The Lord’s Day Morning
June 22, 2008
The Psalms – The Divine Expression of Christian Experience
An Expositional Series in Book IV of the Psalms, Psalms 90-106
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Psalm 91, as we continue to work our way through the Fourth Book of the Psalms, which runs from Psalm 90-106.
Last Lord’s Day, as we began our journey through this great portion of the word of God, we said that the Psalms in large measure answer the question of what a true believer experiences in his or her life with God in this fallen world.
Christian experience is a very important subject, and the Psalms are constantly answering questions for us about what healthy Christian experience looks like. What does it feel like to be a Christian facing sickness, trouble, and sorrow? What ought our affections or desires to be fixed upon in this life? How ought we to react to our circumstances, whether those circumstances are prosperous or filled with adversity?
Well, the Psalms are constantly telling us the answer, but they are telling us the answer in such a way that what we believe is knitted to and expressed in our passion in singing to God in such a way that the deepest truths that God reveals in His word are worked deep down into our own souls, so that we believe with an inner intensity that which we say and sing.
This Psalm today, Psalm 91, a beloved song, a beautiful song, is a song for danger. It’s a psalm for those who are set about on all sides by danger – real danger, intense danger, comprehensive danger, immediate danger – and it tells us how we are to react as believers to that danger. In fact, one of the great themes of Psalm 91 is how believers learn to trust in God in the midst of the most real and intense danger. The psalmist knows that it’s absolutely vital that we understand how to do that. Believers need to believe down to their socks that they are shadowed by God, that they are under the care of God the Almighty – or, in the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:28, that “God [himself] causes all things to work together for good for those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” They’ve got to have that as their immediate and complete response to the dangers and the difficulties and the hard circumstances of life, or they’re going to be left vulnerable when those circumstances come.
In this Psalm, the psalmist presses this home in three stanzas. If you look at the first two verses of Psalm 91, you’ll see them as a testimony of the psalmist himself. Before he starts telling you, Christian, how you ought to respond to danger in your life, he gives a testimony of how he responds to danger in his. And so the first two verses of this Psalm are the psalmist’s own personal testimony as to how he has come to be safe and secure in an unsafe and insecure world because of his trust in God.
Then, in verses 3-13, he gets to the second part of the Psalm, and in the second part of the Psalm, he begins to exhort you, believer, as to why you ought to experience the same safety and security that he experiences in an unsafe and insecure world because you trust in his God – the same God who has given him safety and security in dangerous places.
And then, finally, this Psalm closes in verses 14-16 with God himself speaking to us, and telling us the secret of a person coming to a sense of safety and security in an unsafe and insecure world.
So let’s pray before we read God’s word, and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. You give it to us for our good, and for Your glory; and You get glory when we use it for our good. Help, O Lord, these not to be simply words to us that we repeat thoughtlessly and which we respond to with emptiness. We pray, O Lord, that You would grip our very being by these words, and that You would make them our song, so that when we sing them again back to You at the end of this service, we sing what we believe not by rote, but from the heart and with every part of our being. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God, Psalm 91:
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress,
My God, in whom I trust.’
“For He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
And from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with His pinions,
And under His wings you will find refuge;
His faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
Nor the arrow that flies by day,
Nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
Nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
“A thousand may fall at your side,
Ten thousand at your right hand
But it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
And see the recompense of the wicked.
“Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
The Most High, who is my refuge—
No evil shall be allowed to befall you,
No plague come near your tent.
“For He will command His angels concerning you
To guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
Lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder;
The young lion and the serpent you
Will trample underfoot.
“‘Because He holds fast to me in love,
I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows My name.
