The author of this psalm, and the occasion on which it was composed, are alike unknown. The psalm has no title; and there are no internal marks by which we can ascertain when, or by whom, it was written. It is very general in its application, and may have been composed with no particular reference to any event occurring at the time, as it is evident that it had no special reference to the circumstances of the writer. Though it follows a psalm composed by Moses, yet there is no reason to suppose that it was written by him, nor is there any particular resemblance to that psalm.
From some things in the psalm, as Psalm 91:3-5, Psalm 91:9, Psalm 91:11; it would appear to be not improbable that the psalm was composed with reference to some individual who was exposed to temptation, or to danger, either from secret enemies or from pestilence, and that it was intended to assure such an one that there was nothing to be feared if he put his trust in God. There is no evidence that it was designed to refer particularly to the Saviour. It is, indeed, applied to him by Satan in the temptation in the wilderness Matthew 4:6; but there is, in that case, no such recognition of its applicability to himself on the part of the Saviour as to justify us in the conclusion that it originally referred to him. Its quotation by the tempter is no proof that this was the original reference of the psalm, and the quotation made is one which could be applied to him in the same way as amy general premise in the Old Testament made to those who trusted in God might have been.
The most remarkable thing in the structure of the psalm is the frequent change of persons, leading some to suppose that it may have been composed with a view to its being sung by choirs in alternate responses, and Michaelis has suggested that there were probably two such choirs; the one - as in Psalm 91:1-2 - celebrating the praises of those who trusted in God; the other - as in Psalm 91:3-8 - exciting and encouraging the people to put their trust in God, and suggesting reasons why they should do it. Such a thing is, undoubtedly, possible; but the evidence that this was the intention of the author of the psalm is not clear.
Tholuck has divided the psalm, on the supposition that it was thus intended to be sung by alternate choirs, into portions arranged with that view: Psalm 91:1, the choir; Psalm 91:2, the response; Psalm 91:3-8, the choir; Psalm 91:9, the response; Psalm 91:10-13, the choir; Psalm 91:14-16, the response. This, however, is quite arbitrary, as it cannot be demonstrated to have been the original design.
This arrangement, however, suggests a good division of the psalm:
I. The general statement of the safety of those who put their trust in God, Psalm 91:1.
II. A responsive declaration of the author of the psalm, that he would make the Lord his refuge, and the Most High his habitation, Psalm 91:2.
III. A statement of the security or benefit of doing this, Psalm 91:3-8.
IV. A responsive declaration - repeated - by the author of the psalm that he would do this; that God “was” his refuge, Psalm 91:9 (part first).
V. A further statement of the benefit of this, Psalm 91:10-13.
VI. A general declaration embracing the sum of all that is said in the psalm, as coming from God himself, containing assurances of his protection to those who thus put their trust in him, and confide in him, Psalm 91:14-16.
This mode of division meets substantially all the changes of “persons” in the psalm, or arranges the different portions of it into parts belonging to the different speakers in the psalm. There is reason to believe that this was the line of thought in the mind of the psalmist, though it is not clear that this was designed to be so used in public responses in singing.
He that dwelleth - Everyone that so dwells. The proposition is universal, and is designed to embrace all who are in this condition. It is true of one; it is true of all. The word rendered “dwelleth” here is a participle from the verb to “sit,” and here means “sitting:” literally, “sitting in the secret place,” etc. The idea is that of calm repose; of resting; of sitting down - as one does in his dwelling.
In the secret place - On the meaning of this see the notes at Psalm 27:5. Compare Psalm 31:20; Psalm 32:7. Abiding where God abides. The idea is that of having one‘s home or residence in the most holy place in the tabernacle or the temple, and of sitting with him in that sacred place.
Of the Most High - Of God, represented as exalted above all; over all the universe.
Shall abide - Margin, as in Hebrew, “lodge.” That is his home - his resting place - where he lodges, or passes the night. He takes up his lodging there; he makes it his home.
Under the shadow of the Almighty - Under his protection, as if under his wings. Compare the notes at Psalm 17:8. This is a general statement, and is designed as an introduction to the whole psalm, or as expressing what the psalm is intended to illustrate, “the blessedness” of the man who thus dwells with God; who makes him his friend; who makes the home of God his home.
