During the Gulf War, my dad (who was in the Army at the time) asked his chaplain what churches could do to help soldiers overseas. The chaplain answered that clergy in war zones frequently run out of Bibles to give to soldiers, either because the supply is so limited or because the demand is too high. So Dad organized a fundraiser to purchase camouflage Bibles for the troops. On the inside cover of each one, he put a scripture that is well-loved by soldiers everywhere. In the ESV, Psalm 91 reads:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”
Believers do die. Soldiers who had these New Testaments in their pockets were killed. This psalm isn't a magical talisman to protect people from harm. (Yes, I've seen this verse worn as protective amulets and talismans before. What a bizarre way to use the Word of God, which forbids witchcraft!)
Even the three Hebrews acknowledged that believers aren't always protected, as they stood before Nebuchadnezzar, saying,
"...Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up."
(Daniel 3:17b-18 ESV)
Satan wants people to think of Psalm 91 as a universal promise of God, so that we'll get ourselves into trouble by presuming God's physical protection when in fact that might not be the case. How do I know this? Because Matthew 4:5-7 ESV says:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’and“‘On their hands they will bear you up,lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Jesus' answer, not to put God to the test, is a reminder to us not to take this psalm as a universal promise or good luck charm. The devil promised Jesus that this scripture would make Him invincible. Yet the crucifixion shows that the most horrifying things imaginable can happen to the most righteous and faithful of people.
So how do we understand this? Jesus gives us a clue in John 19:10-11a ESV. Beaten and bound, he stands before Pilate.
So Pilate said to him, “...Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?”
Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above."
In other words, everything that happens to us goes through the filter of God's permissive will. Sometimes the angels bear us up so that we don't dash our feet against stones. Sometimes we tread the serpents under our feet. Sometimes we make it through the fiery furnace. But sometimes we fall. We get bitten. We get burned. We get crucified. That's life...and death. It happens to all.
For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:44b ESV).
What, then, do we make of this Psalm 91? If it's not a universal promise for divine protection, then what is it? It's a reminder that God sometimes protects our physical lives in ways that are unseen to us. It's also an encouragement that God shelters our spiritual lives from demonic forces that may have names such as "Terror of the Night," "Arrow That Flies by Day," "Pestilence That Stalks in Darkness," and "Destruction That Wastes at Noonday." What horrifying demonic names! But God delivers us from the powers of darkness. This psalm uses physical words to describe a spiritual salvation.
Psalm 91 also reminds us to dwell, to abide, in God. It talks about God's shade, refuge, and protection like wings. Thus it says what kind of relationship we can have with a God who loves us so much that He covers us and cares for us. I hope that today and every day, you'll dwell in God. I pray that you'll abide in His sheltering presence, and that you'll trust Him for your salvation.
Yes, bad things do happen to good people. But whether blissful or painful, all of life is under God's authority. And while random things do happen to us all the time, nothing that befalls us is outside of God's ability to control.