Psalm 91: A Thousand Shall Fall

Some years ago, I read a remarkable novel about a pacifist German Seventh Day Adventist whose World War II experiences were put in a book called A Thousand Shall Fall. This particular book appeared to bolster the idea of passive and nonviolent resistance to evil governments, and it more openly discussed God’s deliverance of His saints from troubles. This is, not surprisingly, the major theme of Psalm 91, and one that deserves a great deal of comment in light of the context of Psalm 91 within the book of Psalms as a whole. It is also noteworthy that this psalm of confidence was used by Satan himself in tempting Jesus Christ. We can thus see that the genuine doctrine of security and the heresy of extreme security need to be distinguished, and it also hints that Psalm 91 is a good place to examine this distinction and wrestle with the concern of the security of the believer in a wicked and evil world.

It ought to come as no surprise that security is somewhat of an issue for myself personally, and has been throughout my life. We must be very careful in looking at Psalm 91 that in our defense of genuine protection of believers that we do not imply that those who suffer are somehow wicked or lacking in faith because they were not protected from a particular act of oppression, abuse, or disaster. Nor can we have the expectation that God will step in and save us from the consequences of our own folly. Rather, we must recognize that God will protect believers either from disaster or through it according to His will for his own purposes. Having a proper and balanced perspective of the doctrine of genuine security as it appears in the Bible will help us from extremes and keep us from being too dogmatic about the application of this doctrine in any particular situation while recognizing the providential hand of our Creator in the affairs of this world.

Taken in the context of the part of Psalms where Psalm 91 appears (as the second psalm of book four of the Psalms, corresponding to the Book of Numbers in the Torah), Psalm 91 appears in bold relief. Psalm 88, the second-to-last psalm of Book 3 of the Psalms, is a gloomy reflection on how God lets believers endure in suffering for years without end or respite [1]. Psalm 89 then continues by reflecting on how God seems to have abandoned the people of God because of their unbelief, while Psalm 90 (by Moses) looks to the deliverance of God from His wrath against His people. In this context, we see the safety promised by Psalm 91 as being moderated by the presence of trials as well as the reality of God’s justice, allowing us to see that the confidence we have in the protection of the Eternal is not a license for us to sin while expecting God to protect us from the consequences of our behavior anyway.

Psalm 91 is an anonymous psalm of trust and confidence that exhibits a rather typical and straightforward chiastic structure. Psalm 91:1-2 begins with a confession of the psalmist in confidence in the protection of the Eternal. Then Psalm 91:3-8 speaks confidently that those who trust in God do not need to fear evil. Psalm 91:9-13 then provides promises of God’s protection to Jesus Christ that speak of His ultimate victory against Satan, and then Psalm 91:14-16 closes where it begins with a description of the protection of the righteous that is provided by the return of Jesus Christ. The fact that the ultimate protection is salvation and not material or physical salvation alone reflects a deeper biblical view of the doctrine of security than that which is often declared. Let us therefore examine the four passages of this psalm and ponder upon that deeper meaning.

Psalm 91:1-2 reads: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Eternal, “He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him I will trust.” It is not an unusual or novel idea for a psalmist to consider God as His refuge or fortress, as that is an exceedingly common image from both the Psalms of David and the Sons of Korah (Psalms 46, 144, 18 are just a few examples). And yet from this conventional beginning, the anonymous psalmist of Psalm 91 crafts a memorable and unique (and highly messianic) picture of the protection and security of believers.

