Skye Jethani calls Psalms 90 and 91 “a tale of two psalms.” Many readers have noted that these two psalms go hand in hand, almost as if the latter is designed as a response to the former. Psalm 90 reflects on the difficulty and the brevity of life while Psalm 91 highlights God’s special protection of his people in the difficulties of life. The psalms do not contradict one another but instead highlight the tension that exists in the life of faith. Christians are aware of the difficulties they face in this fleeting life (Psalm 90) and yet must also remember that God’s presence in their lives makes a very real difference (Psalm 91).
But these psalms also present us with the age-old challenge of how to think about bad things happening to good people. Harold Kushner asked this very question and famously concluded that, as much as he would love to, God is unable to stop bad things from happening to his people. We might be tempted to believe the same when we consider the suffering of Christians around the world.
The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary suggests that some 2.4 million Christians were martyred in the first two decades of the 21st century. How do we reconcile that with the psalmist’s claim that those who dwell in the shelter of the Most high will abide in the protective shadow of the Almighty (v. 1) and that “no evil shall be allowed to befall” them (v. 10)?
How many Christians have died from COVID-19 and other diseases? How do we reconcile that with the promise that “no plague shall come near” the tents of God’s people (v. 10)?
Should we put down these inconsistencies in our experience to contradiction? Is the psalm nothing more than poetic hyperbole?
It is helpful, as Jethani and others have suggested, to read the two psalms together. But it is also helpful to observe that Psalm 91 itself is full of threats to the Christian’s security and wellbeing. The promise of Psalm 91 is not that life will be without difficulty but that God will be with us in our difficulty.
At the same time, we must not minimise the reality that God can deliver us. This psalm speaks of incredible deliverance and protection. But it is precisely this ability that creates the tension. If God is able to deliver us, why does he not always do so? It is at this point that we must approach him with deep-seated trust. And it is this unwavering trust that impresses us in the lives of many of God’s people in Scripture, perhaps none more than Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
When faced with the threat of death, these men confidently replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16–18).
We don’t know when or why God will choose to miraculously intervene and when he will choose not to do so. We do know two things: (1) We can trust God even when he chooses not to intervene, and (2) ultimately, he will fully and finally save his people from all threat.
As you reflect on Psalm 91 today, know that you can rest in him—that you can take refuge under the shadow of his wings—because you need not fear even the most terrible of circumstances in this life (v. 5).