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!
I really enjoyed reading your explanations. I will read Psalm 91 from now on with a fresh pair of eyes. Thank you for sharing your insights.
So helpful and insightful Madelon. Thank you!!
Thank you, Madelon, for these wonderful “doors”. They do open up a whole new appreciation for this psalm. I looked up modern-day definitions for two (KJV) words in the first verse. To dwell means to live as a permanent resident. So when we dwell in the secret place of the most High, we are permanent residents! It also means to live in a given condition or state. So, we live in this secret place in a permanent condition of harmony and safety and in a perfect state of health. Then I looked up the word abide and I found that… Read more »
I memorized Psalm 91, cherish it and have encouraged my Sunday School students to tuck it into their hearts!. Didn’t Mary Baker Eddy say that Psalm 91 is the basis of Christian Science? It is such a thorough declaration of God’s love and protection of our lives. Thank you, Madelon! Rosalinda Johnson, Auckland, NZ
My goodness, context really does make a difference! What a wonderful mother you had to instruct her children in memorizing not just one long psalm but two others as well. And how practical they proved to be. Thank you for explaining the structure of Psalm 91. Having God suddenly be the speaker in verses 14-16 can be puzzling. Someone once explained that verse 7, “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee” doesn’t have to mean people are being killed all over the place; it can mean… Read more »
Often I go to Bible Gateway to read or have read to me each time a different Bible translation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which provides so much comfort and guidance. Thank you SO MUCH dear Madelon for inspiring me to now do the same with the 91 Psalm, which I will start doing TODAY!!!!
Dear Madelon, I really liked your idea about the one-two divine punch: “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.” I have a friend who lost his son as the result of a single coward punch by a drunken assailant outside a restaurant. The young man was just trying to help his friend by bending down to lift him up. The… Read more »
Speaking of “dwelling place” I love Isaac Watts “our eternal home” so I looked up what Bibles call that from the 14th c. to now and I found a dozen in the past 30 years which use “home”! One even says “our eternal home” – it’s TPT on BibleGateway.com – The Passion Translation – a new one that I don’t know a lot about, but I’m happy that BibleGateway has included it for us to compare. I much prefer “home” to “dwelling place” so was happy to see that the Bible is leaning that way… 🙂
My uncle Frank, who was a listed Practitioner shared a short article with me, the author IirvingTomlinson, which shared, thinking this is the author. The title of the pamphlet, The Secret, took me straight to the 91st Psalm. The secret place, understanding our Father, Mother, God, and our relationship with Him. Wow, that was it, what a joy, perfect God, and perfect man as He created, the Secret Place. Our dear Leader, Mary Baker Eddy surely learned this through out her life, and shared with us! I have learned how important it is to hold fast to this Psalm, and… Read more »
I am currently reading a biography of Jimmy Stewart. His father gave him an envelope with Ps 91, the night before he was sent off to WWII. He committed it to memory, As Commander of his Squadron he said he literally shouted Ps 91 while flying in dangerous situations. He did not lose one man in his Squadron during the war.
It was a time when men couldn’t find work, but my dad’s friend offered him a job as a lumberjack, so he and my mom drove from Nebraska to Pocatello, ID, where he worked. During that time, I was born. After nine months my dad left his job, and the three of us drove back to NE. It was freezing weather and I became ill, slipping in and out of consciousness. My mother knew the 91st Psalm by heart and she continued to pray out loud with each word. We were on a country road with snow as high as… Read more »
Madelon, thank you so much for your blog. It is wonderful. Have you read Zealot by Reza Aslan?
Dear Madelon, I always relish the communications from you, and Ps 91, and the idea of including the Ps 90, and 92 is so expansive. I must also say how I have enjoyed reading the comments by other readers and their stories. It is a bit like a testimony meeting and you reply to them all, a feat on its own. I am looking forward to sharing with Sunday School class and appreciating the ideas you share so much. Those little darlings deserve nothing but the very best and it is so exciting to listen to their questions and share… Read more »
Thank you Madelon for your very great help. As others have said I will read again the 91st Psalm with new eyes.
That’s so beautiful and helpful, Madelon. Thank you!
Thank you for the inspiration beautiful explantions.
Whenever there is a thunderstorm or really bad weather I recite Psalm 91. Immediately the storm stops and calms down a great deal! It is a miraculous psalm. I try to recite before bedtime too!