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the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 91

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & PsalmsHengstenberg's Commentary


Psalms 91

The Psalm contains, in representation of the truth, “if God be for me, everything else may be against me,” the expression of joyful confidence in the protection and help of God in all troubles and dangers. “The whole object is to bring to a right trust in God,” Berl. B.

The formal arrangement is easy and obvious. First, an Introduction, Psalms 91:1-2, which proposes the theme, and communicates the contents of the whole Psalm. Next, there are two strophes, each of seven verses, containing the development, externally separated by the circumstance that, at the conclusion of the first part ( Psalms 91:9), the Psalmist repeats what he had said at the conclusion of the Introduction, and thus finishes off this part as a whole. The seven are both times divided by a four and a three, a division which strikes as particularly well marked in the second strophe, where the three last verses contain an address of God, in which he assures the righteous man of his salvation, and with which the whole suitably ends. But there is also manifestly a break in the first strophe at Psalms 91:7. The seven, as the signature of the whole, appears not only in the number of the verses, but also in the number of the names of God. Jehovah occurs seven times.

The character of the Psalm is entirely general; for it applies to the whole church, at all events, no less than it does to its individual believing members, and, as shall hereafter be shown, to the former in the first instance. But there is also wanting, it may be observed, every mark by which the date can be certainly determined:—the matter assumes another appearance, if we regard the whole as one group, to which the opening verses form the Introduction.

Several expositors have incorrectly assumed, the occasion to have been a destructive disease. How God affords protection at such an emergency, is indeed brought prominently forward in Psalms 91:6, and perhaps with the design that the church should use this Psalm among others in seasons of pestilence, as it has done at all times: among all the Psalms, no one is more suitable for this purpose. But this reference, so far from being the exclusive, is not even once the preponderating one, which it would have been had the Psalm been called forth by such an occasion. According to a correct exposition, it occurs only in the verse above referred to. And even here it is oppression arising from enemies that occupies the foreground, as is usually the case in the Psalm, among the dangers, against which the protection of God is sufficient.

The alternation of thou and I in the Psalm has led many expositors to divide it among alternating choruses. But that this is not the case is clear from the fact that in this way we are obliged to tear asunder what is manifestly connected together; thus in the Introduction, where the first portion in the first verse must belong to the first chorus, and the second in the second verse to the second chorus, next in Psalms 91:9, where the change occurs in one and the same verse, and where the first portion allotted to a particular chorus is remarkably distinguished for its being far too short and bald. The fact, however, upon which this hypothesis leans may be far more easily explained by supposing that the Psalmist speaks at one time from his own person to the soul of the righteous one who is in danger, and revives its courage, while at another time he expresses confidence from the soul of the righteous man; and thus in that pleasant alternation which forms the characteristic peculiarity of the Psalm, he employs at one time the thou in the character of teacher, and at another time the I, in the character of scholar. If we take a right view of the I throughout the Psalm, keeping our attention not so much upon the person of the Psalmist as upon those who were intended to appropriate the Psalm to themselves, the difference between the thou and the I will be felt as less marked and will occasion scarcely any difficulty. Under the thou an I is everywhere concealed; for the Psalmist teaches what the person for whose use the Psalm was designed ought to acknowledge: and in like manner, under the I there is a thou; for the person using the Psalm adopts language put into his mouth by the Psalmist, who is only a thou in disguise. The call of instruction in Scripture, (this is the meaning of the alternation), ought always to be responded to by the acknowledgment of the hearer.

Verses 1-2

Ver. 1. He who sits in the covert of the Most High, spends the night under the shade of the Almighty: Ver. 2. I say to the Lord: my confidence and my fortress, my God, in thee I trust.

