“No Evil”

(Psalm 91)

I've always been a fearful person. When I was young that fear manifested itself as timidity. It wasn’t easy for me to make friends, and conversations with strangers were very difficult. 

But for the most part—as long as I kept to myself or to those people I knew really well—it didn’t have much of an impact on my life.

Then when I became an adult, that ingrained fear went to a whole new level.

It started when I got married, because suddenly I had someone else in my life who was counting on me, and who mattered to me. The thought of anything happening to Loanne was terrifying.

Then we moved to France a year after we got married, and I was surrounded by people I didn’t know, who were speaking a language I didn’t understand, and all of the social fears I thought I had gotten over got much worse.

Then we had a baby, and I found a whole new set of reasons to be afraid, because babies are so insanely fragile. 

And so on.

Often when we think of our fears, we think of big, life-changing problems: the loss of a job, or a sudden financial problem, or a serious illness. But in reality, it’s not just the big things that threaten us: there are millions of dangers surrounding us every day. We humans, as we saw last week, are fragile, short-lived beings, and threats come at us constantly, from all sides.

Psalm 91 is, as Derek Kidner put it, a psalm for danger.

It is a psalm for times of stress, for times of suffering, or for times when we have to confront evil in some way or another. It is for times which require courage, and it is written to give us the courage we need.

And as a fearful person, I can testify personally that every time I am afraid, it is to Psalm 91 that I run. This psalm has been the single most helpful text in the Bible in helping me fight my fears.

But it’s a challenge for us to read initially, because it doesn’t seem (at least at first glance) to fit our experience. So in order to really get out of this psalm what we’re meant to, we need to do a couple of things.

We need to look at what the psalm says (and it’s quite simple).

Then we need to take a step back and look at why what it says is difficult for us to accept.

And finally, we need to take a look at how the rest of the Bible informs this psalm, so that we can preach it to ourselves in all honesty when we are afraid.

Psalm 91 

The psalmist begins with a kind of summary phrase of everything which will follow (v. 1):

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High 

will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 

It starts a general statement, as the pronoun “he” in v. 1 suggests—whoever does this can expect this. So what are we to do, and what can we expect if we do it?

We are to dwell in the shelter of the Most High. 

It’s important to see that right off the bat, he doesn’t talk about seeking shelter, but rather about dwelling in the shelter.

Loanne and I lived in central Florida when we met. Every year, for a couple months, there’s what’s simply called the “storm season”: once a day, usually a little after noon, there is a massive storm. It’s bright and sunny, then in about ten minutes the sky goes completely black, and it starts to rain. It rains enormously, with incredible lightning and thunder in very close proximity, for about a half hour, after which the skies clear as quickly as they filled with clouds, and the sun comes back out again.

So at least once a day (particularly if you have a job which requires you to be outside, like I did), you have to run to find shelter from the storm. You get indoors however you can, to wait the storm out, then when everything’s calm again, you continue on with your life.

This is not the kind of shelter the psalmist talking about.

Our shelter is not a shelter we come into when we need it, but a shelter in which we dwell. It is those who live in the shelter of the Most High who are constantly under his protection.

So after the psalmist makes this general statement, he appropriates it for himself, turning the “he” to “I”: 

I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, 

my God, in whom I trust.” 

So he’s no longer speaking generally. He says, “God is like this, and whoever dwells in his shelter is protected. So I will say, ‘You are my protection. I trust in you.’”

Next, the psalmist spells out for all of us just how all-encompassing God’s protection is for his people. He changes the “I” to “you”, and that “you” is singular throughout the psalm. He’s not talking generally, to a body of people. He’s speaking personally, to you.

V. 3: 

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler 

and from the deadly pestilence. 

He will cover you with his pinions, 

and under his wings you will find refuge; 

his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. 

You will not fear the terror of the night, 

nor the arrow that flies by day, 

nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, 

nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. 

Look at the dangers he lists: they cover a wide range of possibilities. 

There are dangers from outside, that you can see coming: the snare of the fowler, the arrow that flies by day…

And there are dangers that creep up on you, that no one—no matter how strong—can protect themselves from: the deadly pestilence, the terror of the night, the pestilence that stalks in darkness, the destruction that wastes at noonday

No matter how big or small or subtle or obvious the threat is, the message is simple: God will protect you from it. His protection is both warm (like a mother bird covering its babies with her wing), and solid as a rock (a shield and buckler).

