The story goes that lightning briefly illuminated the primitive, rock-hewn landscape of Burrington Combe in Somerset, England. It was followed by a deep growl of thunder.
The rain then began to fall. It lashed mercilessly down, pouring bubbling streamlets down the craggy sides of the cliffs which rise up some 250ft.
While waiting for the storm to pass he began to muse on the idea of the “rock of faith” being a shelter from the “storms of life.” According to the legend some words for a hymn began to form in his mind. However he had no paper in his pocket to write them down. Looking down he saw a playing card. The thing was considered a sinful by the young cleric. Nevertheless, he picked it up and began to write the words we just sang:
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.
We don’t know if that story is altogether true. Some say that it is more apocryphal. But there is no doubt that the words of the hymn are sound. The one who trusts in Christ has the most secure protection. The storms of life, no matter how torrential they may be—no matter how the gales of providence may blow—they will not be a threat to a Christian.
This is certainly what we find in the Psalm that is before us this morning. Psalm 91 is a fitting end to our series on persecution because it reminds us that faith filled followers possess absolute security in earthly troubles. And the reason this Psalm has been a beloved Psalm to so many is because it details for us the source and sum of our security. And it does so in some of the most beautiful ways literarily.
Our passage beings by pointing us to the source of our protection.
I. The source of our protection [1-2]
In the first two verses it says, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”
The idea of dwelling in the Most High, or abiding in him as some of your translations may say, is a metaphor for faith. It is, so to speak, to make your faith home in God. It is putting your trust in him. Just as Toplady put his faith in the crags of those cliffs and chose to dwell there in the storm, when we trust in Christ we are choosing to make God our Savior.
When you read this, you immediately notice that this verse the emphasis is not so much on the faith you have to muster. Rather it the emphasis is on the God in whom you are putting your faith. As a matter of fact, it refers to Him in 6 different ways. And the diversity of these titles or descriptions helps us understand that God is the source of our protection.
The first term that we meet with is “the Most High.” This is the Hebrew word Elyon. It refers God’s supremacy. It’s not just that he dwells in the heavens and is higher in terms of altitude. But he is so much greater by virtue of his sovereignty that no one can match him. And since there is not a person or god or being that can begin to compare with our God, are we not safe in him?
The second term that is employed is the word “Almighty.” This is a good compliment to Most High. If Most High refers to his supremacy of his being, Almighty refers to the supremacy of his power. And by employing this term he reminds you that God is a powerhouse no one can stop. And as a result the your security is 100% certain
Then in verse 2 we also see the word “LORD.” Capital L-O-R-D. Now this is a good compliment to the Most High and Almighty. Those were power words. But to call God LORD indicates that His power is favorable to us. The name LORD is that special name of God. It is sometimes called the “covenant” name of God because it is typically associated with God’s special, covenant relationship to his people. For instance, the first time it is used is in Genesis 2. In Genesis 1, when God creates all things, the author used the word God (Hebrew “Elohim”). But in Genesis 2, where God creates man and begins to relate to man, the author shifts and uses the word LORD (Hebrew “Yahweh”).
This was also the name that Moses was given when he was commissioned to go bring Israel out of Egypt. Remember that Moses asked, “Who should I say sent me?” And the Lord replied by saying, “Tell them ‘The LORD’ sent you!” So this was supposed to be that name that was special to Israel. It was the name that reminded them that they were in covenant (in relationship) with God.
My family recently enjoyed time at the lake. Every summer Elizabeth’s side of the family gets together for a week at the beach. This year was especially fun because her brother recently got married and his new bride was there with him. It was fun to see the newlyweds interact. They still have something of that puppy love for one another. But one of the things we noticed is that they have pet names for each other, as most married couples do. They went around calling each other “Babers.” “Hey Babers, can you get me a pillow.” “Where do you want to go, Babers?”
