As a church we are memorizing Psalm 91 again. It's part of our Fighter Verse program. Again we face the seeming unreality of these promises. Ordinary readers start to stumble and need help. At least I do.
Here are the sorts of promises we are memorizing:
- Verse 3: "He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence."
- Verse 7: "A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you."
- Verse 10: "No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent."
- Verse 12: "On their hands angels will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone."
- Verse 14: "I will deliver him; I will protect him."
Does Psalm 91 mean that those who trust God won't be snared, won't get a disease, won't fall in battle, won't experience evil, won't lose tent-mates to the plague, won't crash against a stone, but will always be delivered and protected?
One great caution not to use the Psalm that way is that this is the way Satan used it. He told Jesus to count on the deliverance promised to the godly in this psalm. Quoting Psalm 91, he said to Jesus,
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you," [=Psalm 91:11] and "On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone" [=Psalm 91:12]. (Matthew 4:6)
Instead of following Satan's use of Psalm 91, Jesus embraced the path of suffering. The thorns penetrated his scalp. The whip lacerated his back. The rod struck on his head. The nails pierced his hands. The spear severed his side. And he was killed by his enemies.
So clearly the seemingly face-value meaning of Psalm 91 did not come true for the most godly person whoever lived.
That meaning also didn't come true for the five missionaries who were martyred with spears in January, 1956 in Ecuador. So why did Elisabeth Elliot title her book about one of them (her husband, Jim Elliot), Shadow of the Almighty? That's a quote from Psalm 91:1. "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty" (verse 1). He was killed.
Elisabeth Elliot answered like this: "The world called it a nightmare of tragedy. The world did not recognize the truth of the second clause in Jim Elliot's credo: 'He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." (my italics, Harper, 1958, 19).
I think Elisabeth Elliot is on the right track and Satan was on the wrong track. The writer of Psalm 91 was not mistaken, or naïve, or foolish. He gave promises of protection that come true for the saints, by God's grace, over and over. Literally and simply.
But we would demean the writer of Psalm 91 if we thought he was unaware of the truth of Psalm 44:22 that Paul quoted in Romans 8:36, "For your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered" (Psalm 44:22). Or that he did not know the Jesus-fulfilled warning of Psalm 22:16, "A company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet."
The writer of Psalm 91 stands with Jesus who said: "Some of you they will put to death" (Luke 21:16). And in the same breath said, "But not a hair of your head will perish" (Luke 21:18). And he stands with the writer of Hebrews who said that by faith saints have "escaped the sword" (Hebrews 11:34), and in the same breath said that by faith others are "killed with the sword" (Hebrews 11:37).
I conclude that Psalm 91 means two things about the suffering of the saints. One is that often God amazingly delivers them physically when others around them are falling. The other is that God often wills for his children to suffer, but forbids that the suffering hurts them in the end. Such evil will never befall you.
Here is the way Charles Spurgeon described the meaning of Psalm 91:
It is impossible that any ill should happen to the man who is beloved of the Lord; the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward. Ill to him is not ill, but only good in a mysterious form. Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honor, death is his gain. No evil in the strict sense of the word can happen to him, for everything is overruled for good. Happy is he who is in such a case. He is secure where others are in peril, he lives where others die. (The Treasury of David, Vol. 2, Part 2, 93)
Your executioner may laugh you to scorn for quoting Psalm 91. But in the end, "You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked." (Psalm 91:8).