My family was driving an interstate from here to there when a car veered toward us across the median and just as quickly hairpin-overcorrected, crossed back over, and careened into some hills. It was a blur of swerve, swerve and gasp. We were the picture of unsuspecting drivers: man and woman chatting, adorable children coloring in the backseat. I scarcely tapped the brakes before it was all over. There we were, breathing prayers of thanks for God’s protection.
What does it mean to be protected by God? Psalm 91 layers on God’s promises of protection: from “deadly pestilence” and “the terror of the night,” from the “arrow that flies by day” and “destruction” and “scourge” and “lion and serpent” (verses 4-13).
Psalm 91 is one of the most unflinching assurances of protection in all of the Scriptures. It’s a thick-cut, guaranteed potency, theological-grade promise of protection. “Those who love me, I will deliver,” God speaks through the psalmist. “I will protect those who know my name” (verse 14).
In this season of wildfire and warfare and hurricane and pandemic, I know people who are keeping this psalm close to their heart, praying it over their lives and homes and families.
Does this mean that no harm will touch those who pray this psalm? Can we take the psalm and forgo the COVID vaccine? Some folks have claimed as much. (Alas, if only we had followed Sattler and Menno and kept the Apocrypha, we could turn to Sirach 38:13-15 as our throwdown verses.)
And I’ve seen Psalm 91 hung scroll-form on living room walls and etched on silver charms. Name it and claim it, kid.
Yet, there’s one fact about Psalm 91 that should give us pause. It’s this: Perhaps the psalm’s most famous interpreter was the devil.
Matthew and Luke report that when Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, he appealed to hunger and mission, but the devil also quoted Scripture. He brought in Psalm 91:11: “He will command his angels concerning you.” It was a calligraphed stab to the heart, the word of God wielded as the devil’s weapon.
Of course, that’s one of the devil’s favorite tricks: quote (or rather, twist) Scripture. I’ve run into people packing the Bible as their bone saw too many times.
But in the wilderness, Jesus didn’t budge. He flung Scripture right back at the Father of Lies.
The devil quoting Psalm 91 doesn’t diminish its power. It tells us the psalm can be misinterpreted. The devil got it wrong. How?
For one, the devil quotes Psalm 91 selectively. Just as Psalm 91 layers on protection, it also stacks names of the God who grants that protection: “the Most High,” “the Almighty,” “the Lord,” “my God” (1-2). The devil mentions none of these names, instead prying a single verse from the psalm and dangling it before Jesus as an amulet.
The devil deploys Psalm 91 as a guarantee of safety without a Guarantor and thus bypasses the psalm’s heartbeat.
You see, Psalm 91 is not actually about safety. It’s about trust. The psalm addresses the Lord as “my God, in whom I trust” (verse 2). What Psalm 91 summons us to is not a contractual assurance that no harm will ever touch us but a spacious confidence in the God who delivers and shields and rescues and protects his people, come what may.
In this way, Psalm 91 stands alongside other passages like Psalm 116:15: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” It proposes the faith of Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego who, before Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace confidently declared: “If you throw us in the fire, the God we serve can rescue us” before going on to add with equal confidence: “But even if he doesn’t, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference” (Daniel 3:17-18, The Message).
Like them and like you, I have experienced hardship and loss. And I’ve known good and loving people, folks committed to God and God’s purposes, whom God didn’t miraculously pluck from the fire. They found the cancer too late. They married the devastatingly wrong person. The car didn’t swerve.
In any of that, the promises of Psalm 91 haven’t rung hollow. Precisely the opposite. In the valley of the shadow of death, God’s people have discovered the Almighty, Most High Lord somehow leading them with nail-marked hands.