*This was originally written as a final paper for my Hebrew Exegesis course at Trinity School for Ministry in 2017, thus it is more academic in nature and focused on the Hebrew.
It has been called the Soldiers Prayer, God’s Shield of Protection, the Psalm of Protection, or by its Latin title Qui Habitat (“Whoso Dwelleth”). Today, and certainly throughout history, the words of Psalm 91 have been read and carried by soldiers, sailors, and those others who have faced extraordinary peril. Prior to my deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, my mother made pocket Psalm 91 passages for all of my Marines. My dad gave me a book about it that included example stories of God’s protection in military history, which gave me great comfort. For thousands of years, the incredible words of Psalm 91 have comforted those who sought Divine refuge and deliverance from spiritual, emotional, and physical harm. Through a study of the words used in this text that illustrate God’s refuge and deliverance from evil, it is hoped that there comes a better appreciation for the powerful and mighty protection the Lord promises to the faithful and how that has been and continues to be fulfilled.
Like many of psalms, the author cannot be accurately identified, however, the Septuagint does give this psalm the title “Praise by a song of David.” While a few scholars believe that the conversation is between David, Solomon, and the Lord; many simply identify the text as an address to a king. Commentator Marvin Tate opines that it is a liturgical piece, showing a priest or prophet encouraging a king before meeting an enemy, assuring him of Yahweh’s protection. Regardless of the author, it was written at a time when Israel, as through much of its ancient history, faced grave peril from enemy nations, draught, famine, and judgment from the Lord. And regardless of the original audience, as with most psalms its contextual ambiguity allows for a timeless and universal applicability to all those who read it. Hebrew scholar Mark Futato calls that characteristic a “blessing”. It is just as powerful today as it was when it was written.
Before giving treatment to these two categories of refuge and deliverance, it is important to understand the attitude towards God that the author sets in the very beginning. The first verse of this Psalm sets the tone by its reference to God as Elyon (עֶלְי֑וֹן), “Most High”, and Shaddai (ידַּ֗שַׁ֝), “Almighty”. The name Elyon signifies God’s position as the highest over all things, “most” meaning that nothing is higher. It is almost like a military rank of a supreme commander, the one with absolute authority over the entire universe, the cosmic Commander-in-Chief. Shaddai, is only used 58 times in the Bible and only twice in the Psalms. It is likely that this proper name is related to the verb shaddad (שָׁדַד), which means to “devastate” or “destroy”; a fitting connection for a psalm that incorporates comparable imagery of God’s defeat over evil. This is further highlighted by the way the main speaker approaches with a position of humble submission and vulnerability, as a subordinate to the highest ranking Commander; he is the refugee, the one who must put trust in the Lord, the one who must abide in the Lord for protection.
Lord as Refuge
“Truly you, O Yahweh, are my refuge…” this commentator’s translation of verse 9a uniquely phrases the psalmist climactic declaration that the Lord is his refuge. Like much of biblical poetry, this poet uses zoomorphism to draw out particular concepts about God. “He will cover you with his pinions [feathers], and under his wings you will find refuge…” (Ps 91:4 ESV). It is an allusion used frequently in the scriptures, “in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge” (Ps 57:1 ESV). The use of a bird’s wings as a representation of God’s is not distinctive to the psalms. One can be reminded of Christ’s lament over Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” (Matt 23:37 ESV). In Ruth we understand where this very zoomorphism is used in reference to an actual act of providing protection and safety. When Boaz blesses Ruth and said that it is in the Lord “under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” (Ruth 2:12 ESV), he realizes that it was his (Boaz’s) own redemption of Ruth that God worked out this refuge. Furthermore, there would have been an immediate connection to a real life application of this idea to the ancient people of Israel. The temple was an actual place of refuge for those who were being falsely accused or persecuted, where they were literally under the wings of the Cherubim towering over the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies (whether they actually saw them or not).
