George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 4

Psalm 91

1. Title

It is hardly sound to argue that, since it has no label, this “orphan” psalm necessarily should be attached to Psalm 90: for in this Book 4 only 90, 101, 102, and 103 do have titles. Even so, there is evidence enough to read this as a Psalm of Moses (and Joshua) (Par. 3,4).

2. Structure

Moses to Joshua
Joshua to Moses: Personal confession
Moses to Joshua (v. 9): Assurance
The Lord to Joshua: Further assurance

The Moses/Joshua duality is seen in this: that while one generation was perishing in the wilderness, along with Moses himself (Psalm 90), the next generation was surviving through that same period, to enter the Land of Promise at last, along with Joshua (Psalm 91; Deut. 1:35-38). Psalms 90 and 91 are thus seen to be two halves of the same whole — each incomplete without its counterpart.

3. Contacts with Moses’ writings

Psalm 91

Exodus / Deuteronomy
My God, in him will I trust
Deut. 32:37
Cover thee (s.w.)
Exod. 40:3,21
Feathers... wings
Deut. 32:11
The pestilence
Deut. 32:24
Reward, recompense (s.w.)
Deut. 32:35,41
Thy habitation/dwelling place/refuge (s.w.)
Deut. 33:27
Adder... dragon
Deut. 32:33
My salvation
Exod. 14:13

4. Historical setting

Besides the evidence of Par. 3, there is also the word-play on names in verses 1 and 16:

=The Father (God) is my tent (ohel);
=In the shadow of God (see G. Booker, “A Carpenter and a Tentmaker”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 121, p. 335);
=The Lord is (my) salvation.

The historical setting is probably delineated in Exodus 33:11:

“And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle.”
Or in Numbers 27:22,23:

“And Moses did as the Lord commanded him: and he took Joshua, and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation: and he laid his hands upon him, and gave him a charge, as the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses.”

Of course, the five promises of verses 3-13 belonged not only to Joshua but also to all those who shared his faithfulness. Likewise they belong not only to Jesus, who shares Joshua’s name, but to all those who share faith in Jesus: “Ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day” (Deut. 4:4).

Phrases like the snare of the fowler (hunter), the terror by night, and the arrow that flieth by day suggest the hostility of the Amalekites and other wilderness enemies (Exod. 17:8-16; Num. 14:43-45; Deut. 25:17-19).
He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust. Allusions to the winged cherubim in the Tabernacle?
Pestilence refers to such judgments as Num. 14:12,37; 16:47-50; 25:8.
A thousand shall fall at thy side. This happened to the Egyptians in Egypt (Exod. 12:23), and to the faithless portion of the nation of Israel in the wilderness (Deut. 32:30).
The most High, thy habitation (maon). Psa. 90:1, s.w.
Thy dwelling (ohel) is the Tent or Tabernacle.
He shall give his angels charge over thee (Psa. 34:7).

“Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared” (Exod. 23:20).

This was true of all the faithful, but especially true of Joshua himself (Josh. 5:13-15).
Thou shalt tread upon the... adder. An allusion to the fiery serpents that killed many of Israel in the wilderness (Num. 21:6-9; Deut. 8:15).
I will set him on high, as I did for Moses (Exod. 33:22; 34:5).
With long life will I satisfy him. In fact, 110 years (Josh. 23:1; 24:29) — in pointed contrast with Psa. 90:9,10.

Also, a remarkable number of verses in this psalm appear to be relevant to Hezekiah and his difficult days. Does this explain why this very ancient psalm came to be included in the Temple hymn book?

5. Messiah

The sequence of ideas in the Temptation of Jesus (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) is impressive:

‘You are hungry. Then turn stones into bread. You have the power to do this.’
‘No! Israel was allowed to hunger in the wilderness (as I do now), in order to teach reliance not on their own powers but on the providence of God: His command to His angels (“every word of God”) was: “Feed my people” (Deut. 8:3).’
‘So — you insist on relying on angelic care. Well, here is a Bible promise: He shall give his angels charge over thee... lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. So, cast yourself down, relying on this promise, and make a great impression on the nation.’
‘No. That would be tempting God (Deut. 6:16), as did Israel when they said: “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exod. 7:17).’

Notice that, whereas Psalm 91:11 is not an explicit commandment, Deuteronomy 6:16 is!

Commentators are inclined to put great stress on the tempter’s omission of the phrase: “in all thy ways” (Psa. 91:11), as though this amounts to a serious garbling of the quotation. Yet, in fact, the tempter’s argument would have been greatly strengthened by inclusion of the words: ‘In all thy ways — i.e., even in such an extreme situation as this, on a pinnacle of the temple’.

A difficulty which has not received the attention it deserves is the extreme literalness of the tempter’s application of this passage. Yet, where Messiah was concerned (and his prototype also), much in this psalm has to be read figuratively: e.g., verses 3-7. Is this to be taken as an indication that the second temptation (vv. 11,12) was not literal but a figurative expression of a fundamental attitude of mind? This, after all, is the very basis of all temptation and its rejection.

The LXX: upon the asp and basilisk — i.e., cockatrice (cp. NEB: “asp and cobra”) — makes more pointed than ever the allusion to Gen. 3:15, the great early prophecy about the Messiah’s conquest of the power of sin.

Lion... adder... young lion... dragon (tannim). Whereas Mark has none of the account of the three-fold temptation, which Matthew and Luke have, he does add one unique detail: “And he was there... with the wild beasts” (1:13). Was Jesus tempted also, in the wilderness, to use his special powers to overcome the dangerous creatures that threatened him there? Or is this an allegorical way of saying that, by overcoming all temptations, Jesus at last will receive dominion over all of God’s creation (Gen. 1:28; Psa. 8:6,7) — especially the tannim, or “great beasts” of the nations?
Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him. With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation. In contrast with the undeniably figurative force of the body of the psalm (with respect to the Messiah), these verses are splendidly literal and of great value.
I (will) shew him my salvation. Here is one more proof that Jesus himself needed salvation (see Psalms Studies, Psa. 6, Par. 3; Psa. 38, Par. 5; Psa. 40, Par. 3; Psa. 51, Par. 4; Psa. 69, Par. 7).

