I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for this passage. I was in the Army, and my very first posting after my training was to Fort Hood, TX. The 312th M.I. Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division was sent off to Operation Desert Shield/Storm right after I arrived. On the day before our forces were set to move against Hussein’s forces in order to move him out of Kuwait, I remember going to an impromptu chapel service. The chaplain read out of Psalm 91, and specifically pointed out the psalmist’s promise that the Lord would protect him from “the deadly pestilence,” the “terror of night,” the “arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” Considering we were all very worried about chemical agents being added to the SCUD missiles being sent our way, this Psalm seemed remarkably appropriate.
If you’re familiar with your Bible, then you might know that today’s reading has a rather negative distinction. When Jesus was tested and tempted out in the wilderness, his only weapon in fighting off the Enemy was Scripture. One heavy irony is that he only quoted from Deuteronomy, the book of the Bible that most Christians avoid if they can. But Satan also quoted Scripture, and this passage is it. This is the only time it’s recorded in the Bible, but we know for a fact that he’s perfectly capable of using the same tactic. There’s hardly a false religion or cult out there that doesn’t quote from the Bible to make their case. A lie’s most effective if it’s mixed with the truth.
So why do I include this in a study of the spiritual realm? To answer that question, let’s look at what the Psalm says, then what Satan claimed using it, and then our Lord’s response to the Enemy’s misinterpretation.
First we need to ask, “What’s the main point of the Psalm?” What are the three words which we need to tattoo on our forehead when interpreting Scripture? Context, context, context. The Psalm is a wonderful recitation of the psalmist’s trust in the Lord while surrounded by enemies. The psalmist has been faithful to the Lord, but he sees a vast army of enemies on every side. This is a man who's completely given himself over to the Lord’s sovereignty. The Lord, like a mother bird, has sheltered him under wings. No matter what the enemy lays out as a trap or uses to attack him, none of it will be effective: fowler’s snares, pestilence, night terrors, arrows, etc. Why? Because the Lord has taken it upon himself the responsibility of protecting the psalmist.
And what means will the Lord use to do this? Well, according to the Psalm, the author has angels to keep him from harm. When he’s about to “strike [his] foot upon a stone,” an angel will lift him up and carry him out of danger.
Now, how did the Tempter use this? By deliberately misinterpreting the Father’s protection. We have angels surrounding us? Well, let’s jump off the temple! If God has promised to not let us strike a stone against our foot, then surely he’s going to use these same angels to keep us from being splattered all over the pavement.
And of course our Savior had the perfect response to this. Yes, the Father protects us from all real harm. But we don’t put him to the test like that. We don’t presume on him. If he calls us to put our life in danger in service to his Kingdom, then that’s one thing. But if we take our own initiative and deliberately risk our life presuming that he’s going to pull us out of it, then we’re misreading the purpose of Psalm 91.
Behind this misinterpretation of the Psalm lies a much deeper issue. The point behind the temptation was not recklessly putting your life in danger. This was to be at the temple, the most public building and the center of Jewish religion. Jumping off the temple and floating safely to the ground in front of thousands of witnesses would immediately bring Jesus accolades and publicity. It’s a way of short-circuiting the route to the Cross, which would obviously scuttle the Father’s plan.
At the very base of this temptation and all other decisions are some very basic questions: Am I going to do things God’s way or my way? Am I going to go forward with his plan, or go forward with what seems right to me, with what seems more convenient? Do I belong--body, mind and spirit--to the Savior, or do I belong to myself?
Father God, I thank you for the servants with whom you’ve surrounded me. I thank for the protection you provide which I never see. May I never presume on that. And while we’re at it, let’s do things your way, shall we?
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