Psalm 91 Commentary2018-06-07T15:56:01+00:00

Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)
Psalm 91

CONTEXT:

The Septuagint (LXX: Greek version of the Old Testament) attributes this psalm to David, but that remains in question.

We aren’t certain of the time and circumstances of its writing. The psalmist wrote it to assure Israel that Yahweh would keep them safe through all trials IF they put their trust in him and tried to live faithfully in accord with Yahweh’s will.

Such a message is timeless. It would have served Israel well during David’s reign, when Israel was beset by many enemies. It would have served them well during the Babylonian Exile, when only the eyes of faith could see the possibility that they would ever again see Jerusalem. It would have served them well when King Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and freed Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, where they found a ruined city and were faced with many enemies.

It is still timely today.

• Globally, we are faced with wars and rumors of war––plagues and pestilence––enemies equipped with the Bomb––tyrants and corrupt politicians––a world changing so rapidly that it makes our heads spin––and a host of other problems.

• Individually, we are faced with financial challenges––fears of losing a job or finding ourselves unable to compete in a rapidly changing world––children gone astray––addictions––illness––death (our own or that of loved ones).

If we are to keep our equilibrium in such circumstances, we need assurance that God is with us––that God loves us and is committed to helping us––that God will redeem even our darkest day. That is a message that we need to hear in good times so that it will bring us strength during bad times.

PSALM 91:1-2. GOD IS MY REFUGE AND MY FORTRESS

1 He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of Yahweh, “He is my refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”

“He who dwells in the secret place (Hebrew: seter) of the Most High
will rest (Heb. lin) in the shadow (Hebrew: sel) of the Almighty” (v. 1).

In verses 1-2, the psalmist uses four names for God:

• The Most High (Hebrew: ‘elyon). The word ‘elyon is usually translated Most High, and is usually used for God. Yahweh does David an honor by using this word for David, where he refers to David as “the ‘elyon (highest) of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:27).

• The Almighty (Hebrew: sadday). The Hebrew word sadday means almighty or the Almighty. This (without ‘el) is how it appears in this and a number of other verses, especially in the book of Job.

Sadday often appears with the Hebrew word ‘el, which is a generic word for a god––any god. ‘El sadday, then, means Almighty God. ‘El sadday is the name that God revealed to Abram in Genesis 17:1, when God set the terms for his covenant with Abram.

The Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) translates the Hebrew word sadday as the Greek word protokrator, which literally means “all power” or “all dominion,” and is usually translated Almighty One. Protokrator appears several times in the New Testament in passages that emphasize God’s almighty power (2 Corinthians 6:18; Revelation 1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7, 14; 19:6, 15; 21:22).

• Yahweh (Hebrew: YHWH or yehowah). This is the name that God revealed to Moses, saying, “You shall tell the children of Israel this, ‘Yahweh (YHWH), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is my memorial to all generations” (Exodus 3:15). We find this name as early as Genesis 15:2, but whether that name was familiar to Abram is uncertain. It would have been familiar to the author(s) of Genesis.

Yahweh was God’s personal name for the Israelites. The other names are all descriptive (such as Most High and Almighty).

• God (Hebrew: ‘elohim). By far the most common name for God in the Old Testament is Yahweh, which means “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14)––but elohim is the next most common. El means god (note the small g), and can be used for any god. Elohim is plural, so it can apply to any gods. However, when Elohim refers to Yahweh, that is called “the intensive plural” or “the majestic plural,” acknowledging that all that constitutes deity is summed in Yahweh.

“He who dwells in the secret place (Hebrew: seter) of the Most High” (v. 1a). The Hebrew word seter means a secret place or hiding place. As is customary with poetry, the psalmist doesn’t amplify on the meaning of seter, but instead leaves it up to us to tease out the possibilities. “The secret place of the Most High” could be:

• The temple.
• A quiet place where we can go to God in prayer––our bedroom or prayer closet.
• A church sanctuary, hospital chapel, or airport prayer room.
• The seashore or forest where nature calms our souls and draws us to God.

The important thing is not the place but that we meet the Most High there.

“will rest (Heb. lin) in the shadow (Hebrew: sel) of the Almighty” (v. 1b). The Hebrew word lin (rest) means to lodge or dwell or tarry or rest, and can designate either a temporary or permanent lodging. In this verse, resting in the shadow of the Almighty is the blessing that the faithful person experiences for dwelling in Yahweh’s presence.

