Keep Calm and Read Psalm 91

Psalm 91:9–13 If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, 10 no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. 11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; 12 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent. 14 “Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. 15 He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. 16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

There’s a strange sort of power in Psalm 91. It just does things to people. There’s a story now a century old about the 91st Infantry Brigade. 91st ring a bell with anyone? The story dates from World War I. The brigade was about to head to the war zone so the Commander gave each one of his troops a little printed card of this psalm and they decided to recite the Psalm together every day. As the story goes (And it is only a story. History says it’s not true.) the brigade was involved in three of the bloodiest battles of World War I including Chateau Thierry, Belle Wood, and Argonne and while other units suffered about 90% casualties the 91st Brigade did not suffer a single combat related casualty. Psalm 91. It has a strange power over people. It even gets them talking about and believing apocryphal war stories. Did you know that the strange power of Psalm 91 reemerged back in 2012? It may have been the oddest and even most offensive use of the Psalm in history. You know where it showed up? In Madonnarama. Yes, I did say Madonnarama. Psalm 91 actually showed up in the opening act of Madonna’s latest world tour. I’m telling you there’s a strange power in Psalm 91 that just gets into people. Even Madonna.

And apparently that’s not just true of people. It’s true of angels too. Or to be more specific, bad angels. It’s not just accidental that when history’s two great spiritual titans, Satan and Jesus, locked horns in one of the world’s watershed moments that there in that setting Psalm 91 showed up. And like I said, it wasn’t Jesus who brought it out to play. It was quite the moment. Jesus had Satan in a spiritual chokehold and down for two counts. Twice Jesus had believed the Scriptures. Twice Jesus had quoted them. So just before the three count Satan in his last gasp threw Scripture right back at Jesus. I think he thought, “Well – if he’s going to keep believing the Scriptures, then I’ll give him some Scripture to believe.” And he went into his deep well of Scripture passages he knew by heart and he pulled the perfect one out. You have to understand that. Satan’s no dummy. He wasn’t reaching blindly into a grab bag of Scripture desperately hoping maybe one he would blindly grab might do the trick. Satan grabbed for Psalm 91 because it was the Scripture that bugged him the most. Because it was one that got to the heart of the issue and was always threatening to undermine his entire reign.

And so it came to pass that Satan preached on Psalm 91 with the Temple in Jerusalem as his pulpit. He and Jesus were standing on the highest point of the temple. Some think it was the point in the temple complex that looked down some 450 feet where rocks covered the Kidron Valley below. There Satan’s slithering tongue preached, “You should jump. After all, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” (Luke 4:10–11) So apparently preaching from the Bible doesn’t make you a preacher of the Bible. Or does it? Where the catch? What’s the problem? Satan quoted the Scripture. He even seemed to be asking Jesus to believe and act on one of God’s promises? What could possibly be wrong with that? Exactly. That’s what’s so genius and subtle about Satan’s attack here. It’s nearly impossible to spot it in his words. In fact, if you stare at only these words you won’t see see what Satan’s up to at all. These words are not the problem. Satan exactly quoted the Scripture here. Until he didn’t anymore. You know what he did? He dropped off the end of the promise. He very carefully macheted off this Scripture just four little words. Just four.

You know what Satan dropped? Psalm 91 actually says, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” (v. 11) He dropped just four little words: in all your ways. Do you see how genius that is? Those four little words could sound like the most insignificant part of the promise. They could look like words Satan innocently left off. Until you realize that’s not it at all. Until you realize that Satan was actually dropping off the word that made the promise complete, practical, and concrete. Satan dropped the words, "in all your ways," so that Jesus (and we) might forget that God is promising to perfectly protect us as we go about our daily, normal lives. He didn’t want us or Jesus to get that God will make everything go right for you in the normal course of things. He didn’t want us or Jesus to believe that God’s unseen commandos ride the bus with your kids and his spiritual Navy SEALS have your back when Satan wants to make the surgeon’s knife slip. He didn’t want Jesus thinking about the part of the promise that might help him understand that doing life for God isn’t exactly the same as cliff jumping. Nor does taking a swan dive into the Kidron Valley exactly qualify as something God means when he asks us to walk out in faith.