When he calls to Me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
And show him My salvation.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
God intends every Christian to experience a measure of safety and security in an unsafe and insecure world, and if we do not know that kind of security that comes from God and His gospel, it leads to all kinds of problems in the Christian life. It may lead to relationship distance. It may lead to an inability to forgive. It may be that it would lead to an inability to repent, or to the fear of man. You see, if we do not rightly understand the security that we have from God in this world, we may look for security to a change of our circumstances: “If things were only different in my life, then I would be secure.” And if we think that way, we’re looking in the wrong place for security. Or, if we are looking for security in this world and not to God for our security, some experience, some traumatic experience that we may have experienced in the past or may be experiencing now, some experience that we may have had even from someone who ought to be loving and caring for us and towards us, but who has deeply wounded us, this very experience in the sense to get safety and protection from that experience might lead one to a relational distance and remoteness that God does not intend us to have.
Or perhaps our desire to be safe in an unsafe world and to look for safety in our circumstances might lead us to be unable to forgive. In our circumstances where we feel out of control and where we feel wounded, we may be trying to keep our sense of safety by refusing to forgive the one who wounded us, by retaining the power over them that we feel that we have, and by grasping for a safety that we actually cannot get by refusing to forgive.
Or, contrary-wise, we may be attempting to retain our safety by refusing to repent. We think, ‘If I acknowledge what I’ve done, I will be unsafe. I will be rejected, and therefore I’m not going to acknowledge what I’ve done. I’m going to be safe by refusing to acknowledge what I’ve done, refusing to repent.’ Or, if we get our safety from the world, we may be ruled by the fear or man: ‘Oh, no! If I stand up for what I believe, I won’t be safe. I’ve got to go along with the culture around me.’
And so in a thousand ways, not knowing where our safety comes from critically cripples the Christian life. God intends us to be safe in Him, not in our circumstances, and He intends that to have massive ramifications for every area of life. And the psalmist is here to tell us about it. This Psalm is designed to tell us how to trust in God in dangerous circumstances; how to know a safety and a security in God when nothing about the situation that we’re in is safe or secure. The whole object of this Psalm is to bring us to a right trust of God in the midst of danger, whatever kind of danger that we’re in, whatever kind of fear that we’re experiencing, whatever kind of lack of safety or insecurity has come into our experience. And so I want to look at this great word with you for a few minutes this morning.
I. The psalmist’s testimony.
The first thing that you see in this passage is the testimony of the psalmist himself. Before he ever sets out to tell you how you can experience security in God, he wants to give a word. And here’s his word: ‘I’m not telling you about something that I don’t know about; I have found this security, not because I’m in an un-dangerous condition – in fact, I’m set about on every side by danger; but I have learned the secret of God’s security in this insecure world. I am safe… [he says in verses 1-2] …I am safe in God’s person.’
Listen to what he says:
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress,
My God, in whom I trust.’
The saints [you see he is saying]…the saints are safe at home with God. They find shelter and refuge in God. God shadows them. He who truly relies on God shall surely have His protection. That’s what the psalmist is saying to us, and he piles up metaphors for security and names of God in order to drive this home. Listen to the words that he uses in verses 1 and 2: Shelter; shadow; refuge; fortress.
During the great tornado that touched down in Jackson in April, many people caught at the intersection of Adkins and Ridgewood Roads fled into the grocery store, and went into the grocery store and went into the freezer for shelter as the storm came down on top of them. They left their cars in the middle of the road! They were glad for the shelter that they gained from the storm – very glad, especially in light of the woman who spoke to my wife about her harrowing circumstance. She was trapped on an island with her Labrador in the middle of the Pearl River as the tornado passed over. How she would have loved to have found shelter in that storm!
Well, the psalmist is asking you to think of those moments in your life when you have found shelter in some tangible danger and realize that God himself is your shelter in every danger. He is your shadow. Have you ever been out on a blazing hot 110-degree Mississippi August afternoon, longing to find a tree to be shadowed under? And you found it, and immediately you got relief from the blazing rays of the sun. And the psalmist is saying God is your shadow, and He is your refuge. I can remember times during graduate school where the thought crossed my mind, “If I can just get back home to be with Mom and Dad, there I’ll be safe.” Now, home may not be where you’re safe, but maybe you know some place that’s safe, and the psalmist is saying, ‘You think of where that safe place is… let me tell you a better place of safety. It’s safety in God, and He is our fortress.’
