Whether we want to admit it or not, we all wrestle with fear in our lives. When our greatest fears overwhelm us, we desperately look for answers that still leave us insecure. In this message on Psalm 91, Matt Mason teaches us that God is our strength and refuge for when we face our greatest fears. When we run to God for shelter in the storms of life, we find our ultimate, lasting comfort and rest.
- God confronts our greatest fears by letting us see how big he is.
- The blessings of God’s covenant—including the protection promised in Psalm 91—come only to those who trust in God.
- Jesus is the Shelter of the Most High, Jesus has conquered death, and Jesus will never leave us.
If you would open your Bible to Psalm 91, it’s what we’ll be studying together. The title of my message is “The God Who Delivers From Fear.” There’s not a person who doesn’t encounter, struggle with, fears of some sort or another. And there would be some embarrassing fears that we’d probably want to hold behind our backs and not make other people aware of. If, for example, if a cockroach came crawling up to me right now, I cannot predict what would happen, but it would be embarrassing. You’d probably see the worst Bruce Lee impression you’ve ever seen.
We all have fears. I fear rodents of all kinds. I fear—I wasn’t anticipating…this kind of feels like a purging experience. I think I’m getting free! This is great––rodents, rats, stinging insects, bees, wasps, right? Heights to some degree. These are things that maybe many other people fear as well. We think about these things. We’re afraid of these. I’m afraid of needles. I want to avoid them at all costs. Maybe some of you identify with some of these small sort of petty, everyday fears. You might not. These might not be on your list of everyday petty sort of fears.
But even though you might not experience those exact small fears, I suspect that if we talked about more serious fears, that you would agree with those. I fear failure; fear of rejection. I’m afraid of apostasy, especially when I hear of someone that I know or someone I’ve heard of who formerly made a profession of faith and then they deny the faith. That creates a kind of inner white noise. A kind of worry rises up, “Will I persevere all the way to the end? I thought that brother was solid in the faith.” I’m afraid of apostasy.
The word “cancer” scares me. I’ve seen what it can do. The loss of loved ones scares me. I lost my dad when I was young. I saw that up close, experienced that personally. And the idea that at some point if I live long enough I’m going to go through something like that again—it’s troubling. Scripture calls death the “last enemy.” That’s scary. Not so much what happens after death, but the dying part. There are fears in our life. There are people controlled to various degrees and in varying ways by fear, anxiety, worry—people assaulted by fear and worry in our everyday lives.
And one of the things I think we’re constantly doing as people assaulted by fear and worries: we’re always sizing up threats. We’re always sizing up our world. Isn’t this true? We’re sizing up the threats, the things that are in opposition to our sense of peace and security and wellbeing. We’re sizing them up, and then in contrast, alternately, we’re sizing up our hopes. We’re sizing up the things that offer us refuge from our greatest fears.
We do this instinctively. Nobody has to tell us or train us how to do this. We just do this instinctively from a young age. And depending on which one seems bigger in the moment—namely that fear that I’m looking at or the hope that potentially offers me refuge—depending on how that exercise goes, I either come out of it feeling safe, feeling secure, stable in my life, or on the other hand, I come out with greater worry than I had when I went into the exercise of sizing up the world that I’m living in.
And the thing—maybe you identify with this—the thing that’s so frustrating about fears and anxieties is how incredibly resilient they are. Fear and anxiety—it can grow. In any climate, any season of our lives, fear and worry can grow. So on the one hand, when catastrophe strikes, our sense of security is off-balance. I discover that my sense of having control over the world, over my life or circumstances around my life, when I discover that that was a myth, what happens? Fear and anxiety grow.
On the other hand, when the ball seems to be bouncing in my direction, circumstances all seem good, and I’m under the illusion, temporarily, that maybe I am in a kind of control of my life—what happens there? Fear and anxiety grow. Why? Because I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to maintain control over my world. How long will I be able to keep the planets spinning in their proper place in my life, all the circumstances of my life?
Now, I think that’s a big part of the reason why the “self-help” section of the bookstore is the biggest section of the bookstore. We’re looking for handles on our world, aren’t we? We want help. We see fear and we need a handle, we need a hope, we need refuge, we need a sense of stability in this world. We fear. We’re anxious.