I will say of the Lord - I, the psalmist; I will take this to myself; I will endeavor to secure this blessedness; I will thus abide with God. In view of the blessedness of this condition, and with the hope of securing it to myself; I will adopt this resolution as the purpose of my life. It is what I need; it is what my soul desires.
My refuge and my fortress - “I will say of Jehovah, My refuge and my fortress!” I will address him as such; I will regard him as such. On the meaning of these terms, see the notes at Psalm 18:2.
My God - I will address him as my God; as the God whom alone I worship; as the only being to whom the name “God” can properly be applied; as being to me all that is implied in the word God.
In him will I trust - I will repose that confidence in him which is evinced by making my home with him, and seeking permanently to dwell with him.
Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler - The snare or gin set for catching birds; meaning, here, that God would save him from the purposes of wicked people; such purposes as might be compared with the devices employed to catch birds. On the meaning of the figure used here, see the notes at Psalm 18:5.
And from the noisome pestilence - The “fatal” pestilence; the pestilence that spreads death in its march. That is, he can prevent its coming upon you; or, he can save you from its ravages, while others are dying around you. This promise is not to be understood as absolute, or as meaning that no one who fears God will ever fall by the pestilence - for good people “do” die at such times as well as bad people; but the idea is, that God “can” preserve us at such a time and that, as a great law, he will be thus the protector of those who trust him. It is to be remembered that in times of pestilence (as was the case during the prevalence of the Asiatic cholera in 1832 and 1848), very many of the victims are the intemperate, the sensual, the debased, and that a life of this kind is a predisposing cause of death in such visitations of judgment. A large part of those who die are of that number. From the danger arising from this cause, of course the virtuous, the temperate, the pious are exempt; and this is one of the methods by which God saves those who trust in him from the “noisome pestilence.” Religion, therefore, to a considerable extent, constitutes a ground of security at such times; nor is there any reason to doubt that, in many cases also, there may be a special interposition protecting the friends of God from danger, and sparing them for future usefulness. The promise here is substantially that general promise which we have in the Scriptures everywhere, that God is the Protector of his people, and that they may put their trust in him.
He shall cover thee with his feathers - As the parent bird protects its young. See the notes at Psalm 17:8. Compare Deuteronomy 32:11. “His truth.” His unfailing promise; the certainty that what he has promised to do he will perform.
Shall be thy shield and buckler - literally, “Shield and buckler is his truth.” The meaning is, that his pledge or promise would be unto them as the shield of the soldier is to him in battle. Compare Psalm 35:2. The word rendered “buckler” is derived from the verb “to surround,” and is given to the defensive armor here referred to, because it “surrounds,” and thus “protects” a person. It may apply to a coat of mail.
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night - That which usually causes alarm at night - a sudden attack; an unexpected incursion of enemies; sudden disease coming on by night; or the pestilence which seems to love night, and to “walk in darkness.” Any one of these things seems to be aggravated by night and darkness; and hence, we most dread them then. We cannot see their approach; we cannot measure their outlines; we know not the extent of the danger, or what may be the calamity.
Nor for the arrow that flieth by day - Whether shot from the bow of God - as pestilence and disease; or from the hand of man in battle. The idea is, that he that trusts in God will be calm. Compare the notes at Psalm 56:3.
Nor for the pestilence - The plague or pestilence was common in Oriental countries.
That walketh in darkness - Not that it particularly comes in the night, but that it seems to creep along as if in the night; that is, where one cannot mark its progress, or anticipate when or whom it will strike. The laws of its movements are unknown, and it comes upon people as an enemy that suddenly attacks us in the night.
Nor for the destruction - The word used here - קטב qeṭeb - means properly a cutting off, a destruction, as a destroying storm, Isaiah 28:2; and then, contagious pestilence, Deuteronomy 32:24. It may be applied here to anything that sweeps away people - whether storm, war, pestilence, or famine.
That wasteth at noonday - It lays waste, or produces desolation, at noon; that is, visibly, openly. The meaning is, that whenever, or in whatever form, calamity comes which sweeps away the race - whether at midnight or at noon - whether in the form of pestilence, war, or famine - he who trusts in God need not - will not - be afraid. He will feel either that he will be preserved from its ravages, or that if he is cut off he has nothing to fear. He is a friend of God, and he has a hope of a better life. In death, and in the future world, there is nothing of which he should be afraid. The Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate render this, strangely enough, “Nor of mischance and the demon of noonday.”
