Psalm 91: The Soldier's Psalm
At the 2016 National Day of Prayer for Defence event in Canberra, Psalm 91 was read and referred to as the soldier’s psalm. I was interested in this and looked up the reference. Indeed Psalm 91 is quite commonly known as the soldier’s psalm as it is said many soldiers in WWI recited this psalm daily.
Indeed I found a story circulating that tells of a Brigade commander in WWI who gave a little card with Psalm 91 on it to his men who were in the Brigade of the same number – 91st Brigade. They agreed to recite this daily. The story goes that after they started praying this prayer they were involved in three of the bloodiest battles in WWI yet suffered no casualties in combat despite other brigades suffering as much as 90%.
It is an interesting story yet there is dispute as to whether it is true. Whether it is true or not, this stories existence shows a bit of the mystique that has grown up around this psalm. I found some other interesting ways this psalm has been used – for instance it has been printed on bandanas to give to people going on operations. It has also been put onto military dog tags. I’m sure there’s much more. There seems to be a real fascination with this particular psalm as a prayer of protection.
Regardless of such interest – as part of God’s word Psalm 91 does have much to say to us and it can indeed be a great encouragement to us.
The psalm is of a constant theme throughout about taking refuge in God and his protecting you when you do so. We are going to look at it in two halves. Firstly, let’s take a look at verses 1-8.
1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
5 You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only observe with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
Psalm 91:1-8 (NIV)
This psalm is a truly bold declaration of trust in God. The writer of the psalm says that if you take refuge in God he will keep you safe – no exceptions. God will keep us safe from – traps, disease, terrors of the night, war and death. Such is the confidence of this psalm that it goes to the extreme of saying that a thousand or even ten thousand may fall beside you yet you will remain untouched if you refuge in God. That is bold trust.
See also the ways God is referred to – He is the Most High, the Almighty. It is he who saves. He is even described with the image of having wings to shelter and protect. His faithfulness is a shield. He is the punisher of the wicked. Such a God is seen as completely able to save any that take refuge in him. Nothing is beyond God’s power to help.
That is, God can keep you safe in the biggest problems of yours and can keep me safe in the biggest problems of mine. It’s easy to make such a declaration when things are good. Faith and hope declare it at the darkest times. Do we have this kind of bold trust and believe that nothing is beyond God?
Let’s continue on with the rest of the psalm.
9 If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
14 “Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges 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 honour him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”
Psalm 91:9-16 (NIV)
This second half continues on the same theme – take refuge in God – he will keep you safe. Verse 9 parallels verses 1 and 2. Both call for us to make God our dwelling and in both the psalmist declares that God is their refuge. They are speaking from their own personal experience of faith in this God. He is reliable.
Here we see protection from harm and disaster even to the point of angels supernaturally protecting us and dangerous animals being unable to harm us. It then changes voice from the author’s voice to God’s declaration that those who love him will come under his rescue and protection; that he will answer them when they call; be with them in trouble; honour them; give long life and show his salvation to.
This seems to pretty comprehensibly say, that for those who take refuge in God, there is nothing from which he cannot save you, nor is there anything God won’t save you from. What a declaration!
A key idea in this psalm is the idea of dwelling in and under God’s protection and taking refuge in him. This raises the question of, ‘where is your refuge?’ There are so many things we can take refuge in. We can take refuge in our financial security, our family and friends, our apparent talent and success, or we can take refuge in a fantasy dream that we aspire to. Now don’t get me wrong, being financially stable, having a great family and social life, using our God given talents and having dreams and aspirations are not bad things, but they should never eclipse us taking refuge in God. If any of those things got taken away would you still have the same constant refuge? If your refuge is God then any of these things can go or change and you can still know that you are safe and secure.
Consider the Apostle Paul who in Philippians 3:7-11 (NIV) said he counted all things as a loss or even as garbage compared to the ‘surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus’ our Lord. If all other things fall away and you still have God you still have everything you need.
If we were to simply stop our consideration at this point, one could come up with the summary that we should all take refuge in God and he will look after us completely. This is actually true, however it might not be in the way we expect or perhaps want. There’s more to unpack about this.
For instance listen to these words from the book of Job.
Job 5:19-25 (NIV)
19 From six calamities he will rescue you;
in seven no harm will touch you.
20 In famine he will deliver you from death,
and in battle from the stroke of the sword.
21 You will be protected from the lash of the tongue,
and need not fear when destruction comes.
22 You will laugh at destruction and famine,
and need not fear the wild animals.
