Lecture 17: Psalm 91 and Psalm 139
Course: Psalms by Dr. Bruce Waltke
Lecture 17: Psalm 91 and Psalm 139
A poem by James Russell More ends the Lament section of the study of the Psalms. The history of the church ought properly to be called the history of truth:
Careless seems the great Avenger; History’s pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Stands God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
This poem expresses what I see in the Lament Psalms.
We are now moving into Songs of Trust. These are two famous psalms as well. The Song of Trust are the favorites with the people of God because they express faith and trust, there isn’t the great laments. Psalm 139 shows so extensive confidence that it is called a Song of Trust, but in truth it is really a Lament Psalm because it ends with a petition and a situation where he is in crises. Psalm 91:
1 As one who dwells in the secret place of the Most High, [who] in the shadow of the Almighty resides,
2 I say of I AM, “[he is] my shelter and my stronghold, My God in whom I trust.
3 Surely, he will deliver you from the fowler’s trap, from the destructive plague.
4 With his pinions he will overshadow you; and under his wings you may seek shelter. His faithfulness is a shield and a rampart.
5 Do not be afraid of the terror at night, from the arrow that flies by day,
6 From the plague that walks in darkness, from the pestilence that rushes at noon.
7 A thousand will fall at your side, a myriad at your right hand; [But] it will not come near you.
8 Only with your eyes will you look, and you will see the retribution of the wicked.
9 Because you [proclaim], “I AM is my refuge,” [and] you make the Most High your dwelling place,
10 Calamity will not meet you, and a plague will not draw near your tent.
11 Surely, he will command his angels for you to protect you in all your ways.
12 Upon the palms of their hands they will lift you up, lest your foot strike a stone
13 Upon the lion and cobra you will tread; you will trample the young lion and the serpent.
14 Because he clings to me, I will rescue him, I will set him on high because he knows my name.
15 He will cry out to me, and I will answer him, I [will be] with him in distress; I will deliver him, I will glorify him.
16 I will satisfy him with endless days, and I will show him my salvation.
The Most High is the name of God, El Elyon is an epithet of God and is rendered as God Most High and in the Septuagint, it is God the highest. This identifies God as the sovereign ruler of the universe. The Almighty is El Shaddai where El points to the power of God who blesses his people with blessings from heavens above. We don’t really know what Shaddai means and this is the nature of Biblical Studies. We are constantly refining things that we don’t know which cause the church to grow. Part of the problem of this psalm, we have pronouns without identification. For example is verse 2, who is the ‘I’? So he is talking about I AM and then someone is talking to a ‘you’ in surly he will deliver you. So who is the ‘you’ here? We are not told who the ‘I’ is and who the ‘you’ is. At the end it says that ‘he will cry out to me’, thus we ask who the ‘he’ is and who is the ‘me’? So something is being assumed here that we need to decode. It is clear to me that the ‘you’ is the ‘I’ of verses 1 and 2. Whoever is speaking in verse 2 says, ‘he is my shelter’ and that is God. And then it is said to him in verse 4, ‘and under his wings you may seek shelter.’ So, the ‘you’ is the ‘I’ and he says, I find shelter in the Lord and someone is sayings, ‘and you may find shelter.’ This is a bit clearer in verses 9 and 10 where it says, ‘because you proclaim I AM is my refuge, and you make the Most High your dwelling place, calamity will not meet you.’ So I believe that the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ are one and the same person. In verse 15 where it says, ‘he will cry out to me’ and ‘I will satisfy him with endless days;’ the speaker must be God and this person he will cling to me; he is talking about this person; ‘he will cling to me;’ and then I will be with him and I will deliver him, I will glorify him.’ No one can do this other than God. So God is speaking in the last three verses about the person speaking in verses 1 and 2.
