An anonymous psalmist affirms for himself and us all that "he w
Not too far from the house in which I was raised in Shawnee, Oklahoma, there was an area called Broadway Woods. It would hardly classify as a forest, but to a nine-year-old boy it seemed as big and vast as the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa.
I loved playing in Broadway Woods. My friends and I would build little hideouts and secret meeting places there, using whatever material we could scrounge up. We'd throw together a few pieces of discarded plywood and cover it over with tree branches and make for ourselves a hidden clubhouse. All we wanted was a refuge from parents, big sisters, and older boys in the neighborhood who beat up on us. It was great.
Psalm 91 is also about secret hiding places. It's all about finding refuge. It's all about protection from enemies and dwelling in safety and security. But not in some poorly constructed shanty. Our spiritual fortress is God himself! He is our hiding place. Listen to its powerful opening promise:
"He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust'" (vv. 1-2).
Psalm 91 is both anonymous and timeless, and I'm glad for that, because it makes it easy and natural to apply its truths to any Christian at any time in history, regardless of circumstance or situation.
David could easily have written this psalm, for he says much the same thing in another of his compositions:
"Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, and worked for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of the children of mankind! In the cover of your presence you hide them from the plots of men; you store them in your shelter from the strife of tongues" (Psalm 31:19-20).
And yet again:
"for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!" (Psalm 61:3-4)
Try to envision God's power as forging his love into a strong and impregnable fortress. God doesn't build us a shanty out of leaves and rotting wood. God's love is our shelter. He himself is our hiding place. His presence is our peace, our protection, our refuge.
I said that Psalm 91 applies to any Christian at any time, but that's not entirely accurate. The promise of peace and security and protection is for the one "who dwells in the shelter of the Most High" (v. 1a), the one who says to the Lord, "My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust" (v. 2). That is to say, it is for anyone who consciously and zealously embraces the Lord and consistently entrusts himself to God's loving care. The blessings of Psalm 91 are for those who seek after God as their highest and greatest good in life, their summum bonum, if you will.
This wording forces me to ask: Do you live in God's presence every day or do you merely visit him for an hour on Sunday? The promised blessings of this psalm are not for those who occasionally run to God for help when they're in trouble. Nor is it for the sporadic, once-in-a-while pray-er. God is a refuge to those who habitually seek their abode in him.
Let me return to Broadway Woods for a moment. Eventually, my friends and I would have to leave our fortress behind. The comfort of our tree house only lasted a short while. The time would come for us to emerge from the secrecy of our hideaway and re-enter the real world.
But that never happens for those who seek shelter in the Most High. God is our permanent refuge in whom we abide while at work or at school or wherever. We never have to leave God and go home. He is our home. It is in him and in his love that we live and move and have our being (cf. Acts 17:28).
If there is any lingering doubt as to the focus of the psalmist's faith, take note of how he describes his God. He is the "Most High" (v. 1a), the one who is "over all the earth" (Psalm 97:9a), the one is "exalted far above all gods" (Ps. 97:9b). What a remarkable act of grace: the Most High God stoops so very, very low to reach us with his love and affection!
He is also "the Almighty" (v. 1b), "the Lord" (v. 2a; i.e., Yahweh), "my God" (v. 2b; i.e., Elohim), and thus more than capable of providing a sufficient shelter for his people who seek refuge in him.
The protection he provides is now portrayed with the most vivid of imagery.
"For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler" (vv. 3-4).
Though our adversary be like the hunter who sets a snare for his prey (cf. Pss. 119:110; 124:6-8; 141:8-10), God will deliver us! In him we are immune to the onslaught of pestilence. And what "transcendent condescension" (Spurgeon) that the eternal God, who is without body or parts, should liken himself to a mother bird covering her young with her feathers, shielding them from wind and rain (cf. Deut. 32:10-11; Pss. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:7; Mt. 23:37).
What a God, that he who is tender like a mother bird is also as strong and sturdy, as immovable and unyielding as battle armor ("a shield and buckler," v. 4b)!
Honestly, though, it's starting to sound a bit far-fetched. Is it realistic to think that we need never fear "the terror of the night" (v. 5a) or "the arrow that flies by day" (v. 5b)? Is it actually the case that although thousands may fall, we will never endure such an end (v. 7)? Are we supposed to conclude from this psalm that, if we but make God our dwelling place and refuge (v. 9), "no evil shall be allowed to befall" us and "no plague" will come near our tent (v. 10)?
The promises of vv. 11-13 appear even greater: angelic protection from stumbling, as well as trampling underfoot, with no apparent harm, both lion and adder, young lion and serpent! If that weren't enough, we read in vv. 14-16 of deliverance, protection, rescue, honor, and a long life. What are we to make of this? Such declarations seem as unrealistic as they are unconditional.
I often struggled with this until I read something John Piper wrote in his devotional book, A Godward Life, Book Two (Multnomah Publishers, 1999). There he argues that the psalmist means that "God does in fact rule the flight of arrows and the spread of disease and the length of life; and he can and does give safety and health and life to whom he pleases, so that it is always a free gift of God. But he does not mean for us to presume upon these promises as guarantees that God will not permit us to fall by an arrow, succumb to disease, or die at age thirty-eight. In other words, the promises have exceptions or qualifications" (54).
Or again, none of these plagues will befall us without God's express permission and by his sovereign design. We know this because even in the Psalms we read of God's faithful children suffering affliction and enduring martyrdom (cf. Pss. 34:19; 44:22). And let's not forget "that Satan quotes Psalm 91:11-12 to Jesus in the wilderness" (54). But Jesus rejects this abuse of the sacred text "and sets his face to prove that the psalm does have a qualification: He dies at a young age; he feels the blow of ripped flesh; and he is pierced by the nail and sword while ten thousand get off without a scratch" (55).
So what is Piper's advice? Simply this, that "in your Gethsemane of suffering, pray for deliverance according to God's sovereign power and mercy . . . But then say, ‘Not my will but thine be done.' And believe that what befalls will not, in the end, be evil for you, but good (Romans 8:28)" (55).