Introduction to Psalm 91: “All-Encompassing Security Under the Lord’s Wings”
Psalm 91 is one of the most eloquent statements of the comprehensive scope of the Lord ’s effective protection of the true believer amidst the perils of life’s journey. As such, this exquisite psalm has been a constant source of comfort for countless believers as they cope with anxieties in their life. So, for example, Psalm 91:9 was quoted in a recent obituary letter from the Netherlands that announced the passing of a dear friend of this author due to cancer. Small wonder, therefore, that long ago Athanasius recommended the recitation of this psalm to Marcellinus:
If you desire to establish yourself and others in devotion, to know what confidence is to
be reposed in God, and what makes minds fearless, you will praise God by reciting the
ninetieth (ninety-first) Psalm.”
As a source of true devotion and comfort, Psalm 91 is also used liturgically at annual calendar-year change and at the beginning of Lent. Psalm 91 is used at the annual calendar-year change because it lacks a superscription and serves as the counterpoint to Psalm 90 with which it shares two important concepts. In fact, Psalm 91 elaborates on the initial declaration of Psalm 90:1 and functions as the answer to the lament of Psalm 90.3 Consequently, Psalm 90 is often recited on New Year's Eve, and Psalm 91 is then recited on New Year's Day. Psalm 91 is also used at the beginning of Lent because of Satan’s infamous use of verses 11-12 in his failed attempt to derail Jesus from his mission.
Structurally, Psalm 91 consists of two major parts: a glowing personal profession of trust (vv. 1-13) that is followed by an unusual quotation of a divine promise of deliverance4 that functions as a divine imprimatur of the profession of faith (vv. 14-16). The extended assurance of God’s comprehensive protection from all evil in verses 1-13, in turn, may be subdivided into two unequal yet analogously constructed parts, verses 1-8 and verses 9-13. This subdivision is marked by the rhetorically effective statement about the punishment of the wicked in verse 8 and especially by verse 9. As Marvin E. Tate has pointed out, verse 9 functions as a pivot that does double duty. On the one hand, it matches the introductory profession of trust in verses 1-26 and along with this opening statement it forms an envelope around verses 3-8. On the other hand, it begins a new section that extends to verse 13.
The exegesis of Psalm 91 poses two crucial questions. First, what is the literary genre of this psalm? Second, and intimately related to the first question, who is the “I” who speaks in verse 2 and who is the unidentified “you” (sg.) in verses 3-13? Because scholars disagree and have proposed a potpourri of answers to these questions, the reader is referred to Marvin E. Tate’s excellent overview.
The view adopted here is that Psalm 91 is a bold public profession of confidence. The shift in subject from first person in verse 2 to third in verse 3 and the quotation of the Lord’s promise in verses 14-16 suggests that this psalm was used in a liturgical context. Its purpose was to encourage individual believers to place their trust in the LORD’s providential protection from all evil.
A comparison of different Bible versions (NRSV, NIV, NJPS) reveals a significant difference in translation. We agree with Erich Zenger that verses 1-2 represent a believer’s emphatic confession of trust, a mode of speech that constitutes an essential part of lament by an individual (Ps 13:5). Zenger translates these verses as follows:
As one who dwells in the protection of the Most High,
Abides by night in the shadow of the Almighty,
I say to YHWH, “My refuge and my fortress,
My God, in whom I trust.
This glowing initial profession of trust picks up and elaborates the opening declaration of Psalm 90:111 and strikes the keynote of the rest of the psalm, “refuge.” Significantly, “Psalm 91 is the only psalm to use the term ‘refuge’ three times…” Because Psalm 91 uses the term “refuge” in connection with its synonyms “shelter,” “shadow,” “fortress,” “dwelling place,” “wing,” and “shield,” Jerome F. D. Creach appropriately calls this psalm “a kind of microcosm of all the refuge language of the Psalter.” Moreover, in view of the prominence of the “refuge” word group in Psalm 91, this central motif is, according to Creach, “the key to proper exegesis of the poem.”
Because of the centrality of the “refuge” metaphor in Psalm 91, it important to recall, in the first place, that the term “refuge” is the root metaphor for the LORD’s protective care, not only in Psalm 91 but also in the rest of the Psalter. According to Gerald T. Sheppard, this pervasive metaphor in the Psalms was first introduced in the beatitude of Psalm 2:12 (“Oh the happiness of those who take refuge in him”) as “a theological thematizing” of the lament psalms that follows in the Psalter. “To seek refuge in God” is, as Psalm 142:5 shows, a summary reference to prayer:
“I cry to you, O LORD,
I say, ‘You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.’”
