Under the Shadow of God’s Wings
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
If you make the Most High your dwelling—
even the Lord, who is my refuge—
then no harm will befall you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
All the psalms are from God and are wonderful. But some have commended themselves to God’s people as being especially rich and comforting and to which they have repeatedly turned in times of sickness, loneliness, and trouble. Psalm 91 is one of these special psalms. It has been committed to heart by thousands of people, and millions have turned to it with thankfulness in the midst of life’s calamities.
Psalm 91 may be compared with Psalm 46, which calls God “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). Martin Luther loved that psalm and turned to it often because he had so many troubles. Psalm 91 may also be compared with Psalm 90. Both call God the “dwelling place” of his people, which is probably why they have been placed together in the Psalter. There are verbal similarities between the two psalms, which has led some commentators to conclude that Psalm 91, as well as Psalm 90, was written by Moses, though there are no other truly substantial reasons for thinking that. Besides, the psalms differ greatly in their tones. As H. C. Leupold says, “The latter [Psalm 90] is somber and stately; this is bright and simple. The one breathes deep insight; the other cheerful trust.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was not overstating the case when he wrote, “In the whole collection there is not a more cheering psalm; its tone is elevated and sustained throughout, faith is at its best and speaks nobly.”
Psalm 91 has given us two great hymns as well as some additional verses by well-known writers such as Edmund Spenser (“And Is There Care in Heaven”) and Horatius Bonar (“He Liveth Long Who Liveth Well”). The hymns we sing are “Under the Care of My God, the Almighty” from the Bible Songs Hymnal of 1927 and “The Man Who Once Has Found Abode” from the Reformed Presbyterian Book of Psalms of 1940.
One striking feature of Psalm 91 is that it consists of three clear movements marked by a change in pronouns. The first movement is marked by the pronoun I (vv. 1–2). It expresses the psalmist’s personal faith in God. The second movement is marked by the pronoun you (vv. 3–13). It is a word from the psalmist to the reader or listener, his word to us. The final stage is marked by the divine pronoun I (vv. 14–16). Here God speaks to the reader to declare what he will be and do for the one who loves him and calls upon him. In the New International Version the second of these two major movements is divided into separate stanzas (vv. 3–8 and 9–13). The first speaks of God’s protection from many kinds of dangers. The second expresses the condition for such protection by God and the results if the condition is met.
The Psalmist’s Personal Faith in God
The first verse of the psalm is a thematic statement, expressing what the remainder of the psalm will be about:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
However, as soon as the psalmist makes that statement he immediately breaks in to confess his own faith before commending it to us: “I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’ ” (v. 2). This is the equivalent of the apostle Thomas’s confession of faith after Jesus had appeared to him following the resurrection and Thomas fell at his feet, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
So here is a first point of application: Is Jesus Christ your Lord and God? Is the God of the Bible your refuge in times of trouble? The psalm’s promises are for you only if he is.
What promises they are! And with what force they are commended to us! There are four metaphors for the security we can have in God. God will be our “shelter” and “shadow” (v. 1) and our “refuge” and “fortress” (v. 2). There are also four names for God, which give substance and strength to the metaphors. He is “the Most High,” “the Almighty” (v. 1), “the Lord,” and “my God” (v. 2). When the psalmist identifies God as his God in the last expression, it is a way of saying that the shelter, shadow, refuge, and fortress are for those who really do dwell in God and trust him. Spurgeon wrote, “The blessings here promised are not for all believers, but for those who live in close fellowship with God. Every child of God looks towards the inner sanctuary and the mercy-seat, yet all do not dwell in the most holy place; they run to it at times, and enjoy occasional approaches, but they do not habitually reside in the mysterious presence.”
So here is a second application: Do you live in close fellowship with God? Do you rest in the shadow of the Almighty? Is he your place of habitual dwelling? The psalm is written to urge you to trust and cling to God in all circumstances.
Trust in God Commended
Having stated his own personal faith in God, the psalmist now commends that faith to us, taking six verses to explain what God will do for the one who trusts him. The most striking feature of this section (and the one following) is the use of the singular you throughout, which is a way of saying that these truths are for each person individually. They are for you if you will truly trust or abide in God.
Verse 3 sets the tone for this section by saying that God will save the trusting soul from two kinds of dangers: first, the subtle snare of enemies, described as the trap a fowler used to catch birds, and second, death by disease or pestilence. This does not mean that those who trust God never die from infectious diseases or suffer from an enemy’s plot, of course. It means that those who trust God are habitually delivered from such dangers. What Christian cannot testify to many such deliverances? Indeed, our entire lives are filled with deliverances from many and manifold dangers, until God finally takes us to be with himself.
The words “deadly pestilence” (v. 3) and later “the pestilence that stalks in the darkness” and “the plague that destroys at midday” (v. 6) help us recall many instances of such protection.
