KALEO Notes: Psalm 91 – The Missionary Psalm

Introduction: Charles Schulz, who invented the characters of Charlie Brown and Lucy and the gang for the Peanuts comic strip, once put a number of these funnies together in a book. He called it: Happiness is a Warm Blanket. All of us who have been in surgery understand that. A couple of years ago I had a heart cauterization, and when they rolled me into the operating room wearing a thin gown, I started to shiver. Then one of the attendants asked if I’d like a warm blanket. I can’t describe how comforting it was to have that thing draped over me. It reminded me of growing up in the mountains. It could get very cold at night, and sometimes we had deep snows. I’ve never slept better than in a cold room on a cold night under layers of blankets. Sometimes one blanket will do, sometimes two, and sometimes we need three blankets. Psalm 91 is written for us when we’re in the middle of three-blanket nights. There are three layers of assurance, three layers of promises, three blankets to cover us on the cold nights of life. Each section or layer of this Psalm gives us a premise and a set of promises.

1. The First Layer of Assurance (v. 1-8)

A. The Premise (v. 1-2) – Because we dwell in the shelter of the Most High (El’Elyon), abide in the shadow of the Almighty (El Shaddai), find our refuge in the Lord (Jehovah or Yahweh), and make God (Elo-heem) our trust, then…

B. The Promise (v. 3-8)

(1) He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence – v. 3. There are two dangers mentioned here. There’s an enemy trying to trap us (Satan), and disease spreading among us (both literally and morally). We’re relatively helpless against both threats, but when we make God our refuge, He protects us.

(2) He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you will find refuge – v. 4a. The word “pinion” is an old word for “father.” In his Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan said there are four times when a hen calls her chicks to hide under her wings. The first is the call of night, when they need a shelter from the dampness and darkness. The second is the call for food, when the hen calls for her chicks to pick up some dainty morsel she has found for them. The third is the call of danger, when the predator is near. The fourth is the call of love, when she wants her chicks near her to feel their warmth and presence. Jesus applies this figure to Himself as the mother hen, and His children as the chicks.

(3) His faithfulness is a shield and buckler – v. 4b.

(4) You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day – v. 5. Twenty-four hour protection, when you get up and when you go to bed.

(5) …Nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday – v. 6. No fear in darkness or daylight. This is describing a life without fear!

(6) A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked – v. 7-8. Psalm 91 is sometimes called the “Missionary’s Psalm” because of these assurances of the Lord’s watch-care in times of danger or difficulty. I once read of a missionary to Japan named Robert Atchison, who was saved out of the Chicago slums when he heard the Gospel at the Pacific Garden Mission. Here’s what his biographer said about him: “Eighteen years (Atchison and his wife) traveled through the mountains and valleys of Japan, over 2500 miles on foot to spread the Gospel in remote places. A diet of rice and fish was their substance. Once they were rescued from a furious mob about to stone them for preaching Christ in their village. Another time, while the black plague swept hundreds to death around them, Atchison wrote that ‘we wrapped ourselves up in the ninety-first Psalm and continued about the Lord’s business.”[1]

2. The Second Layer of Assurance (v. 9-16)

A. The Premise (v. 9) Because we have made the Lord our dwelling place and the Most High our refuge then… He goes back and restates the original premise in verses 1-2 and has another go at it.

B. The Promise (v. 10-16)

(7) No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent – v. 10. There’s a famous story about this passage involving Charles Spurgeon, the greatest preacher in London’s Victorian era. He was a very young man who had just come to London, had been there about a year. Suddenly a wave of Asiatic cholera swept over the city, and multitudes fell sick and died. Spurgeon was going day and night into homes, to the bedsides of the sick, to the rooms of death, to the funeral parlors, and to the graveyards. He was totally exposed to the dangerous disease and he was exhausting himself. He said, I felt that my burden was heavier than I could bear. I was ready to sink under it.” But as he returned from a funeral, he looked up and saw a sign propped up in a shoemaker’s window on Dover Road. It wasn’t an advertisement. It was this passage. The shoemaker had posted Psalm 91:9-10 in his window. Spurgeon said, “The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as (my) 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. I suffered no harm.” God gave him this passage and this promise, and it sustained him through the crisis. Spurgeon later wrote in his exposition on this Psalm: “It is impossible that any ill should happen to the (person) who is beloved of the Lord; the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward. Ill to him is no ill, but only good in a mysterious form. Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honor, death is his gain. No evil in the strict sense of the world can happen to him, for everything is overruled for good. Happy is he who is in such a case. He is secure where others are in peril, he lives where others die.”[2]