Now, it would be extremely awkward if I had said to my brother in law’s wife, “Hey Babers, do you mind watching the kids?” It would be even more awkward if I said it to my brother in law!
Why couldn’t I use that name? It is because they had a special relationship, and I was not part of it.
This is essentially what this name of God means for us. When we see here that he is “the LORD” we are to be reminded of the special relationship we have with Him. And because it is such a close knit relationship, we can be assured that the Most High will be our jealous protector.
You’ll notice then that the passage ties together a string of metaphors which serve as titles for God. It is something of a title wave of titles. He is “my refuge, my fortress, my God.” All of these terms are power words. Elohim is the word for God. As I just mentioned, it is the name used in Genesis 1 which indicates an all powerful creator. It emphasizes the “Godness” of God, you might say. He is the one who is able to bring everything into being from nothing. One who can tear continents apart and scatter stars in the sky like we would throw marbles or sprinkles on a cake.
This God is a fortress and refuge. In other words, he is impregnable. In the OT there were the “cities of refuge.” If you committed an accidental crime, you could flee there and find safety. The one seeking revenge could not touch you once you entered those gates. You were completely safe from your attacker.
And here it is saying that God is you refuge. Since you are in Christ, no one can lay a finger on you. There is nothing they can do to harm you, at least in the ultimate sense.
Doesn’t this remind you of what Paul says in Romans 8? “What can separate us from the love of God in Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Was Paul afraid of persecution? Absolutely not. Why? It is because he understood the nature of God.
And we must do so too. If we understand who our God is, then we will understand that there is nothing that can hurt us, at least not in an ultimate sense.
Our protection lies clearly in our God. But as we look at our text, we not only see how God is the source of our protection, we see the sum total of the protection that he offers us.
II. The sum of our protection [3-13]
Really, the rest of the Psalm is a commentary on the first two verses. We could very much stop at this point. But the psalm goes on to detail how God is our protection. It is almost as if it gives us a grand overview of what God’s protection is like.
In reading verses 3-10 what we find is that God’s protection is comprehensive.
A. God’s protection is comprehensive [3-10, 13]
Look at verse 3. He lists two things you are protected against in this verse. It says, “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.” The fowler is bird. They would lay traps for it to catch it. This is essentially a metaphor for your enemies who are trying to capture & kill you. So you have your enemies and disease, the two major threats to life.
Those two things are repeated again in verses 5-6. It says “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. 7 A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. 8 You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. 9 Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place-- the Most High, who is my refuge—10 (here how comprehensive it is) no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.
Now, I know this is a series that deals with your enemies specifically. But it’s good to know that God has got your back on every side, right? God has you protected, not just from your enemies, but he has your back when it comes to disease and pestilence too!
We have been a bit sheltered from this kind of thing here in America. We don’t know how easily the outside world is threatened with plagues and diseases. These things are rabid in non western countries.
But we certainly are not immune. In the news the last few days we’ve heard about an Ebola outbreak in Africa. And CNN has reported that a couple Americans who had contracted the disease were being evacuated to America. Twitter was immediately abuzz with people wondering, “Why are they bringing them here?!” You can understand the concern. We don’t want the disease spreading through our ranks now, do we?
Here we have the promise that our God is watching out for us.
The same goes for our enemies. If they would march out against us, we may rest in knowing that our God will stave off their invasions. His normal way of working is to protect his people and allow them to remain safe through the persecutions.
Now, there have been some who have used this verse to say that no harm whatsoever will ever come upon you. They carry it around like a magic trinket, or an invincible steel armor. Perhaps you’ve even heard stories where bullets have been stopped by little Gideon bibles that soldiers have had in their chest pockets. I know one such story where soldiers were issued testaments. Then they marched into battle. At the end of the day one soldier found that he had been hit. The bullet actually stopped right at this verse.