A thousand shall fall at thy side - Though a thousand should fall at thy side, or close to thee. This alludes to the manner in which the pestilence often moves among people.
And ten thousand at thy right hand - Compare Psalm 3:6. The word “myriad” would better represent the exact idea in the original, as the Hebrew word is different from that which is translated “a thousand.” It is put here for any large number. No matter how many fall around thee, on the right hand and the left, you will have nothing to fear.
But it shall not come nigh thee - You will be safe. You may feel assured of the divine protection. Your mind may be calm through a sense of such guardianship, and your very calmness will conduce to your safety. This refers, as remarked above, to a “general” law in regard to the judgments of God. It is true that others, beside the dissipated, vicious, and debased, may be the victims; but the great law is that temperance, soberness, virtue, cleanliness, and that regard to comfort and health to which religion and virtue prompt, constitute a marked security - so marked as to illustrate the “general” law referred to in the psalm before us.
Only - That is, This is “all” that will occur to you. The only thing which you have to anticipate is, that you will see how God punishes sinners.
With thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked - Your own eyes shall see it. See the notes at Psalm 37:34. You will see the just punishment of the ungodly, the vicious, the profane, the sensual. You will see what is the proper fruit of their conduct; what is the just expression of the views which God takes of their character. This undoubtedly refers to the general principle that there is a moral government on earth; that vice is often punished as such; that the general course of the divine dealings is such as to show that God is favorable to virtue, and is opposed to vice. The system is not complete here, and there are many things which could not be reconciled with this, if the present world were all, and if there were no future state: but the course of events indicates the general character of the divine administration, and what is the tendency of things. The completion - the actual and perfect adjustment - is reserved for a future state. The facts as they occur on earth prove that there is an attribute of justice in God; the fact that his dealings here are not wholly and fully in accordance with what justice demands, proves that there will be a state where full justice will be done, and where the whole system will be adjusted.
Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge - literally, “For thou, O Jehovah, (art) my refuge.” The Chaldee Paraphrase regards this as the language of Solomon, who, according to that version, is one of the speakers in the psalm: “Solomon answered and said, ‹Since thou, O Lord, art my refuge,‘” etc. Tholuck regards this as the response of the choir. But this is unnecessary. The idea is, that the psalmist “himself” had made Yahweh his refuge, or his defense. The language is an expression of his own feeling - of his own experience - in having made God his refuge, and is designed here to be a ground of exhortation to others to do the same thing. He could say that he had made God his refuge; he could say that God was now his refuge; and he could appeal to this - to his own experience - when he exhorted others to do the same, and gave them assurance of safety in doing it.
Even the Most High thy habitation - literally, “The Most High hast thou made thy habitation;” or, thy home. On the word habitation, see the notes at Psalm 90:1. The idea is, that he had, as it were, chosen to abide with God, or to dwell with him - to find his home with him as in a father‘s house. The consequence of this, or the security which would follow, he states in the following verses.
There shall no evil befall thee - The Chaldee Paraphrase has, “The Lord of the world answered and said, ‹There shall no evil befall thee,‘” etc. The sentiment, however, is that the psalmist could assure such an one, from his own personal experience, that he would be safe. He had himself made Yahweh his refuge, and he could speak with confidence of the safety of doing so. This, of course, is to be understood as a general truth, in accordance with what has been said above.
Neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling - On the word rendered “plague” here נגע nega‛ - see Psalm 38:12, note; Psalm 39:11, note. It is not the same word which is used in Psalm 91:6, and translated “pestilence;” and it does not refer to what is technically called the “plague.” It may denote anything that would be expressive of the divine displeasure, or that would be sent as a punishment. The word rendered “dwelling” here means a tent; and the idea is, that no such mark of displeasure would abide with him, or enter his tent as its home. Of course, this also must be understood as a general promise, or as meaning that religion would constitute a general ground of security.
For he shall give his angels charge over thee - literally, “He will give ‹command‘ to his angels.” That is, he would instruct them, or appoint them for this purpose. This passage Psalm 91:11-12 was applied to the Saviour by the tempter. Matthew 4:6. See the notes at that passage. This, however, does not prove that it had an original reference to the Messiah, for even if we should suppose that Satan was a correct and reliable expounder of the Scriptures, all that the passage would prove as used by him would be, that the righteous, or those who were the friends of God, might rely confidently on his protection, and that Jesus, if he was of God, might do this as others might. On the sentiment in the passage, to wit, that God employs his angels to protect his people, see the notes at Psalm 34:7; compare the notes at Hebrews 1:14.