Enter Psalm 91. God wants us to help size our world. He wants to help us size our world accurately, and I believe the divinely intended effect of this text on our souls is to create a kind of deep-seated, unshakable security in this world amid all the fears that we see around us. And perhaps God will even begin to renew a sense of security and stability underneath His sovereign control of our lives. Even as we read the text, I pray that will happen. So let’s read this together. 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.”
This chapter is not this long-building, developing argument or presentation like you might find, for example, in the book of Job, or in Hebrews, or in Romans, where it sort of holds the big idea behind its back and then it sets it up and it brings it out at just the right moment, and says, “Here’s what it was all about. Here’s where everything was building.” No, it comes out right at the beginning. God is coming out right here at the beginning of this passage, and He is saying, “Let me tell you what the point of Psalm 91 is: you’re safe.” Right there in verse one. “You are safe.”
Psalm 91 Shows Us The Strength of the Deliverer
And He tells us why, and it has everything to do with who our God is. The first thing God does to ground our security and to put our fears to flight is He describes Himself in this passage. We’re not even into verse two before we’re confronted by the strength of the deliverer. Point number one: the strength of the deliverer. Read verse one with me. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.”
God confronts—don’t miss it—He confronts our greatest fears by letting us see how big He is. He’s saying, “While you’re sizing up the universe, note my size. I’m the Most High God. I am God Almighty.” Two descriptions in verse one: God Almighty and the Most High God. The descriptions in this passage speak to those who are consumed and surrounded by people in a world full of fears. And the descriptions God uses in verse one are clearly chosen on purpose.
Now, I love the way that our ancestors in the faith who wrote these texts, the Hebrews, thought about God, the way they thought, the way they formed up and shaped up their world. Oftentimes, Hebrew ways of thinking are contrasted with Greek ways of thinking in the ancient world. So the Greeks preferred to think of God in abstract terms. So Aristotle would speak of God as the “unmoved mover,” or the “self-moved mover.” Plato spoke of God as the “first cause.” This is the way philosophy tends to think of God. Even down into the modern era, Paul Tillich would refer to God in these kind of abstract ways. He spoke of God as the “ground of being.” Okay. I’m sure if I were smarter, then I would see that that’s helpful. But as it is, I’m just glad that this was written by Hebrews, by people who like to think concretely about God.
That’s how the Psalms were written—very concrete images of who God is. Do you know how the psalmists prefer to think of God, not as the unmoved mover, the ground of being, or the first cause, but the one who owns the cattle on a thousand hills? It’s just a very earthy image. It’s God as a cosmic rancher. He owns the cattle. You know guys who own cattle on two or three hills. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills and He says, “Every beast of the forest is mine.” This is an image that we can track with, right? We know what this means. We can picture this.
Isaiah 66:1 seeks to give us a sense of scale, of the size, the immensity of God, by saying—here’s what God says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.” There’s another image that we can bring to mind. It pictures God in this very concrete way. He sits down in heaven and He props His feet up on the earth. Size, scale, massive immensity of God.
Psalm 91:4, look where God is portrayed as a bird. In verse four He’s a bird with wings, and He stretches His wings out and He covers His little ones. He covers His children with protection the way that a bird would stretch its wings out and protect its little ones from the elements outside. This is how God is pictured in these very earthy, concrete ways that we can understand. These are compelling images of protection.
In verse four of chapter 91, it speaks of God as a shield and buckler. Sometimes the shield and the buckler were contrasted from one another. The shield in this sense would have been that massive piece of iron or metal that two or three soldiers could hide behind and take refuge. You couldn’t hardly move the thing, but you could find protection behind it. And then the buckler was the thing you would strap around your arm or around your hand for mobility, for attack.
So the images here again are easy to grasp, easy to understand. It’s that God can protect you. When you’re backed up against the wall and all you are is on the defensive end and you’re being assaulted on every side, God is like a shield. But also when you go and advance in the cause of the Kingdom, God is like your buckler. You can take Him on the move. He can go with you, go before you and keep you safe. It’s a comprehensive protection that we’re seeing here in this passage.