Lord Craven, a Christian, was a nobleman who was living in London when plague ravaged the city in the fifteenth century. In order to escape the spreading pestilence Craven determined to leave the city for his country home, as many of his social standing did. He ordered his coach and baggage made ready. But as he was walking down one of the halls of his home about to enter his carriage, he overheard one of his servants say to another, “I suppose by my Lord’s quitting London to avoid the plague that his God lives in the country and not in town.” It was a straightforward and apparently innocent remark. But it struck Lord Craven so deeply that he canceled his journey, saying, “My God lives everywhere and can preserve me in town as well as in the country. I will stay where I am.” So he stayed in London. He helped the plague victims, and he did not catch the disease himself.
There is a similar story from the life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. In 1854, when he had been in London only twelve months, the area of the city in which the young preacher lived was visited by Asiatic cholera. Many in Spurgeon’s congregation were affected, and there was hardly a family in which someone did not get sick, and many died. The young pastor spent most of every day visiting the sick, and there was hardly a day when he did not have to accompany some family to the graveyard.
Spurgeon became physically and emotionally exhausted and sick at heart. He was ready to sink under this heavy load of pastoral care. But as God would have it, one day he was returning home sadly from a funeral when he noticed a sign in a shoemaker’s shop on Dover Road. It was in the owner’s own handwriting, and it bore these words: “Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling,” a quotation from Psalm 91:9–10 (kjv).
Spurgeon was deeply and immediately encouraged. He wrote, “The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm. The providence which moved the tradesman to put those verses in his window I gratefully acknowledge, and in the remembrance of its marvelous power I adore the Lord my God.”
Verse 4 contains two appealing images of God’s protection: first, that of a mother bird, sheltering and protecting her young (“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”) and second, that of a warrior’s armor (“his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart”). The exact meaning of the word rampart (niv) is uncertain. The Hebrew word signifies something that is wrapped around a person for his or her protection; hence, it can mean “buckler,” “armor,” or, as in the niv, a “rampart” or fortress. It may be that something of each of these ideas is in the Hebrew word.
Jesus appropriated the first of these two images for himself, saying as he looked out over the city of Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). Jesus would have saved and sheltered Jerusalem and its inhabitants, but the people were not willing. They would not come to him. They would not “dwell” in the shelter of the Most High. They cried out for his crucifixion instead.
As for the second image, we may recall God’s words to Abraham when he was returning from his attack on the kings who had raided Sodom and Gomorrah and carried off Abraham’s nephew Lot. Abraham had won the battle, recovering Lot, the women, and their possessions. But Abraham was in danger of retaliation by these kings. It was then that God spoke to him in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Gen. 15:1). That is what God will be to us, if we will trust him.
Here is an important question: What exactly is it that is said to be the believer’s “shield and rampart” (v. 4). God, of course! But in what respect? The King James Version says, “His truth will be your shield and buckler.” In my view, the New International Version is richer at this point, for the Hebrew word means more than mere truth. It has to do with God’s entire character, described as faithfulness. Still something is lost if we do not also realize that the Hebrew word for faithfulness is based on the word for truth and that what is involved here is God’s faithfulness to his promises—that is, to his word. In other words, it is when we believe God’s Word and act upon it that we find him to be faithful to what he has promised and learn that he is in truth our shield from dangers and our rampart against enemies.
Verses 7–8 describe thousands falling on either side of those who trust God, noting, “You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.” This interprets the death of the thousands as God’s punishment for sin and places the deliverance of God’s people in that context. In other words, it is not a promise that those who trust God will never die of disease or even in some military conflict, but that they will not suffer those or any other calamities as God’s judgment against them for their sin. Their sin has been atoned for by the blood of Jesus Christ.
Protection from Dangers: The Condition
Much of what is found in the third stanza of this psalm (vv. 9–11) is like what we have seen already. It tells us that “no harm will befall” us and that “no disaster will come near your tent” (v. 10). But there are a few new elements.
One of them, probably the chief idea because it comes first, is that there is a condition to the kind of protection the psalm has been promising—that the individual “make the Most High [his] dwelling” (v. 9). This is more than merely believing in God or coming to God occasionally when danger threatens. It means resting in God continually and trusting him at all times. It means living all of life “in God.” Martin Luther wrote that this refers to “one who really dwells and does not merely appear to dwell and does not just imagine that he dwells” in God.
The second new element reinforces the first and, by means of its use in the New Testament, is an illustration of it. It is the reference to angels, the psalmist saying,
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone
This is the verse the devil quoted as part of his temptation of Jesus Christ, recorded in Matthew 4:1–11 and Luke 4:1–13. It is the only verse of Scripture actually quoted by the devil, at least that we have a record of. But he misquoted it! He left out “in all your ways”—that is, in the ways marked out for us by God and not our own willful ways. For that was the very essence of the temptation; he wanted Jesus to go his own way rather than trusting God and being contented with God’s way, even if it meant going to the cross. The devil wanted Jesus to test God by jumping off a pinnacle of the temple, trusting his Father to send angels to bear him up so he would not be dashed to pieces when he fell and thus impress the people. Jesus replied rightly, saying, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ ” (Matt. 4:7, quoting Deut. 6:16). Testing God by jumping off a pinnacle of the temple would not be going in the way God had given him to go. It would be the very opposite of trusting God; it would be “baiting” him or “putting him to the test.”