(8) For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone – v. 11-12. Last year when I preached a series of sermon on angels, I said there was an easy way to remember this reference – 911. This is our “911” verse, but we have to add another 1 — Psalm 91.11. After my sermon series and book about angels, I was inundated with angel stories everywhere I went, but I found them very encouraging. For example, I received a letter from a man in Australia named David, who told me about a friend of his named Geoff who works with the Gideons. Geoff had been traveling in West Africa, and security agents at the airport had harassed him and were trying to shake him down for valuables. They searched him head to toe, and searched his baggage and belongings. He had all his valuables stored away in a little compartment of his carry-on, and it was the only spot they didn’t search. The whole experience was frightening. When he got to the departures lounge and thought he was through the ordeal, he discovered that his passport and boarding pass were missing. Geoff later said, “If I had been connected to a heart monitor it would have disintegrated.” The thought of going back and confronting these officials was withering. Suddenly a little boy came out of nowhere. He appeared to be about twelve years old. He didn’t look like he belonged in the place. He spoke perfect English and he calmly handed David his passport and boarding pass. He said something like, “Here you are. I found these and I think they belong to you.” David was so astounded he opened his passport to look at his picture and check the boarding pass, but when he looked back to thank the boy he was gone. He was nowhere in the room. Geoff later told his friends that he was certain that twelve-year-old was an angel whom God sent to guard him in all his ways.[3]

(9) You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot – v. 13. This is very similar to the end of Mark’s Gospel, and these are the passages that are sometimes misused and twisted by the “snake handlers” up in the mountains. It doesn’t tell us to handle snakes; it tells us God as the power to protect us from snakes, lions, and the dangers of travel. The apostle Paul illustrated this in Acts 28 on the island of Malta when he was bitten by a poisonous snake but suffered no ill effects.

3. The Third Layer of Assurance (v. 9-16)

A. The Premise (v. 14a) Because he holds fast to Me in love, I will deliver him. Here is the third blanket or layer. The Psalmist pauses to summarize and have another go at his subject. Here he speaks on behalf of the Lord. The speaker changes. Now the speaker is the Lord who says: Because the good person holds fast to Me in love, I will deliver him, and He goes go give us four final promises.

B. The Promise (v. 14b-16)

(10) I will protect him – v. 14. This might be a good place to bring up a question. These seem to be ironclad promises of protection, but we know that Christians do get diseases and die in acts of violence. What gives? Well, we compare Scripture to Scripture. Throughout the Bible, godly people encountered disease, violence, and sudden death. Paul was stoned, but he survived almost miraculously. Stephen was stoned and he died and became the first martyr. The truth is, of course, that our lives are immortal until God is finished with us on earth and then He takes us to heaven. Nothing touches us unless He wills it, and then we trust Him to know what He’s doing.

(11) When he calls to Me, I will answer him – v. 15a. This is the assurance of answered prayer.

(12) I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue and honor him – v. 15b.

(13) With long life I will satisfy him – v. 16a

(14) …and show him my salvation – v. 16b

Conclusion: A couple of years ago, I met an MK who told me about her father, Sam James, who had written the story of his missionary work in Vietnam, which he carried on even during the war there. He tried as much as possible to stay in the Saigon because most of the roads going out of the city were not secure; but on several occasions a young lady from the city of My Tho in the Mekong Delta, asked him to come and speak to the students of the secondary school there. It would be a dangerous trip because the Communists were terrorizing that area. But as he prayed over the matter, he felt God wanted him to go.

On Christmas Day of 1965, Sam called the Vietnamese security office, which reported the roads were secure. There had been no incidents on the road for several weeks. Their only advice was to travel during daylight hours. Before starting out for his trip, however, Sam read Psalm 91. He later claimed this passage saved his life. Here’s what happened. Around 8:30 that morning, he said goodbye to his wife and children and set out on the trip. At first all went well, and he was soon on the outskirts of Saigon beyond the congestion and crowded traffic. Then he started driving through the rice paddies, an endless series of them, one after another. The hours passed; and Sam felt no danger.

