Everyone recognizes there’s a difference between knowing what someone said and understanding what they meant. Several times a day we come across situations where we have to decipher the meaning of what we have heard or read. Here are some examples:
“We will sell gasoline to anyone in a glass container.”
“Students hate annoying professors.”
“Happily they left.”
We’re not in doubt about the words—just the intent behind them and the message they are supposed to convey!
Scripture is no different. It’s easy (and sometimes entirely correct) to say of a text, Well, it means what it says. But even in such instances where that seems to be the case, there is the danger that we could be injecting our own meaning into the words and possibly overlooking/ignoring the writer’s meaning. (Think of how we can make words like faith,”or coming have our meaning rather than the writer’s).
Psalm 91 is a good example of all of this. In the psalm, the writer makes a number of promises concerning those who dwell “in the shelter of the Most High,” and “rest in the shadow of the Almighty,” (v. 1). In the second half of the psalm we read:
If you make the Most High your dwelling—
even the LORD, who is my refuge-
Then no harm will befall you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
They will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread upon the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
Most of us are familiar with the name it/claim it approach to this and other passages. Everything is literalized (despite the fact that we’re in a book of poetry/songs) and we’re told, without qualification, that this is what every believer should expect.
The question is not how well this interpretation plays in a consumer culture, but whether the writer intended what he wrote to be understood this way. Was this his intent—to promise that all believers will have an unbroken experience of success and prosperity?
Fortunately, we’re not without some help in the matter. When the devil was tempting Jesus in the wilderness, he took our Lord to the top of the temple and urged Him to leap off (Matthew 4:5ff). Perhaps Satan had noticed how Jesus was protected by God prior to this time (assuming He was), and wanted to investigate the situation. Perhaps his motive was only to get Jesus to sin. Whatever the case, he invoked Psalm 91 as scriptural support for Jesus jumping.
He had just heard Jesus quote Scripture and place Himself under its authority (4:4), so he shifted his attack accordingly. (This ought to give us pause for, if Satan was bold enough to try to twist the Scripture on Jesus, surely he will not hesitate with us. Furthermore, this episode suggests that Satan not only knows Scripture, he understands its true meaning and was trying to entice Jesus to follow a false understanding).
But Jesus knew and acted better.
In terms of how this helps us to discern the meaning of Psalm 91, we should note that Jesus rejected understanding the psalm in a way that would have permitted Him to needlessly endanger His life. God will protect us, but we cannot be presumptuous and trivialize His mercy. Furthermore, the whole wilderness experience of Jesus suggests that a literalizing of the psalm is out of place. God certainly took care of His Son (angels ministered to Him at the conclusion of His temptations – v. 11), but that didn’t prevent hardship (fasting for forty days, living in the wilderness), or temptation from occurring. However we decide to understand the psalm, we must square it with Jesus’ experience in the wilderness.
It seems to me that Psalm 91 is saying in poetic terms the same truths Paul that shares at the end of Romans 8 (v. 28-39).
- Though we are not sovereign over the circumstances of life, God is and because of that, He is able to bring good out of everything (v. 28).
- If our Father does this, then why should we waste time worrying about those things that oppose us (v. 31)?
- Because our Father is sovereign, nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ (v. 35-39).
If we think about this and other psalms in the way we think about the songs that we sing, I think we’d be on the right track. We sing of entering His gates, holding Jesus’ hand, having our ear pierced, and countless other things with no thought of literally doings any of them. We correctly understand the words to represent certain truths the writers wished to convey. I think if we can manage this with the psalms, we’ll spend less time fretting about our circumstances and more time singing our song. And we do have a great song to sing!