In verse two there is a trio of possessive and personal titles for God, two of which give further defensive attributes to the Lord. It is the speaker’s first-person declaration of his own faith in God’s protection, before he applies it to the addressee. The first is “my refuge”. The word used here is machseh (מַחְסִ֣י), a derivative of the verb chasah (חָסָה). The wide variety of definitions for chasah includes: “to flee for protection”, “seek refuge”, “to confide in”, “have hope in”, and to “put trust in”. Likewise, a “refuge” is a “protection or shelter from danger or trouble”. Words stemming from chasah are used 56 times in the Bible and there are dozens of other similar words sometimes translated “refuge”.In most of these instances, it is used figuratively speaking of man putting trust in and seeking God as his Rock, Strength, and Stronghold. With the current middle-east refugee crisis, the entire world is experiencing the importance of the life-protecting role of giving refuge to those fleeing extreme peril. They are looking for someone to give them safety, comfort, and peace. “We have one Friend who will never forsake us; one Refuge, where we may rest in peace and stand in our lot at the end of the days.” In this psalm, we are promised that God is that perfect giver of refuge
In verse two the author also called the Lord his “fortress”. The root of the used word, matszud (מְצוּדָה), can also be “stronghold” or “strong protection”. Futato suggests that “Lord as refuge” is the second most important metaphor in the Psalms, next to “Lord as king”. In the Psalms, “fortress” is used together with “rock” over a dozen times. “For you [God] are my rock and my fortress,” (Ps. 31:3 ESV). For much of history, fortress structures, such as walls and towers, were made of rock and stone and offered the greatest amount of man made protection possible at the time. It was behind the very fortress walls of Jerusalem that the Lord promised to King Hezekiah that He would defend them from the Assyrian onslaught: “He [king of Assyria] will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here” (2 Kgs 19:32 NIV) and “I will defend this city and save it” (2 Kgs 19:34 NIV). Walls were so imperative, that after the Babylonian exile the Israelites made rebuilding the city walls the greatest of priorities, building it in only 52 days (Neh 6:15).
In a further use of defense language, verse four declares that God’s faithfulness is a “shield”, tzinna (צִנָּ֖ה) and a “buckler”, socherah (סֹחֵרָ֣ה). These two words appear frequently together throughout the Old Testament. A “buckler” is a small shield held in the fist or worn on the shoulder, most translations use this word. However, the New American Standard Bible and New International Version translate socherah as and “rampart” and “bulwark” (which means earthen rampart too) respectively.  While these interpretations still fit the refuge theme of these verses, it seems appropriate that both of these Hebrew words were meant to depict elements of armor worn by a warrior. And notice that it is God’s faithfulness that is a shield. In Ephesians, Paul urges believers to put on the armor of God, including taking up the “shield of faith” in order to thwart the arrows of the devil (Eph 6:16 ESV). The faith that one should bear is faith in the Lord’s might and power to shield us from the power of Satan and his army of darkness and evil.
While the images of hardened battle positions certainly tell of God’s mighty power, that is not to imply that God’s protection is only something that you can retreat out of the world and into when in need, like one would do in a static fortified position. In Afghanistan, certainly I felt the most physically and spiritually safe when back behind the fortified walls and layered security of our large operating bases, far away from the enemy. Nevertheless, when we were out conducting missions in enemy territory, my trust and comfort in the Lord’s protection was surprisingly much stronger. Given the military vernacular used in this psalm, it is a good assumption that the word ohel (אָהֳלֶֽ) in verse 10 was intended as “tent”, instead of “dwelling” or “home”. A tent in that context would most likely mean a bivouac in the wilderness outside the confines and safety of a hardened fortification. This is a situation where danger and pestilence is quite literally all around, whether from the enemy, the wild, or from disease and sickness. While most translations say that no “plague” will come near the tent, the use of the word nega (נֶגַע) also means that nothing will “touch”, “mark”, “strike”, or even “happen”. Yes, dependable refuge within a fortress or under the warmth of wing, far from the enemy, conveys an ultimate sense of comfort security. However, plenty are the times when we find ourselves in the wild surrounded by the enemy, and in those times the Lord is still there offering His protection for those who seek it. Not only that, but He actively is on the offensive to deliver us from those who seek to do us harm.
Lord as Deliverer
Just how is it that the Lord delivers the faithful from the enemy? One of the ways cited by this psalmist is through the supernatural protection of angels. In verse 11 it says that the Lord will “command his angels concerning us”. This is not just some “feel good” idea to make us feel safe; it is a very real thing. God provided an angel to protect the Israelites in the Exodus, “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way” (Ex 23:20 ESV). Angels provided for and guarded Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kgs 19:5). And Revelations 12 reveals images of angels in all out battle in heaven. A more modern example is of a World War One German unit that turned around in retreat as they neared the British trenches. When questioned, the Germans reported seeing an army of white ghostly figures with bows and arrows above the British lines, and fled in fear. History is filled with other similar astonishing stories of angelic intervention. That the Lord gives “command”, tzawah (יְצַוֶּה) to His angels also means “to charge” or “give orders”; a fitting duty for the highest ranking commander, the Lord Most High. Further, it is said that these angels will “bear you up, lest you strike your foot against the stone” (Ps 91:12 ESV). It is this supernatural promise that Satan erroneously and arrogantly tries to apply when testing Christ to throw Himself of the pinnacle of the temple (Matt 4:5-6). After the devil left Christ because He refused to be tested, it is suitable that angels came to minister to Christ in the wilderness (Matt 4:11). While we are warned not to worship angels (Rev 19:10; Col 2:18), God uses angels for the good of His people and we can put trust in this.