And this protection will remain, no matter what is happening all around you. V. 7:

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. 

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place— 

the Most High, who is my refuge— 

10  no evil shall be allowed to befall you, 

no plague come near your tent. 

Think of that old clip from Buster Keaton, where an entire wall of a house falls on him, and—without moving—he comes through an open window to walk away, safe and sound:

That’s what’s happening here. Chaos all around, and none of it touches you, because you have made the Lord your dwelling place. You live in his protection, so nothing can come near you.

And part of the reason you are protected is because God sends help. V. 11: 

11  For he will command his angels concerning you 

to guard you in all your ways. 

12  On their hands they will bear you up, 

lest you strike your foot against a stone. 

This is miraculous protection from on high, divine help come to your aid, guarding you to such an extent that you won’t even stub your toe. 

And the miraculous protection extends to what you will do. V. 13: 

13  You will tread on the lion and the adder; 

the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot. 

It’s similar to what we saw, concerning those threats great and small. I wouldn’t dare walk on a snake (“cobra” is a more appropriate translation than “adder”); I really wouldn’t dare trying to walk on a lion. 

And yet, because you are under God’s protection, you can do just that, metaphorically speaking. In his hands, under his care, you can conquer threats great and small.

Finally, the pronoun changes once again—from “you”, back to “I.”

But it’s not the same “I”—it’s not the author speaking here. At the end of the psalm, this is God himself, speaking of you.

14  “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; 

I will protect him, because he knows my name. 

15  When he calls to me, I will answer him; 

I will be with him in trouble; 

I will rescue him and honor him. 

16  With long life I will satisfy him 

and show him my salvation.” 

In other words, this is not an anonymous pledge from an anonymous psalmist. God himself pledges his protection to his people.

Problem 1: Who Is This For?

This all sounds wonderful. But there are two problems inherent in the way we naturally read this.

The first problem is the question of for whom this psalm applies. Who can say these things about themselves? Who can count on God’s divine protection?

The psalmist tells us, multiple times.

V. 1: It is he who dwells in the shelter of the Most High

V. 9: It is he who has made the Lord his dwelling place.

V. 14: It is he who holds fast to God in love.

And in the second half of the same verse: it is he who knows God’s name.

How can we make ourselves that person? How do we hold fast to him in love? How do we make the Lord our dwelling place? How do we know God’s name? 

We do all of this by setting our affections on him, and trusting him to be all he promised to be for his people. The Old Testament saints already did this, through the intermediary of the priests and the sacrifices, through the Law God gave to Moses.

And in Jesus Christ, God gives us an even better way of doing the same thing. 

God the Son became a man; he lived the perfect life we were meant to live. In fact, Jesus perfectly did what this psalm calls God’s people to do. Jesus dwelt in his Father’s presence. Jesus held fast to his Father in perfect love. Jesus knew his Father perfectly.

At the cross, when he took our sins on himself and suffered judgment for those sins, he served as our intermediary; he removed the sin that separated us from the Father. 

And at his resurrection, he applied his perfect life to us, so that whatever is true of him is true of all those who trust in him.

This is going to sound like a surprising transition, but we’re not changing subjects here. Jesus spoke of trusting in him, placing our faith in him, using the surprising metaphor of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. He’s not speaking literally, obviously; he says it this way to express the depth at which we participate in his life, death and resurrection through faith in him—that is, totally. What is true for him becomes true for us.

And what happens when we trust in him? What happens when we—metaphorically speaking—eat his flesh and drink his blood? 

John 6.56:  

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood ABIDES IN ME, and I in him. 

In other words, when we trust in Jesus Christ for our salvation, when we bank all of our hopes on him and place all of our faith in him for everything we need for eternal life, we become the man of Psalm 91. 

When we trust Christ for our salvation, we dwell in the shelter of the Most High.

When we trust Christ for our salvation, we make the Lord our dwelling place.

When we hold fast to Christ in love, we hold fast to the Father in love.

We are saved in his name.

This psalm is true of anyone who places their faith in Christ. Which means that if are here today and you’re not a Christian, if you place your faith in Christ for the first time here today, then you can go home and pray this psalm with confidence, knowing it is for you.

But even if we see to whom this psalm applies, we still have another problem.

Problem 2: Is This psalm really true?

Many so-called Christians will affirm this psalm loud and strong, saying, “If you are a Christian, then nothing bad will happen to you. You see? He promises to carry you on angels’ wings. He promises to keep you from getting sick. He promises to give you a long life. He says that nothing will harm you.”

