The 91st Psalm was our family’s go-to prayer during emergencies –like when a tornado funnel whirled dangerously close to our living room window in Oklahoma. It’s one of the three Psalms my Mom had us memorize and pray before going to sleep—something I was incredibly grateful for as the years went by and new emergencies arose.
In World War I, many of the troopers recited Ps. 91 daily, earning its moniker as “The Soldier’s Psalm”. Some claim the Commander of the Army’s 91st Brigade even had the Psalm printed on a small card for his men, asking them to pray with it daily. They must have felt particularly close to it given the name of their Division.
Here are three ‘doors’ for understanding it more, which I hope you also find helpful:
1–Context. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned studying different Biblical texts is to look at their context: what precedes and follows them. It turns out that Ps. 90-92 are a unit, all written while Israel was in Exile, yearning for their homeland, embedded with a foreign culture, language, and religion.
Psalm 90 is the opening of Book IV of the Psalter (which has five books total) and includes Psalms 90 – 106. While the previous Book III is full of laments over Jerusalem’s fall and the Exile, Book IV’s tone changes significantly. It takes us back to the time of Moses since Ps. 90 is the only Psalm attributed to the great Hebrew lawgiver. We’re reminded of the Wilderness period before there was a Temple, land or king. It was just the people and their God, which reminds us that even in the most desolate, abandoned situation, God is in charge and reigns. What hope this must have given the Children of Israel.
While it’s not possible that Moses actually wrote this Psalm (formed after the Exodus period), the anonymous author clearly wants to remind us that in God we find our home. Its opening declares unequivocally: ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” (Ps 90:1). How life-saving must have been their growing realization that home wasn’t a physical place but the presence and power of the eternal God.
The English hymn writer, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) captured this in his loved Christian hymn (of the 750 he wrote!):
“O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.” (emphasis added)
2 – Response. And that brings us to Psalm 91 which is a response to the petitions of Psalm 90. Three examples:
- 90:14 petitions: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love”
Ps. 91:5 answers: “You shall not be afraid of the terror by night nor of the arrow that flies by day.”
- 90:16 invokes: “Let your work be manifest to your servants.”
Ps. 91:14 replies: “Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him.”
- 90:17 entreats: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us.”
Ps. 91:3 responds: “Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler…”.
I love that these two Psalms have this meaningful ‘conversation’ of entreaty and response because it mirrors our own prayers when in need. Petition, then declaration. This one-two divine punch destroys fear and lifts us to the astounding reality that God is right here, present, loving us. Wow.
3- Structure. It’s also helpful to know what the author intended by seeing how a text naturally divides. Psalm 91 separates into three sections:
- Verses 1 – 2 are addressed to a believer who already understands the security the Lord provides.
- Verses 3 – 13 is the body of the Psalm offering instruction about the Lord and describing how free and secure life is when we know God. A fowler was one who trapped birds ( 124:7) and can be easily understood as a metaphor whenever we feel trapped by something or someone. The Psalm promises: “Surely he shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler” (Ps. 91:7)
- Verses 14 – 16 are the triumphant climax when God speaks directly. And surely it is the benediction to our lives.
“Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
Please share your experiences with this Psalm of Psalms!