SAFE IN THE SHELTER OF HIS WINGS The Security of Trusting in God Psalm 91
Philippe R. Sterling
Have you seen a mother hen gather her chicks under her wings? As she covers them with her wings, her body language screams to predators: "To get to them, you're going to have to go through me!”
It may seem sacrilegious to compare God to a chicken! But the Bible does, in order to give us a sense of security in a world filled with danger. Jesus compared Himself to a mother hen, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37).
Picture yourself this morning "Safe in the Shelter of His Wings". We can run under His feathers in times of danger.
God has brought us through sicknesses that used to kill. He's used medical discoveries, miracle drugs, and new surgeries, therapies to restore our heath. He will bring us through this time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
How about when the economy tanks? In my lifetime we've had gas shortages, hyper-inflation, market crashes. Even in rough economic times, God has covered us with His feathers and given us refuge under His wings. Trust God to cover you with His feathers.
Psalm 91 is one of the most loved psalms in the Bible. It is a psalm that people turn to at times of distress and fear, sickness and persecution. It is a psalm in which believers underline a verse or verses. Often these key passages are memorized; sometimes deliberately, sometimes simply because the words are repeated so often. Such verses have formed the basis of many prayers.
Psalm 91 is structured as a song with three voices: antiphonal exchanges between a solo speaker, a chorus and God — perhaps speaking through the high priest. A theme verse is followed by a first person declaration (v. 2) and then an address to “you” (second person singular), followed by the same two stages again: declaration (v. 9) and address. In the last three verses God speaks of the one who trusts in Him to the audience.
FIRST VOICE – Proclamation of Trust (1-2)
Here is a statement of the theme of the psalm functioning as an invitation, and then a personal commitment in response to the invitation.
An Invitation – Theme Verse (v 1)
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty
This is a statement about those who have chosen to live with God. To live in the shadow is to place oneself under the protection of God.
Solo Voice – Personal Commitment (v 2)
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, My God in whom I trust!”
In verse 2, a speaker enters the conversation, giving voice to his trust in God. He makes a personal commitment to the Lord by putting his trust in Him and placing himself under the protection of the Almighty.
There are four names for God in these two verses and four descriptions of the security we have in God. The four names are: the Most High, the Almighty, the LORD and my God.
Four metaphors illustrate God’s protection. The first two, shelter and rest, are words that suggest personal comfort and security, similar to a mother bird sheltering her chicks. The last two, refuge and fortress, are assurances of protection in conflict.
SECOND VOICE – God’s Protection (3-13)
Beginning with verse three and continuing through verse 13, a second person speaks of the benefits of abiding with God and is directly addressing the first speaker. These verses contain wonderful assertions of protection from disease, disaster and death. God habitually protects His people from all manner of harm. Until we have finished the work God has given us to do, He will watch over us.
Chorus – Forms of Protection (vv 3-8)
For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper and from the deadly pestilence.
The word images in verse three are deadly in meaning. They refer to hunting and death. The fowler sets trap for birds and so the verse speaks to the traps and dangers that could claim our lives. The deadly pestilence is referred to in verse six as disease that stalks its victim.
He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.
David employs a zoomorphism to describe God. He will coveryou with His pinions: pinion or wing of a bird, probably a large bird as an ostrich (Job 39:13) or eagle (Deut 32:11). And under His wings you may seek refuge. The allusion draws on the behavior of birds to hide their chicks beneath their wings. However, the word is also used of the wings of the cherubim (Ex 25:20; Ezek 1:6-7) and seraphim (Isa 6:2).
Jews said of gentile proselyte: "He has taken refuge under the wings of the Shekinah." When a Gentile trusted the Messiah, it was as if he crawled for safety into the Holy of Holies. The child of God was safe where God was present with His people under the wings of two angels, above the blood-stained atonement cover of the Ark of the Covenant.
The psalmist switches from depicting God as a large bird to equipment used by a warrior: a shield – a large shield covering the entire body, and bulwark – a small rounded shield carried in the hand or worn on the arm. Both types of shields serve as metaphors of God's protection. God stands between the believer and hostile forces to prevent penetration by the weapons of the enemy. Paul exhorted believers to take up the "shield of faith" in order to extinguish the flaming arrows of Satan (Eph 6:16).
You will not be afraid of the terror by night, or of the arrow that flies by day;
Here we see that all types of dangers are covered – from the civilian criminal as signified by “terror by night” to the dangers one faces in time of war – arrows that fly by day. Because God is a shield against all the forces of evil (Psalm 37.3-9; 84.11), a believer is not to be fearful, neither in the darkness, when his imagination is excessively stimulated, and he is prone to be anxious, nor in the day, when he might be frightened by the superior forces of an enemy encamped around him.
This may be illustrated by the story of the king of Aram (Syria) who was infuriated with Elisha because the prophet was thwarting his plans to conquer Israel. The king sent an army to lay siege to the city where Elisha was staying. In the morning when the man of God went outside the city gates with his servant they found the city surrounded by Arameans. His servant cried out, “Oh my lord, what shall we do?” But Elisha calmly responded, “Do not be afraid, those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6.16). It is the same for the believer today. The Lord is faithful; He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one (2 Thess 3.1-3; 2 Cor 1.8-11).
Of the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or of the destruction that lays waste at noon.
The disease, perhaps a plague prevalent at the time, is again mentioned and personified. It brought a slow and wasting death to those who contracted it.