“A thousands may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right, but it [pestilence] will not come near you” (Ps 91:7 ESV). This powerful verse was the one I held onto most dearly on my deployment. Returning to the story of Hezekiah and the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem, this very scenario came to be when “the” angel of the Lord was sent and struck down 185,000 Assyrians in their camp (2 Kgs 19:35 ESV). That story is a remarkable example of God’s temporal safeguard of His people. However, like the entire psalm, there is an eternal spiritual redemptive implication of this text as well. One commentator emphasizes that the point is not that thousands fall, but that the reason for their fall “will not come near you”, the Lord will deliver the righteous from that which will destroy wicked (Ps 91:8b ESV). It is through Jesus Christ that this promise will be fulfilled, with those in Him being preserved from the eternal judgment of those who are not.
Revisiting the zoomorphism of verse three, there is further animal metaphors in the Lord’s deliverance from the snare, pach (פַּ֥ח), (or trap) of the fowler, yaqush (יָק֗וּשׁ), (or trapper). In Palestine, typical fowlers traps were nets held up by sticks that would fall and drop the net when touched by a bird.  In Afghanistan, in my prayers I literally applied this image to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), what my mother called “devil traps”. Throughout the Bible pach has several meanings. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel are warned that if they don’t obey the Lord regarding other nations their gods will become a “snare” to Israel, both physically and spiritually. Paul uses the Greek cousin, pagis, three times in his letters to Timothy reminding him that those who are doing the devil’s will, and not God’s, are falling into the “trap” of Satan (1 Tim 3:7; 6:9; 2 Tim 2:26). Also, a practice of ancient fowlers was the use of decoy birds. Jeremiah speaks of decoys in relation to wicked men “like a cage full of birds; their houses are full of deceit” (Jer 5:27 ESV). These men “lurk like fowlers lying in wait. They set a trap; they catch men” (Jer 5:26 ESV). Satan is the ultimate trapper, but he clearly uses the unrighteous as decoys and traps. Lastly, in this verse pach is used with the prefixed preposition mi (מִ), which could read “from” or “from out of”. Charles Spurgeon wrote that “first, He delivers them from the snare—does not let them enter it; and secondly, if they should be caught therein, He delivers them out of it. The first promise is the most precious to some; the second is the best to others.” In other words, while God promises that there will be times He save us from falling into the trap; He ultimately promises that He will deliver us from out the net of the trapper.
These forces of evil are likewise referred to as two wild ravenous animals, the “lion” and the “adder” (general name for a poisonous snake) in verse 13. In a change of address, the poet is no longer talking directly about God’s actions but directly talking to the faithful about the authority that the Lord gives in His name. The Message version of this verse uniquely paints the boldness of such authority, “you’ll walk unharmed among lions and snakes, and kick young lions and serpents from the path” (Ps 91:13 MSG). In the original Hebrew it is “trample young lions”, (tirmos- תִּרְמֹ֖ס). In the Gospels, Christ reminds His disciples of this authority and the promise of protection, “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you” (Luke 10:19 ESV). Believers have an active role in the fulfillment of God’s promise of deliverance.
“I will rescue and honor him” (Ps 91:15c ESV). The last term of deliverance spoken in this Psalm, in this case by God Himself, is the root verb chalatz (חָלַצ). “Rescue”, along with “deliver”, are two common definitions of chalatz; however it has alternate definitions intriguingly suitable to this psalm: “to equip for war”, “to arm”, and “give strength”. It is joined with God’s promise to “honor” him. “Honor” is a word that doesn’t seem to denote very specific action; but other usage of the root verb kavad (כבד) include “to harden”, “grow strong”, and “to become fierce”. So there is a picture drawn of a divine knighting ceremony, where God is saying “I will be your refuge and I will deliver you from those who seek to harm you. Through My power I will make you My soldier. I will equip and arm you for battle and make you a strong and fierce warrior against evil.” As with refuge in God Almighty, one must dynamically seek and abide in it; there is also an active role of a believer in the Lord’s promised deliverance from the forces of darkness.