To keep thee in all thy ways - To preserve thee wheresoever thou goest.
They shall bear thee up - As if they took hold of thee, and held thee up, when about to fall.
Lest thou dash thy foot - Lest you should stumble and fall. They will protect you so that you may walk safely.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder - Thou shalt be safe among dangers, as if the rage of the lion were restrained, and he became like a lamb, and as if the poisonous tooth of the serpent were extracted. Compare Mark 16:18. The word used here to denote the “lion” is a poetic term, not employed in prose. The word rendered “adder” is, in the margin, asp. The Hebrew word - פתן pethen - commonly means viper, asp, or adder. See Job 20:14, note; Job 20:16, note; compare Psalm 58:4; Isaiah 11:8. It may be applied to any venomous serpent.
The young lion - The “young” lion is mentioned as particularly fierce and violent. See Psalm 17:12.
And the dragon - Hebrew, תנין tannı̂yn See Psalm 74:13, note; Job 7:12, note; Isaiah 27:1, note. In Exodus 7:9-10, Exodus 7:12, the word is rendered serpent (and serpents); in Genesis 1:21; and Job 7:12; whale (and whales); in Deuteronomy 32:33; Nehemiah 2:13; Psalm 74:13; Psalm 148:7; Isaiah 27:1; Isaiah 51:9; Jeremiah 51:34, as here, dragon (and dragons); in Lamentations 4:3, sea monsters. The word does not occur elsewhere. It would perhaps properly denote a sea monster; yet it may be applied to a serpent. Thus applied, it would denote a serpent of the largest and most dangerous kind; and the idea is, that he who trusted in God would be safe amidst the most fearful dangers, as if he should walk safely amidst venomous serpents.
Because he hath set his love upon me - Has become attached to me; has united himself with me; is my friend. The Hebrew word expresses the strongest attachment, and is equivalent to our expression - “to fall in love.” It refers here to the fact that God is the object of supreme affection on the part of his people; and it also here implies, that this springs from their hearts; that they have seen such beauty in his character, and have such strong desire for him, that their hearts go out in warm affection toward him.
Therefore will I deliver him - I will save him from trouble and from danger.
I will set him on high - By acknowledging him as my own, and treating him accordingly.
Because he hath known my name - He has known me; that is, he understands my true character, and has learned to love me.
He shall call upon me - He shall have the privilege of calling on me in prayer; and he will do it.
And I will answer him - I will regard his supplications, and will grant his requests. There could be no greater privilege - no more precious promise - than this.
I will be with him in trouble - I will stand by him; I will not forsake him.
I will deliver him, and honor him - I will not only rescue him from danger, but I will exalt him to honor. I will recognize him as my friend, and will regard and treat him as such. On earth he shall be treated as my friend; in another world he shall be exalted to honor among the redeemed, and become the associate of holy beings forever.
With long life will I satisfy him - The margin here, is “length of days;” that is, days lengthened out or multiplied. The meaning is, I will give him length of days as he desires, or until he is satisfied with life; implying
(1) that it is natural to desire long life;
(2) that long life is to be regarded as a blessing (compare Proverbs 3:2, Proverbs 3:16; Exodus 20:12);
(3) that the tendency of religion is to lengthen out life; since virtue, temperance, regular industry, calmness of mind, moderation in all things, freedom from excesses in eating and in drinking - to all of which religion prompts - contribute to health, and to length of days (see Psalm 34:12-14, notes; Psalm 37:9, note; Psalm 55:23, note); and
(4) that a time will come, even under this promised blessing of length of days, when a man will be “satisfied” with living; when he will have no strong desire to live longer; when, under the infirmities of advanced years, and under his lonely feelings from the fact that his early friends have fallen, and under the influence of a bright hope of heaven, he will feel that he has had enough of life here, and that it is better to depart to another world.
And shew him my salvation - In another life, after he shall be “satisfied” with this life. The promise extends beyond the grave: “Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” See the notes at 1 Timothy 4:8. Thus, religion blesses man in this life, and blesses him forever. In possession of this, it is a great thing to him to live long; and then it is a great thing to die - to go to be forever with God.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 91". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Easter