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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Psalms 91

 

 


Verses 1-16

Psalms 91:1-16

THE solemn sadness of Psalms 90:1-17 is set in strong relief by the sunny brightness of this song of happy, perfect trust in the Divine protection. The juxtaposition is, however, probably due to the verbal coincidence of the same expression being used in both psalms in reference to God. In Psalms 90:1 and in Psalms 91:9, the somewhat unusual designation "dwelling place" is applied to Him. and the thought conveyed in it runs through the whole of this psalm.

An outstanding characteristic of it is its sudden changes of persons; "He," "I," and "thou" alternate in a bewildering fashion, which has led to many attempts at explanation. One point is clear-that, in Psalms 91:14-16, God speaks, and that He speaks of, not to, the person who loves and clings to Him. At Psalms 91:14, then, we must suppose a change of speaker, which is unmarked by any introductory formula. Looking back over the remainder of the psalm, we find that the bulk of it is addressed directly to a person who must be the same as is spoken of in the Divine promises. The "him" of the latter is the "thee" of the mass of the psalm. But this mass is broken at two points by clauses alike in meaning, and containing expressions of trust (Psalms 91:2,, Psalms 91:9 a). Obviously the unity of the psalm requires that the "I" of these two verses should be the "thou" of the great portion of the psalm, and the "he" of the last part. Each profession of trust will then be followed by assurances of safety thence resulting. Psalms 91:2 having for pendant Psalms 91:3-8, and Psalms 91:9 a being followed by Psalms 91:9-13. The two utterances of personal faith are substantially identical, and the assurances which succeed them are also in effect the same. It is by some supposed that this alternation of persons is due simply to the poet expressing partly "his own feelings as from himself, and partly as if they were uttered by another" (Perowne after Ewald). But that is not an explanation of the structure; it is only a statement of the structure which requires to be explained. No doubt the poet is expressing his own feelings or convictions all through the psalm: but why does he express them in this singular fashion?

The explanation which is given by Delitzsch, Stier, Cheyne and many others takes the psalm to be antiphonal, and distributes the parts among the voices of a choir, with some variations in the allocation.

But Psalms 91:1 still remains a difficulty. As it stands it sounds flat and tautological, and hence attempts have been made to amend it, which will presently be referred to. But it will fall into the general antiphonal scheme, if it is regarded as a prelude, sung by the same voice which twice answers the single singer with choral assurances that reward his trust. We, then. have this distribution of parts: Psalms 91:1, the broad statement of the blessedness of dwelling with God; Psalms 91:2, a solo, the voice of a heart encouraged thereby to exercise personal trust; Psalms 91:3-8, answers, setting forth the security of such a refuge; Psalms 91:9 a, solo, reiterating with sweet monotony the word of trust; Psalms 91:9-13, the first voice or chorus repeating with some variation the assurances of Psalms 91:3-8; and Psalms 91:14-16, God’s acceptance of the trust and confirmation of the assurances.

There is, no doubt, difficulty in Psalms 91:1; for, if it is taken as an independent sentence, it sounds tautological, since there is no well-marked difference between "sitting" and "lodging," nor much between "secret place" and "shadow." But possibly the idea of safety is more strongly conveyed by "shadow" than by "secret place," and the meaning of the apparently identical assertion may be, that he who quietly enters into communion with God thereby passes into His protection; or, as Kay puts it, "Loving faith on man’s part shall be met by faithful love on God’s part." The LXX changes the person of "will say" in Psalms 91:2, and connects it with Psalms 91:1 as its subject ("He that sits, that lodges shall say"). Ewald, followed by Baethgen and others, regards Psalms 91:1 as referring to the "I" of Psalms 91:2, and translates "Sitting I say." Hupfeld, whom Cheyne follows, cuts the knot by assuming that "Blessed is" has dropped out at the beginning of Psalms 91:1, and so gets a smooth run of construction and thought ("Happy is he who sits who lodges who says). It is suspiciously smooth, obliterates the characteristic change of persons, of which the psalm has other instances, and has no support except the thought that the psalmist would have saved us a great deal of trouble, if he had only been wise enough to have written so. The existing text is capable of a meaning in accordance with his general drift. A wide declaration like that of Psalms 91:1 fittingly preludes the body of the song, and naturally evokes the pathetic profession of faith which follows.

According to the accents, Psalms 91:2 is to be read "I will say. To Jehovah [belongs] my refuge," etc. But it is better to divide as above. Jehovah is the refuge. The psalmist speaks to Him, with the exclamation of yearning trust. He can only call Him by precious names, to use which, in however broken a fashion, is an appeal that goes straight to His heart, as it comes straight from the suppliant’s. The singer lovingly accumulates the Divine names in these two first verses. He calls God "Most High," "Almighty," when he utters the general truth of the safety of souls that enter His secret place; but, when he speaks his own trust, he addresses Jehovah, and adds to the wide designation "God" the little word "my," which claims personal possession of His fulness of Deity. The solo voice does not say much, but it says enough. There has been much underground work before that clear jet of personal "appropriating faith" could spring into light.