23 For you will have a covenant with the stones of the field,
and the wild animals will be at peace with you.
24 You will know that your tent is secure;
you will take stock of your property and find nothing missing.
25 You will know that your children will be many,
and your descendants like the grass of the earth.
This sounds quite similar to Psalm 91. But here it is in the mouth of Eliphaz one of Job’s so called comforters who tries to apply truth about God without a full knowledge of the situation. Job was suffering greatly despite being a righteous man and his friends simply spout their theology at him instead of coming alongside him and loving him. Like this we too should be careful that we don’t apply the truth of Psalm 91 blindly.
There is also another danger found in a famous passage which quotes verses 11-12.
Matthew 4:5-7 (NIV)
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Here we see the devil using this psalm in his attempt to corrupt Jesus. The temptation was to take God’s promised protection and put it to the test. This would be a wilful test and not true trust. Jesus sees through the devil’s trap and rebukes him with more scripture properly used. This is why it is important that we don’t interpret Psalm 91 the way the devil tried to get Jesus to. We too are not to test God. Let’s not think that by declaring these words in Psalm 91, God must protect us.
There is a similar danger in the use of this psalm where people might turn faith into superstition. Parts of this psalm have been worn on amulets as a form of magical protection as though the words themselves have power. In the use of this psalm in military contexts it is important that when used it points to the God who rescues and not to the psalm as a source of some kind of power. The idea that by repeating it over and over you will somehow be safe is nothing more than superstition. But looking to the God who keeps us safe and even using suitable words from this psalm is good and fine.
But this isn’t everything the psalm raises for us. It seems to promise full protection from so much. But what about –
Truly faithful believers who suffer some of the most devastating tragedies.
Christians persecuted and killed by Islamic State.
Christians who have lived and died under so many cruel regimes over the long stretches of history.
Even in the Bible, people like Job, the prophets and the apostles suffered immensely.
Indeed time and time again we see that God rescues people from certain things but still they face much suffering. How can Psalm 91 fit with this reality? Is it merely encouraging words which don’t deep down reflect reality?
I think it is important that we look to the one and only person who could 100 percent have claimed these promises. All the rest of us have sinned and fall short of God’s glory and though we truly might take refuge in God, none have ever done so constantly and completely as Jesus did – he is the one who truly was without sin and took refuge in his heavenly Father all the time. If anyone could claim the full protection of angels, it was Jesus. Yet remember how he responded to Satan’s temptation. He refused to put God his Father to the test. The one man who could claim these promises trusted that the Father’s will was the best and right way – a way that involved much suffering and hardship. Look at these famous words from Isaiah 53 that prophesied this.
Isaiah 53:3-5,10-12 (NIV)
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Jesus chose this hard path because he followed the will of the Father. There was a greater purpose in that path. This road led him to suffer and die in the place of sinners like you and me so that we might have forgiveness and life. Without this suffering of Jesus we would still be in the dire situation of having to deal with our own sin. We can be very glad Jesus didn’t take the easy way out.
And did you see right there, with the foretelling of his suffering were descriptions of his seeing his offspring, of prolonged days, of seeing the light of life, having a portion among the great – all pointing to his resurrection and eternal rule? So too Psalm 91:16 (NIV) says With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” Jesus’ resurrection helps us make sense of this psalm. Jesus who fulfils the Old Testament hopes, lived with his Father as his refuge and through an unexpected way via suffering, he fulfils this psalm’s hope that God will keep safe all who take refuge in him.
In our case also it must be said that in an ultimate sense God does indeed protect all those who take refuge in him. Even those who are martyred for the faith are safe in Christ and find as 2 Corinthians 4:17 (NIV) put it – their ‘light and momentary troubles’ have achieved for them ‘an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’ This is our great hope.
Yet from our earthly perspective our here and now troubles of life can often cloud out this reality and take on a bigger part of our vision than they ought.
But notice that even within Psalm 91 in verse 15 it is noted that God will be with us ‘in’ trouble. People of faith are not immune from suffering, in fact often faith brings suffering, but the great news is that God will be with us if we trust in him no matter the trouble we face. And the good news continues that we are eternally safe in God’s arms.
The soldier’s psalm – Psalm 91 can indeed provide a great encouragement to soldiers, but equally to farmers, and teachers and mechanics and doctors and well – you get the idea. Yet it’s not because of some mysterious power in the words themselves, but it’s the way it points us to the one who truly can save you from all the perils of life and death. It encourages us to make God our refuge and boldly trust his protection.