Second, the secular meaning of the verb “to seek refuge” is “to seek protected space” (Judges 9:15). Theologically, it means “to look to the Lord for security from threatening dangers.” In the Psalter this protected space is the Temple.
Third, as Creach has demonstrated, the metaphor “refuge” is an important sub-theme of the royal metaphor of the Lord as king (“The Lord reigns”), which is the gravitational center of the Psalter. As is evident from Judges 9:15, Isaiah 30:2-3, 32:1-2, Lamentations 4:20 and Ezekiel 31:6, 12 and 17, for example, the related term “shade” is used to refer to the protection earthly monarchs were to provide for their subjects. Similarly, the Lord, the Great King, is the protective “shade” of those who seek refuge in him (Ps 91:1; 121:5), and so in Psalm 5 the petitioner calls upon the Lord as his king (vs. 2) to protect those who seek refuge in him (v. 11).
After the detailed elaboration of the “refuge” metaphor in the opening confession of trust (vv.1-2) there follows a section that assures the speaker of verses 1-2 with a series of intensifying images that denote the effectiveness of trusting the Lord (vv. 3-13). As we noted above, this section may be divided into two analogously subsections, namely, verses 3-8 and verses 9-13.
The first subsection (vv. 3-8) is introduced by the conjunction “for” (Hebrew kî) that may be translated as “surely” (NIV) to introduce an emphatic statement: “Surely, it is he (emphatic pronoun) who will deliver you.” This subsection, in turn, may be divided into two further subdivisions, verses 3-4b and 4c-8.
The first subdivision (vv. 3-4b) begins with a metaphor from the avian world. In this section the speaker of verse 2 is promised that the Lord will deliver him from the fowler’s snare (Ps 124:7) and from the deadly pestilence (v. 3). The Lord will cover the speaker with his pinions so that the speaker will find refuge under God’s wings (v. 4ab).20 Obviously, birds cannot protect themselves from these dangers. Consequently, the Lord is pictured as a mother bird that protects her young with her wings. Under her wings the young will find a secure place of refuge from the perils of life’s journey.21
The next subsection (vv. 4c-8) begins with the image of God’s fidelity as a large “standing shield” that protects the whole body and a “protecting wall” (v. 4c). Consequently, as a result of God’s personal escort, the speaker of verse 2 is assured that he need not fear the various threats of death: pestilence, demonic powers, violence or war (vv. 5-7). Under no circumstances will these horrific threats touch him (vs. 7c)! Instead, the speaker is encouraged to see these deadly threats as God’s punishment of the wicked (v. 8).
The second subdivision (vv. 9-13) parallels the first section (vv. 1-8) and repeats with different imagery the assurance that the Lord provides protection against destructive forces. The repetition of the divine name Most High in verse 9 suggests that this verse echoes the opening declaration of trust in verses 1-2. Moreover, with terms synonymous to those in verses 1-2, verse 9 also begins the second subdivision (vv. 9-13) with the Lord as a safe place.
Depending on one’s translation of verse 9, verses 9-10 promise the Lord’s protection from all evil. Because the speaker of verse 2 has made the Lord his lodging place, his refuge, and his tent, absolutely no evil will be able to touch him.
Verses 11-12 provide the basis for this remarkably comprehensive assurance. As a counter image to the personified demons of verses 5-6, these verses promise that the Lord will command his angels to protect the believer on his life’s pathway. As a result of this angelic protection, the believer is able to subjugate, according to verse 13, deadly lions and snakes. Significantly, in Luke 10:19 Jesus promised the essence of verses 10-12 to the seventy upon their return from their mission.
Verses 14-16 offers a climactic assurance of the LORD’s “overriding commitment” to protect the believers who take refuge in him. These verses are unusual because they are a quotation of a divine decree of assurance. The double causal clauses in verse 14 suggest that this divine decree functions as God’s imprimatur to the expressions of trust in verses 1-13. In this climactic position this remarkable decree expresses God’s “overriding commitment” in a series of seven first person verbs with a non-verbal clause near its center.
I will deliver
I will protect
I will answer
With him I will be in distress
I will save
I will honor
I will satisfy
I will show
Three features of the Lord’s comprehensive promise of protection call for special attention. First, the opening and closing causal clauses of verse 14 emphasize that the essential prerequisite for participating in God’s comprehensive plan for protection is an intimate personal relationship with the LORD:
Because he loves me
I will deliver him;
I will protect him
Because he knows my name.
