What Should I Do When I Am Afraid? (Psalm 91)

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In August of 1989, Time magazine reported the sad story of a man from Detroit who died of fear. Over the years he had taken a number of hunting expeditions and been bitten by his share of ticks. He never really worried about it until one day he heard about Lyme disease, which is carried by certain ticks. He became obsessed with the fear that he had been bitten in the past by a tick with the disease and that he had passed it to his wife. His doctors tested and assured him that he did not have the disease, and even if he did, the disease was virtually impossible to transmit. But the man didn’t believe his doctors. His fear turned into an obsession, which turned into paranoia until, in his uncontrollable fear, he ultimately killed his wife and then turned the gun on himself. After his death, the police found the man’s mailbox jammed with material describing Lyme disease and a reminder from his doctor confirming yet another appointment for a Lyme disease test. 

There is not a person alive who doesn’t know what it’s like to be afraid. And I must confess that I have some embarrassing fears. If a cockroach crawled on me right now, I can’t predict what exactly I would do, but it would be embarrassing and undignified and might remind you of a little girl!

You may or may not identify with my small fears, but maybe you’ll identify with my big ones. I have a fear of rejection and failure. I fear getting cancer. I fear losing ones that I love. Even death scares me. Not so much what happens after death, but the dying part. I don’t fear death, but I do fear dying.

So as we come face-to-face with our fears, the question before us is: What should we do when we’re afraid? This is where Psalm 91 comes into play. The divinely intended effect of this psalm is to create a deep-seated, unshakable security and confidence in God.

Psalm 91: Then and Now

This psalm also creates some difficulty for modern believers. Psalm 91 appears to promise that those who live close to God will be exempt from harm, disaster, and disease, even to the point that if you love God, his angels will so closely guard you that you won’t even stub your toe! (Psalm 91:12). This seems inconsistent with reality because many Christians do experience harm. Many Christians do encounter disasters and serious diseases. We’ve all read about believers who have faced persecution, and church history is replete with stories of martyrs who paid the ultimate price for their faith. It seems that the experience of God’s people does not totally agree with the supposed promises of the psalm.

Even Satan quoted verse 12 to Jesus in his temptation—Jesus, if you trust God he will protect you; he will not even allow you to stub your toe; so surely you can throw yourself off of this cliff! Satan knows that if you take this psalm at face value, you are going to become confused and disappointed. He wishes for you to pull away from God, as many have done. The answer to this dilemma is found in correctly understanding to whom these promises were made.

Psalm 91 celebrates the specific promises of God’s covenant with Israel. Two specific perils are prominent in this psalm: the peril of enemy attack and of pestilence and plague. In Deuteronomy 7, God promises his people protection from these things. However, these promises were made to Israel as part of the old covenant, and they were conditional on Israel’s own faithfulness to God. As long as Israel remained faithful to God, he would protect them from their enemies and from disease, but if they turned from God and broke his covenant, God would withdraw his hand of protection. Throughout Israel’s history, this has proven to be true.

We must understand the specific promises in this psalm were not made to the church. In fact, Jesus promised his followers exactly the opposite—they would face harm and persecution. If the promises of Psalm 91 were made specifically to the church, then they were broken in the first fifteen chapters of Acts! 

How then does this psalm apply to us? We need to read it in light of the promises God has made to his church: God has not promised us total protection from all peril and from all our fears, but he has promised his presence in and through all things. So while the specific promises of this psalm are not to the church, its underlying principles are. God is to us today everything he has always been to his people.

When I Am Afraid, I Will Draw Near and Live in God’s Presence (91:1-2)

First, we can draw near to his presence because of who he is (Psalm 91:1). One of the ways God has revealed himself to us is through his names. The psalmist uses four different names for God, and each name reveals a different aspect of his character.

  • ElyonMost High. This name speaks of God’s preeminence. God confronts our greatest fears by letting us see how big he is. He is the Highest, the Supreme Being of the universe, and if God is the Most High, there is none higher. As one author states, “He’s the one who cuts every threat against you down to size; the one before whom every threat, however great, is dwarfed.” 
  • Shaddai—Almighty. This name speaks of God’s provision. God is sufficient for everything we need. By his power he sustains us. By his power he protects us. And by his power, he provides for us. He is not just a living God, but a giving God!
  • YahwehLORD. This name speaks of God’s promise. This is the personal name of God. This name speaks of God’s faithfulness. He is a God who always keeps his word and always keeps his promises. He is a covenant-keeping God.ElohimGod. This name speaks of God’s power. Its first occurrence links this name with creation, and it speaks to us of the power of God.

But also notice the possessive pronoun “my.” He is my God. This declares that we can have a personal, intimate relationship with him. God’s greatness and power do not keep him at arm’s-length. He knows us, communes with us, and cares for us individually and personally.

Second, we can draw near to his presence because he is our security in all things (Psalm 91:2). This verse speaks of God as our refuge and fortress. God is to us what he has always been to his people—all-powerful, all-sufficient, and always faithful. God can hide us in a secure place, inaccessible to the enemy.

Note how the psalmist responds: I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” In speaking to the Lord, the psalmist is also reminding himself, “God, you’re my security, you’re the one I trust.” We spend too much time listening to ourselves—to our doubts, fears, anxieties, and not enough time telling ourselves: “God, you’re my refuge, my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

When I Am Afraid, I Will Trust in God (91:3-8)

First, I believe that God can save me from the trap of my foe: “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence” (91:3).