A. The King, the Prophet and God
So we have three speakers: the ‘I’ in verse 1 and 2 and then we have someone speaking to him and that someone has to be a prophet who is not identified. But he speaks for God assuring him. So whoever is speaking in verses 3 speaks until God speaks in verse 14. So this prophet is speaking for God. So, the ‘I’ is speaking and someone is speaking to him and then God is talking about him at the end of the Psalm. Interesting! So, who is the ‘I’? To me, he must be a king. Notice what is happening to him in verse 5, ‘do not be afraid of the terror at night, from the arrow that flies by day, from the plague that walks in darkness, from the pestilence that rushes at noon.’ So who is surrounded by arrows flying around? Who has a thousand to fall at one’s side? This is not just any person; it must be the king. Again, it seems to be clear, to me, the ‘I’ is the king who is putting his trust in God and he is in the midst of a battle. More than that, I think that it is in anticipation of Christ. The reason why is because this king is invulnerable and invincible. No one can defeat him. This is not Psalm 44 where we see the king going down in defeat. Here, the king is invincible. Saints today and throughout history have been and is being martyred. Not so with this king. Note that as the Targum understood it, they thought that David was talking to Solomon but I think that it is a reference to Christ who in his life was invincible and invulnerable. You could not touch Jesus until he laid down his life. He said that no man takes it from me. From the beginning, you have all the babies that were slaughters under Herod’s paranoia and madness. But we see Jesus escapes and when Jesus heals the leper, he could have said to the leper, ‘be clean’, he did that to others. Why does he touch the leper? It was to show that he was invincible, for not even leprosy could overcome him. When he preaches his first sermon, they wanted to kill him then, but he simply walked away from the midst. When they wanted to stone him and they went to seize him, but they couldn’t do it. You could not touch Jesus until he decided to give up his life for the ransom for sinners. He says in John 10, ‘no man takes my life from me, I lay it down of myself.’
B. David Speaks
So David is using language of his world to speak of the invincibility of his greater son, Jesus. Thus saying, he is in control, even today, and we can trust him. So I read this psalm as a king who is untouchable and this king will trample on the lion and the cobra which are symbolic of evil and nations that are opposed to him. He tells the disciples that they will trample on those against you. This is symbolic of his victory over evil. Interestingly enough when Satan temps Jesus in the temptation; the psalm makes sense as addressed to the king. It is the king who especially needs God’s rescue and protection in battle. Eaton notes that for a king, the air is ever thick with deadly darts, whether of plague, hostile curse or weapons. But God confers safety on him day and night, though armies fall in the ten-thousands at his side. The eschatological interpretation is how Satan understood this psalm. Jesus told Satan that he cannot put God to the test. Luke 4:9-11 ‘the devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple and said, if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. For it is written that he will command his angels concerning you to grad you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ I think that this whole temptation scene is in the spiritual realm. I don’t take it literally. When on the highest point of the temple, Satan showed him all the kingdoms of the world. This was a vision and at the same time it is reality that it is representing. So Satan recognizes and thus acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God. The angels will protect Jesus and Jesus accepts this interpretation. So, this is in the language of the ancient near east and thus teaching us that this king is invincible and invulnerable.
1. The King Asserts His Faith
So again, we have the king who asserts his faith, then we have the prophet who assures him and then part of the prophetic speech is the Lord speaking through the prophet and talks about him that he will be protected. So in verse 1, the king begins to speak in reference to the God who is over everything. Everything else is small compared to this statement. The secret place is place that is inaccessible, that is only for those who are allowed in and the secret message is for those who you want to communicate it to. I think he is referring to the temple as a secret place that is accessible only to the righteous and he lives in that domain, in the temple in the presence of God. The shadow is a place of protection. He is protected there and he dwells there in the sanctuary. Now, he confesses his faith and the Hebrew is actually saying, ‘I say again and again and again.’ This is what he says for his life style. He is my shelter, the place of safety and my stronghold. A stronghold is a citadel on a cliff which cannot be attacked or rather it is difficult to attack and conquer. You can think of the word as ‘Masada’, one of the last strongholds that the Romans conquered in AD 70. He is saying that God is his Masada.