Now, we speak against this kind of theology all the time, and we’re right to do so.

But we have to admit that at least on a surface level, it kind of sounds like they’re right. The psalmist does seem to say all those things. The protection he promises here sounds pretty absolute, doesn’t it?  

The problem is that this doesn’t exactly fit our experience. Think of the Christians who were sent into the Coliseum in Rome to be eaten by lions for the entertainment of the crowds. Think about those Christians today who are persecuted for their faith.

Many of you know that one sister ended up in our church because she had fled from persecution in China. She doesn’t know how her family is doing (or even if they’re still alive). She doesn’t know if she’ll be able to stay here, or if she’ll have to go back. 

How can she read this psalm? How can she possibly believe in the protection promised here—protection from enemies—when she’s already lost everything at their hands? 

Most of us have never experienced that kind of persecution or suffering today, but we suffer in other ways. We may suffer ridicule for our faith, or rejection by our family. 

And even outside of suffering for our faith, we all suffer in completely ordinary ways that impact every human being. We get sick. We lose our loved ones. We have relational heartache. 

How can this psalm possibly be true? Particularly when it is filled with promises which seem so absolute? Look at v. 9-10 again:

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place— 

the Most High, who is my refuge— 

10  no evil shall be allowed to befall you, 

no plague come near your tent.

NO EVIL? Really? Because it seems like we are constantly bombarded by evil in our world; even if we haven’t suffered like many others, this evil touches us all in one way or another. 

So how can this psalm possibly be true?

Like every text in the Bible, this one can be very dangerous if taken out of the context of the rest of the Bible. The word for “evil” here is a little vague in the original Hebrew. It encapsulates wickedness, depravity, disaster, and all things in between. So it can be sort of difficult to know exactly what he’s talking about here.

But we understand better when we look at other places the word is used.

Look, for example, at the story of Joseph. 

Joseph’s brothers are filled with jealousy toward him, because of the love their father has for him. So they throw him in a well, sell him into slavery, and tell their father he is dead. Joseph is carried off as a slave into Egypt, sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and spends several years simply wasting there.

But all of that put him in the right place at the right time, to get out of prison, to rise in power in Egypt and to be warned of a coming famine. From his position of power, he prepares the country and its surrounding countries for the famine, and saves millions of lives in the process.

So when Joseph and his brothers are finally reunited, he can give a clear and appropriate analysis of what happened.

He tells them (Genesis 50.20):

 As for you, you meant evil against me… 

He’s using the same word here for “evil” as the psalmist uses in Psalm 91. 

What’s the evil? It’s pretty clear when you read the story: it’s the destruction of his life, the stripping away of everything that made his life worth living. That’s what “evil” is here. (And that’s clearly the context in Psalm 91 as well, which lists a whole series of life-threatening situations.)

But that’s not all there is to say. Joseph goes on (v. 20 again):

 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good...

And what is that “good”? 

…to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 

The “good” God brought about instead of evil is the life of his people. In other words, his brothers threatened his life, but God used their sin to save the life of not only Joseph himself, but of his entire people.

So “evil” here is not that which threatens our comfort, but our life, our salvation. Remember the last promise of God in the psalm (v. 16): 

16  With long life I will satisfy him 

and show him my salvation.” 

He says that if we belong to God, even if we die, our real life will not end; our salvation is assured. Our ultimate good is protected.

And nothing can stand in the way of this promise.

That’s how the psalmist can say (v. 9-10), 

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place— 

the Most High, who is my refuge— 

10  no evil shall be allowed to befall you, 

no plague come near your tent.

Whatever happens, if you have made the Lord your dwelling place, nothing can happen to you which God will not use for your ultimate good. 

This is what Paul meant when he said (in Romans 8.28) that  

…for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

We use that verse so flippantly and so easily, but this verse is a promise for heavy times.

This promise doesn’t protect us from pain; it protects us from evil. The “all things” which “work together for our good” include the worst things we can imagine. 

Which is why the promise is so wonderful—the worst thing you can possibly imagine is no obstacle to God’s protection.

In sickness, even if you suffer, no evil shall be allowed to befall you.

In grief, even if you feel crushed by your pain, no evil shall be allowed to befall you.

In your relationships, even if they hate you and betray you, no evil shall be allowed to befall you.

In persecution, even if they beat you and kill you, no evil shall be allowed to befall you.

