Friday, February 7, 2014

Sermon: The promise of protection (Ps 91)

The Promise of Protection (Ps 91:1-16)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2010

Most people's occupations do not place them in dangerous situations, and most people are content to keep it that way. For the adventuresome few, however, there is a desire to test their survival skills.
Bear season opened on a cold, crisp morning at the brothers' hunting lodge. John wanted to get an early start, but James wanted to stay in bed awhile longer. So John went out and soon found a huge bear. He shot at it but only wounded it enough to make it mad. The enraged bear charged toward him so fast that John dropped his rifle and started running for the cabin as fast as he could. He was quick, but the bear was quicker and gained on him with every step. Just as he reached the open cabin door, he tripped on a branch and fell flat on his face. Too close behind to stop, the bear tripped over him and went rolling into the cabin. John jumped up, closed the cabin door, and yelled to James inside... "You skin this one; I'll get another." (Adapted from Hodgin 2004:185)
Sometimes what keeps a person from harm is just dumb luck, like tripping on a branch. It would not be wise, however, to depend on that sort of thing all the time. We need a more reliable source of security. We need The Promise of Protection that God offers.

Our text is Ps 91, a familiar passage to many. It describes one of the primary advantages of knowing God, which is having the benefit of His protection.1 The author wants you, his readers, to know that because the Lord is his God, He protects him,2 and that if the Lord is your God, He will also protect you.

The psalm divides neatly into two parts (Ps 91:1-8 and Ps 91:9-16), each part beginning with a statement about the prerequisite for this protection. Who qualifies for God's protection? Look at vv. 1 and 9.
Ps 91:1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.... 9 If you make the Most High your dwelling...
Twice the psalmist states that...

I. God's protection is exclusive (Ps 91:1,9).
  • It benefits those who dwell with Him.
What does it mean to dwell with God? Does it mean living in a particular city, like Jerusalem or, perhaps, New York? How does the psalmist describe this place?
  • In v. 1, he calls it a secluded or secret area. When Linda and I first received the invitation to come to Salemville from New York, we could not find it on the map. Is that what the psalmist means by secluded or secret?
  • The title he uses to describe God in vv. 1 and 9 offers another clue. This is the place of the "Most High," which suggests somewhere elevated, out of harm's reach.
This is, of course, not a literal reference to a physical location. It is the figurative expression of a person who knows God well enough to get close to Him.

In other words, divine protection is not for everyone, perhaps not even for all who claim to be God's people. Charles Spurgeon, the famous 19th c. English preacher, lamented a common practice among Christians when he observed that....
Every child of God looks towards the [secret place], yet all do not dwell [there]; they run to it at times, and enjoy occasional approaches, but they do not habitually reside in [His]...presence. (n.d. 2:88)
God's protection is for those who remain in God's presence, who have a close and abiding relationship with Him.3

Which of these descriptions fits you, Spurgeon's or the psalmist's? If you want the kind of protection this passage describes, you must make God's place your place. So, are you dwelling with God?
  • Do you have a close relationship with Him?
  • Do you have a deep attachment to Him?
He must be the chief object of your love.

Inevitably you will encounter circumstances that are difficult or dangerous—beyond your control—whether financial, emotional, or physical. The psalmist and God say that if you meet these criteria—if you do, indeed, have a close relationship with God as well as a deep attachment to Him —then you can expect the kind of protection they describe here.

So what is this protection like? The psalmist continues to use figurative speech, comparing divine protection to more familiar things.
  • In vv. 3-4, he compares it to the protection a mother bird offers its young (Cohen 1960:301).4
Ps 91:3 Surely he will save you from the fowler's snare and from the deadly pestilence. 4a He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge...
  • In vv. 4-6, he compares it to the protection a shield offers a soldier.5
Ps 91:4b ...his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. 5 You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, 6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.
After reading these verses several times, it struck me that the description does not always match the figure. Did you notice the one danger listed in both illustrations? What is common to vv. 3 and 6? ... Pestilence (contagious disease). Neither a bird nor a shield can protect against pestilence. So, either psalmist does not know what he is talking about, or he is saying that...