But you understand that this verse is proverbial to some degree. We might say as some have in the past, “We are invincible until God calls us home.” But the truth of these verses should not escape us. In general, God has been the shelter and safety of his people. The norm is that the people of God are kept safe. And while we hear of martyrs and imprisonments and tortures, we should yet remember that many more have escaped the clutches of their enemies or somehow avoided capture.
But not only is God’s protection comprehensive; it is also personal.
B. Our protection is personalized [11-12]
To be sure, this psalm has been very personal throughout. But you see it more clearly, I think, in verses 11-13. It says, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. 12 On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”
Some of you might know that this is Satan’s verse. It’s the one he used in his temptation of Jesus. He told Jesus, “Throw yourself down off this pinnacle. The Bible says ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.’ Surely, God won’t let you down.”
You know too how Jesus rebuked Satan and told him not to put the Lord to the test. In other words, we don’t throw caution to the wind and intentionally put ourselves in the place of peril when it is needless to do so. God’s not going to protect a fool.
But it is interesting how Satan realized just how personal God's protection is. And it is true, the Lord does demonstrate his personal care for us. So personal is his care that He has dispatched a squad of angels with the specific mission of watching out for us. God actually commands these celestial warriors to be our personal body guards.
Now, we've all probably heard stories about how we are to have a “guardian angel.” Unfortunately, thanks to “It’s a Wonderful Life” we think of our guardian angel as Clarence. But, if we reflect on what Scripture says, we find that to be a myth. It actually says we have more than one guardian angel. We have guardian angels (plural)!
Scripture tells us that God created myriads of angels. So that means we could possibly have a whole regiment all around us! Just think, there could be a whole company of angels in our presence today, perhaps forming a wall all around this building. (It might be better to think that they are keeping that bell tower from crashing down upon us. Derril and I were talking just yesterday about how once we move out of here we’ll hear how the Mifflin Lion’s Club building collapses.)
The point here though is that God has a special interest in each and every one of us. So particular is his care that he has assigned angels to watch our every move and protect us from God knows what.
The last few verses of the Psalm remind us that our protection isn’t just a comprehensive and personal, but it is 100% guaranteed.
C. Our protection is guaranteed [14-16]
It says, "Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. 15 When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. 16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation."
You see how the promises are compiled one on top of another. It is almost as if this Psalm ends with a grand finale. There are a barrage of confirmations which show how certain you may be that he will be your aid in times of trouble.
What is the Lord doing here? He’s doing nothing else than drilling it in your brain one last time. If you’ve been that dense and haven’t gotten it through the psalm to this point, here you go. All of these promises are to confirm to you that God will not let you down.
But take note of what it says in verse 14. Here we have a beautiful picture of why God protects us. It says, “Because he holds fast to me in love.” Another way of saying it might be “He clings to me in love.”
Now I ask you, “Is this not the true expression of faith?” Isn’t that what faith is? Holding on to him in love?
Joe and I have been doing evangelism out on the streets of Ashland and Mansfield. And we’ve come across many people who claim to be Christians and claim to be forgiven. But as you talk to them, you can tell they do not cling to him in love. Maybe they flirt with him. Maybe they give a vague acknowledgement of him or they tip their hat to Him.
But a true Christian clings to the Lord, and he does so in love. And it is this clinging that melts God’s heart and is part of the reason we can be assured that God will protect us.
Every once in a while I get separated from my family. They may go visit my in laws for a couple days and I’ll need to stay home and work (or something like that). And when I walk in, it is always a joy to have the girls come running and give me hugs. But the little ones tend to cling to me. She’ll wrap her arms around me and won’t let go. She’ll stay there with her arms wrapped tightly around me for 10, 15, even 20 minutes because she loves me.
I tell you, that melts my heart when she does that. And do you think for a moment that I would let anything happen to her when she’s there holding on to me like that? Not a chance.
If that is how any one of us would act with one of our children, how much more can we expect the Lord to protect his children when we demonstrate true faith by clinging to him in love?
Kindled Fire is dedicated
to the preaching and teaching ministry of
Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.