Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Psalm 91: The Soldier's Psalm
by Michael Nott
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 Ė no exceptions. God will keep us safe from Ė 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 Ė 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 Godís 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. Itís 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? Letís continue on with the rest of the psalm.
At the 2016 National Day of Prayer for Defence event in Canberra, Psalm 91 was read and referred to as the soldierís psalm. I was interested in this and looked up the reference. Indeed Psalm 91 is quite commonly known as the soldierís 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 Ė 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 Ė for instance it has been printed on bandanas to give to people going on operations. It has also been put onto military dog tags. Iím sure thereís much more. There seems to be a real fascination with this particular psalm as a prayer of protection. Regardless of such interest Ė as part of Godís 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, letís take a look at verses 1-8.
- "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
- I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
- Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
- He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
- Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
- Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
- A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
- Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked."
This second half continues on the same theme Ė take refuge in God Ė 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 authorís voice to Godís 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 wonít save you from. What a declaration! A key idea in this psalm is the idea of dwelling in and under Godís protection and taking refuge in him. This raises the question of, Ďwhere is your refuge?í 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 donít 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 said he counted all things as a loss or even as garbage compared to the Ďsurpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesusí 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. Thereís more to unpack about this. For instance listen to these words from the book of Job.
- "Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
- There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
- 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.
- Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
- 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."
This sounds quite similar to Psalm 91. But here it is in the mouth of Eliphaz one of Jobís 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 donít apply the truth of Psalm 91 blindly. There is also another danger found in a famous passage which quotes verses 11-12.
- "He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee.
- In famine he shall redeem thee from death: and in war from the power of the sword.
- Thou shalt be hid from the scourge of the tongue: neither shalt thou be afraid of destruction when it cometh.
- At destruction and famine thou shalt laugh: neither shalt thou be afraid of the beasts of the earth.
- For thou shalt be in league with the stones of the field: and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with thee.
- And thou shalt know that thy tabernacle shall be in peace; and thou shalt visit thy habitation, and shalt not sin.
- Thou shalt know also that thy seed shall be great, and thine offspring as the grass of the earth."
Here we see the devil using this psalm in his attempt to corrupt Jesus. The temptation was to take Godís promised protection and put it to the test. This would be a wilful test and not true trust. Jesus sees through the devilís trap and rebukes him with more scripture properly used. This is why it is important that we donít interpret Psalm 91 the way the devil tried to get Jesus to. We too are not to test God. Letís 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 isnít everything the psalm raises for us. It seems to promise full protection from so much. But what about Ė Truly faithful believers who suffer some of the most devastating tragedies.
- "Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,
- And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
- Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God."
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 donít 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 Godís glory and though we truly might take refuge in God, none have ever done so constantly and completely as Jesus did Ė 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 Satanís temptation. He refused to put God his Father to the test. The one man who could claim these promises trusted that the Fatherís will was the best and right way Ė a way that involved much suffering and hardship. Look at these famous words from Isaiah 53 that prophesied this.
- "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
- Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
- But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."
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 didnít 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 Ė all pointing to his resurrection and eternal rule? So too Psalm 91:16 says With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.Ē Jesusí 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 psalmís 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 2nd Corinthians 4:17 put it Ė their Ďlight and momentary troublesí have achieved for them Ďan eternal glory that far outweighs them all.í 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 Ďiní 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 Godís arms. The soldierís psalm Ė Psalm 91 can indeed provide a great encouragement to soldiers, but equally to farmers, and teachers and mechanics and doctors and well Ė you get the idea. Yet itís not because of some mysterious power in the words themselves, but itís 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.
- "Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
- He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
- Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."
Michael Nott is the National Administrator at Military Christian Fellowship (MCF) based in Phillip, Australian Capital Territory. MCF is a predominately lay lead grass roots fellowship, with an administrator, national council and executive committee to oversight, assist, support and encourage small groups around Australia. MCF does not exist merely to support it's members, but rather all Christians in the ADF (Australian Defense Fellowship).