II. God's protection is extensive (Ps 91:3-6).
  • It covers more than one expects.
Divine protection does, indeed, extend beyond these figures. God does more for His people than a bird can do for its young and more than a shield can do for a soldier. His protection does not have the limitations that restrict familiar, natural defensive measures.

When a person buys a major appliance, it usually comes with a protection plan that guarantees the product will operate as advertised. The warranty covers defects in workmanship but not normal wear and tear or the unexpected power surge that can fry the electronics. A company cannot offer much more and stay in business, and a consumer makes the purchase with that understanding. God's protection plan has no such limitations; it covers more than you expect.

This means that you should not lose heart when you come to the end of your resources and the problem you face looms as large as ever. God can overcome what appears impossible to you, because He has abilities that exceed any you can assemble and apply.

The next two verses illustrate one of the effective resources He has at His disposal.
Ps 91:11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; 12 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Here, we see that...

III. God's protection is extraordinary (Ps 91:11-12).
  • It possesses a supernatural element.
He appoints angels to care for those who dwell with Him, and the Bible records several examples.6
  • An angel protected Isaac when Abraham was about to sacrifice him.
  • An angel protected the Israelites when Egyptian forces were about to destroy them.
  • A host of angels protected Elisha when the Aramean army tried to capture him.
  • An angel protected King Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem when the Assyrians besieged them.
  • An angel protected Daniel and his friends when the Babylonian king Nebucadnezzar was going to execute them.
  • Twelve legions of angels (= approximately 144,000) stood ready to protect Jesus when soldiers came to arrest him.
Furthermore, the psalmist says in v. 11 that angels offer constant, comprehensive protection.
Ps 91:11 ...his angels...guard you in all your ways....
They are able to deliver you from whatever kind of danger you may encounter "in the varied activities of life" (Cohen 1960:303).

Does that mean you can always depend on angelic assistance no matter what the circumstances? ...No. You may recall what Satan suggested to Jesus, when they were standing "on the highest point of the temple" (Matt 4:5), that Jesus could prove the trustworthiness of this verse.
Matt 4:6 "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written [in Ps 91]: "He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."
Did Jesus fall for this (pun intended)? No. He knew that was not the intent of the verse. The psalm has an unexpected or unavoidable danger in view, not one that is superfluous or self-imposed (Briggs 1907 2:281). The way Satan wanted Jesus to apply this verse was not only false, it was a betrayal of the faith that characterizes one who dwells with God. Look again at v. 2.
Ps 91:2 I will say of the LORD, "He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust."
Satan wanted Jesus to test God not trust Him.

Sometimes God allows you to suffer through no fault of your own. You may know the reason or you may not. Either way, your choice is often whether or not you will trust Him to do what is best for you in the long run.7 If, however, you deliberately put yourself in danger, you may actually forfeit His protection, because such behavior is contrary to "dwelling with God." God wants you to trust Him not test Him.

Up to this point, the psalmist has been extolling the wonders of God's protection. In the last three verses, God, Himself, speaks, confirming what the
human author has stated.8
Ps 91:14 "Because he loves me," says the LORD, "I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name."
Then God outlines the procedure He follows, adding a few extras in vv. 15-16, perks that go beyond simple protection.
Ps 91:15 He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. 16 With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.
Here, we see that...

IV. God's protection is expansive (Ps 91:14-16).
  • It includes several fringe benefits.
The first thing God says about the one who dwells with Him is that God will answer when the believer calls. This never ceases to amaze me: that the Creator of the universe is poised, listening attentively when one of His people cries for help, and is ready to go into action on that person's behalf.9 Notice the two parts in that opening statement.
Ps 91:15a He will call upon me, and I will answer him....
God assumes that when we need His protection, we will ask Him for it. He is expecting it.

If you need help with something, it is usually easier to ask a family member or a close friend than it is to ask a total stranger or even a casual acquaintance. So it is with you and God. If you have the close relationship that dwelling with God implies, it is easy for you to approach Him when you need Him. Furthermore, you will have learned that He is responsive to your prayer for help.

The second thing God says is that He will be there when the believer is in trouble.10 Notice that this assurance comes before the promise of deliverance, perhaps because there are times when deliverance is not immediate.