The Lord’s trust in his Father also resulted in Satan’s defeat, another part of the psalm the devil omitted (v. 13). The psalm tells us that if we go in God’s way, trusting him to uphold us, then we will “tread upon the lion and the cobra”; we will “trample the great lion and the serpent.” The Bible elsewhere describes Satan as “a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8) and that “ancient serpent” (Rev. 12:9; 20:2). Jesus triumphed over him by trusting God. Likewise, in Christ the righteous will be victorious over Satan too.
Here is one more thought about this incident. When Jesus replied to Satan, he rejected the temptation to jump from the temple, trusting the angels of God to keep him from being killed. But the angels were there anyway, though invisibly. For after Satan had completed his temptation we are told God’s “angels came and attended him” (Matt. 4:11). In other words, God was upholding Jesus even in the temptation.
God’s Promises for Those Who Trust Him
The last three verses of this psalm contain a confirming oracle of God in which the controlling pronoun switches from you, which dominated in verses 3–13, back to I, as in verse 2. Only here the I is God himself. In these verses God adds his seal to what the psalmist has been saying. God promises three things to those who trust him.
- Protection for the one who is in danger (v. 14). The psalm speaks throughout of the many dangers that threaten God’s people, but its central message is that God will rescue and protect from all such dangers those who trust him. Those who have trusted God know this and praise God constantly for his help and protection.
- An answer for the one who is in trouble and prays to God about it (v. 15). One of the great blessings of following hard after God is knowing that when we call upon him he will hear and answer us. These verses say that God will deliver and honor such a person. They also say that God will be with the believer “in trouble,” which is a way of acknowledging that God does not always lift a Christian out of troubles. Sometimes it is his will that we endure them and profit from them. We are told in Romans that we acquire hope, develop character, and learn perseverance from what we suffer (Rom. 5:3–4). When we go through such circumstances, God goes through them with us. He sustains us in our sufferings.
- Long life and salvation for the one who seeks God’s satisfaction (v. 16). Long life is a blessing frequently promised to the righteous in the Old Testament (Exod. 20:12; Deut. 30:20; Pss. 21:4; 23:6; Prov. 3:2, 16), but the promise is not necessarily for a prolongation of days but rather for a complete or full life. Here there is the added promise of a “salvation” in heaven, yet to come.
These verses also make a point that has been developed several times already—the promises are for those who trust in or love God. Therefore, they are blessings that some believers miss out on, simply because they are always fretting and do not trust God as they should. Here the psalmist quotes God as saying that the blessings are for those who love God and acknowledge his name (v. 14), call upon him (v. 15), and seek satisfaction in what he alone can provide.
Do you do that? Or are you still trying to find satisfaction in the world? Do you love the world more than you love Jesus? John R. W. Stott reminds us of Romans 8:28, observing that “God is the supreme object of the believer’s love as well as faith, and it is to those who love God that the assurance is given that ‘in all things God works for their good.’ ”
8 Seeing God’s salvation with the eye of faith will further encourage the godly, to whom the Lord has promised his protection and blessing. The godly will witness the righteousness, justice, and fidelity of the Lord as well as the punishment of the wicked (see Reflections, p. 271, The Perfections of Yahweh). No power in heaven or on earth is greater than that of Yahweh, the Divine Warrior (see Reflections, p. 733, Yahweh Is the Divine Warrior)!
9–10 The invitation is more explicitly extended to all the godly. The psalmist’s personal experience serves as an encouragement to embrace the way of wisdom by making “the Most High,” i.e., the Lord, one’s “dwelling” (v. 9). He is the “dwelling” (cf. 90:1) of his people, under whose shelter they find “refuge.” The Lord does not guarantee that no evil will befall those who trust him (“make the Most High your dwelling”); but all who find “refuge” (cf. v. 2) in him will rest with the confidence that whatever happens on earth is with his knowledge. Nothing happens outside of his will, whether “harm” (lit., “evil,” v. 10) or “disaster” (lit., “disease” or “wound”; cf. 38:11; Lev 13; 14; Isa 53:8).
91:7, 8 Safety even in the midst of massacre. Even where there is slaughter on a wholesale basis, the Beloved of the Lord is absolutely safe. When the wicked are punished, He will be a spectator only, free from the possibility of harm.
91:9, 10 Insurance against calamity. Because the Savior made the Most High His refuge and His dwelling place, no disaster would strike Him, no calamity would get near Him.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 42–106: An Expositional Commentary (pp. 746–752). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 VanGemeren, W. A. (2008). Psalms. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Revised Edition) (Vol. 5, p. 698). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 VanGemeren, W. A. (2008). Psalms. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Revised Edition) (Vol. 5, p. 699). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 690). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.