2. He Confesses God as His Hope
You are my God in whom I will trust; so the king speaks and he is confessing, saying that God is his hope and his trust is in God. This is a song of trust. Now, a prophet speaks to him and it falls into two halves: verses 3 – 8 and then the second half verses 9 and 10 and then you have the second half with verses 9 – 13. So a prophet is speaking in verses 3 – 13 and that falls into two halves. He stops speaking and he reprises the King’s confession in verse 9 where it says, ‘because you proclaim, I AM is my refuge and you make the Most High your dwelling place. This refers back to verses 1 & 2. And you make the Most High your dwelling places. And because you say that he gives him more promises. The king makes a profession of faith; the prophet gives him promises. Then the prophet repeats his faith and gives him more promises in the second half and climatically God himself speaks through the prophet in the last three verses. So you have the king who speaks and then you have the prophet who speaks and then God speaks and this is in the temple. The king is expressing his faith and the prophet and God is giving the king confidence with prophecy. This is a spiritual battle with God bolstering the faith of the king. For us, we know that he is invincible and therefore we can have full confidence that he will triumph. So, I know my king and I know God who stands behind this king.
So once we understand the basics, we begin to understand the Psalm. He begins with calling God, Most High, and the Almighty who is over all things and who is all powerful. There is a unique access that only the saint has and thus God takes the saint into his secret council. We have access that the unbeliever doesn’t have and we are protected in the shadow. It begins with one who dwells and one who resides. This is where I live; I live in the presence of God and that is what I want. I want to live in the presence of God. It is in that place of his grace where most don’t have access. It is because they don’t believe; whoever wants it can have it. God’s grace is to all who will accept him.
3. The Promise of and for the King
Now is verse 3, we have the promise of the king, that he will be delivered and he will be protected. This includes verse 4. In verses 5 and 6, he will be protected at all times, night and day. We have night in the A verse set and day in the B verse set. This is a marasmus, ‘all the time’. He picks it up again in verse 6 where it says: from the plague that walks in darkness, from the pestilence that rushes at noon. The point is: it is all the time that I am with you on that battle field; you are never alone. He is going to see the destruction of the wicked all around him. You have 3 and 4, 5 and 6 and then 7 and 8 quatrains. (Quatrains are a type of stanza, or even a complete poem consisting of four lines) He will deliver you from any trap from which the wicked who tries to bring destruction on you. The plague mentioned in verse 6 is a very important point in this psalm. Verse 5 talks about the terror of the night and the arrows of the day, perhaps this is military. The plague is the bubonic plague and that was a real danger on the battle field. In all probability that was when an angel of the Lord struck the Assyrian Army and one hundred and eighty five thousand soldiers died at the moment they were besieging Jerusalem. Herodotus tells us that this story was repeated and occurred around 700 BC. Herodotus, the Greek historian lived around 400 BC. When he goes to Egypt, he hears the story of Sennacherib and the destruction of his army. And what he understands that it was attributed to mice. So what did the mice have to do with it? He says that the mice must have eaten all their quivers and weapons and baggage. But we usually associate rats and mice with bubonic plague. So I think the angel of the Lord used this to destroy the army. I think the same thing happens with the Ark of the Covenant when the Philistines captured it. And in order to ward off the effect of the Ark, they made images of rats. It says that this plague walks in darkness and then it says from the pestilence that rushes which refers to epidemic proportions. So the plague is walking in the dark and in epidemic proportions by the middle of the day.
The result was that soldiers were falling around him as it did during the days of Hezekiah and the Assyrian Army. So here is a king with his army but it doesn’t say they used the sword, but simply that God destroyed them. He gazes around at the defeated enemy army. Then in verse 7 where it says that a thousand will fall at your side. This was a myriad at your right hand but the plague would not come near them. The plague could destroy the enemy but not the king. It will not come near him. You will see the results of it but it will not come near you. You are protected from this plague.
