Psalm 91 is considered to fall into the category of Psalms of Thanksgiving, but it is quite different to Psalm 30. I seem to have heard many times from missionaries (and others) who have mentioned how God used this psalm to encourage them in their lives at a particularly difficult time. One example was my sister-in-law, Grace, who worked as a medical missionary in Africa for many years. The particular country she served in has often been politically unstable and this occasionally has resulted in civil war. And in the midst of one of these wars, when there was a very real risk of injury or death to missionaries and others, some remained. Grace was one of those who stayed and I remember her relating later how Psalm 91 had been such a comfort to her during those uncertain and dangerous days. Not surprisingly when we spend time considering its content:
1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. 4 He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. 5 You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, 6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. 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 observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
9 If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, 10 no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. 11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; 12 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
14 “Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. 15 He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him. 16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (NIV)
So, this psalm raises a question. And that is, have you ever felt vulnerable? I certainly have and have no doubt about you! In fact, that’s ok and life begins that way. The day we leave the relative safety of our mother’s uterus we are incredibly vulnerable to so many possible “enemies”, whether physical (disease, injury, abuse) or spiritual (“spiritual forces of evil.” Eph 6:13). The psalmists understood this vulnerability very well.
Living in the relative safety and peace of Australia ( a “haven” compared to so many unstable nations around the world in these days), it is not always easy to appreciate this aspect of the psalms. But leave Australia for a while and one begins to realize the reality for most people on earth. Having lived in Pakistan for a decade gave me a new understanding of what it means to feel vulnerable. I remember one occasion (and there were a number) driving home with my family and turning a corner only to discover we had driven into a riot of two fighting factions throwing stones at each other. When they saw us, they decided to also include us as one of their “enemies” and some of their rocks starting heading in our direction. Not a comfortable feeling, particularly being in a car with one’s wife and young children. Fortunately we escaped with little damage and no injury on that occasion, praise God.
Matthew Jacoby, in his book on the Psalms, also speaks of this “vulnerability” that people experienced in the days when the Psalms were written. He says, for example, “they lived in constant vulnerability to military invasion and banditry”. Not really much different to many people living in the Middle East in our day. He suggests that “there is a lot that can go wrong in life, and your imagination will no doubt have represented every possible scenario to you. The fear associated with vulnerability is the fear of being overpowered, of losing control. This for any person is the root of all fear.”
But then we come to the Psalms, and Psalm 91 is a perfect example, and there we find something quite incredible, in fact “one of the most remarkable experiences portrayed in the psalms is the experience of invulnerability.” In the psalms this is expressed in the use of a number of words and phrases used of God. For example God is called, “my refuge”, “my fortress”, “my strong tower”, “my hiding place”, “my rock”, just to name a few. The word “refuge” is used 98 times in the Bible and 45 of these are in the psalms.
But as Jacoby suggests, “The psalmists did not feel invulnerable because they believed nothing bad would ever happen to them. Their lack of fear was the result of an act of renunciation.” He continues, “Trusting God is much more than trusting God for something. It is the will to be overpowered by God, to entrust one’s life to God and thereby renounce the right to set the agendas for one’s own life.
By allowing themselves to be overpowered by God, the psalmists put themselves into a bigger picture. They stepped into the purpose of God, which cannot be thwarted. So whatever happened, even if they suffered loss for a time, they did not feel vulnerable or afraid because they recognized that they were in God’s purpose and God was sovereign over their circumstances. The safest place in the world is in the will of God.”
He continues that the psalmist’s, as they walked in the “paths of righteousness”, even if it was through “the valley of the shadow of death” recognized that “they were not in charge, and therefore they weren’t vulnerable. They were encased in God’s purpose, and they knew that was a sure thing.” (see reference # 8)
And so to the wonder of Psalm 91 which has been described as “the most impressive testimony in the Psalter to the strength that springs from trust in God.” (see references # 27)
“You will not fear…” says this poet of old.