The Hebrew word sel means shadow of shade. In Hebrew thought sel is most often welcoming shade from noonday sun or protection afforded by the shadow of Yahweh’s wings (Psalm 17:8).

However, the words shadow and shade also acknowledge that the faithful person dwells in a world that is sometimes dark. Even there, God is present.

“I will say of Yahweh, ‘He is my refuge (Hebrew: manseh) and my fortress (Hebrew: mesudah); my God, in whom I trust'” (Hebrew: batah) (v. 2). This verse repeats the idea of verse 1b, but with different imagery. Once again, the idea is of the protection afforded by the Almighty God.

• Yahweh is the psalmist’s manseh (refuge or shelter).
• Yahweh is his mesudah (hiding place, stronghold, fortress).

The Hebrew word batah (trust) means “to feel secure” or “to have confidence in.” The psalmist’s faith in God gives him confidence and a feeling of security.

PSALM 91:3-8. YAHWEH WILL DELIVER YOU

3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler,
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his feathers.
Under his wings you will take refuge.
His faithfulness is your shield and rampart.
5 You shall not be afraid of the terror by night,
nor of the arrow that flies by day;
6 nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness,
nor of the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
and ten thousand at your right hand;
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes,
and see the recompense of the wicked.

“For he will deliver you from the snare (Hebrew: pah) of the fowler” (v. 3a). The word “For” connects this verse with verse 2. The psalmist can feel secure, because he is confident that Yahweh will deliver him from the snare (pah) of the fowler (a person who sets traps to catch birds, usually for eating). He assures us that we can enjoy the same confidence if we “dwell in he secret place of the Most High” (v. 1).

Most of us have never seen a fowler or a fowler’s trap. In our experience, most hunting is done with guns instead of traps. We haven’t had to watch carefully for fowler’s traps as we walk along sidewalks or drive along roads––or even when we hike through woods. However, we are familiar with traps of other kinds:

• Spam callers try to get us to get us to reveal our credit card numbers.

• When I lived in New York City years ago, I learned not to walk close to buildings when I was walking at night. Muggers would hide in recessed doorways and whack people whom they could reach easily.

• In Vietnam, our soldiers had to watch for punji sticks and trip wires. Today they have to watch for IEDs.

You have probably been the victim of some sort of trap, possibly in quite recent memory.

“and from the deadly pestilence” (Hebrew: deber) (v. 3b). The word deber means plague or pestilence. In this case, the psalmist emphasizes its deadly character.

Historically, more soldiers have died from disease than from swords, spears, and bullets.

Those of us who live in first world countries have almost forgotten the dangers of deadly diseases that spread rapidly and kill large numbers of people. Vaccines and other medical treatments have almost eliminated them for us.

However, when I was a child in the 1940s and 50s, before the polio vaccine became available, I had friends who had suffered from polio. Some suffered mild impairment but others suffered catastrophic impairment. I saw newspaper pictures of children confined to “iron lungs” that helped them to breath. Towns across the country closed their swimming pools.

Our church recently experienced a norovirus that sickened 54 of the 60 people present for worship that Sunday. While no one died, it was a terrible illness that required weeks for recovery.

Plagues and pestilences of various kinds are still occasional threats in first world countries, and are frequent threats in less developed countries. They sicken millions of people every year, and often kill them.

So the psalmist is talking about a serious threat when he uses the word deber. But he is confident that Yahweh will deliver him from plagues and pestilence, because he “dwells in the secret place of the Most High.”

We have heard of people who have attributed their recovery from serious illness to the prayers said in their behalf. I am one of those.

But we must also acknowledge that not all prayers for healing are answered. If they were, no one would ever die. We know that death and taxes are the two certainties in life––death being the most certain of the two. I am old, and expect to die within a few years. However, I am confident that God is with us in life and in death. When we talk about trusting God to deliver us, that’s the bottom line––confidence that God is with us both in life and in death.

“He will cover you with his feathers.
Under his wings you will take refuge” (v. 4ab). Chicks taking refuge under their mother’s wings serve as a metaphor for people finding refuge in God’s presence.

“His faithfulness (‘emet––truth) is your shield (Hebrew: sinnah) and rampart” (Hebrew: soherah––buckler) (v. 4c). The word ‘emet is usually translated truth. Truth is real, dependable, stable––that which we can trust. Truth doesn’t shift with every passing folly. Truth is faithful. We can count on it. We can put down our foot on truth, and it will prove solid––won’t collapse under our weight.