“Such a faith is nowhere more vividly demonstrated than in the words of Psalm 91. For thousands of years the ‘Soldiers Psalm’ has given warriors a reservoir of truth to draw from when the night is dark and the task is difficult.”  For myself, and many I served with, this saying bears a great deal of truth. Faith in the Divine promises, like those in this psalm, allowed me to have an unexplainable peace in the midst of tremendous amount of death, danger, and chaos. One of the worst moments of my deployment was a night where we were totally surrounded by enemy (“pestilence”) and IEDs (“traps”); after two days of taking enemy rifle, mortar, and rocket fire (“arrows”); and after two Marines died, five were wounded, and several enemies killed (“others falling at my side”). It was the middle of the night and I was taking my turn on watch on the truck’s machine gun, literally with two dead insurgents next to my truck. It was one of the darkest nights of the month; it was almost zero percent illumination. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there were four artillery illumination flares shot overhead. Every two minutes when they burned out, four more were shot from an artillery base miles away. For hours they illuminated the dark battlefield all around me; most likely deterring any attack from the Taliban. As I sat there in the freezing quite air under the warm glow of these flares, I had a chance to process the event. It was a moment of emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion. I thanked God for protecting my Marines and me. I continued to pray the words of Psalm 91 and ask God to watch after us. God as refuge, as a fortress, as a bird who extends a wing of protection, and as a shield against those who sought to do us harm; and God a deliverer who sent his angels to guard us, who keeps us from and pulls us out of traps; and who equips us and gives us His authority to crush evil…these were very real and very strong images to me. While I trusted Him with my physical safety, I knew that for those who hold fast to Him and love and know His name (Ps 91:14 ESV), He guarantees a protection and a long life (Ps 91:16 ESV) that goes far beyond that of this world. In those magnificent promises we can all dwell in peace and safety.
 Peggy Joyce Ruth and Angelia Ruth Schum, Psalm 91-God’s Shield of Protection, (n.p.: Better Living Ministries, 2009).
 The Masoretic text version does not have a title indicating an author.
 Marvin E. Tate, World Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100, (Nashvile, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 451.
 Mark D. Futato, Interpreting The Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook, (Grand Rapids: Mich.: Kregal Publishing, 2007), 122-123.
 Unless otherwise noted, all cited Hebrew words are from BHS and English words from the ESV.
 “God,” Expository Dictionary Of Bible Words (electronic edition) (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2005), n.p.
 Sometimes used in conjunction with El, “God”, as in El Elyon, “God Most High”.
 Accordance word search, BHS analytical word search for Shaddai.
 Tate, Psalms, 446.
 “Defensive” as in a military-like defender/defense related, not as in “defending” himself.
 Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary (TOTC 16; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 363.
 R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament- Volume 1, (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1980), 701.
 “חָסָה” Strong’s Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testament, n.p.
 Definition from Merriam Webster Dictionary.
 E.g. miqlat (מִקְלָט), manos (מָנוֹס), chayil (חַיִל), and maon (מָעוֹן) [used in Ps 91:9 ESV].
 Harris, Archer Jr., and Waltke, Theological Wordbook, 308.
 Quote by Bishop Reginald Heber. Many Thoughts of Many Minds (ed. Louis Klopsch; Accordance electronic ed. New York: The Christian Herald, 1896), 112.
 Futato, Interpreting The Psalms, 97.
 Accordance word search, BHS analytical word search for Shaddai.
 The word for bulwarkאַשְׁוִיֹּתֶי is used in Jer 50:15, as well as the word for rampart חֵֽל in Is 26:1.
 “נָגַע” Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary of the New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance, (no place; Lockman Foundation, 1981), n.p.
 Ruth & Schum, Psalm 91, 78.
 Tate, Psalms, 456.
 “Net,” Easton’s Bible Dictionary (electronic ed.)(no place: Thomas Nelson, 1897), n.p.
 cf. Ex. 23:33; 34:12; Deut. 7:16; Josh 23:13
 “Net,” Easton’s Bible Dictionary, n.p.
 Charles. H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening Daily Readings (Accordance electronic ed. Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 1999), n.p.
 LXX translated (shachal-שַׁ֣חַל) as “serpent” (aspida-ἀσπίδα). Some explain that “lion” is out of place, especially in reference to being trampled on. Though the use of “lion” in 13b isn’t disputed. Therefore use of lion/snake/lion/snake (ABAB) seems appropriate (Tate, 449). There doesn’t seem to be much theological significance to the difference.
 “חלץ,” Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary.
 My paraphrasing.
 Ruth & Schum, Psalm 91, 8.
 Quote by U.S. Navy Chaplain Lieutenant Carey Cash Author of A Table In the Presence.
 Since I was in charge of this area, nobody should have been firing artillery into it without my knowledge. Though this was a welcome sight anyway.