He was within four kilometers of the village where the school was located. He was a little early, so he slowed down and enjoyed the beauty of the Mekong River basin. Rounding a curve, he was horrified to see a roadblock less than 300 yards away. Dirt was piled as high as his Volkswagen van and extended across the road. One car had already stopped, and he would be the second. He knew instantly it was the Viet Cong. Their method was to build a mountain of dirt across the road, stopping all the traffic, then at the proper time they’d force everyone out of their cars at gunpoint, preach Communism to them, and then rob every one of their valuables. Often the soldiers shot anyone they didn’t like—especially Americans. A wave of fear swept over Sam, and his body began trembling almost uncontrollably. His foot shook so bad he couldn’t keep it on the break pedal. He finally stopped about five feet behind the lone car in front of him; but he had never felt as much fear as he faced at that moment. He thought of his wife and his children, and he thought of how stupid he had been to put himself at such risk. Looking over into the bushes, he could make out a large number of camouflaged communist troops scattered in the brush. Looking in his rearview mirror, he saw that about a dozen cars had stopped behind him; and he knew the soldiers would make their move at any moment.

Suddenly Psalm 91 came back to mind, the passage he had studied that morning during his quiet time: “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… He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge… You shall not fear….”

Sam realized that his terrible panic was because he wasn’t trusting God’s perfect will. He knew that God guides us down to the details of our lives and that absolute surrender and absolute faith brings absolute peace. And that marvelous peace settled over him. Sam looked to his right and saw no movement among the soldiers hidden in the bushes. He looked to his left and saw nothing but rice paddies—except for one thing. There was a little path the farmers used to drive their water buffalo to and from work in the fields. Slowly he turned his wheels in the direction of that path and slipped the car into its lowest gear. He fed the gas, and in a moment his car was edging toward the rice paddy toward the path. He expected any moment to hear the sound of gunfire, but there was only deadly silence. No other cars moved. Hitting the pathway, he hit the gas pedal and veered into a thick banana grove, well past the roadblock. At times it seemed his van would turn over as it rolled in and out of the deep ruts and water buffalo tracks. And then he was back on the road, going into the village. He stopped the car and felt so weak he could only rest his face on the steering wheel and thank God for His deliverance.

Then, praying and breathing deeply, he went on to the school, parked, and got out of his van. At that moment, a series of heavy explosions shook the ground, followed by a crescendo of rapid fire from automatic weapons and the blast of grenades. Heavy clouds of thick black smoke towered into the sky. He didn’t expect the school officials to go on with the program. He expected the school to evacuate and send the students home; but everyone wanted to hear the Gospel and that day Sam James preached with unusual power, and numbers of students expressed an interest in following Christ.

When the service was over, the clouds of smoke had cleared, the gunfire had stopped, and the Communists were gone. Some of the older students offered to escort Sam past the roadblock, so they all piled into the van. Arriving at the roadblock, they learned that a contingent of South Vietnamese soldiers had happened along and had opened fire on the Vietcong. The two sides had engaged in a battle, and the cars and people were caught in the crossfire. Bodies were all over the road; and the first three cars had been burned and destroyed, their occupants killed.

Sam later testified that Psalm 91 had given him the calmness to settle his nerves and to think about what he should do and to have the courage to do it.[4]

That’s why Psalm 91 is the Missionary Psalm. But it’s a good chapter for us all to know. The point of Psalm 91 is security. When we are abiding in Christ, we have ultimate, total, unfailing, and eternal security in life. One commentator said this was one of the most comforting chapters in the Bible. Maybe tonight there’s a verse that will stay with you every day and hour this week.

[1] Carl F. H. Henry, The Pacific Garden Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1942), 56.

[2] Spurgeon related this story in his Treasury of David, entry on Psalm 91.

[3] Personal e-mail, used with permission.

[4] Sam Jones, Servant on the Edge of History (Garland, TX: Hannibal Books, 2005), 32-34.