Notice how throughout the chapter God is sized up against our adversaries. He’s sized up against the greatest threats in the ancient world…that one could call to mind in the ancient world. Look at it. In verse three, it’s God against the traps of the enemy and deadly pestilence. Verse three, “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.” In verses five and six, it is God against the things that terrorize both at night and things that terrorize during the day. Verses five and six, “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.”
In verse seven, it’s God against a 1,000 on your left and 10,000 on your right. Verse seven, “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” In verse ten, it’s God against all evil and God against all plagues. This would have been on the list in the ancient world of “top things we’re afraid of.” Pestilence, plagues…God against the plagues in verse ten. It says, “No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.”
In verse 11 and 12 it’s God against the natural laws of physics. It’s God against gravity. “On their hands,” verse 12 says, “they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” You may remember that passage when you’re reading in the New Testament. Does that sound familiar? Matthew 4, Jesus is taken away to be tempted in the wilderness, and Satan comes with Psalm 91, ready to go. He’s challenging Jesus. He’s saying, “If You’re really the Son of God, it would be so easy to prove it. Because God is not going to sit here and You’ve probably read, Jesus, You’ve read Psalm 91, right? He will bear You up, lest you strike Your foot against a stone.”
He takes Him to the pinnacle of the temple and he says, “Hop off. Prove that God is Your Father. You think God’s just going to sit here and watch You splatter against the rocks? You’re His dear Son. Show us. Take a leap of faith. Show us that You trust God. It is written in the Word, right?” And Jesus obviously doesn’t jump. He takes issue with this superficial interpretation, this selfish application of Psalm 91.
But there’s another context, here in verse 13. It’s God against the lion and the adder. “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” You see a pattern forming here? So in all of these contests, God is winning—left, right and center. It’s God against the greatest fears of the ancient world. And He is in total domination mode. Every one of these contests, God is winning.
You know, the four dangers that are listed in verses five and six are considered to be by scholars a comprehensive list of all the perils of life. Look at that in verses five and six. “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.” It seems these terms throughout this Psalm are doing double duty. That is, they may very well refer literally to God’s protection from pestilence, from lions—which were in that part of the world and are in that part of the world—to cobras, adders, that do live in that part of the world. But these images are doing double duty, because it’s also referring to those great threats, the top list that would come to the mind of the people who are saying, “You want to know what I’m afraid of? I’m afraid of armies. I’m afraid of lions and adders. I’m afraid of the elements. I’m afraid of pestilence and plagues striking my house.”
So what do we do in terms of application? If this passage sizes up the most paralyzing fears of the ancient world, how are we to apply it in our own lives? Well, let’s go apples to apples. Let’s say, “What are the ultimate fears that grip us, that choke us, that consume us?” God protects us from those. If you sit down with the psalmist and you say, “What are your biggest fears,” he says, “The ones we just read here.” So what are yours? Is God not able? This is the effect this Psalm is meant to have on us. List your fears. God is saying to everyone, “Give me a list of your fears. Let’s see how big they are, and then let me show you my size. Let me show you your God Almighty, your God Most High.”
You see the emotional impact this is supposed to have on our lives, on the way we process our world. This passage envisions comprehensive protection in a world full of fears, full of danger. I love verses five and six, because it’s the terror of night, the arrow by day, the pestilence in dark, the destruction at noonday. It’s basically saying, “I’ve got you at night, and I’ve got you during the day.” Is there another time slot where God is off duty? He’s got us at night, and He’s got us during the day. I mean, God doesn’t have any other way of saying, “I’m in control. I love you. I’m going to be a shield around you. I’m going to protect my own, my own people.”
I had an interesting experience of fear as a teenager, many interesting experiences of fear as a teenager. God in His providence brought Joe Champion, who’s my brother-in-law now, into our lives when we were teenagers. We had just lost our dad not too many years before that. And so Joe was kind of a father figure, and he was bold, and he could speak truth into our lives, and shake us up, and he was caring and hilariously funny—he combined all this stuff. And he started dating my sister, and then he married our sister.