6. A psalm for those in Christ

Just as the prophecy of Messiah in Isaiah 49:6,8 is unashamedly applied by Paul to himself, as one of Messiah’s men (Acts 13:47; 26:18), so also with Psalm 91. How far such verses as 7 and 10 apply literally must depend upon the faith of the individual, as well as upon other factors even further beyond mortals’ ability to discern. But it would certainly be misguided to seek in this psalm (or anywhere else in Scripture) an absolute guarantee against physical distress in this life. It is true that nothing can touch God’s servant, except by God’s control. However, it has to be remembered that Romans 8:28 (“All things work together for good”) does not exclude, but in fact expressly includes among such “all things” Romans 8:35 (“tribulation... distress... persecution... famine... peril... the sword”). And the promise of v. 15 here — “I will be with him in trouble” — surely suggests that God will save us through troubles (Acts 14:22), but not necessarily from troubles.

7. Other details

What a splendid piling up of divine names here: Elyon = Most High; Shaddai = the Almighty (see Psalms Studies, Psa. 68, Par. 9); Yahweh = the Lord; and Elohim = God.
The secret place is a favorite idea in the psalms, signifying the Sanctuary (27:5; 31:20; 32:7; 61:4), or, more generally, the place of intimate communion with God (as in Matt. 6:6).

Shall abide is a verb which often has the idea of ‘lodge for the night’ (Gen. 32:21; Ruth 1:16; Psa. 30:5; 49:12; etc.). So a time of darkness and danger becomes instead a time of rest and comfort (cp. Psa. 23:5,6; John 15:4,5; 1 John 2:27; Rev. 21:3).

“He who takes refuge with the Most High, shall find that God is not too exalted to care for frail, perishing man. He shall be treated as God’s guest — God will not be wanting in the sacred duty of hospitality. His Almighty Power shall be spread around him during the night of trouble and anguish. Loving faith on man’s part shall be met by faithful love on God’s part” (W. Kay). Thus God will be a “home” to all who trust in Him.
Refuge is machseh, a shelter (v. 9; Psa. 46:1; 61:3; 62:7,8; 71:7).

Fortress is metsudah (see Psalms Studies, Psa. 18, Par. 6).
The snare of the fowler. A figure for plotting? The Pharisees were continually plotting against Jesus: John 5:16,18; Mark 3:6; Luke 11:54; John 7:19-21,25; 8:59; Luke 13:31; John 10:31,39; 11:8,16, 44-54; Luke 20:14-26; Matt. 26:3-5,16. For snare, see 2 Tim. 2:26.

The noisome pestilence (deber) could read: ‘the mischievous word’ (dabar, as in the LXX) — i.e., the slander so capable of doing damage. The two phrases of this verse would then go very well together.
He shall cover thee. Basically the word means ‘to make a fence’ (s.w. Exod. 40:21). The allusion here is to the cherubim in the sanctuary, and to angelic protection such as in Exod. 12:23; 19:4; Isa. 63:9.

With his feathers... under his wings. “As a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings” (Matt. 23:37). This Jesus would have done for Israel, but they “would not”! Thus they were snatched away by the Roman “eagle”.

The Holy Spirit is pictured as a dove, hovering over and protecting (Mark 1:10; cp. Isa. 31:5) — like the Passover Angel. In such manner God revealed Himself to Jesus at his baptism, just prior to his wilderness temptations (cp. vv. 11-13 here).

Under his wings shalt thou trust. Psa. 17:8,9; 36:7,8; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7.
All this section is very like Job 5:19-23.

Thou shalt not be afraid. This word usually describes the fear of God. Then is there here an indirect allusion to God’s angels of evil (Psa. 78:49) — like the Destroying Angels of the Egyptian Passover (Exod. 12:23 again)?
With thine eyes shalt thou behold. Contrast Matt. 4:8. This is part of the reward for the one who says “He is my refuge” (vv. 2,9).
Neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. “Plague” is the usual word for leprosy (Num. 12:10).
For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. This is quoted about Messiah although originally about the faithful in Israel: cp. Hos. 11:1 (= Matt. 2:15). Jesus accepted this promise for service and sacrifice, but he refused it for any purpose of self-advantage. So also must the disciple do likewise.
To keep thee. God’s promise to Jacob (Gen. 28:15). Hence a continual divine providence and protection for Jesus (Luke 4:29; 22:43; John 8:59; 10:39), until he had fulfilled all God’s purpose.
Thou shalt tread upon... the adder. Jesus alluded to this (Luke 10:19; and cp. vv. 11,12 here), but note how he warns against taking pride in such achievement. See also Mark 16:18; Rom. 16:20. Psalm 58:3-6 interprets these figures.

The Kingdom prophecy of the little child being unharmed by deadly serpents — Isa. 11:8 — is to be interpreted, not so much universally, but rather as especially related to Jesus, “the little child” of Isa. 7:14; 9:6,7; and 11:6! (Note that “adder” in Psa. 58:4 and 91:13 is s.w. “asp” in Isa. 11:8 — the Hebrew pethen — cp. “Python” in Acts 16:16.)

The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. Not just “treading upon”, to emerge unscathed; but also and especially in victory!
Because he hath known my name, as in vv. 1 and 2.
I will deliver him, and honour him. “Glorify thou me with thine own self” (John 17:5).
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