We might have looked for a Selah here, if this psalm had stood in the earlier books, but we can feel the brief pause before the choral answer comes in Psalms 91:3-8. It sets forth in lofty poetry the blessings that such a trust secures. Its central idea is that of safety. That safety is guaranteed in regard to two classes of dangers-those from enemies, and those from diseases.

Both are conceived of as divided into secret and open perils. Psalms 91:3 proclaims the trustful soul’s immunity, and Psalms 91:4 beautifully describes the Divine protection which secures it. Psalms 91:5-6 expand the general notion of safety into defence against secret and open foes and secret and open pestilences; while Psalms 91:7-8 sum up the whole, in a vivid contrast between the multitude of victims and the man sheltered in God, and looking out from his refuge on the wide-rolling flood of destruction. As in Psalms 18:5, Death is represented as a "fowler" into whose snares men heedlessly flutter, unless held back by God’s delivering hand. The mention of pestilence in Psalms 91:3 somewhat anticipates the proper order, as the same idea recurs in its appropriate place in Psalms 91:6. Hence the rendering "word," which requires no consonantal change is adopted from the LXX by several moderns. But that is feeble, and the slight irregularity of a double mention of one form of peril, which is naturally suggested by the previous reference to Death, is not of much moment. The beautiful description of God sheltering the trustful man beneath his pinions recalls Deuteronomy 32:11 and Psalms 17:8; Psalms 63:7. The mother eagle, spreading her dread wingover her eaglets, is a wonderful symbol of the union of power and gentleness. It would be a bold hand which would drag the fledglings from that warm hiding place and dare the terrors of that beak and claws. But this pregnant verse (Psalms 91:4) not only tells of the strong defence which God is, but also, in a word, sets in clear light man’s way of reaching that asylum. "Thou shalt take refuge." It is the word which is often vaguely rendered "trust," but which, if we retain its original signification, becomes illuminative as to what that trust is. The flight of the soul, conscious of nakedness and peril, to the safe shelter of God’s breast is a description of faith which, in practical value, surpasses much learned dissertation. And this verse adds yet another point to its comprehensive statements, when, changing the figure, it calls God’s Troth, or faithful adherence to His promises and obligations, our "shield and target." We have not to fly to a dumb God for shelter, or to risk anything upon a Peradventure. He has spoken, and His word is inviolable. Therefore, trust is possible. And between ourselves and all evil we may lift the shield of His Troth. His faithfulness is our sure defence, and Faith is our shield only in a secondary sense, its office being but to grasp our true defence, and to keep us well behind that.

The assaults of enemies and the devastations of pestilence are taken in Psalms 91:5-6 as types of all perils. These evils speak of a less artificial stage of society than that in which our experience moves, but they serve us as symbols of more complex dangers besetting outward and inward life. "The terror of the night" seems best understood as parallel with the "arrow that flies by day," in so far as both refer to actual attacks by enemies. Nocturnal surprises were favourite methods of assault in early warfare. Such an explanation is worthier than the supposition that the psalmist means demons that haunt the night. In Psalms 91:6 pestilence is personified as stalking, shrouded in darkness, the more terrible because it strikes unseen. Psalms 91:6 b has been understood, as by the Targum and LXX, to refer to demons who exercise their power in noonday. But this explanation rests upon a misreading of the word rendered "devastates." The other translated "sickness" is only found, besides this place, in Deuteronomy 32:24 ("destruction") and Isaiah 28:2 ("a destroying storm," lit. a storm of destruction), and in somewhat different form in Hosea 13:14. It comes from a root meaning to cut, and seems here to be a synonym for pestilence. Baethgen sees in "the arrow by day" the fierce sunbeams, and in "the heat (as he renders) which rages at noonday" the poisonous simoom. The trustful man, sheltered in God, looks on while thousands fall round him, as Israel looked from their homes on the Passover night, and sees that there is a God that judges and recompenses evil-doers by evil suffered.

Heartened by these great assurances, the single voice once more declares its trust. Psalms 91:9 a is best separated from b, though Hupfeld here again assumes that" thou hast said" has fallen out between "For" and "Thou."

This second utterance of trust is almost identical with the first. Faith has no need to vary its expression. "Thou, Jehovah, art my refuge" is enough for it. God’s mighty name and its personal possession of all which that name means, as its own hiding place, are its treasures which it does not weary of recounting. Love loves to repeat itself. The deepest emotions, like song birds, have but two or three notes, which they sing over and over again all the long day through. He that can use this singer’s words of trust has a vocabulary rich enough.