And I remember one time riding in the back of Joe’s car. Joe was probably the biggest guy I’d ever seen up to that point in my life. He played center position for an SEC college football team that shall remain unnamed just so that you’re not distracted by that. And so Joe—he was huge. He was massive. And I’m riding in the back of his car, we’re going down our street—Elmwood Parkway in New Orleans—and there are these kids on the first block. And they were bigger than me, and they started…they were pointing at us as we drove by slowly. And they were shouting profanities and taunting me.
And so for the next 30 yards, Joe was deciding whether he was going to shrug it off and be godly, or make a scene. And he decided he was going to do the latter. So about 30 yards further he slams on the brakes and just tension rises in me right there in that moment. He opens the door, size 16 cowboy boot lands on the pavement, he gets up out of the car, he continues to rise higher and higher out of the car, and he shouts, “Hey!” And I honestly don’t remember what he said after that. I’m not just saying that to protect him because he’s a pastor in Austin. I honestly don’t remember what he said. But it didn’t matter because the boys weren’t there to hear it anyway. They high-tailed it as soon as he stood up out of the car. They were afraid. They were fearful.
And when I think about that moment, there was a dramatic change in experiences. You might even be able to anticipate what I’m going to say next because as those boys pointed, cursed and taunted me, I felt immediate pressure. Have you ever had that before? Somebody wants to fight you, and there’s that immediate sense of stress. It’s not a slow boil. It’s instant boil, instant pressure. And then when Joe shouted and put his foot down on the pavement and they ran, it was instant relief. Absolutely instantaneous. You can’t explain what was going on in that moment.
And what happened? I think a principle that’s here in Psalm 91 is what I experienced. It’s this: my fears sized up against my help, and my help was bigger. My fear sized up against my help, and my help was bigger. This passage doesn’t make our fears look small. All right, when we read through it, it does not make your fears look small. The animals that represent your greatest fears aren’t rabbits and chipmunks. It’s lions and cobras. It’s adders. They’re impressive. It’s not some little rag-tag army with pellet guns. It’s a 1,000 on your left, 10,000 on your right. It makes much of your fears. It’s dismissing or belittling your fears.
And it doesn’t need to. Why? Because your help is way bigger. Your God is way bigger. He is God Most High, verse one. He is God Almighty, verse one. It’s interesting how big fears can cancel out little fears. You think about that. I know a lady who’s coming to mind right now who, if she were listing her fears, she would put going under water on that list. She also happens to be a mom. So she would put losing a child. The prospect of losing a child would be on there as well.
So what happens when she’s sitting poolside and junior jumps into the deep end? She dives in, right? Fear number one has been completely conquered by fear number two. Fear number two was big enough and powerful enough to totally cancel fear number one. She conquered one fear with a bigger fear.
You think about that in our personal lives. Do you ever wonder why the Bible’s most frequent command from God is “Do not fear”? The Bible’s most frequent command. God doesn’t say anything by way of command more often than He says, “Do not fear.” Put that together, though, with how the Bible talks about wisdom. The first lesson of biblical wisdom is what? “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” You sit down with the ancients and you say, “Teach me theology.” He says, “Theology 101, let’s start here. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
So how can we have both of those be true? How can God command us more often than any other command in Scripture, “Don’t be afraid,” and then theology all begins with, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”? How does that come together? In this way: God sets us free from a world full of fears by giving us a bigger fear. There’s a bigger fear.
There’s a fascinating statement in Luke 12, go ahead and turn there. Luke 12. We’ve got time. Hold your place back in Psalm 91. I should have told you that before. Luke 12. Track the statements—let’s just call this a mini-sermon from Jesus. Note the four main points of this sermon, okay? We’ll delineate them in just a moment.
Verse four, chapter 12 of Luke:
I tell you, my friends, do not fear (there we go) those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
This is a confusing sermon. Look at point number one: “Do not fear your persecutors—they’re a small threat.” “Fear God—He’s a big threat.” Verse three, “God cares about you. He’s taking care of you. He loves you. He cares about you. He puts more value on you than many sparrows.” “Don’t fear God.”