A fowler was a hunter of birds, and a pestilence was a dreaded, deadly disease or epidemic. These metaphors illustrate some of the dangers we face in life. But who is our greatest foe? It is the devil. God can deliver you from whatever temptation or snare you may encounter.

Second, I believe that God can protect me from my enemy: “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler” (91:4). God illustrates his care for his children by using two powerful metaphors:

In the first metaphor, the psalmist compares God’s care for his people to a bird gathering her young under her wings in order to protect them, which was a common picture in the Old Testament. It is also an image Jesus used to describe his great love for his people and his desire to save them: Matthew 23:37, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

The documentary, March of the Penguins, shows how after a mom and dad penguin have their baby, they trade off holding the newborn penguin under a flap of skin on top of their feet while the other parent walks some 70 miles to get food. The journey takes 3-4 months, during which time whoever is on baby-duty has to stand, huddled up with 300 other penguins, day and night, in extreme cold temperatures of -80 degrees oftentimes facing 100 mph winds. But even in the midst of adverse conditions, the chick is kept safe, warm, and secure by his parents. This is similar to what God promises here: I’ll hide you in me as a bird hides her young.

In the second metaphor, God’s faithfulness is illustrated as a shield and buckler. The shield in ancient times was large and stationary; it could protect two or three soldiers crouching behind it. A buckler was strapped around the arm for a mobile protection in battle. God’s faithfulness is like a shield that wards off the arrows of temptation, sin, and destruction.

Third, I believe that God can reassure me through all my fearful situations. Verses 5-7 state: “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.”  

Here God is sized up against the greatest threats and fears of the ancient world:

  • We see God against the traps of the enemy and the destructive plague (Psalm 91:3). 
  • God is against the things that terrorize both at night and during the day (Psalm 91:5-6). 
  • God is against a thousand on your left and ten-thousand on your right (Psalm 91:7).

The point is, in all your fearful situations, God is able to bring you reassurance. Remember, one plus God is a majority! Either God will protect you from your fearful situations, or he will keep you in them. Remember that all these contests between God and human fears are completely one-sided—God is in total domination mode.

Fourth, I believe that God can help me escape his judgment and witness the punishment of the wicked (v. 8, You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked). The psalmist declares with confidence that those who live in God’s presence will escape God’s judgment and witness the punishment of the wicked. At the time of his own choosing, God will punish the wicked, but the righteous will escape. The righteous will only observe God’s judgment, not be included in it.

When I Am Afraid, I Will Make God My Dwelling Place (91:9-13)

As we’ve already stated, the promises here of complete protection were given to Israel under the old covenant. How do we know that? For one, we know that God does not lie, but also, we know of believers who have died in accidents and those who were mauled by lions in the ancient Roman Colosseum. We must keep the context in mind when we read passages like this. We may not qualify for the immediate context, but we can look at the underlying principles taught in similar scriptures.

As we examine verses 9-13, what is the underlying principle? Today when we encounter evil threats, plagues, physical harm, or disaster, God promises us his presence will be with us throughout the trial. I can’t say it’s never going to rain when you follow Jesus, but I can say he will cover you when the storms hit!

God confronts our greatest fears by letting us see how big he is, but no matter how powerful he may be, we can dwell and abide in him (vv. 1; 9). We can take up permanent residence in him. Too many treat God more like a therapist or a hospital than our home—we go to him when things are bad, but we don’t dwell with him. We treat him like a temporary shelter until the storm has passed, but the psalmist says, stay there, dwell there, and God will be your shelter. 

When I Am Afraid, I Will Cling to the Lord (91:14-16)

In the following verses we see God’s overriding commitment to his children in a series of seven, first-person verbs: 

  • I will deliver…
  • I will protect…
  • I will answer…
  • I will be with you in trouble…
  • I will rescue…
  • I will honor…
  • I will satisfy…
  • I will show you my salvation… 

In other words, we can cling to him because he’s committed himself to us. 

First, I will cling to the Lord by loving and acknowledging him (v. 14, “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name”). Here God faithfully promises to care for the one who is devoted to him and knows his name—that is, the one who has a genuine relationship with him.

Second, I will cling to the Lord by calling on his 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” (91:15-16). Special blessings are promised to those who cling to the Lord—when we call on God, he promises to answer us. He has pledged to be with us in times of trouble and will deliver us. Keep in mind that long life is a special blessing given to Israel, but thankfully God gives to every believer a life of ultimate fullness and blessings. We may not experience everything we want in the here and now, but God promises us ultimate rest in the hereafter.

Conclusion

On January 8, 1956, Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Flemming, and Roger Youderian were speared to death on a sandbar in Ecuador. They were trying to reach the Auca Indians, a small and fierce people who lived deep in the jungle and were unreached with the message of the gospel. Jim Elliot’s wife, Elisabeth Elliot, wrote the story of their calling and death in her book Shadow of the Almighty. The book title comes from Psalm 91. According to Elisabeth Elliot, her husband and his friends were slain in the shadow of the Almighty. She named her book such because she was convinced that the refuge of God’s people is not so much a refuge from suffering or even death, but a refuge from final and ultimate defeat.

Such is our refuge. As believers, under the New Covenant, we can pray and believe in the promises of Psalm 91 knowing that God is with us and that in Christ, God will give us an eternal refuge—eternal life with him.

Travis Johnson
Travis Johnson is Lead Pastor of the Findlay Bible Methodist Church.