Linda and I were driving very late one night from South Carolina to New York. Construction forced us to take a lengthy detour, and we went from a six-lane interstate to a two-lane highway—although the term highway makes it sound bigger than it actually was. This was a narrow road allowing one lane of traffic in either direction, with no lights and no shoulder, just a ditch.

The only other vehicles were tractor trailers. They were traveling at 65-70 miles per hour, as if they were still on the interstate, and all we could see were their headlights rushing at us. The trucks barely fit in their side of road, and we could not tell whose lane they were in until they were right on top of us. We were in a little Toyota and, although we managed to avoid getting crushed, each passing truck threatened to blow us off the road. It was not a pleasant experience.

We could not stop because of the trucks behind us, and we could not pull over because of the ditch beside us. There was no place to go but straight ahead. Deliverance lay in front of us. It is in this kind of situation—where deliverance is not immediate—that it is comforting to have the Lord's presence.

Whether the danger you face is too many trucks or too many bills or too many health problems, if you stay close to God, He stays close to you. He is present when you are in trouble.

God continues, saying that He will deliver the believer and honor him. The Lord could fulfill His promise of protection by helping us when we are in trouble and letting us go on from there; that would be enough. Yet He says that He will do more than deliver us; He will also honor us. The basic meaning of this Hebrew word is "to be heavy or weighty." The sense here is that God continues to do good things for us, weighing us down with His favor.

There is a Hebrew song for the Feast of Passover that illustrates God's continued goodness toward His people, even after He delivered them (Glatzer 1969:45). The verses list the things God did when He rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and after each item, the chorus responds with an Aramaic term that means, "It would have been enough." For example...
  • If He had sunk our oppressors in the midst of the sea, but not satisfied our needs in the desert for 40 years... It would have been enough.
  • If He had satisfied our needs in the desert for 40 years, but not fed us manna... It would have been enough.
  • If He had fed us manna, but not given us the Sabbath... It would have been enough.
  • If He had given us the Sabbath, but not brought us to Mt Sinai... It would have been enough.
  • If He had brought us to Mt Sinai, but not given us the Torah... It would have been enough.
  • If He had given us the Torah, but not brought us to the land of Israel... It would have been enough.
...and so on. Fourteen verses and the same number of choruses make the song a little repetitious, but it makes a clear statement: The Lord does a whole lot more for His people than just protect them.

If you have been cultivating a close relationship with God for some time now, you should have noticed the cumulative benefit of that effort. You should realize that God does more than protect you. He directs you, supports you, encourages you, teaches you, strengthens you, thrills you—the list is endless because He is generous, weighing you down with the benefits of His favor.

God concludes in v. 16, saying that He will satisfy the believer with long life and show him salvation. It is possible that by long life, God means eternal life (so Dahood 1965-70 2:334),11 but when the Old Testament speaks about long life, it is usually referring to this world. Long life is the reward of those who devote themselves to God. That is what Moses told the Israelites before they entered Canaan.12
Deut 30:20 ...love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD...will give you [long life]....
Long life is a common result of God's protection. There are exceptions, of course; some believers do not reach old age, their "threescore years and ten" (Ps 90:10), but a commitment to the Lord is generally conducive to long life.13

The longer you dwell with God and the closer you get to God, the greater is your contentment. That is not to say everything is perfect. On the contrary, knowing God makes you more aware of your imperfections. The point is that however old you are—or however old you feel—you realize that He is sufficient for every need you have in this life and the next.

Ps 91 is a testimony to God's loving care. If you want to bolster your confidence of that care in whatever conflict you encounter, then remember the four lessons of this passage.
  • His protection is for those who dwell with Him, for those who enjoy a close relationship with the Lord.
  • His protection is not quite what we expect; it is better, because it exceeds the models of protection we know.
  • His protection has a supernatural element to it, for He has appointed angels to keep watch over His people.
  • His protection has several fringe benefits; not only does He care for His people, not only does that care exceed familiar examples, but He gives much, much more.
All this is The Promise of Protection God makes to His people, the provision He offers to you.

For the Bibliography and Endnotes, see the pdf here.