I mean, what’s the point of this gymnastics exercise of don’t fear/fear/don’t fear? That doesn’t make any sense, in one sense. But here’s what it means. If you’re going to be freed from fear, you need a bigger fear. If you’re going to be free from the fear of man, for example, that’s not going to happen because you took a course on assertiveness. Biblically speaking, it’s going to happen because you had a greater fear in your mind, in your heart, and that fear drove away all the other fears. It drove the fear of man out.
The fear of God drives away not only the fear of man, but every other fear in our lives, every other fear that would make our list of where we began, “These are the things that paralyze me. These are the things that keep me up at night.” Because we read from Jesus, this God is personal. He cares for sparrows. He cares for you much more than the sparrows. You don’t need to fear. That one—your greatest fear—the one who could throw you into hell if He wanted to, but that one, the greatest fear, cares for you! The greatest fear on earth, the greatest fear in the universe, is your Father. Do not fear. It’s an amazing thing.
Psalm 91 views God the same way. Go back to Psalm 91—we’ll spend the rest of our time there—where God is not just viewed as powerful, He’s viewed as personal. Verse two, the psalmist says—this is the first thing sort of out of his mouth in terms of the first person—“I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge.’” See how personal this is. “My fortress, my God in whom I trust.”
Psalm 91 Shows Us The People He Delivers
And this relational connection really brings us to the second element that’s highlighted in this passage. So we encounter first of all the strength of the deliverer, and second we get insight into the people He delivers. Point number two, the people He delivers.
You know, we pick up on a story in Acts 9, and the Apostle Paul (then known as Saul) hasn’t been converted yet. He’s still one of the bad guys, right? He’s in all black, and he’s chasing down Christians and he’s getting them thrown in jail, he’s having them beaten, he’s having them executed. He’s presiding over their executions, right? He’s holding the coats of the people who are going to stone them so that they don’t tear their jackets when throwing these rocks at people. So that’s Saul over there, standing over there, and he hates Christian faith.
Acts 9, God, the risen Jesus, confronts Saul of Tarsus on the Road to Damascus, and we all know the story. And He comes to him and He confronts him with His glory, and what does He say? He doesn’t say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting these poor believers?” He doesn’t say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting your fellow man? Rise above this.” No, He says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Me.
This is not a Jesus who’s merely empathizing with victims of oppression. This is Jesus identifying with His people. This is Jesus, if you will, getting out of the car, putting His boot down, and saying, “They’re mine. These are my people. You’re persecuting me. Do you know who you’re up against?” Jesus is with us. He’s identifying with His people.
Back in Psalm 91, we see the protected people of God described in a number of different ways. So verse one: they dwell. There’s an active dwelling. There’s an active abiding in the shadow of the Almighty. Remember Jesus’ words in John 15, “If you abide in me, and I abide in you, you will bear fruit. Apart from me you can’t do anything. Apart from me there’s no shelter for sinners.” And the New Testament talks about this idea of being united to Jesus. One of the greatest phrases in the whole Bible: “In Christ—in Him.”
Joined to Him we have life, and protection, and righteousness and salvation from God. He is our wisdom from God. All of this is in Him, abiding and dwelling in the Savior. And the New Testament tells us how we’ve come to abide in this Jesus. We’re joined to Him by faith. We’re placed inside of Christ when we trust in Him. We trust that what He says is true. We trust that His death on the cross covers all of our sin. We trust Him as Lord and we follow Him wherever He leads. That’s the shape of biblical faith.
And when we believe in Him, we’re united to Him. And from that moment—this is the great news, believer—from that moment that you put your faith in Jesus, He becomes instantly your shelter, instantly your refuge, instantly your fortress. Nothing else necessary. No works to enhance it. It all comes with believing it and receiving it through faith, through trusting in Him alone. He becomes all that we need—our salvation the moment we trust Him. And this psalmist announces this trust in verse two. “I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge.’” I mean, he lifts his voice. “My fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Now, don’t miss the connection between this outward, loud profession of faith and what we see Sunday in and Sunday out over here in the waters of baptism, when we hear story after story, from men and women and boys and girls, who stand right here in the waters. And what are they saying? For all the differences in their stories, here’s what they’re all saying. If we could sum up every testimony from the waters, it’s this: “My refuge, my fortress, my shelter is God.” It’s, “I’m standing here in this water to profess and say to the church and to all the world, ‘There is a shelter for sinners and His name is Jesus Christ.’” Every testimony is saying this loudly.
