The Almighty our defender.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 August 2017

Yoshév b’setér Elyón/“Seated in the secret [place] of the Highest,” (Latin Qui habitat) is our 91st psalm. It’s often called the Psalm of Protection, ’cause it talks about how the LORD will protect “you.”

Who’s the “you”? Actually that’d be the king. This is a messianic psalm, addressed to (and possibly written by) Israel’s king. This fact isn’t obvious; the psalm never bluntly says it. Hence loads of Christians figure they’re the “you,” apply it to themselves, and take a lot of comfort in the idea God’ll deliver us from our every foe.

Problem is, God never promised us any such thing. On the contrary: Jesus promised us we’d suffer. Jn 16.33 So to claim Yoshév b’setér Elyón for ourselves is not only taking the bible out of context, but setting ourselves up for huge disappointment when it inevitably won’t come true that way.

Yeah, my translation rhymes. Went with trochaic octameter.

Psalm 91 KWL
1 Seated in the Highest’s secret, seated in Almighty’s shadow,
2 tell the LORD, “You are my refuge and my fortress—God, I trust you.”
3 For he frees you from the fowler’s traps, from pestilence, destruction.
4 With his pinions you he covers. Under wing you find protection.
His truth is your shield and buckler 5 from the arrow’s daily flight.
His truth is your strong defense, so do not fear the dread of night.
6 Pestilence which walks in darkness, ruin at noon devastates—
7 thousands at your side and right may fall—but round you, it abates.
8 Only with your eyes you look, and see the wicked get their due.
9 The LORD God’s your refuge, and the Most High is a home to you.
10 Evil gets cut off from you. Inside your tent, plague is expelled.
11 For his angels, God commands to watch you, all your ways surveilled.
12 Lest you strike your foot on rocks, by hand they lift you in protection.
13 Step on lion, cobra; trample cub—and dragon!—his discretion.
14 “Since they love me, know my name, I rescue them and grant them safety.
15 They call; they I answer. I’m with them in all their difficulty.
I deliver them, and honor them, 16 and fill with days sufficient.
I will show them my salvation,” says with grace the LORD omniscient.

Applying to Messiah. (Sometimes.)

We don’t always recognize this psalm’s about Messiah, but people in Jesus’s day did. It’s why the devil quoted it.

Luke 4.9-12 KWL
9 Satan brought Jesus to Jerusalem and stood on the temple’s high point.
It told him, “If you’re God’s son, throw yourself down from here.
10 For it’s been written he’ll command his angels about you, 11 that “they’ll take you up in their hands.
You might never hit your foot against a rock.’ ” Ps 91.11-12
12 In reply Jesus told it, “It’s been said, ‘Don’t test your Lord God.’ ” Dt 6.16

Satan may or may not have personally recognized Jesus as Messiah, but it knew Jesus thought that way about himself, and that’s what this challenge was about. Contrary to popular belief, this wasn’t a challenge of Jesus’s divinity. It was a challenge of Jesus’s kingship. “Son of God” is one of Messiah’s titles, taken from Psalm 2—and a title Jesus particularly fulfilled by literally being God’s son.

Satan figured if Jesus had doubts about who he really is, he might see Psalm 91 as a test, and jump in order to see whether God’d send angels to catch him. Jesus correctly knew we’re not to test God with foolish challenges, nor have to prove what we already know by taking the bait when an accuser says, “Are you really?” Hence his Deuteronomy quote. God didn’t have to provide extra-special protection so Jesus would know who he is. In fact Jesus had to resist availing himself of any extra-special protection due him Mt 26.53 when he went to the cross.

I should remind you too: Prophecies are often conditional. This one included.

Israel’s king was expected to love God and know his name. Ps 91.14 (That’d be YHWH, not Baal.) They were to obey his commands and trust him wholeheartedly. That’s the bare minimum of a foundational relationship any king had to have with God before God would bail his king out of any crisis he found himself in.

As you know, many Israeli kings had no such relationship. They only turned to the LORD in last-ditch efforts. The rest of the time they didn’t know God, didn’t obey him, hassled his prophets, and paid him lip service to gain the approval of their more religious subjects. They had little to no chance of God applying this psalm.

Read your Old Testament. Notice how often kings took God for granted, same as we Christians regularly do. That’s why the kings were so frequently defeated by their foes. That’s why we Christians likewise get defeated by the things against us. We figure grace means we needn’t obey, ’cause God forgives all.

The other condition has to do with Jesus’s special circumstances. ’Cause who loved God and knew his name better than Jesus the Nazarene? Who had a better claim to the title “Messiah” than Jesus? Yet because of the nature of Jesus’s mission, he wasn’t getting any special heavenly force field put around him. Evil was permitted to conquer him. Temporarily, but still.

This is why the people who killed Jesus wouldn’t believe he’s Messiah. They read Psalm 91: Wasn’t God supposed to come through for him? Some miraculous smiting of the Romans? (Followed by some miraculous smiting of the Judean leadership—but they didn’t figure God would stop the Romans; far less them.) Jesus should’ve been crucifixion-proof. The fact he wasn’t, they figured, proved them correct in having him killed.

’Cause they didn’t understand all this stuff had to take place according to the scriptures. Lk 24.26-27 They assumed Messiah wouldn’t die, but conquer; they assumed Psalm 91 made him invulnerable. Like so many Christians nowadays, they reduced God to a calculator; plug in the correct formula and you’ll always get the same result. Psalm 91 isn’t a promise but a general principle: When Israel’s king trusts the LORD, God ordinarily defends his Messiah. It’s encouragement. It’s hope. It’s not a binding contract based on a quid pro quo.

If that’s how we read the scriptures—where every statement is an automatic promise, regardless of circumstances—man are we setting ourselves up for disappointment.

Regardless, it’s not about you.

There are a lot of bible passages and “bible promises” which don’t apply to us Christians. At all. We’re to learn by their example, not appropriate them for ourselves.

Like certain ritual commands for the ancient Hebrews which Jesus fulfilled by his death. Like the prophecies to ancient Israeli kings. (And ancient Assyrian, Amorite, Babylonian, Edomite, Egyptian, Moabite, Phoenician, and Persian kings.) True, a lot of it still applies; the Ten Commandments you know about. But some parts don’t. Psalm 91 doesn’t.

Yet many Christians don’t care about historical context, and never bother to ask ourselves who any given bible verse was said to: We figure it’s in the bible, so it can magically apply to ourselves when we just cling to it super hard. Unless we don’t like it so much; then we finally bother to ask, “Was this for our culture or theirs?” Funny how inconvenience leads us to bible study.

Okay, if Psalm 91 isn’t written for us, what can we take away from it? Quite a lot actually.

We learn how God wants to defend his faithful servant-leaders. Even in our cases, when we’re following him wholeheartedly, he’d love to give us success, victory, protection from evil, encouragement, and aid. No, it doesn’t always work out that way; we make mistakes. And sometimes disaster helps Christ’s cause better than shiny happy success. But all things being equal, God wants to watch out for us.

And this level of relationship is something we wanna strive for. We want a Messiah-level relationship with God. One in which we trust and depend on him, are close with him, have him direct our steps, have his angels keep those steps from hurting. And thanks to Jesus, we can have just such a relationship. It’s not guaranteed to be hardship-free; nowhere near as sheltered as Psalm 91 describes. It’s still something to aspire to.

That is, rather than claiming it for ourselves, whether that’s appropriate or not.