There are many Psalms that contain what seem to be promises of physical safety and prosperity. These often vex me. After all, I don’t believe in the so-called Prosperity Gospel. I don’t believe that, if I am faithful, God will necessarily reward me with health, wealth, successful kids, influence, or whatever. No, I believe that the promises of blessing and life to God’s faithful ones are more of a spiritual nature–with, of course, physical fulfillment as well, in the eschaton (age to come–think new Heavens and new Earth).
So then, when I read a passage like Psalm 91:11-12, I have to pause. The Psalmist writes,
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.
On the surface, this looks like a promise of physical safety. The Lord will send His angels down whenever I (or whomever the promise is for) is in trouble, and no harm will befall me.
But I say I have to pause, because I have seen too much in my life to think that this could possibly mean physical safety alone. Saints all over the world are struck with cancer, natural disasters and persecution. And not only that, but every Christian who has lived so far has died in the end. So much for physical safety. So what is the real meaning of this promise, and others like it?
Taken in context, these two verses are part of a song (“psalm”) in which the Lord promises to watch over and protect the one who “holds fast to me in love” (verse 14). The promise is less about physical safety than it is about this: no suffering, no pain, no loss, no death will ultimately be devoid of meaning or purpose in God’s economy. For those who “hold fast” to Him, for the one who, “knows my name” (verse 14 again) and “calls on me” (verse 15) God will “be with him in trouble… will rescue him and honor him.”
Those who faithfully rely on God for salvation will be vindicated in the end. On Judgment Day, they will not be put to shame.
There’s only one problem: none of us is perfectly faithful. Which of us can honestly say that we rely on the Lord the way we ought to? Who among us makes the Lord the focal point of our lives, every moment of every day. So if these spiritual and eschatological promises are for the one who faithfully clings to the Lord always, then they must not be for us. At least, they must not be for us, if they depend on our own efforts to be faithful.
So who can claim these promises? Only a perfect man. Only Jesus Christ.
As man, Jesus perfectly exemplified what it looks like to hold fast to God in love. He was totally faithful. He knew God intimately, because He was (and is) God the Son. There was never a time in His life when he went off-track, spiritually speaking.
Then look at what happened to Him. He was betrayed. He was falsely tried. He was wrongly convicted as a rebel and tortured. He was killed in a brutal way, dying on a cross. He was buried in a tomb, literally dead to the world (so much for physical safety in this life!)
And yet, Jesus was vindicated in the end, wasn’t He? After He was raised from the dead, He ascended to the right hand of the Father (Daniel 7:13; Luke 22:69), from where He reigns as King over all creation (Psalm 110:1). It was this joy, the joy of His future exaltation, to which Christ looked forward, even while he was staring down His impending passion and crucifixion. Hebrews 12:2 says that, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” He suffered in this life, but He was vindicated after His death. His faithful perfection (and perfect faithfulness) earned Him His Father’s blessing–and the revelation that all His suffering had not been in vain.
The promises of Psalm 91 are wonderfully richer and deeper than mere physical safety and blessing in this life. Jesus eschewed physical comfort in this life in order to perfectly obey the will of the Father, and He was rewarded with everlasting blessings and joy.
So Psalm 91 is true–God does vindicate and deliver the one who trusts in Him faithfully. This is perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ. But here is the amazing thing for you and me. Remember, you and I are decidedly not faithful enough, not obedient enough to earn God’s blessings. But Christ is faithful. Christ is perfectly obedient. And spotless life qualified Him to die as the perfect sacrifice on behalf of faith-failures like you and me. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). The ungodly are you and me–sinners who have no business claiming God’s promised blessings on our own merits. Naturally speaking, we are enemies of God.
However, because Jesus Christ died for us, we do not have to justify ourselves by our own efforts to be perfect. In Romans 5:9-11, Paul describes it this way:
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
To summarize, it is Christ’s faithfulness that justifies us before. It is God’s grace that saves us, and it is He who gives us the faith to trust and rely in His Son. So now we can look at passages like Psalm 91 and say, “Whoa, I could never claim these promises of God’s protection. I’m not faithful enough. Thank God Jesus is!” By faith in Him, we are seen as faithful. We are credited with a “free gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17) that we didn’t earn. In biblical language, we are “justified.”
And that righteousness which is credited to us gradually begins to become an actual reality in our daily lives, as we grow closer to Christ. So over time, Christians experience a greater ability to “hold fast to [Him] in love.”
Our reliance on God’s faithfulness grows, and makes us able to find joy, even when the physical circumstances of life do not live up to our expectations. Because Christ vindicates us, we can face down life’s pain and eventually even our own deaths without fear, knowing that the Lord tells us the truth when He says, “With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation” (Psalm 91:16). The everlasting blessing and joy that Christ now experiences, have been promised to us, who trust in Him. Because Jesus got it, we’ll get it too.
God’s promises to His Faithful One are true–and they are true for us because His Faithful One is our Lord and Savior.