A thousand may fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not approach you. You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.
Solo Voice – Statement of Trust (v 9a)
“For You, O LORD, are my refuge.”
Chorus – How God Protects – Angelic Oversight (vv 9b-13)
You have made the Most High your dwelling place. No evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your tent. For He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. They will bear you up in their hands, that you do not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread upon the lion and cobra, the young lion and the serpent you will trample down.
We are under the constant care of angels (Heb 1:14). Angels are our caretakers. God has assigned angels to assist and protect us. Powers of the natural world and the spiritual world are covered in their oversight.
THIRD VOICE – God’s Promise (14-16)
Now a third person enters the dialog. The Psalm ends with wonderful words of assurance from God himself.
To protect those who love Him (v 14) To hear them when they cry to Him (v 15) To grant them long life and salvation (v 16)
“Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name. He will call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. With a long life I will satisfy him and let him see My salvation.”
Verses 14-16 offers a climactic assurance of the LORD’s commitment to protect believers who take refuge in Him. The double causal clauses in verse 14 suggest that this divine decree functions as God’s seal to the expressions of trust in verses 1-13. God expresses His commitment in a series of first person verbs.
God declares that He will do eight things: rescue him, protect him, answer him, be with him in trouble, deliver him, honor him, give him long life and show him salvation. He will do these things because His servant does three things: he loves Me, he acknowledges My name, and he calls on Me.
Several features of the Lord’s comprehensive promise of protection call for special attention. First, the opening and closing causal clauses of verse 14 emphasize that the essential prerequisite for participating in God’s comprehensive plan for protection is an intimate personal relationship with the LORD:
Because he loves Me I will deliver him; I will protect him Because he knows My name.
The second feature that calls for special attention is the reference to prayer in verse 15, “When he calls Me.” This reference to prayer indicates that the way in which we can experience the Lord’s commitment to our safety is through prayer. The Lord promises, “Whenever he calls, I will answer…”
Third, the Lord’s commitment promises more than deliverance from distress. It also promises restoration of honor and longevity.
Psalm 91 is subject to misuse because the promise of the Lord’s protection is so comprehensive in this psalm. Jews and Christians have used words from this psalm in amulets designed to function as magical protection. We should not use Psalm 91 as a magical guarantee against the various deadly threats that we encounter on life’s journey. Instead, the security that Psalm 91 promises should be accepted in humble trust of God’s providence over our lives.
Some have experienced God’s promised protection from, for example, cancer and war. For instance, both Peter and Bob returned safely from the war in Vietnam and survived cancer. However, not all Christian soldiers returned alive from that war and not every believer survives cancer. Some dangers God doesn't keep from His people, but He still covers them with His feathers in this sense: He gives them grace to bear up under them.
This Psalm is known as the “Psalm of Protection.” Stories abound of people who have recited this Psalm during times of hardship and persecution, finding comfort in its words and in the knowledge that our God is a God of providence who holds the world in His hands.
Actor Jimmy Stewart, famous for his role as George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was not only an actor; he was a soldier. He fought in World War II, flying planes over Germany. When he left for the war, his father, Alex, met with him to say goodbye. Alex was so tearful that he could not properly convey his wishes to his Jimmy, but simply pressed a letter into his hands.
The letter said: “My dear Jim boy. Soon after you read this letter, you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger. Jim, I'm banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm. The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise of these words. I am staking my faith in these words. I feel sure that God will lead you through this mad experience. I can say no more. I only continue to pray. Goodbye, my dear. God bless you and keep you. I love you more than I can tell you. Dad.”
As a veteran of the Spanish-American War, Alex knew the comforting power of Psalm 91 for those in battle. Jimmy Stewart returned home a decorated war hero. He said he learned to lean on the words of his tattered copy of Psalm 91, especially verses 1 and 2, which speak of God as a refuge and fortress.
This psalm has also brought comfort to people in times of disease. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon lived in England during a tremendous cholera epidemic. It got so bad that he was conducting a funeral every single day. He found himself utterly discouraged, convinced that he was doing no good in trying to help these grieving families.
As he walked down a street, head down, he passed by a store window. In this window was a piece of paper with parts of Psalm 91 written on it. "You will not fear the terror of night ... nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you" (91:5-7).
Spurgeon felt his soul become lighter. He was not alone. God provided him with courage and strength. He made it through the rest of the epidemic and found new energy to care for his church’s grieving families.
This psalm is a psalm of great comfort, but it also leaves us with some questions. God protects us, certainly, and invites us to abide with Him. But what about those who have died? What about those who met death in an earthquake? Where was God then? What about our own families who are grieving today? Where is God now?
The message of Psalm 91 does not end when we die. It is a psalm that speaks of our lives here on earth, but also of God’s continuing care for us after the end of life. Those of us who believe in Jesus can trust Him up until the moment of our death and beyond. For Jesus conquered death and lives. He has prepared a place for us.
We serve a faithful God. He watches over us by day and by night. We can trust in His protection, His provision, His care, and His love, knowing that today, tomorrow, and on the day of our death we can say to Him, “My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.”
Consider the picture this psalm places before us. First, an individual believer voices his trust in God; then a second believer comes alongside giving encouragement. Finally, the Lord, Himself joins them, covering both, affirming the choice of the first and the witness of the second with His own confirmations and promises.