Now we come to the second half where his pinions evoke the image of a mother-bird who protects her brood by spreading her wings over them. His faithfulness is a shield and we are not to be afraid of the terror at night from the arrows that fly by day. The terror at night could be arrows also. You will see God just decimate the enemy without you doing anything. And God just destroys the enemy. In verse 10 it says that calamity will not meet you, and a plague will not draw near your tent. The tent suggests that they are on a battle field. This closing unit brings the prophetic assurances to their climatic conclusion: angels will protect and watch over the king to keep his feet from stumbling on a stone that would prevent him from accomplishing his mission to tread upon the cobra and trample the lion. In verse 13 we see the climatic verse of why the king engages the battle: to vanquish the political and spiritual enemy. The point of the battle is that you will defeat the lion and the cobra and they will be under your feet. Note that the head dress of the Pharaoh always has the image of a cobra which symbolized his sovereignty and his ruler ship and the Pharaoh’s deity. It is a symbol of the Pharaoh’s dominion. The lion has been used for Babylon. Then God picks it up in verse 14 saying that he will rescue him and will set him on high because he knows my name. I will satisfy him with endless days, i.e. eternal life. God will show him his salvation because it is just and right. In the end, the psalm’s assurance that God will rescue the king from the wicked in a present continuous battle wasn’t a promise in Psalm 44 or Romans 8:36 or Matthew 13:35 or Martyrs in church history, so this had to apply to Jesus Christ throughout his life; it was only until he laid down his own life. You cannot harmonize this Psalm with Psalm 44; it is about a king who is invincible and that can only be Jesus. Remember, Jesus himself said that the Psalms speak about me.
Of David. A psalm.
1 I AM, you search me and so you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you consider my thoughts from afar.
3 My going out and my lying down you discern; you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Surely, before a word is on my tongue, I AM, you know it completely.
5 Behind and before—you hem me in; you have laid the palm [of your hand] upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high; I do not have the power to scale it.
7 Where can I go to escape your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I spread out my bed in the grave, behold, you!
9 Were I to rise on the wings of the dawn and alight on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
11 And I then thought: "Surely if darkness crushes me, and if light becomes night around me,”
12 Even darkness will not be too dark for you, And the night will shine like the day; Darkness is as light to you.
13 For you gave birth to my kidneys; you wove me together in my mother's womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully extraordinary; your works are wonderful I know full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was wrought in the secret place, when I was colorfully woven in the depths of the earth.
16 My embryo your eyes saw; in your book all of them were written; My days were fashioned when there was not yet any of them.
17 And for me, how precious are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. I wake up, I am still with you.
19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked—Bloodthirsty men, get away from me!—
20 who speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, I AM, and loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred; they have become my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts,
24 and see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
II. Rhetorical - Broad View
So the psalm falls into four stanzas of six verses each. The first stanza includes verses 1-6 which speaks of God knowing everything – his omniscience. Verse 3 says that you know along with verse 4 and then in verse 6 – such knowledge. In the next stanza, he talks of God’s omnipresence with him. Just as verse 1 begins with a summary statement, we also get an introduction of his omnipresence; God is everywhere, there is nowhere to go out from his presence. So we have six verses of knowledge and then seven verses of God’s presence. God, you know me and God you are with me; I can’t escape your presence. In verses 13-18, the next six verses, he speaks about God’s omnipotence, you made me. So, the proof that you know me and the proof that you are with me is in the fact that you made me. So, you have four verses that substantiate these points. At the end of verse 18, he leaves the state of reflection. He has been thinking about God but now he looks at the world around him and realizing that he is surrounding with wicked enemies. The knowledge of God in terms of his omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence supports his confidence in God as he is surrounding by his enemies. Thus he says to God, I am with you and I hate who these men are. These are covenant breakers who are also trying to kill him. Not only does he hate them but he hates their wickedness. But now his confidence decreases in not being so sure about himself; but he wants to be sure that he is really aligned with God; for in verse 23, he says search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. I want to be sure that I am your person. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. So, in his purity, he wants to make sure for he is asking God to test him. This is a very honest prayer.