Maybe you’re here this morning thinking, ‘That’s what I need in my circumstance. With what I’m facing, I need a castle around me!’ And here’s the psalmist saying He’s your fortress. And notice how in the four names of God he presses you back into the realization that your safety doesn’t come from your circumstances, it comes from who your God is. What does he call God? He’s Most High. Is there anything in this world higher than Him? Is there any situation that’s greater than Him? He’s most high, He is almighty, He is omnipotent; all power resides in Him. Is there any danger that you can face that is greater than His power? He is Almighty. He is Lord. This is the word of the sovereign God. This is the name that Isaiah loves to call God, because He is the Sovereign One, and He is …. [listen to the word of verse 2]…He’s not just God, He is “my God.”
So there He is. He’s Most High, Almighty, Lord, my God…so here’s the psalmist saying, ‘I’m set about on every side by trouble. I’m set about on every side by a situation, by a circumstance, that is unsafe and insecure.’ And he says, ‘Hear me loud and clear: my home address is security! My home address is safety, and it’s not because of my circumstances, it’s because of the person of my God. I dwell with Him. I abide with Him.’ And so the psalmist is saying, ‘Before I tell you what I’m about to tell you in verses 3-13, I want you to know this: I’m not telling you about something that I haven’t experienced myself. I have experienced the safety and security of God in this unsafe and insecure world, and when I exhort you to it, I’m exhorting you to it because I’ve already experienced it. I know that it’s real.’
II. The psalmist’s exhortation to us:
And then he comes to verses 3-13, and he gives this great exhortation, and the exhortation is simply this: ‘You, believer…you, Christian, can be safe in all times and in all circumstances because of God’s providence over you.’
Hear me loud and clear: These words are striking in verses 3-13, and they could be read to be saying that those who trust in the Lord will never ever experience troubles in this world…that God will spare them from all the things that wage war against them…that He will deliver them out of hard circumstances. But understand, that is not what the psalmist means, and I’ll prove it to you by pointing you to what Jesus says about this Psalm in Matthew 4. But for right now, I want you to understand this. What the psalmist wants you to take comfort in is not that God will spare you hard circumstances in your life, or that He will get you out of hard circumstances in your life – even though He often does. That’s not the ultimate reason why the psalmist wants you to be safe and secure. The ultimate reason he wants you to be safe and secure is because God’s providence is comprehensive and minute. It stretches all the way down to the smallest detail of your life. Not a hair on your head can be touched apart from the sovereign discretion and will of your heavenly Father, and the psalmist wants us to understand this: that our God, because of His faithfulness, always delivers us or covers us. He may not deliver us out of a situation, but He will cover us in a situation. And very frankly, most often He does both. He both delivers and covers us. It’s not that He will spare us of all these difficult circumstances, but He will deliver and He will cover us in these difficult circumstances.
The safety of the saints is spelled out in verses 3-4: God will deliver, God will cover, because of His faithfulness.
Many of you know the name Robert Rayburn. This was a favorite Psalm of his, and as a young minister he had often preached to his congregation on the theme of Romans 8:28, that God causes all things to work together for those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose.
Well, he had served as a chaplain in World War II, and had come back from the European Theater where he had seen action with a field artillery unit in both France and in Germany, and he was busily and happily involved in his first congregation in Chicago, Illinois, ministering to the college church in Wheaton. And in 1950, he got a phone call, and the phone call was from the Chaplain of the Fifth Army in Chicago. He said, “Bob, you have been called up to serve in the Korean War.”
Now, when Bob was in Europe, his first child was born. By this time, Bob was a young pastor, pastoring a congregation in Chicago, with three very small children. And very frankly, he said, horror gripped his heart when he thought of leaving that young wife and those three little babies to head off to war in Korea. And so he talked with the Chaplain of the Fifth Army, and the Chaplain of the Fifth Army assured him, “Bob, you have nothing to worry about. There’s no way that you’re going to get shipped out to Korea. They’ll send the National Guard folks first, and their chaplains will go with them. You’ll probably do a couple of years' tour of duty here in the United States, and then you can come on back to Chicago and keep working at your church again.” And so Bob said, “Well, when I get assigned to wherever my camp is, should I buy a house for my wife and children and have them come from Chicago to be with me?” The Chaplain said, “Absolutely. Find them a house near the base and you can spend the two years together.” (He had been signed up for 21 months of active service.)
