“If you say, ‘The Lord is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you” (Psalm 91:9).
The extravagant promises of Psalm 91 are puzzling to anyone who faces trouble. And who doesn’t? What are we to make of assurances that if God is our refuge, we need not fear plague and pestilence, destruction and disaster? Are these sweeping promises to be understood as some version of word of faith prosperity theology? Are these verses examples of pious escapism?
In the world I inhabit, the world as it is today, people of faith do in fact, fall victim to night terrors (v.5), deadly diseases (v. 6), untimely death (v.7), natural and man-made disasters (v.10), and various other troubles. My memory ranges over 47 years of pastoral ministry. There have been countless instances where I have been called to be present in the lives of people who loved the Lord but who faced disasters, dangers and death.
The author of this psalm is realistic in his poetic assessment of the world as it is. He names the threats: snare, pestilence, arrow, plague, war, disaster, dangerous predators. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come,” wrote John Newton. His life was a testament to the fact that people of faith are not immune from the troubles of the world.
In these circumstances, the inspired writer directs our attention to our Creator. In the world, as it is, he wants us to know God as He is. He invites us to live in close relationship to God, sheltered under his wing of protection.
The names of God reveal aspects of his character: “Most High” — supreme, exalted ruler over the universe; “Almighty” — all-powerful, all-sufficient One; “The Lord” — Yahweh; the self-existent, personal, covenant-keeping God; “My God” — the majestic God of eternity, the sovereign God of creation. These names are a call to worship and trust him, in all circumstances.
The titles of God (refuge, shelter, fortress) remind us to think of him as our security and protection: soft, when it needs to be, like a mother bird’s sheltering wing, hard, when it needs to be, like a warrior’s armor. The psalmist would have us stop and think about God when we face life’s troubles.
If you read Psalm 91 again, think about it in light of world events, interminable war, natural disaster, refugees from genocide and poverty, political turmoil, suspicion and fear, economic disruption, assassination, and especially, religious persecution in various parts of the world. The plain fact is, God’s faithful ones do not always escape trouble.
You might be brought up short and puzzled until you read verse 15. There the Lord promises, “He will call on me and I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble.” This is a key to understanding how to apply the beautiful promises of the psalm. The author looks at the world as it is and to God as he is, and he brings them together. There is a resolution in verse 15.
This is a Christian philosophy that sustains you in the boardroom when the manager says, “Clean out your desk and turn in your keys. This is your last day on the job.” This is a worldview for the hospital room when the doctor brings bad news and the outlook is bleak.
“I will be with him in trouble,” not necessarily escaping it. It is the presence of the Lord in the time of trouble that gives courage and hope. Two biblical illustrations come to mind. In the book of Genesis, Joseph endured many troubles. There we read, “The Lord was with Joseph.” In the New Testament book of Acts, The Lord Jesus appeared in a vision to the apostle Paul at a time when he was discouraged and lonely, “Do not be afraid…for I am with you.”
He says the same thing to you and me: “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5-6).
The deliverance so boldly promised in Psalm 91 is for those who take refuge (v.2) in God, who make the Most High their dwelling (v. 9), who love him (v. 14), and who call upon him for salvation (v. 15). It is for those who say with faith, “My God in whom I trust” (v. 2).
It is not a blanket escape from the threats and risks of living in a dangerous world. Rather it seems clear that the writer sees and wants us to see another dimension, that of eternity. In the book of Romans, we are given a Christian interpretation of Psalm 91: “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35-37). “In all these things” we learn to recognize and rely on God’s presence with us. In persecution, trouble, or even death we will not be forgotten or forsaken.