The very first mark I made in my very first Bible was next to Psalm 91. With my very best 6-year old penmanship, I wrote “butiful” next to these words:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
From early on, I loved the imagery of safety and warmth, the promise of divine protection.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
For a little girl with a Lot Going On in her life, these words were precious to me. I didn’t think too much about it, I just pictured myself as one of those little chicks, nestling beneath His feathers. One day when I had a car, I thought, I will get one of those bumper stickers that says “This car is protected by Psalm 91.”
But life went on, and Psalm 91 moved out of focus. I returned to it briefly after high school when faced with a new wave of tragedy, and this time found myself disoriented and disillusioned by its words. Whatever promise of “protection” it was offering, wasn’t working for me. Our family was grappling with loss and violence, depression and hurt – and in my pain I concluded that whatever Psalm 91 may have been promising clearly didn’t avail for me. I mentally filed Psalm 91 in the “things I don’t understand about Scripture” category, and forgot about it.
Until recently. In a new bible study group, going through the book of Matthew, we were asked to consider Mary and Joseph’s story. They were young and socially awkward parents (they had a Child Out Of Wedlock!), and an angel appeared to them telling them that they had to flee to Egypt that very night because Herod was planning to kill the child (Matthew 2:13-15). Trusting the angel’s word, they obediently took flight that very night.
After reading this passage, the study guide then asked us to turn to Psalm 91 and consider how God had shown his faithful promises of protection to Mary and Joseph in this incident. I dusted off the pages of Psalm 91 and read it again. I think the answer they were looking for was something like this: “Because Mary and Joseph trusted in the Lord, called on him, loved him and sought refuge in him; they were protected.”
That’s not what I wrote though. The anger from 20 years ago was fanned into flame, fuelled with fresh emotion as the mother of a boy under 2, and in rage I went back to Matthew 2:16-18 and read:
Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A cry was heard in Ramah—
weeping and great mourning.
Rachel weeps for her children,
refusing to be comforted,
for they are dead.”
In my study guide I wrote this: “WHAT ABOUT ALL THE MOTHERS WHOSE BABIES WERE MURDERED THAT NIGHT? WHERE WAS PSALM 91 FOR THEM? WERE THEY NOT RIGHTEOUS OR TRUSTING ENOUGH???”
I was furious. If people are to claim that they were “protected” from harm because they trusted God, a la Psalm 91 – then, by direct corollary, it infers that those who are not protected were failed by God. If Psalm 91 is interpreted as being disaster-insurance for believers, then when disaster strikes we are left to conclude that either we did not believe enough, or God was unwilling or unable to help. Based on the rest of Scripture and my own experience, I reject all three of those possibilities.
But what then of Psalm 91?
I found an answer unexpectedly two weeks later while studying Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, recorded in Matthew 4 . In the second temptation,
“…the devil took him to the holy city, Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple, 6 and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say,
‘He will order his angels to protect you.
And they will hold you up with their hands
so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.’”
Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God.’”
The study guide had us locate each of Jesus’ responses in the Old Testament. Jesus’ reply here came from Deuteronomy 6:16. However, I accidentally misread the cross-reference from verse 7 and looked up the one before instead, which cited the source of Satan’s tempting quote, and discovered that the Accuser was quoting from Psalm 91:11-12.
I sucked my breath in as though I’d been punched, and read it again. For here, finally, was a glimmer of understanding for me in my battle with Psalm 91. Satan’s temptation was to quote Psalm 91 literally, and encourage Jesus to use it as disaster-insurance. And Jesus, who embodied and applied and understood the Psalms perfectly, responded with this: don’t put the Lord your God to the test.
Whatever Psalm 91 meant, it was not meant to be quoted as a name-it-and-claim-it ticket against disaster. For the truth is that sometimes believers get cancer, they get bullied at school, they starve to death, they get tortured and cheated. The most faithful believer got crucified.
And yet Psalm 91 remains true: not an insurance policy against the storm of this life, but an assurance that IN the storms of this life, we have One in whom we can take refuge. When Psalm 91:10 promises that “no harm will overtake you”, it is not saying there will not be harm, but that that harm will not ultimately triumph. We may be afflicted in every way, but we will not be crushed. We may be perplexed, but we will not be driven to despair. We may be persecuted, but we are not forsaken. We may be struck down, but we are not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).
Psalm 91 no longer makes me angry. I realize that when I am tempted to apply it as a literal type of protection against disaster, that what I am facing is indeed a TEMPTATION. The accuser loves to set us up for disappointment with God. But Jesus tells us we are not to put God to the test in this matter. Rather, we are to take comfort in Psalm 91 as we do in Psalm 23, that though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us. He comforts us.
He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.
– Psalm 91:15-16
I’m 6 again, and curling up under His feathers.
Photo credit: BNPS.CO.UK