This is the gospel. You know, the fear of facing a holy God may not make the top list of people’s fears right now, but there will be a day when it will immediately rise to the top of the list. The fear of facing a holy God without a refuge, without a shelter. And this is the wonder of the gospel, that the God of holiness, the God of absolute purity and righteousness, the one whom we ought to fear more than anything else that’s on our list—that very God is the one who has provided for us a refuge. He’s given us the very shield by which we are protected from His just wrath against our sin.
And God in His mercy, when He sent Jesus, He said, “I’m sending you a shield, hide in Him. Hide. My wrath must be poured out. I cannot deny my own righteousness. Wrath must be poured out on sin, on rebellion. But here, you have a shelter. Hide behind this Savior, this Jesus.” God has provided for sinners a shelter, and the one who dwells in the shelter of the Most High shall abide in the shadow of the Almighty. Believe in Him. Abide in Him. Dwell in Him.
There’s more language of trust, identifying who these people are who receive God’s protection in verse nine: “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.” I love how the psalm goes on to describe God’s people. They’re people who trust and abide in verse one. They are people who have made the Lord their refuge, in verse nine. But look in verses 14 through 16.
Now, God is speaking in the first person. “Because he holds fast to me in love.” “This one that I’m protecting holds fast, he clings to my protection.” So we’re described as a people who hold fast to God’s love. Verse 14, we’re described as the ones who know His name. But by the time we come to the full revelation of the gospel in the New Testament, of God’s saving work in the New Testament, we find out that it’s even better. We don’t just know His name—we bear His name. We bear the name of the one who is our shelter. Romans 8 says you don’t just call out to Him like a slave calls out. You get to call Him “Abba, Father,” because you’re a son of the Most High God. You’re sons and daughters of the living God by faith in the Son of God, by faith in Jesus Christ.
We’re described in verse 15 as those who call to God. Do you see that? Verse 15, it says that we are those people who God is with us in trouble. It says, and we’re honored by God (verse 15). It says we’re satisfied, in verse 16, we’re satisfied by God. It says that we’re shown God’s salvation in verse 16.
Christian friend, God does not tolerate you. He’s not “fine with you.” He’s a loving Father. Sadly, the idea of God being a loving Father and this being a family kind of situation can also prove problematic for people, for us in our minds, and that’s partly because our families are imperfect. Our fathers are imperfect. We fathers are imperfect. Sometimes, as parents, we don’t say things that are constructively building up our children—we’re actually tearing them down. We’re actually hurting when we lash out; we tear them down with our words.
But on our best days, isn’t this true? On our best days, parents, don’t we look for ways to bestow honor on our children? And we’ll say to them, “Yes, son, I know you get mixed signals from me. I know I’ve said some things that are not healthy, that are not good for you to hear. I should never have said that. But let me just say this so that you don’t get confused. I’m proud of you. I’m honored to be your dad.” This text says God bestows honor. He honors. This is God, raising the toast to His children, saying, “I love them. I honor them. I value them.”
You know, the idea that we’re to honor God strikes us as perfectly intuitive. We expect that. He’s God! He’s the supremely valuable being in all of the universe. Of course we’re supposed to honor Him. What comes as a surprise is when God is the one doing the honoring and we are the ones receiving honor. But this too is part of the gospel. Don’t tell me that God is hard-nosed in the Old Testament and suddenly softens up when Jesus comes on the scene. No, here is God in Psalm 91 beaming with pride, bestowing honor on His people.
Psalm 91 Shows Us The Nature of Deliverance
We’ve seen the strength of the deliverer, we’ve looked at the people He delivers, but before we’re done we’ve got to look closely and realistically at the nature of this deliverance. Because it seems like there’s a disconnect somewhere. I was working on this message Wednesday when an email came to me from my friend and fellow pastor Tate Cockrell. And Tate said, “Please pray for some dear friends of mine in Mississippi. Their son was riding his motorcycle and he was thrown off the motorcycle and he was found in a lake near their house.”