There are allusions to the pagan myths of the Solar deity, the Mother Earth goddess, and the Tablet of Destinies. The setting shows it to be surrounded by blood-thirsty blasphemers. There is a certainty of loyalty to God and hatred of wicked mixed with uncertainty of its purity. The motifs are found in the verses:
Address – verse 1a
Confidence – verses 1b – 12
Praise – verses 13 -18
Lament – verses 19 -22
Petition – verses 23 -24
We see that confidence is mixed with anxiety which is resolved by being totally open to God. The petition is for the blood-thirsty blasphemers to be eliminated. The psalmist seeks integrity of loyalty to God. There are four stanzas of six verses for the symmetry. Each stanza consists of two strophes: a quatrain and a couplet and each stanza has three couplets. Each quatrain consists of an introductory, one-verse summary and then expanded in three verses. There are inclusios of search and know, my thoughts and my anxious thoughts and the way.
Verse 1 deal with a penetrating probe of himself by God. It is very difficult to know your own heart or the heart of another person and what is really going on inside of a person. I am not sure even of what is really going on inside of myself but God knows. God knows our basic core and who we really are. You know me all the time and even consider my thoughts from far away. Even though you are in heaven, you know exactly what I am doing. He knows the depths of our being all the time. This is both in time and space for he knows that God knows publically and privately, in his most private moments. Even at the very point that I form thoughts in my mind, you already knew what I was going to say. This can be very comforting but at the same time very disquieting. David realizes that he can’t escape this, I never have a private moment and so now he feels hemmed in by this knowledge. This knowledge almost overwhelms him as he realizes what God is all about and David sees that he can’t climb out from under this awareness. So this is comforting if your heart is right but if it is not right, it can be disquieting. In asking the two questions in verse 7 of where he could escape God’s spirit and his presence, he realizes that he can’t. He considers the places God is, from the heavens, the grave, the dawn to the far side of the sea. Not only does he consider the physical but also the spiritual in regards to heaven and the grave as being hell. So whether you are in bliss or in pain, God is there. So David looks vertically, qualitatively, horizontally, and to the depths. It was also considers as to where the sun rose, that was life and where it set, that was death. In Egypt, all the tombs are on the west side of the Nile where the sun sets where there is nothing but death.
He talks about darkness which symbolizes death, danger, fear and chaos. He says that if the light becomes night around me, the darkness will not be too dark for you for it will shine like the day for darkness is as light to you. In verse 13, we have the validation of biological realities that God brings about as God gives life. David acknowledges that God wove him together in his mother’s womb and that he is extraordinary because of God’s works. All of us have belt the marvel of the human being and of birth. The secret place in verse 15 refers to the mother’s womb and he uses the colorfully woven together. God produced his magnum opus in utter darkness. David says that God saw him as an embryo and he was written in the book of the sovereign God. There are so many of these thoughts that David cannot begin to count them but they are all precious. After considering the greatness of God, he looks at the real world around him and wishes that God would do something to the wickedness about him. This was during the period of Saul and his men chasing David with David becoming so tired of it and its wickedness. David just cries out, ‘oh God, just get rid of them.’ We cannot pray this today for we are under the age of grace and this will extend to the second coming of Jesus and his judgement. David hates murders and blasphemers who take innocent lives; those who comment adultery of which I have no part. I know who I am.
This is where he is now, he is not so sure of himself and opens his heart to God; I want you to really search me. Let me know what is really in my heart. Search me, test me, know my anxious thoughts and lead me in the way everlasting. He wants to know if there is something in his heart that isn’t right. He wants to be sure that he is God’s man. This is what made him the king that he became.
Transcribed by BT Ambassador Phil Smith