Yahweh is like that. Yahweh is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The wonderful thing is that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). God loved us yesterday, and will love us tomorrow.

A sinnah is a large rectangular shield. A soherah (more often translated buckler) is a small round shield. Both are designed to protect the bearer, and each has a particular use. The large shield offers protection over a larger area––and a line of soldiers can put their rectangular shields together to form a nearly impenetrable wall against enemy arrows. A soldier can move the smaller round shield quickly to counter threats from unexpected quarters. A soldier would be equipped with one shield or the other, but the psalmist perceives Yahweh’s truth as embodying the advantages of both. Yahweh’s truth is large and sturdy enough to absorb violent blows. It is also nimble enough to deflect blows from unexpected directions. We need both kinds of protection, because Satan sometimes attacks us in a frontal assault, but also comes at us from unexpected quarters.

“You shall not be afraid of the terror by night,
nor of the arrow that flies by day;
nor of the pestilence (Hebrew: deber) that walks in darkness,
nor of the destruction (Hebrew: qeteb) that wastes at noonday” (vv. 5-6). Neither night nor day––darkness nor the bright light of noonday––shall give the faithful cause for fear. That is worth noting. We often find ourselves afraid in the middle of the night––what I call the Three O’clock Terrors. However, as noted in these verses, daylight often ushers in daily battles, whether with spear and sword or pen and PowerPoint––so we feel vulnerable by night or by day.

But the psalmist assures us that, with God at our side, we have nothing to fear. That seems to overstate the case. I believe in God and depend on him for deliverance, but I nevertheless find myself afraid. It might be chinks in my faith that leave me vulnerable to fear––but I don’t know anyone who has no chinks in their faith.

Whatever the case, these verses assure us that God will deliver us. To the extent that we believe that, it will allay our fear.

See the comments on verse 3b (above) for an explanation of deber (pestilence). In this verse, pestilence is portrayed as walking at night––an unseen and deadly threat.

The Hebrew word qeteb means destruction, but can also mean sting (Hosea 13:14). It is the daytime equivalent of the night-stalking pestilence of verse 6a.

“A thousand may fall at your side,
and ten thousand at your right hand;
but it will not come near you” (v. 7). These thousands and tens of thousands are most likely the victims of pestilence and destruction mentioned in verse 6? The principle, however, can be extended to fit any situation.

“You will only look with your eyes,
“and see the recompense (Hebrew: sillumah––punishment) of the wicked” (v. 8b). The word sillumah means punishment, but carries the connotation of deserved punishment. That is true in this verse, where we see the wicked being punished.

PSALM 91:9-13. HE WILL PUT HIS ANGELS IN CHARGE OF YOU

9 Because you have made Yahweh your refuge,
and the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
11 For he will put his angels in charge of you,
to guard you in all your ways.
12 They will bear you up in their hands,
so that you won’t dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and cobra.
You will trample the young lion and the serpent underfoot.

“Because you have made Yahweh your refuge,
and the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling” (vv. 9-10). These verses include conditional promises. The promises are that “no evil shall happen to you” and “neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.”

But those promises are conditional on making “Yahweh your refuge” and “the Most High your dwelling place.” Verse 9 assumes that the reader has complied with these conditions, so the promises apply. However, the conditional nature of the promises serve as a warning that the promises will no longer apply if we disassociate ourselves from Yahweh.

“For he will put his angels in charge of you,
to guard you in all your ways..
They will bear you up in their hands,
so that you won’t dash your foot against a stone” (vv. 11-12). If these verses sound familiar, it is probably because Satan quoted them as part of Jesus’ second temptation. Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will put his angels in charge of you.’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you don’t dash your foot against a stone'” (Matthew 4:6). Jesus countered, “Again, it is written, ‘You shall not test the Lord, your God.'”

But the psalmist wrote these verses to reassure the faithful that Yahweh will send his angels to guard them––to bear them up––to protect them from dangers large and small (dashing one’s foot against a stone sounds small compared to some dangers).

Angels are God’s messengers (Hebrews 1:14; Revelation 1:1)––part of the created order and therefore wholly subordinate to God. They are mighty (Psalm 78:25), and serve by doing God’s will (Psalm 103:1). They sometimes appear in human form (Genesis 18:2; Ezekiel 9:2). God dispatched angels to help Isaac find a wife (Genesis 24:7)––and to protect Israel in the Exodus (Exodus 23:20-23; 32:34; 33:2)––and to sustain Elijah in his flight from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:5-8)––and to carry people to heaven (Luke 16:22)––and to release apostles from prison (Acts 5:19).

