For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 91, which is about God’s protection of people from harm.
I used to know a preacher who liked to tell a story about Psalm 91. He told me and whomever would listen that he would play Psalm 91 on a tape-recorder and listen to it over and over again at night. This preacher was big on people disciplining their thoughts by meditating on God’s word, for he felt that this could lead to a positive attitude, spiritual power, and even to physical healing. One morning, he said, after he had listened to Psalm 91 repeatedly the night before, he was in his garage and there was a fire. The very next moment, he was standing outside of the garage and watching it burn. In his telling, God had removed him from the burning garage, protecting him in accordance with Psalm 91.
I appreciated the preacher’s story and his teachings, for they gave me the hope that reading the Bible could lead me to have a good life. And yet, as I see life, God does not seem to deliver everyone from danger. There are still people—-even Christians—-who die as a result of automobile accidents, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and sickness. In The Treasury of David, Charles Haddon Spurgeon apparently recognizes this fact, for he says that Psalm 91’s point is not that God will protect everybody (or even every Christian) from harm. Rather, according to Spurgeon, Psalm 91 is saying that God will protect those who are especially close to God—-those who dwell in the Most High’s secret place.
I suppose that, from a certain point-of-view, what Spurgeon is saying makes a degree of sense. Wouldn’t God, after all, want to preserve and protect those who are close to him and do good in the world? But this notion somewhat compromises God’s unconditional love, plus I have doubts that real life consistently works this way. After all, during plagues throughout history, people were shocked that those who were the most proactive in ministering to the sick—-Christians—-themselves became sick and died. And, although the preacher I mentioned at the beginning of this post talked at times about how one could become so spiritual and close to God as to escape death, he himself passed on.
I can still understand the psychological appeal of Psalm 91, though. I pray for God’s protection to be on myself, my family, and my friends, even though I wonder why there are people who die tragically. I suppose that I can try to comfort myself with the notion that God has a plan. That works for a lot of people, and perhaps it could work for me. But I wouldn’t tell someone who is suffering that. Rather, I’d just listen and be there for the person.
My study of the different ideas about the setting of Psalm 91 was interesting. There is one view that the Psalm relates to God’s protection of the king in battle, as God protected the king’s life, while his enemies fell due to being killed or getting a disease. Another view is that Psalm 91, like Psalm 90, is by Moses. According to E.W. Bullinger, whereas Psalm 90 is about the death of the cursed wilderness generation, Psalm 91 concerns God’s preservation of Joshua, Caleb, and the next generation, the ones who would survive to enter the Promised Land. Whether or not one accepts this as the setting for Psalm 90-91, some do maintain that there is a connection between the two Psalms: Psalm 90 is pessimistic and discusses the brevity of human life due to God’s wrath, whereas Psalm 91 is about how God protects the faithful from life-threatening harm and gives them a long life.
A third view is that Psalm 91 was spoken by David to Solomon. The Targum has this approach, and the Septuagint ascribes Psalm 91 to David. Moreover, according to Craig Evans, a Qumran document treats Psalm 91 as a Psalm of exorcism that David gave to Solomon. Evans refers to Josephus’ Antiquities 8:44-45, which presents Solomon as one who was an expert at expelling demons.
One perhaps can apply Psalm 91—-even when bad things happen to good people—-by treating it primarily as a Psalm about God’s spiritual protection of people: that God guards faithful Christians from temptation and Satanic attacks, or gives them the strength to be faithful amidst attacks. Psalm 91:13, after all, says that the faithful one will tread on a lion, and Evans refers to I Peter 5:8, which describes the devil as a roaring lion.
But, when I see how Psalm 91 is handled in the New Testament, I have my doubts that the early Christians believed that it concerned spiritual protection alone, while excluding physical protection. For one, when the devil appeals to the Psalm in Matthew 4:6 and Luke 4:10-11 in an attempt to convince Jesus to jump off of a cliff, Jesus does not reply that God doesn’t protect people physically but only spiritually (even though it should be noted that spiritual protection was probably a relevant concern to Jesus during his temptation in the wilderness). Rather, Jesus says that one should not tempt God. I take that to mean that, yes, God protects the faithful physically when they are in trouble, and yet that should not encourage us to be reckless or deliberately to put God to the test.
Second, even spiritual warfare can have concrete, physical ramifications. In Luke 10:19, Jesus seems to refer to Psalm 91:13 when he says that his disciples will have the power to tread on serpents and scorpions. That means that the disciples will have power over demons. And yet, this had physical ramifications, including healing and driving demons out of people.
So where does that lead us? Does God protect or not? Does God especially protect and empower those with faith, giving them authority over the unclean spirits, which cause spiritual and physical turmoil? If so, why does God not appear to do this all of the time, as faithful Christians still suffer and die?