The Psalmist: whom God has taken under his care, is perfectly safe under his protection. Instead of I say, one might have expected he says, which indeed the Septuagint and many others have taken the liberty of substituting, incorrectly, however, if the translation was intended to be an exact one, for אמר can only be the first person future. The Psalmist, however, springs from the tone of the teacher to that of the scholar. Those who find themselves in difficulties here, and at the same time are not willing to make any change upon the אמר , separate the two verses, and make the first an independent one: the man who sits under the protection of the Most High spends the night under the shade of the Almighty. But it is impossible to separate the synonymous parallel clauses of this verse. To spend the night is in no respect stronger than to dwell; and the “continually,” “well,” and “safely,” are arbitrary additions. On “in the covert,” comp. Psalms 27:6; Psalms 31:20, 1 Samuel 19:2. Arnd: “The defence of God means a place of concealment, a secret little place where a man hides and covers himself in public general troubles. And the Holy Ghost intends thus to comfort us, if a man can conceal a friend in a secret hidden place in the time of trouble, much more can God.” The names of God, “the Most High,” “the Almighty,” represent the basis of that unbounded confidence in the protection of God which the Psalmist intended to express in Psalms 91:2. Who can do any real injury to the man who stands under the protection of Omnipotence, as it exists in a personal God. On shade = protection, comp. at Psalms 36:7; Psalms 57:1. On מחסי comp. Psalms 71:7, and on משודתי , Psalms 18:2.

Verses 3-9

Ver. 3. For he delivers thee from the snare of the fowler, from the pestilence of wickedness. Ver 4. With his wings he covers thee, and under his wings thou mayest trust. Ver. 5. Thou needest not be afraid of the terror of night, nor of the arrow that fleeth by day. Ver. 6. Of the pestilence which walketh in darkness, of the disease which wasteth at mid-day. Ver. 7. Thousands fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, yet it shall not strike thee. Ver. 8. Only with thine eye shalt thou see it, and behold the recompense of the wicked. Ver. 9. For thou, Lord, art my confidence, thou makest the Most High thy habitation.

The snare of the fowler is a term designating the cunning and power of enemies, employed also in Psalms 124:7. Security, in the highest sense, is in these words promised to the believer against the plots of Satan, as the most dangerous and destructive enemy, comp. 2 Timothy 2:26. The הוה denotes wickedness here as in Psalms 57:1; Psalms 52:2; Psalms 52:7; Psalms 94:20. The plural strengthens the expression, and denotes the whole mass of wickedness. The pestilence of wickedness is the pestilential ruin which it threatens. Even in Hosea 13:14, the pestilence is a figurative expression for destruction, and in Isaiah 28:2, the storm of the disease is a ruinous storm like a disease. According to the common translation דבר is pestilence in the proper sense, and הוות in the sense of misery, occupies the place of an adjective; thus Luther: “from the destructive pestilence.” But according to our translation הוות corresponds to יקוש ; not only in the first half of this verse, but also in Psalms 91:4-5, the language is still of the oppression of enemies, and the pestilence is spoken of for the first time in Psalms 91:6; by this translation, therefore, the arrangement of the Psalm is destroyed.

In Psalms 91:4 the תחסה is to be translated “thou mayest trust,” “thou findest security,” comp. “thou mayest not be afraid,” of Psalms 91:5. A parallel, and probably the fundamental passage is Psalms 36:7, comp. also Psalms 61:4, and Ruth 2:12. In reference to “his truth,” comp. at Psalms 57:3.

It is obvious from the parallelism, that the terror of the night is, in the first instance and especially, to be understood of stratagems of enemies: in the verse before us, what men prepare by day and by night, and in the following verse what sickness does. It becomes manifest on comparing the passage, Proverbs 3:23-26, which so strikingly agrees with our Psalm, especially in that very peculiar expression, “thy foot shall not stumble,” that the Psalmist had it distinctly in his eye. It is there said, “when thou liest down thou shalt not be afraid, yea, thou shalt lie down and thy sleep shall be sweet: thou mayest not be afraid of sudden fear, neither of the desolation of the wicked when it cometh.” Comp. also the Song of Solomon 3:8, where every one of the warriors around Solomon’s bed has his sword at his side, “because of fear in the night,” possible hostile stratagem, for it is this only that can be met by the sword, Job 21:9, Job 15:21. It is not the Psalmist, but merely a part of his expositors, that lead us here into “an unsafe spiritual region.” The Old Testament knows nothing of spectres. The arrow is the arrow of the enemy (comp. Psalms 58:7); and there is just as little reason for thinking of the sun-stroke, or of anything of a like nature here, as there was in the first clause for thinking of spectres. As oppression from enemies always stands so much in the foreground throughout the Old Testament, there is the less reason for construing figuratively what literally refers to it. Berleb. B. “even when it looks dark in the heart when the enemy comes easily upon us.”