But then again, the swan dive wasn’t really necessary. A step toward the ledge wasn’t either. I’m not even sure it’s what Satan was even aiming at. All Satan needed was a creeping doubt in Jesus. A dash of distrust. A tiny figment of fear. That’s all he needed. He didn’t need any cliff jumping from Jesus to win this battle. All he needed was a little movement of Jesus’ heart. Just a little distrust. Just a momentary wavering. And Jesus would no longer be perfect or saving to us in any sense. He’d be just another fallen human. He’d be just one more person who’s distrustful and fearful like the rest of us. Just one more in a long line of sinners who thinks, “Maybe God doesn’t have this. Maybe he actually won’t come through.” That’s why Satan had him at that cliff edge while he preached on Psalm 91. He wasn’t necessarily hoping Jesus would jump. He was hoping Jesus wouldn’t for the wrong reasons. That he’d stay on the ledge not because it was smart and wise and normal and God-pleasing to do so, but because he wasn’t sure his Father had him perfectly protected and surrounded by his angels.

I used to think that Satan was a little too obvious with this attack until I understood that. I even used to say to himself, “Seriously, Satan, I’m definitely a sinner and even I wouldn’t jump off the cliff just ‘cause you told me to. You couldn’t even get me to go skydiving with someone trained to do it.” But that’s the genius. Satan doesn’t aim to have us to jump off the cliffs of life. He aims to introduce creeping little doubts about our normal lives. It starts out with a few nerves. Just a little fear. Just a little passing thought, “Maybe God really isn’t concerned about your baby’s health. Maybe God isn’t interested in your dad’s heart problems. Maybe God simply vacated your job premises. Maybe God shut down that idea you had because he’s not really for you.” That’s all Satan has to do. He just has to let the doubts begin to creep. He just has to introduce you to all the bad possible futures. He just has to let the scenarios through your mind. If he can do that, then he can empty Psalm 91 of all of its power for us. And if he can do that, he can have us doing life confused, doubting, and just plain scared.

But I’m guessing that I’m not telling you anything new. You already knew it. Probably from experience. What mother here hasn’t had motherly care grow into motherly worry? What person here hasn’t seen godly concern for an ailing parent turn into devilish distress? What employee here hasn’t seen confidence that problems at work will turn out for our good become a creeping kind of doubt? Satan’s got us nailed on this stuff. Which, of course, means that we deserve every one of our worst case scenarios. Every one of them. And deep down, we know that. In fact, I remember a text thread I had all about that. Here’s how the text thread went. He was having a life crisis I already knew about as it was happening I got this text: “I’m scared.” “Any suggestions on verses to read?” I replied, “Psalm 23 is pretty good. Sometimes it’s nice to be a sheep and let him be the shepherd. Don’t be afraid. He’s real. He’s good. He’s powerful :-).” Reply. “I don’t feel like a very good sheep lately.” Do you see what he’s very rightly saying? God’s promises should be contingent upon how well we believe them. They should have their foundation on how well we cling to them. They should be based on how well we deserve them.

They should be, but they aren’t. Otherwise none of them would ever come true. God’s promises are not based on how well we believe them; how strongly we cling to them; or how much we deserve them. You know what makes these promises come true for you? God’s promises in Psalm 91 are true for you because of Jesus. They come true because he believed them, and because he clung to them, and because he deserved them. He is the one who has made you deserve the promises. That’s the gospel. And it’s playing out right in front of you today. There Jesus stood on that ledge locked in a titanic struggle. And there in that watershed moment when Satan tried to introduce into Jesus’ soul a creeping doubt, a figment of fear, a dash of distrust, you know what Jesus did? He believed Psalm 91. He believed the angels would lift him up. He believed that God’s unseen Navy SEAL Team wouldn’t ever allow him to strike his foot against a stone. He believed that so powerfully that there was not a fiber of his being that thought he ever had to prove it. There was just no reason to jump. Not one. So he stayed standing on the ledge and, more importantly, he stayed perfectly able to save us.