Well, they assigned him to Camp Carson, Colorado and he went there; and with the help of a very kind Christian couple, found a house for Laverne and their three children to come and live with him there at Camp Carson while he was stationed there. And the day before Laverne and the children arrived, he received orders to report to a camp in California for immediate deployment to Korea. So his wife and children spent the war in Colorado, and he was shipped out within a matter of days to the Far East.
When he arrived in Japan, he met with the head Chaplain of the Eighth Army, and the Chaplain met with eight chaplains. He said, “I need to ask you to volunteer for something that I can’t assign you to. I need one of you to volunteer to be assigned to an airborne unit. I need to know what denomination you are.” And five of them raised their hands and said, “We’re Roman Catholic.” And he said, “I can’t assign you to the 187th, because we’ve already got a Catholic chaplain for the 187th. I need a Protestant.” Well, the Baptist pastor there…[that leaves only three of them]…the Baptist pastor there was over fifty years old, and he said, “Chaplain, I’m just not much for jumping out of airplanes. I’m over fifty years old.” And the Methodist chaplain said, “I’m just not for jumping out of airplanes, period!” And Bob Rayburn very frankly didn’t want to jump out of airplanes, and he was just about to utter the words, “Not me, Chaplain!” and he said he felt checked by God in his heart, and he remembered the words that God has promised in Psalm 91, that He would give His angels charge over you, and He would not allow your foot to be dashed against the rock. And he said, “Well, Chaplain, I guess it’s me.”
And so there he was as a young man that had promised his wife that he wouldn’t be leaving the country, certainly wouldn’t be in a combat zone, and here he was being assigned to an airborne unit. So he arrives in Korea, he’s assured by the sergeant in that unit that he’ll have weeks and weeks to practice. He had never jumped out of a plane in his life. Two days later, the sergeant called him in and he said, “Chaplain, we’re going on a jump tomorrow, and I want you to go with the boys.” He was assigned to the 187th Regimental Combat Team out of the Eighth Army. “It’s going to be a night jump,” the sergeant said, “and we’re going to be jumping behind enemy lines. I want you to go.”
Well, Bob Rayburn said, “I was absolutely petrified, but I didn’t want those young men to think that I didn’t believe what I said when I told them that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose. And so I wanted to go on that jump, although I was absolutely petrified.” And he said, “Lord, just do not cause my witness to be ruined by my fear.”
So the next day, he’s on that plane and he’s equipped and hooked up, and sitting there; and he’s absolutely sick – so sick that he’s almost sick on his stomach. And he said, “Lord, just help me not to dishonor You by the way I carry myself.” He got on the plane, they took off, and he fell asleep. Slept for two hours. The men all around him said, “Man! That Chaplain is cool as a cucumber! Look at him. He’s so calm. He never jumped before, and he’s asleep!” The sergeant had to wake him up just moments before the jump. The sergeant pushed him out of the door and as he came down – he’d been taught at least in his ground training to roll – his landing was so soft. He landed on the soft mud of a river bank. Everybody else but the sergeant – everybody else! – landed in the middle of the river. Not Rayburn, and not the sergeant! And he had been forced to carry a pistol, because the Geneva Conventions were not being acknowledged by the Communist troops, and so he and the sergeant actually had to provide cover for the other troops as they landed in the water and tried to make their way to shore with their parachutes.
And over and over, he remembered the promises of Psalm 91.
Now you may be saying, “Look, my problem is not Communists shooting at me as I jump out of airplanes in a night jump for the first time, never having jumped before. My problem is my husband, and I can’t get rid of him!” Or, “My problem is my wife,” or “My problem is my children” or “My problem is my parents,” or “My problem is my job.” Or, “My problem is my body. And it’s all nice to hear, Ligon, about a chaplain that the Lord spared, and the words of Psalm 91 in the midst of war, but I haven’t been delivered from my problems.”