In Psalms 91:6 the darkness is named first, because in the darkness of night all evils assume an aggravated character, especially wide spread disease, whose dangerous character makes it allied to the darkness of night, with which it is represented by the imagination as closely connected.

In Psalms 91:7 the subject of יגש is not specially disease, but evil, or destruction in general. The words are as much connected with Psalms 91:2-5 as with Psalms 91:6. The expression leads rather to warlike relations than to the spreading of a contagion, comp. Psalms 27:3. In reference to the thought comp. Psalms 32:6.

In Psalms 91:8 many expositors take רק as a particle of assurance, only = surely, comp. at Psalms 32:5. Then the thousand and the ten thousand in Psalms 91:7 are to be regarded as the enemies of the Psalmist (or of the Church in whose name he speaks), whose destruction implies his deliverance. Psalms 92:11 is in favour of this view, where what the eye sees is just the destruction of the enemies. We may also explain otherwise: “only thou shalt see it with thine eyes,” in opposition to it coming upon him in Psalms 91:7.

In reference to thy habitation in Psalms 91:9, comp. at Psalms 90:1.

Verses 10-16

Ver. 10. There shall no evil befall thee, and no plague shall come near thy dwelling. Ver. 11. For he gives his angels charge over thee, that they guard thee in all thy ways. Ver. 12. They shall bear thee up in their hands that thou dash not thy foot upon a stone. Ver. 13. Thou shalt trample upon the lions and the adders, tread on the young lions and the dragons. Ver. 14. Because he cleaves to me, I will deliver him, 1 will set him on high, because he knows my name. Ver. 15. He calls upon me, I will answer him; I am with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him. Ver. 16. I will satisfy him with long life, and will cause him to see my salvation.

In the second clause of Psalms 91:10 allusion is to all appearance made to Exodus 12:23, the exemption of Israel at the infliction of judgment upon the Egyptians.

In Psalms 91:11, the צוה with ל is “to give charge in reference to anything,” as Numbers 8:20. The angels appeared in similar circumstances in ancient times, Genesis 12, “behold a ladder stood upon the earth, and its head reached to heaven, and the angels of God ascended and descended upon it,” where we find a figurative representation of what was to happen to the whole chosen family and its individual members at all times. There is neither here, nor anywhere else in Scripture, the least mention made of guardian angels. The commissions of God are entrusted to the whole angelic host; and there is the less room for thinking here of guardian angels attached to individuals, as the Psalmist, throughout the whole Psalm, has his eye especially upon the whole community, although what is said is, at the same time, so expressed, as to be suitable also to individual members.

In Psalms 91:12, the stone is spoken of in prosecution of the figure of the way. We can neither here, nor in the fundamental passage, Proverbs 3:23, translate “thy foot strikes not,” but only “thou strike not thy foot.” For the נגף is always transitive. The language in both of the two verses does not apply to dangers which one seeks, but only to such dangers as meet the righteous man unsought, in his course through life. The artifice of the tempter in Matthew 4:6, consisted in keeping this out of view.

The lions and the serpents, in Psalms 91:13, represent the two kinds of dangers to which the righteous man is exposed, viz., open violence and secret cunning. The Berleb. B. “as the Israelites, when they travelled through the wilderness, Deuteronomy 8:15, Samson, Judges 14:5-6, David, 1 Samuel 17:34-35, and Daniel, Daniel 6:23, gained victories over lions; such power of victory was specially promised to the disciples of Christ, Luke 10:19.”

In the first clause of Psalms 91:16, expositors are too ready with the obvious remark, that the promise of long life is specially an Old Testament one. This promise, as is manifest from the fundamental passages of the Pentateuch, even Exodus 20:12, and Deuteronomy 5:16, where Israel is addressed, refers, in the first instance, to the whole church, and in so far we cannot limit the promise to Old Testament times. But even in regard to individuals (Berleb. B.: such as Abraham, Genesis 25:8, Job, Job 42:17, David, 1 Chronicles 23:1), would we not be ashamed at the sight of a venerable old man in Christ, if we did not recognise, in a long life spent in the favour of God, a blessing of God? The difference between the Old and the New Testament, in this respect, is this, that, in the former, the other form in which God imparts blessings to his people, namely, by taking them early to himself, was less known, although, in ancient times, the history of Enoch, as a significant type, gave intimation concerning it. On the second clause, comp. Psalms 50:23.

Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 91". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-91.html.
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