do we benefit from this? What must we do? How good or moral must we be? How much of the Bible must we know? Well, that is where the good news gets even better: It is not about what we do but who we know. Three times God says that it is those who are unfettered in their trust in Him who are sheltered under His divine protection: “Because he holds fast to me in love…because he knows my name…when he calls to me” (v14-15). Isn’t that amazing? God will protect us simply because we love Him, know Him, and call on Him! How wonderful and liberating that Christianity is at its heart not about rules, but relationship!
So there you have it: Ps 91 is undeniably uplifting, as comprehensive a Psalm of protection as you could ever find in all the Scriptures. But before you race ahead to put a decal of Ps 91 on your car or tattoo its verses onto your body or print it on your face mask, we need to ask three crucial questions: Firstly, who wrote Ps 91 and who is it about? Secondly, what actually does Ps 91 promise us protection from? And thirdly, how should we then understand and apply Ps 91 today?
Who wrote Ps 91 and who is it about?
Ps 91 does not indicate who the author is and scholars are divided as to whether Moses or David wrote it. On the one hand, Moses could be the author since he also wrote Ps 90 and the themes of both Psalms complement each other. In addition, the imagery in Ps 91 is very much like what happened during the plagues in Egypt as God rescued His people through the Passover. Indeed, God spoke directly of angels assisting His people in Ex 23:30, 23 as they journeyed to the Promised Land. On the other hand, others have said that Ps 91 is written by David since the language of God as refuge is typically Davidic and God did in fact rescue David and Israel from a pestilence and plague that killed tens of thousands of people in 2 Sam 24. So what are we to make of this? Do we have to choose between Moses and David? Does it even matter since Ps 91 does not tell us? Well, at the very least, it should sound a note of caution to us: That while the language of the Psalm might be exaggerated and poetic, it could well refer to real historical incidents in the life of Israel under either Moses or David. If that is the case, Ps 91 is reminding God’s people of how He has protected them in the past, and therefore how He is more than able to do so again.
But that begs the question: What actually does Ps 91 promise us protection from? Two things are noteworthy here.
Firstly, the language of Ps 91 overwhelmingly suggests that salvation from God’s final judgment is what is being spoken of here. Just look at some of the key words used in the Psalm:
• “deliver” in v3 and v14 is the language of salvation.
• “the recompense” of the wicked in v8 is not just the language of human suffering in the here and now but the language of final judgment as evidenced in the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah¹ and crucially Rev 22:12, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done.”
• “rescue” (v15) understood in this context also suggest that salvation is what the Psalmist is referring to.
• “salvation” (v16) makes this explicit and also explains what is the “long life” that God will “satisfy” us with earlier in the same verse. God is promising the satisfaction that only eternal life can bring.
This in turn helps us to see that even if the images in the Psalm are of what happened historically in the Exodus and under David in 2 Sam 24, those incidents are pictures of God’s final judgment. As such, God in Ps 91 is invoking the horrors of judgment that His people have witnessed in history to assure them that in Him, they will never face His eternal wrath. Added to this, we need to be cautious to not press too many of the images in this Psalm too literally since we are dealing with poetry. For example, when did Israel ever tread on lions or snakes (v13)? Are we meant to take these images literally? Probably not! After all, Deut 32:22 and Ps 58:3-6 use these very same images as symbols for evil men and powers.
Secondly, the New Testament applies this Psalm to our Lord Jesus in both Luke 4 and Matt 4 as Satan tries to trap our Lord. What that helps us to see is that Ps 91 applies to Jesus first before it applies to us as His people. As such, Jesus is the one who God ultimately rescues from Satan, evil and all the horrors of v3-13 – indeed Jesus is the singular “you” of those verses! And at the same time, Jesus is the one who perfectly holds fast to God in love, knows God’s name, and calls on God in v14-16. And even then, it is noteworthy that Jesus was not spared earthly suffering as he was betrayed, mocked, beaten, and even killed. How then was Ps 91 true of Jesus if the Psalm was promising protection in this life yet Jesus experienced untold suffering in his life? Well because the certain protection promised in Ps 91 is not of earthly suffering ultimately but of eternal suffering, which God spared Jesus from.
How should we then understand and apply Ps 91 today?
Hopefully it is obvious by now that on the one hand, Ps 91 lifts our eyes to see our rock solid assurance in God. He can and will protect His people. Nothing and no one can stand in His way. He is the Most High God, the Almighty, the LORD, my God. Six times He said He will do it – and He will. We can be 100% confident in that. And we can bask in God’s protection simply by coming to Him in relationship.
But on the other hand, Ps 91 is offering us an even better promise than protection from viruses in the here and now. Indeed to merely see it in that light cheapens both our God and this Psalm! Christians often have too small a view of God and have eyes only to see the blessings and curses of this world. But God is for our ultimate good. And so His promise in Ps 91 is for our ultimate protection in Christ as we enjoy the satisfaction of His eternal salvation on the day that His terrifying recompense is dispensed on all in this world for wickedly refusing His rule. Isn’t that a far greater blessing than even being saved from Covid-19? Indeed, nowhere does the Bible promise us that we will not face sickness and suffering in this life.² Actually, quite the contrary! We follow a suffering Christ and so suffering is our lot in this life too. But what is such good news is that even when (not if) tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword befall us, we cannot and will not be separated from God’s love for us in Christ because in Him there is no longer any condemnation for us (Rom 8:31-38).
So should we pray and claim Ps 91 today? A million times yes! God can protect His people and so we should cling to Him in love. Sometimes he will save His people from suffering in this life (think Lot, Joseph, Ruth etc.) and sometimes he will not (think Job, John the Baptist, Stephen etc.). But that is not the issue in our Psalm. After all, Ps 91 is painting on a far bigger canvas! The point of Ps 91 is that God can and will save us in eternity. It is not a promise of protection from earthly plagues but a promise of protection from the eternal plague of condemnation. Above all, my brothers and sisters, that is what makes God our utterly praiseworthy refuge and fortress!