Psalm 91:3-8 develops the theme of security for believers, reading: “Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the perilous pestilence. He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth shall be your shield and buckler. You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you. Only with your eyes shall you look, and see the reward of the wicked.” This memorable passage begins with bird references, comparing Satan from a fowler–someone who likes to trap and hunt prey like a hawk, by pointing out (in words that refer to the beautiful language of the book of Ruth and to the moving language of Jesus Christ that he wanted to gather the Jews like a hen gathers her chicks) that we have all come under God’s wings in protection. Those who believe in God are those who receive His protection, with the truth of God (rather than heresy and error) being our shield from the lies and evil that are Satan’s stock and trade. The confidence we have is from terror and pestilence in night and darkness as well as warfare and destruction at day–language that would seem to reflect the threats of the four horsemen and the tribulations that have befallen mankind throughout history and especially at the time of the end. It is in this context that God promises to deliver the faithful even as massive amounts of unbelievers die around us, not promising to save every believer from trouble but promising to deliver a righteous remnant from the wickedness and evil of this present age, giving all believers the promise that we will see the reward of the wicked (destruction and judgment) even as we receive salvation through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Psalm 91:9-13 continues: “Because you have made the Eternal, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling; for He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra, the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.” Let us note that this passage makes reference to two different names of God–the covenant name Yahweh as well as Most High (El Elyon), referred to in a military context as a deliverer of His people when Abraham met Melchizedek after the defeat of the four kings who had kidnapped Lot. It would appear that this verse indicates the impressive angelic protection that exists for believers (we should note that Jesus Christ had twelve legions and Elisha was also aware of his immense angelic protection). Satan himself, who is referred to symbolically in this passage (it might have been a sore spot), tempted Jesus Christ in Matthew 4:6 by referring to this passage illegitimately seeking to get Jesus to show off his powers and angelic protection in anger against Satan. But what this verse speaks of is the protection believers have from disaster so that God’s will will not be thwarted. This passage also makes a reference to the first prophecy of the Bible, in which God promised Eve that her Seed (namely, Jesus Christ) would have the serpent get his heel but that he would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:14-15). Both the references to lion and serpent/cobra are references to Satan (the cobra especially points us to the pernicious and Satanic nature of Eastern religion) and point to his defeat at the hand of Jesus Christ (and His believers). This is something we should all take comfort in.

Psalm 91 closes with a striking speech from God Himself, in Psalm 91:14-16: “Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him on high, because he has known My name. He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him, and show him my salvation.” This direct communication from God to believers, showing the conditions of salvation (in love and obedience) and in God’s love and concern for believers, showing grace and mercy to those who believe in Him. It is striking and unusual for a psalm to speak directly to the audience with unmediated divine revelation, and this praise (like that in the previous passage) can be said to refer to believers in general as well as specifically to Jesus Christ. In a psalm that is full of references to the confidence we have in God, the direct revelation from God at the end provides the context in which we can trust God, and the limits of that trust as well as the ultimate goal of God’s protection–our entrance into His kingdom as His beloved children.

Besides the striking and consistent focus on the protection of God for believers (responsible both for its use in the historical work alluded to at the beginning of this essay as well as Satan’s twisting of this verse in his temptation of Jesus Christ), perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this psalm is the depth of its references to the remainder of scripture and specific stories of remarkable divine providence. Whether we are referring to the Bible’s first prophecy of the defeat of Satan through Jesus Christ, or the book of Ruth with its touching imagery of believers (even Gentiles!) coming under the wings of God for refuge, or the reference to God Most High and His deliverance of Abraham in battle against four great kings of Northern and Southern Mesopotamia, Elam, and the Hittites, this psalm is rich with specific detail and references to the rest of scripture. It is no wonder that Psalm 91 has been such a popular inspiration to authors and believers over history, given our longings for security and salvation and the encouragement we can all draw from such a confident psalm as this one.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/psalm-88-for-my-soul-is-full-of-troubles/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Psalms and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Psalm 91: A Thousand Shall Fall

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The Psalms Commentary Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Psalm 37: Do Not Fret Because Of Evildoers | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Secret Place Of The Most High For Women | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: She Who Had Been The Wife Of Uriah The Hittite | Edge Induced Cohesion

  5. Thank you for sharing. I love Psalm 91. Have a blessed day ahead. God bless you.

  6. Pingback: The Quarantine Before The Exodus | Edge Induced Cohesion

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