The responsive assurances (Psalms 91:9-13) are, in like manner, substantially identical with the preceding ones, but differences may be discerned by which these are heightened in comparison with the former. The promise of immunity is more general. Instead of two typical forms of danger, the widest possible exemption from all forms of it is declared in Psalms 91:10. No evil shall come near, no scourge approach, the "tent" of the man whose real and permanent "dwelling place" is Jehovah. There are much beauty and significance in that contrast of the two homes in which a godly man lives, housing, as far as his outward life is concerned, in a transitory abode, which tomorrow may be rolled up and moved to another camping place in the desert, but abiding in so far as his true being is concerned, in God, the permanent dwelling place through all generations. The transitory outward life has reflected on it some light of peaceful security from that true home. It is further noteworthy that the second group of assurances is concerned with active life, while the first only represented a passive condition of safety beneath God’s wing. In Psalms 91:11-12, His angels take the place of protectors, and the sphere in which they protect is "in all thy ways"-i.e., in the activities of ordinary life. The dangers there are of stumbling, whether that be construed as referring to outward difficulties or to temptations to sin.

The perils, further specified in Psalms 91:13, correspond to those of the previous part in being open and secret: the lion with its roar and leap, the adder with its stealthy glide among the herbage and its unlooked-for bite. So, the two sets of assurances, taken together, cover the whole ground of life, both in its moments of hidden communion in the secret place of the Most High, and in its times of diligent discharge of duty on life’s common way. Perils of communion and perils of work are equally real, and equally may we be sheltered from them. God Himself spreads His wing over the trustful man, and sends His messengers to keep him, in all the paths appointed for him by God. The angels have no charge to take stones out of the way. Hinderances are good for us. Smooth paths weary and make presumptuous. Rough ones bring out our best and drive us to look to God. But His messengers have for their task to lift us on their palms over difficulties, not so that we shall not feel them to be difficult, but so that we shall not strike our foot against them. Many a man remembers the elevation and buoyancy of spirit which strangely came to him when most pressed by work or trouble. God’s angels were bearing him up. Active life is full of open and secret foes as well as of difficulties. He that keeps near to God will pass unharmed through them all, and, with a foot made strong and firm by God’s own power infused into it, will be able to crush the life out of the most formidable and the most sly assailants. "The God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly."

Finally, God Himself speaks, and confirms and deepens the previous assurances. That He is represented as speaking of, not to, His servant increases the majesty of the utterance, by seeming to call the universe to hear, and converts promises to an individual into promises to everyone who will fulfil the requisite conditions. These are threefold.

God desires that men should cling to Him, know His name, and call on Him. The word rendered "cling" includes more than "setting love upon" one. It means to bind or knit oneself to anything, and so embraces the cleaving of a fixed heart, of a "recollected" mind, and of an obedient will. Such clinging demands effort: for every hand relaxes its grasp, unless ever and again tightened. He who thus clings will come to "know" God’s "name," with the knowledge which is born of experience, and is loving familiarity, not mere intellectual apprehension. Such clinging and knowledge will find utterance in continual converse with God, not only when needing deliverance, but in perpetual aspiration after Him.

The promises to such a one go very deep and stretch very far. "I will deliver him." So the previous assurance that no evil shall come nigh him is explained and brought into correspondence with the facts of life. Evil may be experienced. Sorrows will come. But they will not touch the central core of the true life, and from them God wilt deliver, not only by causing them to cease, but by fitting us to bear. Clinging to Him, a man will be "drawn out of many waters," like Peter on the stormy lake. "I will set him on high" is more than a parallel promise to that of deliverance. It includes that; for a man lifted to a height is safe from the flood that sweeps through the valley, or from the enemies that ravage the plain. But that elevation, which comes from knowing God’s name, brings more than safety, even a life lived in a higher region than that. of things seen. "I will answer him." How can He fail to hear when they who trust Him cry? Promises, especially for the troubled, follow, which do not conflict with the earlier assurances, rightly understood. "I will be with him in trouble." God’s presence is the answer to His servant’s call. God comes nearer to devout and tried souls, as a mother presses herself caressingly closer to a weeping child. So, no man need add solitude to sadness, but may have God sitting with him, like Job’s friends, waiting to comfort him with true comfort. And His presence delivers from, and glorifies after, trouble borne as becomes God’s friend. The bit of dull steel might complain, if it could feel, of the pain of being polished, but the result is to make it a mirror fit to flash back the sunlight.

"With length of days will I satisfy him" is, no doubt, a promise belonging more especially to Old Testament times; but if we put emphasis on "satisfy," rather than on the extended duration, it may fairly suggest that, to the trustful soul, life is long enough, whatever its duration, and that the guest, who has sat at God’s table here, is not unwilling to rise from it, when his time comes, being "satisfied with favour, and full of the goodness of the Lord." The vision of God’s salvation, which is set last, seems from its position in the series to point, however dimly, to a vision which comes after earth’s troubles and length of days. The psalmist’s language implies not a mere casual beholding, but a fixed gaze. Delitzsch renders "revel in My salvation" (English translation). Cheyne has "feast his eyes with." Such seeing is possession. The crown of God’s promises to the man who makes God his dwelling place is a full, rapturous experience of a full salvation, which follows on the troubles and deliverances of earth, and brings a more dazzling honour and a more perfect satisfaction.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 91:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-91.html.

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Sunday, November 29th, 2020
the First Week of Advent
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