Staring at the victory? That’s where we become confident in the Psalm’s promises. That’s where we’re revived to see they’re true for us too. Do you see that? When we stare at Jesus giving Satan the three count we begin to understand what a perfect refuge he is. That he’s the one who not only won when Satan preached at the Temple, but also won on the cross. That in that opportune time when Satan came back to tempt him again – when the moment came to have every reason to doubt and to worry – that he never, ever did. That even in that moment when Jesus screamed about his abandonment and pain he still trusted. He’s our perfect Savior. And that is why I replied to the text the way I did. He had said, “I don’t feel like a very good sheep lately.” So I texted back, “We never are. Sometimes we realize that more than others. Good thing God’s love is not dependent on that!! He dies for the ungodly and chases the lost when they don’t think they are. Be free of guilt. (You already are. He counts you righteous by faith, not by works.” That’s exactly the truth that Jesus was winning for us first on the temple ledge and then on the cross. He was forgiving the fearful. He was justifying the worrier.

And that’s why he’s the perfect refuge. His protection isn’t dependent on the size of our love or of trust. He’s our refuge for us with what little trust we’ve got sometimes. That’s why no real harm or true disaster will come near your tent. Every true disaster and every real harm fell on Jesus on the cross. There’s none left to fall on you. And that’s why he sends his angels concerning you carefully guard you in all your ways. All of them. He doesn’t check out on your kids on the bus. He doesn’t forget about your dad as his body ages. He doesn’t leave you alone at your work site. He’s so for you that he’s got you totally surrounded with his unseen Navy SEAL team of angels. I’m telling you there’s just no way they’ll ever let you strike your foot against a stone. Even if you’re wearing open toed shoes. You know how true that is? Psalm 91 promises and Jesus proves that you’re so totally protected that you can go into life as your very own conqueror. You can live as the aggressor, the protagonist, the go-getter, the one who goes out and wins the victory in your own life.

Seriously. That’s our new way of life in Christ. The powerful one. The trusting one. The conquering one. Did you catch that? “You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.” (v. 13) Not dude over there. Not the lady over there. You will. In a lot of different ways. In fact, that’s probably the most interesting and important part of this promise. There are two different words for lethal lions here in this verse. And two different kinds of slithering snakes too. And all four different kinds of these lethal animals get tread on by you. And think about that. Treading isn’t fearfully dancing around a snake in your path or jumping over its strike. It’s aiming for the reptile with your foot. And trampling? That’s even more violent and aggressive. You trample the lions of life. You deal death to snakes. That’s our new way of life in Christ. We’re forgiven doubters. Not current ones. We’re justified worriers. Not present ones. We’re the ones who go into life with unseen Navy SEAL commandos surrounding us. We’re the ones who do life in every circumstance not jumping off cliffs to prove some spiritual point, but confident that whatever happens as we walk our way for him that it’s a win.

That’s the strange, other worldly gospel power of Psalm 91. That’s the power that a War War I brigade, Madonna, and even Satan reacted to. He can’t have us that victorious. But Jesus does. Jesus has us aiming for him with our foot and trampling him violently. In other words? He’s made the Psalm’s promises true for us. That’s what he was up to when he locked horns in a battle of the titans with Satan and won. And now it’s time to trust that. Moms here, remember angels ride with your kids. Everywhere. Kids here, be concerned about your aging dad, and at the same time believe that God won’t ever let his foot strike against a stone. And sinners here, realize that not a one of your losses will ever count against you. Not a one. The only thing that God will ever counts toward you is Jesus’ winning matches against Satan. And by the way, he’s got a perfect record. Take that Satan. We just trampled on you. But then again, we knew a long time ago that we’d trample on snakes like him. Psalm 91 promised. Amen. 

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