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There was a time in my life when I prayed Psalm 91 over myself and over my family every morning as part of my devotional routine.  I remember vividly driving back from a lakeside prayer meeting at 5:30 a.m. reciting the words:

You will not be afraid of the terror by night, Or of the arrow that flies by day; Of the pestilence that stalks in darkness, Or of the destruction that lays waste at noon. A thousand may fall at your side And ten thousand at your right hand, But it shall not approach you. You will only look on with your eyes And see the recompense of the wicked.  (Psalms 91:5–8 NAS95)

Even as I prayed that prayer in my still frozen car, I would wonder somewhere in the back of my brain whether this prayer really belonged to me as a Christian.  According to the LXX the Psalm was written by King David; David was the Lord’s Anointed.  David was  the Old Testament anticipation of Jesus Christ.  Like an arrow shot at the sun, David points us to Jesus while ultimately falling short. This Psalm was for David and ultimately this Psalm was for David’s greater Son Jesus Christ.

Even the devil understood the unique application of this Psalm to Jesus.  In the desert when the Lord was tired and hungry the devil came to him with this Psalm upon his lips.  He said: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:6 ESV)

This Psalm is ultimately for and about Jesus – so was it right for me to pray this prayer over my family every day – as I did – for several years?

Yes, I believe it was.  The New Testament says: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20 NIV11-GK).

I like that even better in the translation I heard as a boy: “For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us” (2 Corinthians 1:20 KJV).

According to the New Testament everything God ever promised to his people has been fully realized in the person of Jesus Christ.  Everything God promised is YES and AMEN in Christ.  These promised blessings are now available to any person – Jew or Gentile – who puts their faith in Jesus, as the Apostle Paul said:

remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:12–13 ESV)

Once we were outsiders, once we had no legitimate claim upon the promises of God but now, because of Christ, we do.  Psalm 91 belongs to Jesus and I belong to Jesus, therefore Psalm 91 belongs to me!  Thanks be to God for his indescribable grace!

Having determined that this Psalm does belong to me, what exactly is it offering?  Let’s take a closer look:

1. A refuge in times of trouble

Stanley Jaki in his book on Praying The Psalms says:

“The dynamics or logic that gives a structure to this Psalm is spelled out twice.  It consists of the words: “You have said: “Lord, you are my refuge”.  This is stated both at the start and toward the end of the Psalm.  Almost each line in this Psalm somehow assumes those words for its starting point.”

The Christian more than any Old Testament believer knows what it means to hide himself in Christ.  The Apostle Paul says: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3 ESV).

I love that.  When God looks at me he sees Christ.  When the devil looks at me he sees Christ.  I am in there somewhere but everybody knows that if you want to get to me you have to get through Christ.


2. Whole-life protection

The dangers listed in verses 3-6 represent threats that would be very hard for a normal human being to ward off. Whether I am rich or poor, strong or weak there is not much I can do to safeguard myself from the schemes of others (verse 3a), from disease (verse 3b), from pestilence (verse 6a) or from demonic attack (verse 5a).  These are things Psalm 91 promises that I will not have to fear because of the Lord’s protection. It doesn’t say that I won’t have to face them it just says that I don’t have to fear them and that I won’t ever be abandoned to them.  The message seems to be that nothing will touch me in life or in death that does not first pass through God’s encircling hands (verse 4a).

That’s enough for me.

As long as I know that my trials are limited and approved by Jesus Christ, I am content.

3. Personal protection

In verses 7-10 the emphasis is emphatically personal.  It is as though David is sharing his faith with me.  In verses 1-2 David is speaking about his trust in God: “I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust”” (Psalms 91:2 ESV).

Now David applies his faith to the reader:

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.

Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge. (Psalms 91:7–9 ESV)

It is as though David is inviting the reader to share in the very things that God has promised to him as the Lord’s anointed.  Once again the ultimate fulfillment of this is found in Jesus Christ. The message of the Gospel is that if we are in Christ, then we too are counted as children of God through faith, and: “if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17 ESV).

Whatever is given by God to Christ is shared in full with us.  Therefore, in the same way that Jesus could be sure of God’s personal care and oversight, so too can I – so too can you.  Our enemy has been defeated and stripped of his weapons against us.  There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.  Therefore, what have we to fear?  Derek Kidner cautions us in our application of this marvelous principle: “This is, of course, a statement of exact, minute providence, not a charm against adversity.” [1]

The Apostle Paul could assure his churches that, “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” and then go on to speak of tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger and the sword as in Romans 8:28-35.  Clearly the personal and providential oversight Paul envisioned did not guarantee exemption from earthly trial.  What this passage promises is that God does not merely look after and watch over “the church” he watches over me.  What it means is that my future and my inheritance is secure.

The devil can threaten, bluster and blow but he cannot take what is kept secure for me in heaven.

4. Miraculous protection

In verses 11-13 the emphasis is on the miraculous protection provided by heaven for all the saints of God:

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot. (Psalms 91:11–13 ESV)

Jesus said that all God’s little ones are assigned angels as intercessors and guardians.  He said: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10 ESV).

Angels regularly feature in the stories of the early church, often in the role of serving and protecting God’s saints.  As for the imagery of treading on lions and serpents, such imagery is often used in the Bible to refer to evil men and spiritual powers.  See for example Deuteronomy 32:33 and Psalm 58:3-6.  The message in these verses therefore seems to be that God has assigned angels to see to my protection and personal care.  I am not alone against my enemies.  I am not alone in my circumstances and trials.  The waters will not rise above my head.  With every temptation he will provide the way of escape.  If one doesn’t exist, then as in the case of Peter, an angel will be sent to open the door.  Remember that when the devil fell he only took 1/3 of the angels of heaven with him, therefore, those who are with me are more than those who are against me.

Whom then shall I fear?

5. The personal pledge of God

There is a change of voice at the end of this Psalm as God speaks to guarantee what David has claimed as his own and offered to faithful others:

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation” (Psalms 91:14–16 ESV).

God pledges all of these blessings to the ones who hold fast to him in love and who “know his name”.  To know God’s name is ultimately to know who he is and how he has acted in Christ to secure our salvation.  It is to know God as he has clothed himself in the Gospel.  Such are those call on the Lord, looking to him for their salvation.  Speaking of this intimate connection between supplicant and Savior, Kidner says: “At bottom the bond is between helper and helpless, a matter of grace”. [2]

I can pray Psalm 91 with confidence, claiming all of its promised benefits and protections because God in his grace has chosen me.  From before the foundation of the world he chose me in Christ to be his son and to share in his glory forever.  His strength allows me to hold fast to him in love.  His Spirit in my heart cries ‘Abba Father’ and teaches me to know my Savior and to hear and understand his Word.  He helps me pray and he testifies to my spirit concerning my salvation.  At bottom – no, from top to bottom – this is a matter of grace.

Thanks be to God!

Pastor Paul Carter

[1] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16 of Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 365.

[2] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16 of Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 366.