Significantly, the Hebrew verb (chasaq) translated as “loves” in the first causal clause denotes an intense and passionate attraction for someone. Moreover, the verb “knows” (Hebrew yd c) expresses an intimate relationship (cf. Gen 4:11). It is a personal relationship because the true believer knows God’s name. Significantly, the fact that true believers know God’s name occurs in lament psalms (cf. Ps 9:10).
The second feature that calls for special attention is the reference to prayer in verse 15, “When he calls me.” This reference to prayer indicates that the only way in which one can experience the Lord’s profound commitment to the safety of the believer is prayer. The Lord promises, “Whenever he calls, I will answer…” Interestingly, verses 15-16 recall the basic principle of prayer in Psalm 50:15 and 23.
Third, the Lord’s superseding commitment promises more than deliverance from distress. It also promises restoration of dignity and longevity. The promise of longevity recalls Psalm 21:4 and suggests that the speaker of Psalm 91 may have been a king.
The proclamation of Psalm 91’s comforting message faces several complex challenges. The first challenge concerns the interpretation of Psalm 91’s powerful imagery. According to Craig C. Broyles, the interpretation of this psalm’s imagery is an important key to unlocking its message. A problem is, however, that Psalm 91 employs a constellation of images for God’s protective care. Homiletically, it is better to unpack the meaning of one image. In view of the preoccupation with national security, for example, a preacher in the U.S.A., for example, might pick the metaphor “fortress.” Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., however, opted for the image of wing. This metaphor is an effective “metaphor for the protective outreach of God’s power.” Plantinga suggests that “the image is that of an eagle.” This may well be because the Lord’s protective care is compared to that of an eagle in Deuteronomy 32:11.
A second challenge is that the phrase “to take refuge in God” has become a pious cliché. To recover the vitality of this important biblical expression the preacher should explain its opposite, to be tempted to depend on political alliances (Is 30:2), to cry out to a “collection of idols,” (Is 57:13) or to take refuge in lies (Is 28:15).
A third challenge is that, as James Luther Mays has correctly underscored, Psalm 91 is subject to misuse because the Lord's protection promised confidently is so comprehensive in this psalm (v. 10). In fact, Mays observes that both Jews and Christians have used words from this psalm in amulets designed to function as magical protection. Moreover, the promise of angelic protection in verse 11 was the basis for the belief in personal angels who protected individual believers with the result that angels became objects of veneration.
Christians should not use Psalm 91 as a magical guarantee against the various deadly threats that they encounter on life’s journey. Instead, the security that Psalm 91 promises should be accepted in humble trust. It is this humble acceptance of these promises that enabled Jesus to use the words of Psalm 31:5 from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Finally, an even more complex problem is the anomalous situation dealt with in Plantinga’s sermon that some have experienced God’s promised protection from, for example, cancer and war. For instance, this writer returned safely from the war in Vietnam and survived cancer. However, not all Christian soldiers returned alive from that war and not every believer survives cancer.
Theologically one can, of course, explain this ambiguous situation by confessing that in the end nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom 8:39). However, this eschatological explanation fails to do full justice to the canonical function of psalms of trust.
As a psalm of trust, Psalm 91 is preceded by the lament of Psalm 90 and followed by Psalm 92, a psalm of thanksgiving. As a result of the repetition of key words, these psalms form a set. The canonical position of Psalm 91 suggests that to avoid the danger of promising too much (“no harm,” vs. 10) in a sermon on this psalm, one must read and preach it in the context of the preceding psalm. Read in the context of the penetrating lament of Psalm 90, Psalm 91, like other psalms of trust (Pss 23; 121), serves to renew in the reader/worshiper an active quest for God in the midst of suffering. Read in this way, “the Psalms of Trust represent the first substantive movement away from alienation and abandonment toward hope and a renewal of life.” Indeed, read canonically Psalm 91 allows the reader/worshiper to move from “hurt” (Psalm 90) to “joy” (Ps 92) “without drowning in suffering or fancifully imagining that all is well.” To make this happen, psalms of trust, unlike lament psalms, do not dwell on the contradiction between the suffering of the righteous and an all-powerful God. Instead, in the midst of uncertainty, trials and suffering, psalms of trust urge the worshiper/reader to say with the psalmist to God, “You are my refuge.” A sermon on Psalm 91 should facilitate this move.