However, we must guard against angel worship and the trivialization of angels popular in some circles today. Angels are not appropriate objects of our worship. To worship angels is to run afoul of the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 2:3; see also Matthew 4:10).

Popular media today portray angels as lovely, delicate, and feminine, but Biblical writers either cite masculine names for angels or give no clue to their gender. Angels were often fearsome.

“You will tread on the lion and cobra.
You will trample the young lion and the serpent underfoot” (v. 13). Note the contrast between “dash your feet against a stone” (v. 12b) and “tread on the lion and cobra” and “trample the young lion and serpent” (v. 13).  Lions serve as a metaphor for powerful forces that can take us apart with one swipe of their claws. Cobras and serpents serve as a metaphor for smaller but equally deadly forces that appear suddenly, seemingly from nowhere. We will do well to avoid such dangers, but the promise is that Yahweh will enable us to tread on and trample them without fear.

It is possible to misuse passages such as this that are intended to reassure us of God’s help in danger––but are not intended to encourage us to test God (Matthew 4:7; Luke 4:12). Some churches today cite Mark 16:17-18; Luke 10:19; and Acts 28:1-6 to justify the handling of deadly snakes as part of their worship––and some people die while doing that.

PSALM 91:14-16. HE WILL CALL ON ME, AND I WILL ANSWER HIM

14 “Because he has set his love on me, therefore I will deliver him.
I will set him on high, because he has known 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 honor him.
16 I will satisfy him with long life,
and show him my salvation.”

“Because he has set his love (Hebrew: hasaq) on me, therefore I will deliver him” (v. 14a). The voice shifts with this verse. Until now, we have been listening to the psalmist as he conveys Yahweh’s promises. However, now we begin to hear from Yahweh directly.

The Hebrew word hasaq (set his love) means to attach, love, delight, or bind. Yahweh is speaking about those who attach themselves to him––bind themselves to him––love him––take delight in him. He will deliver those people.

“I will set him on high (Hebrew: sagab), because he has known (Hebrew: yada) my name” (Hebrew: sem) (v. 14b). The word sagab (set him on high) means to raise, exalt, or defend. Yahweh is promising to exalt the person who knows his name.

The verb yada (has known) means to know––but more. It is to know relationally or by experience, and is therefore an intimate kind of knowledge. It goes beyond head-knowledge to heart-knowledge. Yahweh is promising to bless the person who knows him in this intimate way.

The noun sem (name) means name or reputation or fame. In that culture, as today, a person’s name referred to the essential character of the person––in this case, Yahweh. To know Yahweh’s sem––his name or reputation––is to know Yahweh.

“He will call on me, and I will answer him.
I will be with him in trouble” (v. 15ab). Yahweh is an accessible God, who answers when called and walks with people in the midst of their troubles.

“I will deliver (Hebrew: halas) him, and honor (Hebrew: kabed) him” (v. 15c). The word halas (deliver) has several meanings, at least two of which fit here. It means delivering from danger, which is how this translation sees it. It also means preparing, to include equipping for war.

• The first of those meanings (deliver) has God pulling the person out of the troubled situation, a scenario where the troubled person plays only a passive role.

• The second meaning (equipping, to include equipping for war) has God providing us with the resources to handle the situation ourselves. God does both––delivering us and equipping us.

The word kabed (honor) means to give a person honor or to make them heavy (in the sense of powerful. Both are appropriate in this verse.

“I will satisfy him with long life,
and show him my salvation” (v. 16). Long life is usually a blessing (unless it involves prolonged suffering, dementia, or something else that inhibits the quality of life).

At the time that the psalmist wrote this psalm, the Israelite people had not yet developed a strong belief in eternal life, as we know it in the New Testament––so the salvation mentioned here probably meant to the psalmist only deliverance from trouble.

But in these words, the psalmist is quoting Yahweh, who would help his people to develop a strong belief in eternal life. Therefore the psalmist is probably saying more than he understood––deliverance from trouble and salvation to eternal life.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS</strong> are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

COMMENTARIES:

Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)

Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999

Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)

Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)

DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)

Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)

Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)

Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000

Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)

McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)

Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)

Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)

Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)

DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:

Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)

Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)

Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)

Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)

Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)

Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)

Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)

Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)

Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)

Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)

VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)

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