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According to a tradition among the Jews, if a psalm is not attributed to anyone, then the credit should go to the author of the previous psalm. There is no basis for being dogmatic about it, but this would mean that Psalm 91 was composed by Moses. The reason this is suggestive is that the theme of this psalm fits the experience of Israel in the wilderness in remarkable ways. In addition, it is quite striking that the devil quotes from this psalm when Jesus was on His way to being the victorious Israel, during His temptation of 40 “years” in the wilderness.
“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: My God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: His truth shall be thy shield and buckler . . .” (Psalm 91:1–16).
Summary of the Text
The shadow of the Almighty is a safe place to dwell (v. 1), and ultimately it is the only safe place to dwell. But do not assume that this is obvious to a carnal mind; it is a secret place. But also remember—“The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant” (Ps. 25:14). Fear God, and He will show you that secret. The Lord Himself is the final fortress; to be in that fortress is to trust Him (v. 2). Like a rabbit to his hole, like a bird to his thicket, we take to the Lord. What will He deliver us from? From the snare of the fowler—that is, from any devious enemies, and from the deadly pestilence (v. 3). Then comes a striking metaphor, an astonishing one. We will be safe under His feathers, under His wing. Think of yourself living on the mercy seat; the wings of the cherubim are emblematic of His wings. And His truth will be our armor (v. 4). There is no need to fear night terrors, or arrows in the day (v. 5)—whether epidemics by night, or wasting destruction by day (v. 6). The reference to arrows here is probably still referring to pestilence. When thousands are falling all around you, as they did back in Egypt, and then again a few times in the wilderness, there is yet no need to fear (v. 7). You will see with your own eyes what happens to the wicked (v. 8). Because you have made the Lord your refuge and place of habitation, the plague cannot touch you (vv. 9-10). As God had His saints marked in the book of Ezekiel, and in Revelation, so you also are marked. You dwell under the protection of the cloud and fire. Why is this? Because God will order His angels to protect you there (vv. 11-12). You will trample lions underfoot, along with adders, young lions and dragons (v. 13). So God promises to deliver the one who truly loves Him, the one who knows His name (v. 14). When He calls, His God will answer (v. 15). God will honor Him with long life, and will show Him His salvation (v. 16).
The Devil’s Exegesis
Now this is the psalm that Satan quoted to Jesus in the course of tempting Him. He cited vv. 11-12 while tempting Jesus to throw Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. He was saying, in effect, that if “You manifest Yourself in a dramatic act of power, then these verses will apply. God will keep You from falling down and dashing Your foot on a stone.” But the reply from Jesus was telling:
“And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Matt. 4:6-7).
Jesus was not saying that the devil shouldn’t be tempting Him, the Lord Jesus. (Although that is also true.) Rather, He was saying that if He, Jesus, did what the devil was suggesting, then He, Jesus, would be tempting the Lord His God. Jesus was submitting Himself to the authority of Scripture. But why would it be tempting God to throw Himself off the height of the Temple?
The Lord was a more honest exegete than the devil, which should not be surprising to us. But let us not just assume it. Can we see that honesty in the text? Three things jump out. The first is what Jesus said in reply. He said He would in fact be testing or tempting God if He were to do this thing, which should make us look for the makings of that sin in the text. And that leads to the second point, which is that the promise was that God’s angel would protect Him in all His ways, and the context shows that these are the ways that God assigned or appointed. If the Most High is your habitation, “thereshall no evil befall thee” (vv. 9-10). The promise was not that one couldn’t dash his foot against a stone—whatever he might be doing. No. This is a promise that holds under the feathers. This is a Word that holds under the shadow of the Almighty.
But most striking thing about this exchange is this, and this is the third point. The devil was trying to get Jesus to “cast Himself down” and “not dash” His foot against a stone. This was a complete diversion—what was the faithful one going to do in this psalm? What is in the next verse? He was going to “cast Himself down” and tread on lions, serpents, and dragons. The point of this passage was not primarily what He was not going to walk on, it was what He was going to walk on. Jesus was not going to be distracted by talk about dashing His foot against a stone when His assigned mission was to dash His foot against a serpent. And we might also reflect on Luke 11:11. There it says that if a son asks for bread He will not be given a stone; if He asks for a fish He will not be given a serpent. How much more will God not give a stone instead of a serpent?
Remember that Christ came to earth in fulfilment of the promise God had made to the serpent in Gen. 3:15. This exchange between Jesus and the devil was a continuation of an earlier conversation. This was not the first time they had met.
“And the Lord God said unto the serpent . . . I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:14–15).
The Faithful One in Christ
So Christ is the only one who ever fulfilled the terms of this psalm perfectly. He is the only one who could without any reservation say, “My God” (v. 2), even from the cross. He was the faithful Son who made the most High His true habitation (v. 9). He had set His love upon His Father (v. 14). He knew the name of God (v. 14). And so God promised to deliver Him (v. 15), and the long life promised was in fact given through the power of an indestructible life (v. 16). And He displayed His understanding of all of this in the wilderness, while being tempted, and on our behalf.
But this is not just about Jesus, over there, detached from us. Those of us who believe in Christ have found that He who found the secret place is the secret place. He who dwelt in the habitation of God is the habitation of God. He who knows the name of God is the name of God. So we are privileged to take refuge in Him, and in Him every last one of these promises is yours as well. Consider how Paul puts it.
“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, even by me and Silvanus and Timotheus, was not yea and nay, but in him was yea. For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us” (2 Cor. 1:19–20).
So then, for you, standing off by yourself in your own name, we have to say that not one of these glorious promises found in Scripture is in any way your possession. You cannot lay claim anything simply because it is in your Bible. Non-Christians can own Bibles. Infidels can walk into a Christian bookstore. The issue is not whether the promise is in your Bible, but rather whether it is in your Christ, to whom the Bible bears faithful witness. If you are Christ’s, if you have surrendered to Him, then Christ is also yours. And if Christ is yours, what follows? All the promises follow, including these.
“Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:19).
“And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen” (Rom. 16:20).
And so we preach Jesus to you, and we preach Jesus to you so that you might be found in Him, and so that you might rejoice in Him, and exult in Him, and find eternal happiness in Him, and—for the glory of His great name—become a race of snake-walkers in Him. Is the devil a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour? You are invited, you are summoned, to walk right over him. This is what living faith in a living Christ will do. It is what it must do.