Well, let me just remind you of this. Did you know that Satan quoted Psalm 91? The devil quoted Psalm 91. You know where he quoted it? He quoted it in the wilderness to Jesus, in Matthew 4. You remember what he said to Jesus? ‘Jesus, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple, because You know what the Bible says: God will give His angels charge over you, and He will not allow your foot to be dashed against the rock.’ And you know what Jesus says? “You will not test the Lord your God.”
Now, it’s fascinating. God did send His angels to guard and keep and protect His Son. He didn’t do it to spare Him from the cross. Where’d He do it? He sent those angels to minister to Him in the garden, to prepare Him for the cross. God did not deliver Him from His troubles, but He covered Him in His troubles, and He enabled Him to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
And, my friends, God always delivers or covers His people, one way or another. You remember what Jesus himself said: “Do not fear the one who can kill the body. Fear the one who can take both the body and the soul, and cast it into hell.” You see what Jesus is saying. He’s saying that if you fear God, there’s nothing else to fear in this world. If you fear God, there is no un-safety in this world that can match His strength and power. If you trust in Him, if you believe in Him, He will always deliver and cover you, no matter what your circumstance.
III. God’s promises are security only for His people.
Now, my friends, that promise is not for everybody. That promise is not made indiscriminately. That promise is made only for those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, and God makes that clear when He speaks, because the third part of this Psalm is in verses 14-16. God himself speaks those words, and He tells us that we are safe, not in being rescued from every evil circumstance in life, but we are safe in faith in Him – a faith that is evidenced and manifested by our love for God, our knowledge of God, and our prayer to God…our love to God, our personal knowledge of Him, and our communion with Him in prayer. Look at what He says:
“‘Because He holds fast to me in love,
I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows My name.
When he calls to Me, I will answer him….’”
You see, God is speaking to us about the requirements for those who would know this kind of safety and security in every unsafe and insecure circumstance of life. What’s the requirement? Faith in Him.
How do you know you have that faith? You love God; you know who He is; and, you commune with Him in prayer. Those, you see, are the marks of real piety. They are the evidences of grace and faith. And so the Lord makes it clear that those who trust in Him will know His covering and His care, whether He delivers us from our circumstances or whether He covers us in our circumstances.
Some of you have read the writings of Simone Weil. She was an anarchist, a soldier, a factory worker, a labor organizer, a school teacher, a mystic, a resistance fighter, a philosopher. She was born in 1909, in Paris, France, to an affluent close-knit Jewish family, and when she was ten years old, she marched into the family room and announced to her parents that she had become a Bolshevik and that from then on she was going to be reading the Communist party newspaper. By the time she was in college, she was critiquing Marxism, although she never ever relented in her assault against capitalism. She is an amazing young woman. When she was in England while France was occupied by German forces, she refused to eat more food than those who were in her home country were eating on their rations day by day, to be in solidarity with her family and her friends back in her home country. Towards the end of her life (her very short life), she began to be very interested in Christianity, and she wrote in one of her books these words:
“The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.”
Now there are things that we could actually quibble with even in that sentence, but you see what she’s getting at. Christianity does not promise you that you will escape from suffering, but it does promise you that God will use the suffering which He has appointed for His own purposes and that He will cover you, even though He deliver you not.
My friends, it is that truth worked deep down into our hearts that God causes all things to work together for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose…it is that profound belief in the person and providence of God that allows us to be safe and secure, and brave and courageous in a world that is anything but safe and secure. May God grant that you would believe His word.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the truth of Your word. Work it by Your Holy Spirit, the sovereign blessed third Person of the Trinity, deep down into our hearts and bones, so that it is the very instinct of our character to say, “He is my God. I trust in Him.” This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Take your hymnals in hand and turn with me, and let us sing back to God Psalm 91, in the words of the beautiful gospel song, No. 84, Under the Care of My God, the Almighty.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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