The Masoretic Text does not have a superscription for this psalm. A first-century Dead Sea Scroll includes Psalm 91 with three other psalms that are not found in the book of Psalms. Based on its length, the portion that has not been preserved appears to have attributed Psalm 91 to David, as does the extant text of the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, the composition is called “praise of a song.”
For one to dwell in the “secret place” or “covert” of the Most High would signify to be under his protective care. The reading of the Septuagint indicates that the individual would have God’s “help.” Abiding under the “shadow of the Almighty” or the “shelter of the God of heaven” (LXX) is suggestive of being shielded by him as are the young under a bird’s wings.
The individual enjoying divine protection would acknowledge YHWH as his “refuge” (“helper” or “protector,” LXX) and “fortress” (“refuge,”). Indicative of his personal relationship with him and his utmost confidence, he would say, “My God in whom I trust” or “hope” (LXX).
The individual having this trust would be delivered from the “fowler’s snare” or the “snare of hunters” (LXX) and “destructive pestilence.” Probably the “fowler’s snare” is descriptive of the enemy’s scheme to harm the godly person. The upright one would also be shielded from deadly plague. (See the Notes section for additional comments on verse 3.)
Comparing YHWH’s protective care to that of a bird when shielding its young, the psalmist referred to “pinions” and “wings.” “With his pinions [back, LXX],” he would cover or shelter the godly person, and the upright one would find refuge or “hope” (LXX) under God’s “wings.” YHWH’s “truth,” faithfulness, or dependability would serve as a protective shield and wall. According to the Septuagint, God’s truth would surround the godly person like armor.
With the Most High as the dependable protector, the upright person would not need to fear the “dread of the night” or a surprise attack under the cover of darkness. During the day, the individual would have no reason to fear the flying arrow of the enemy. Whether the danger originated from concealed or visible sources, divine aid could be relied upon.
Pestilence or plague (a “deed” or “matter,” LXX) may stalk in the darkness, laying victims low in death. Destruction may wreak havoc at midday. (Additional comments on verse 6 are in the Notes section.) For the upright person, though, there is no reason for fear. Instead of mentioning the “walking” or “passing through” of “destruction” at high noon, the Septuagint mentions a “mishap” and a “midday demon.”
A thousand may fall as a consequence of pestilence or war at the side of God’s servant and ten thousand at his right hand, but the calamity would not draw near to him. Only with his eyes would he see the retribution that would befall the wicked (“sinners,” LXX).
Because of looking to YHWH as a personal “refuge” (“my hope,” LXX) and a “habitation” or place of dwelling (where security can be found), the godly person would not experience disappointment. (For the Septuagint rendering of verse 9, see the Notes section.) Evil would not befall him nor a “plague” come near his tent or home. Both as to his person and his place of residence, the one trusting in YHWH would enjoy security.
Regarding the protective care YHWH would provide, the psalmist continued, “He will give his angels a command regarding you, to guard you in all your ways. Upon [their] hands they will carry you so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” (Regarding the use the devil made of Psalm 91:11, 12, when tempting Jesus, see Jesus Christ, God’s Unique Son, under the heading “Tempted by the Devil” in the section “The Baptism of Jesus and His Time in the Wilderness.”)
The “ways” the godly one pursues are in harmony with God’s will and, therefore, come under his protective care, which includes the ministering of angels. They would look out for the upright one, not allowing obstacles to lead to serious stumbling (as when one’s foot strikes a stone and this results in a falling).
Any frontal enemy attack (comparable to that of a “young lion”) or a covert assault (like that of a “venomous serpent”) would not succeed. This is indicated by the reference to the trampling upon the lion and the serpent. (See the Notes section for additional comments on verse 13.)
Starting with verse 14, the psalmist portrayed God as providing assurances to the one who is attached to him, loves him, or “hopes” (LXX) in him and knows his name (indicative of knowing him as a person and having an approved relationship with him). The assurances are: “I will rescue him,” bringing him to safety. “I will protect him,” shielding him from harm. Because “he calls me,” appealing for aid, “I will answer him.” “In [his] distress, I will be with him,” not abandoning him without any hope of aid. “I will deliver him and honor him,” freeing him from affliction and honoring or glorifying him by raising him out of a pitiable state of suffering. “I will satisfy him with length of days and show him my salvation,” granting him a long and contented life as a person who would witness deeds of deliverance.
Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.
In verse 3, the Hebrew term déver means “pestilence” or “plague.” More specifically, the word has been used to designate “bubonic plague.” This term is linked with the plural of hawwáh (“destruction” or “ruin”). The expression appearing in the Septuagint is “troubling word” or “matter.” In Hebrew, the term for “word,” “affair,” or “matter” (davár) has the identical consonants, and the Septuagint translator seems to have thus understood the Hebrew and used the Greek word logós, to convey this meaning. The Greek term describing the “word” or “matter” is tarachódes, which has been defined as “troubling,” “disturbing,” “terrifying,” and “dreadful.”
In verse 4, the Greek term for “back” (metáphrena) is plural and so would denote the “back parts” of the body or the entire back and the shoulders.
The Septuagint translator, in verse 6, appears to have understood the Hebrew term déver, meaning “pestilence” or “plague,” to be davár and rendered it prágma, (“deed,” “matter,” or “thing”).
The Septuagint rendering of verse 9 differs somewhat from the Masoretic Text. “Because you, Lord, [are] my hope; the Most High you have made your refuge.” In his translation, Brenton represents the “you” as applying to the psalmist’s “soul.”
There is uncertainty about the meaning of the Hebrew word sháchal (in verse 13), with lexicographers suggesting “lion,” “lion cub,” “young lion” and even “lizard.” The Septuagint rendering is aspís, meaning “asp.” Next the Masoretic Text refers to a creature designated as péthen, (a poisonous snake, possibly a cobra). In the Septuagint, the corresponding word (basilískos denotes some kind of a serpent or a basilisk. In the second half of the verse, the Hebrew term kephír denotes a “young lion,” and the Septuagint rendering is léon (lion). The Septuagint next refers to a “dragon” (drákon, which could also apply to a serpent), and the Masoretic Text says tannín, which can designate a sea monster, serpent, or dragon.
Psalm 91 should not be understood to mean that godly persons escape all troubles and never experience distress. Repeatedly, in other psalms, one reads about the dangers and difficult circumstances upright persons faced. The assurance, however, is that, regardless of the situation, all who trust in God will be sustained and nothing can truly result in permanent harm to them. Their relationship with the Most High assures that they will ultimately be rewarded abundantly.