Whatever happens to the Christian, not only God can turn it to your good; he will turn it to your good.

Believing Psalm 91 

Now, can we be honest for a moment? These things are hard to believe. They’re easy to throw around when things are going well; they’re not so easy when everything is going wrong.

We love the sound of these things, but our experience—that sometimes bad things do indeed happen to God’s people—could make us hesitant to do anything with them. People who have suffered might have a hard time praying this psalm, because they could be saying things they only half-believe.

So let’s just talk for a moment, in all honesty, about how we can believe this psalm. There are typically two contexts in which we can put this psalm to work in our lives—while we’re preparing for danger, and while we’re in it.

Preparing for Danger

We all have times when everything’s going pretty much okay. There are no major dramas going on, no major threats to our well-being. 

In those times, we tend to approach texts like Psalm 91 a little too lightly, because the danger they describe just seems so remote. 

But it is that remoteness which gives us an opportunity to learn something we might have a hard time hearing if we were suffering: the truth that God is sovereign, even over the most awful situations, and turns it to the good of his children.

In other words, these are the kinds of truths we don’t want to wait to learn. 

When you’re suffering, you don’t want to hear that God is sovereign over suffering, and turns it to the good of his children. You may understand that truth, and accept it on an intellectual level, but I’m sorry, when your kid is sick, you don’t want to even consider the possibility that this is happening for your good or his; you just want him to get better.

So we need to strike while the iron is hot. While we are in relative comfort, we have to train our hearts as diligently and as fiercely as possible to know and believe that no threat from tomorrow ever comes to us outside of our Father’s good will for us.

And if we ever needed a kind of object lesson to help us see it, we need look no further than Jesus. The murder of the Son of God is the most heinous crime imaginable…and yet, God not only turned it into good, but actually planned it for the good of every one of his children, throughout all of human history. 

God is a good God, who will not let his children suffer anything which will harm them in any ultimate way. In his hands, even our suffering is for our good, for our joy, and for his glory. And we need to learn it early.

Because sooner or later, we will suffer, and when we do, if we’re not already used to believing that, we will easily fall into despair.

That being said, how do we come to this psalm when we’re in the midst of suffering?

In Suffering

Look back at the way this psalm is written. 

Does there seem to be any hesitation on the psalmist’s part? Does he ever interject a “maybe”? 

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, will abide in the shadow of the Almighty…I think…?

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place… NOT A LOT of evil will be allowed to befall you...

He doesn’t talk like that. The psalmist has an absolute, rock-solid confidence that when God says, “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him...”, he MEANS it.

And when we pray, we are called to pray with that same confidence.

Many Christians add “…if it’s your will” at the end of their prayers as a kind of just-in-case measure, so they won’t be disappointed if he doesn’t do what they ask.

The mentality behind that add-on comes from James 4.13-16. But that’s not why James told us to think like that; he wasn’t even talking about prayer! He was trying to keep us from arrogance and pretension, not from confidence that the Lord answers prayer.

The Bible does not call us to pray half-heartedly, with doubt that God might not act. It calls us to pray with faith, with full confidence that God will answer our prayers. A psalm like Psalm 91 makes no sense outside of that context. 

So we can pray Psalm 91, and pray it with faith that because we have made the Lord our dwelling place, TRULY, no evil will be allowed to befall us. We can pray every line here, with the iron-clad conviction that he will protect us.

Conclusion

I know that sounds like a contradiction of a lot of what I’ve said so far.

The Bible tells us that God answers our prayers. This psalm tells us that God perfectly protects his people.

But the Bible also tells us that sometimes, God doesn’t give us what we ask, and that sometimes he sovereignly ordains that we walk through suffering, for our good.

This is one of those mysterious tensions that exist in the Bible. We don’t want to eradicate the tension and favor one truth over the other; we want to live in that tension.

Paul says in Philippians 4.5-7:   

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

When we pray, the peace of God guards our hearts and minds because we believe he will give us what we ask in prayer.

And when we pray, his peace guards our hearts and minds because we believe that even if he doesn’t, he is still good, and he is still God.

So when we pray, let us pray with an unshakeable confidence that God will give us what we ask in prayer…and with the humility of a child, which knows that even if he doesn’t, he is still good, and he is still God.

In both cases, God is faithful to preserve us and protect us, as this psalm promises.

In both cases, it is still true, that since you have made the Lord your dwelling place, NO EVIL shall be allowed to befall you.

Only good.