And I read that email, and I go right back to reading Psalm 91—and it seems like there’s a disconnect. “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.” How? I mean, how can Psalm 91 be true, and that funeral is being planned in Mississippi? And this might seem anticlimactic here at the end of a sermon on Psalm 91, but I think it needs to be said, because it’s true.
The protection God brings doesn’t mean a trouble-free life. The protection God brings doesn’t mean a trouble-free life. And that’s why the prosperity gospel is so cruel. I can tell you the name of a man, I could bring you to his house, who, early in his conversion, he came and was a part of a place where they were preaching a prosperity gospel. He heard that if you just believe and you speak positive words and words of faith and you activate faith, then you won’t have these problems. God’s will is always to heal.
Shortly after becoming a Christian, his wife was diagnosed with brain cancer. And he claimed, and made positive statements, and he activated his faith, and he bound, and loosed, and claimed victory and spoke healing and she died. And he was left to conclude that it was his lack of faith. That was the reason she died.
I mean, what else is he to conclude in that scheme, in that doctrine? God always wills our healing—we just have to activate it by faith. He didn’t activate it. God was trying to heal your wife, but you just didn’t flip the switch. The power was in the walls—all you had to do was flip the right switch of faith and it would have come. But essentially your imperfect faith tied God’s hands, and He couldn’t do what He always wants to do, namely heal your wife.
That is a horrific abuse of what God’s Word says about faith and trials in this world. And it’s emotionally and psychologically devastating to be told that if you have enough faith, if you use the right self-talk, your life will be brimming with health and wealth. When we read the Bible, if we’re looking for what it says about fear and trials and faith, it says the same thing on virtually every page—namely, this life is filled with pain. We’re greeted by a 1,000 fears on our left and 10,000 fears on our right.
But the Scripture says there will come a day. In the future, there will come a day when all of our fears—everything that makes your list—will be set right, will be completely triumphed over, completely vanquished and conquered by God Almighty. You listen to what the “faith chapter”—Hebrews 11 is called the faith chapter, the hall of faith—listen to what it says about the shape of life, faith and suffering in this world.
“…was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God… (It goes on. It says) …These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land (that concrete land) from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, (here’s where the clarity comes, “…as it is, they…” the people in the Hall of Faith) they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one (a better country that is a heavenly one). Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
The Bible has great news for people of faith: your best life comes later—but it lasts forever. Your best life comes later, but it lasts forever! This is the news that God’s Word has for people of faith. It’s great news for His people. But the tragedy is that we’re so fixated on getting heaven here and now, that we view eternal joys as a downer. Right? “So my best life starts later and then it lasts for a billion years? That stinks. I want it now.”
Several years ago a friend of mine had dinner at the home of a famous preacher and a famous author. And this preacher’s wife came around with a few slices of pie, and the author himself, the husband, said, “I want the big one.” And my friend who was there thought he was joking—until he took the big one and ate it, without batting an eye, without smirking at all. “I want the big one.” He ate the big one right there.
You know, when we think about fear and faith, we have two options. There’s a big piece, and there’s a small piece. And we can think mainly about this life—and that feels like we’re reaching for the big piece, because it’s so big and it’s so close. But actually that’s the small piece. You get 80-90 years here, and you won’t even fully enjoy the small piece. Why? Because no amount of money, power, technology or faith-speak can make this world a paradise.
Or, you can think like the saints did in Hebrews 11. You can process God’s blessings with the long view in mind, factoring all that in. And the irony is, when we reach toward God in faith, we don’t just get eternal joy then and there. We get help here and now.
My dad died when I was 12 years old. He was preaching a sermon at the front of the room, and I was on the second pew when he fell over, and the place just broke loose. People were climbing over pews. They were yelling, calling 911. They were pumping his chest. I had a front-row seat to see that moment unfold. When this passage in Psalm 91 speaks to the arrow that flies by day and the fear that stalks in darkness, I knew both of those intimately.
