What underpins the theology of Psalm 91 is an understanding of the problem of sin in Part 1 and the human experience of suffering in Part 2. These thoughts frame for us the larger questions we need to grapple with as we consider what is at the heart of Psalm 91.
The issue with Psalm 91 is this: It seems to suggest that those who take refuge in God (vv.1, 9, 14), would never suffer from any harm (vv.3 – 8, 10–13, 16.) What am I to make of this? I note three things:
- Firstly, the surface reading that the psalmist expects that there will be no death is certainly false! Looking within the context of Book of Psalms itself, we note that Psalm 91 is placed immediately after Psalm 90 which is a Psalm that expresses the brevity of life and the problem of suffering as a result of our sins! (Psa 90:3–10.)
- Secondly, this Psalm must also be read in the larger context of the Scriptures. As we have seen previously, Scriptures recognise that suffering can come even to those who “take refuge in GOD”. This is true for Job and also our Lord Jesus who continued to entrust His soul to God even on the Cross.
- Thirdly, Satan himself used Psalm 91:11–12 in the wilderness to tempt Jesus to test God (Matt 4:5–6, Lk 4:9–11.) What was intended by God as a blessing to His people, was twisted by the evil one into some kind of self-centred, on-demand, I-must-have-it-now kind of attitude! Bible commentator James Mays writes:
“The psalm itself poses a danger. Because its assurance of security is so comprehensive and confident, it is especially subject to misuse that is a possibility for all religious claims, that of turning faith into superstition. In Judaism and Christianity, bits of the text have been worn in amulets that were believed to be a kind of magical protection for those who wore them.”
That is the danger of reading the Scriptures in a self-centred way. That is the danger of living our faith as a religion (where everything is a mechanical exchange with a genie) rather than a living relationship with Almighty GOD.
So. How then am I to read this Psalm? I read it as an exhortation to trust God in the midst of danger! I read it as a call to really, really trust God. In Psalm 91:13a, “cleave to me” (Hebrew: ha–shaq) is a reminder to truly cling to God. Yes, the Lord has delivered in the past and He will yet deliver again! The truth is that God has ultimately delivered us from all evil through the death and resurrection of Jesus! This will be fully realised at the new heavens and new earth where: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4)
However, as we have seen from the rest of the Scriptures, this is by no means a guarantee while on earth. Indeed the call to trust and hold on to GOD is seen in Job’s life:
“Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.”
Job 13:15 (ESV)
This is also seen in Daniel’s friends,
If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Daniel 3:17–18 (ESV)
and also among the true believers,
“And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”
Revelation 12:11 (ESV)
and mostly in our Lord Himself,
“And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”
Mark 14:36 (ESV)
Psalm 91 is a psalm of promises as we take a cursory look at it. However, when understood through the whole counsel of Scriptures, these promises of God are deeply redemptive in nature. At the heart of Psalm 91 is not merely promises of immediate deliverance but the character of promise-keeping God whose promises of redemption and ultimate deliverance will be fully realised in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21).
The call then of Psalm 91, is the same call issued throughout the Scriptures. Will I truly, truly trust and cling on to God?