I could take you to places in my house where it buckled. It just buckled and trembled. And I felt the turmoil of being pulled in two directions. There was a tension inside. I felt the inner voice of an enemy saying, “So much for the faithfulness of God. Your dad proclaimed Him, and your dad is dead. You’ve believed Him, and your dad is dead.” Inner turmoil. A very real temptation to say, “You know what? I’m done. This is stupid. This isn’t even true. I’m done with this.”
On the other hand, at the same time, despite me, it seemed like there was something holding on to me, keeping my faith intact, keeping my faith alive. There were moments when I knew God was near. I looked down at the piano bench next to me, and I thought—as a 12-year-old boy—I literally thought, “I think He’s right here.”
You read about the believers and what they affirm in Romans 8, and they said, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” And you know what that’s set right next to in Romans 8? “For your sake we are being killed all the day long.” How can these two co-exist? “We’re being killed all the day long.” We conquerors are being killed all the day long. And Romans 8 answers that question by saying there’s a greater problem in the world than cancer, and heart attacks, and rejection, and pestilence and the sword.
Friends, this should make the top of our list of greatest fears: living in this world and facing the next life without a shelter. That should make the top of every person’s list. And Psalm 91 and Romans 8 work together to shout in unison, “You’ve got one! You’ve got a shelter. You’re not without a refuge in this life.” Romans 8:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? (Now, what’s he do? He lists the big ones!) Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (A thousand on your left? Ten thousand on your right? Lions and adders? Terrors of the night? Arrows by day?) …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (It goes on to say) For I am sure that neither (and then it thinks of the biggest things in the world. Size up your world—these are the big ones) death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Believer, rest here! This is your security amidst the perils of this life. God loves you. You are loved by God. You are valued and treasured by God. In taking Christ by faith, you took the big piece. You took the better part. You chose the one, the biggerj, the one that lasts forever. And in getting Him, here’s what you got. You got both eternal joy a billion years from now, and you also got it now in your darkness.
Jesus loved every word of Psalm 91. He loved every word of the Old Testament. And He says something that actually sounds a lot like Psalm 91 in Luke 21, when He says, “Not a hair of your head will perish.” But do you know what He said right before He said, “Not a hair of your head will perish”? Listen to this:
You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives (Luke 21:16–19).
Wait. Did He just say, “Some of you will be put to death…but not a hair of your head will perish”? Is that what Jesus just said? What does that mean? Is Jesus contradicting Himself? No, He’s saying there’s a greater deliverance than the deliverance from all suffering in this life. Sometimes God in His mercy rescues us from suffering. He rescues us from suffering. This is why we have the freedom to pray for healing, to pray for help, to pray for release from the circumstances that we’re facing. God says, “You’re wide open to ask for that. I in my wisdom will decide.” But God sometimes rescues from suffering.
Sometimes in His mercy, on the other hand, God rescues us in suffering. Holds us in suffering. In a little while God will yet rescue us from all suffering. And that’s when we’ll experience Psalm 91:16, “With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” Where in His presence, Psalm 16:11 says, “is fullness of joy,” and at His right hand “are pleasures forevermore.”
It makes me think of a conversation that God had with Solomon. Remember this conversation? God says, “What do you want? I’ll give you anything you ask for—what do you want?” Solomon chose something deep, something abiding. He said, “Wisdom. I want wisdom.” And do you know what God said? He said, “You’ve asked for the right thing. I’ll give you the wisdom. I’ll also give you everything else.”
If you think about your fears, what do you want the most? I want a shelter. I want eternal joy. I want final salvation. And the beautiful thing is, God says, “You’ve asked for the right thing. I’ll give you the eternal joy, and I’ll come to meet you now. I’ll be a very present help in time of trouble—now.” This is our God. The climactic day of absolute triumph is coming—the blessed hope of the return of the King, the arrival of our great fear who conquers and dominates all of our other fears. The truth of God’s Word from cover to cover is that our fears won’t have the last word. Death won’t have the last word, and here’s why: Because Jesus is the shelter of the Most High. Jesus has conquered death and Jesus will never leave us.