The Safest Place to Be

Psalm 91: 1-16

Wednesday February 24th 2021, UAUT Chapel Service

 

        When I was a child I used to get picked on by bullies in school. When I would tell my mum, she would tell me not to worry and then recite this little rhyme. Maybe they have the same kind of saying here in Tanzania? It goes like this, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. Did you ever hear something like that when you were a child? It sounds very simple, maybe only a child could understand what it means. But at the core of that little rhyme is a very profound philosophy. You know that sticks and stones when they come into contact with your flesh, they may cut you or bruise you and cause all sorts of pain. On the other hand, if people call you names then it is up to you whether you listen and allow the hurtful words, they use, to penetrate your heart and cause emotional hurt. 

        This is similar to how we react to the troubles that we encounter in this life. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Christian or not, crises will enter your life. I have seen how some Christians can easily become shattered or disillusioned because they don’t understand why these things are happening to them. We have already sung the hymn “It is well with my soul” But do you know the history of this great hymn?

        The hymn tells the story of a man named Horatio Spafford. He knew something about life’s challenges. He was a successful attorney and real estate investor who lost most if his money when fire destroyed  the city of Chicago where he lived in 1871. Around the same time, his only son who was four-years-old died of a virus called scarlet fever.

        He thought a family holiday would be good for everyone so, he sent his wife and their four remaining daughters on a ship to England. He planned to join them after he finished some important business at home. However, while crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the ship his family was on sunk. More than 200 people lost their lives, including all four of his precious daughters. His wife, Anna, survived the tragedy and when she arrived in England, she sent a telegram to her husband that began: “Saved alone. What shall I do?”

        Horatio immediately set sail for England. At one point during his voyage, the captain of the ship he was on, told Horatio that they were now passing over the spot where the ship, his family was on, sunk.

As Horatio thought about his daughters, words of comfort and hope filled his heart and mind. He wrote them down, and they have since become this well-known and much loved hymn:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll—

Whatever my lot, you have taught me to know

It is well, it is well with my soul.

 

        Apart from the Word of God, another way that God reveals Himself to a dying world that is lost in sin is, the testimony and witness of believers. How do they manage, or not manage, when they have trouble in their life? That is the question that the Holy Spirit of God is asking us through the Psalm we have just read. How do you behave when trouble hits your life? Do you manage it well? Do you go to pieces or, do you go to God? That is a very relevant question for all of us especially now I the world. There are many threats to our health and soul these days. All these troubles cause us to be anxious and stressful because we are confused. So, is there a way, that God has given to us, so that we might survive without a scratch?

        This Psalm is interesting because it is one of those that we don’t really know the context. And this may be a good thing because, perhaps the fact that the context is not known allows us to apply the teachings found here to our own lives as well. What I mean is, because we don’t really know who wrote it or why, then we can apply the dangers we read of here to the situations we face, these trials to our trials. We can therefore do as the believer in the psalm did and choose to trust God no matter what troubles we encounter because God says to him in verses 14 & 15, “I will protect [you]” I will be with [you]”. God is with us and will bring us through.

 

        Now I’m not saying that you will not go through troubles in your life. Just as surely as the sky is blue, we will encounter trouble. We are sinners born into a sinful world. But the point of Psalm 91 is, that when we do go through trouble, God is with us if we stand in Him. The psalmist is counselling us to abide in God. In verse 1 he says, Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most-High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. Live your life under His protection by trusting in His Holy Word. He is the safest place.

 

        Let me give you a real-life example. In 2001, I and my family were living and working in a Muslim country. Part of my work was working with Muslim university students who had become believers. One of those students had a very close relationship with me. We were so close that when he called me the night of his father’s disappearance, I drove him around to every hospital and morgue in the city. Until we eventually discovered his father’s body early the next morning in the morgue of one of the hospitals. Then three days later, according to the customs, his father was to be buried in the village where he was born.

        Now his father was a devout Muslim and so he was to be buried in an Islamic funeral. My friend invited me, and I went to his ancestral village. The burial was held in late September 2001 only a few days after the US congress declared the war on terror in response the terrorist attacks in New York city which happened on September 11th, 2001. So, you can imagine that emotions were high at the funeral because most Muslims in the country where we lived took what the US congress said as a declaration of war on Islam.

        According to the tradition only men can accompany the body to the grave site. So, there I was the only white guy, the only westerner, and only one of two Christians in this funeral procession surrounded by 100’s of angry, confused, young Muslim men. But was I scared? Of course, I was.  Did I think bad things could happen? I would have been a fool to think otherwise. But was I worried? No! Because I knew the safest place to be was where God had placed me. This is the counsel of the psalmist in Psalm 91. The presence of God will drive away all fear.

        A few days later my friend told me that after the funeral the village elders had been worried that my attendance would result in violence because of what I represented. But they said there was a quiet sense of peace that they had never experienced before. My friend told them about Jesus.

 

        This is why this morning’s message is entitled, “The Safest Place to Be” How do we experience God’s protection?  This psalm tells us in verses 1-4, and we are going to concentrate on these 4 verses for the rest of this sermon. So, let’s look again at verse 1, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most-High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. This is the first way that we can know and experience God’s protection. By dwelling on His character. If you're going to be protected in life, you're going to have to dwell on God's character. And where is His character revealed? In His Holy revealed Word.

 

        If we look at verses 1 and 2, we will see God’s character revealed in the names the psalmist uses to identify Him. The first name we encounter in verse 1, it is the ‘Most High’. The word in Hebrew used here is Elyon, which means the possessor of heaven and earth. He is the God who is over all the things that are.

        When we read a little further, we see that God is referred to as ‘The Almighty’. The Hebrew word used here is ‘Shaddai’. This term ‘Almighty’ doesn’t mean Great in Strength but Great in Grace. He is the God who will provide for all our needs. This is the same title God used when he called Abraham out of his land, to be separate from it and follow El-Shaddai. Abraham didn’t know where he was going, He didn’t know how God was going to provide. But God called to Abraham as the Almighty God, the God who would provide.

        Then in verse two, the psalmist writes, “I will say of the LORD”. Notice that the name is spelled out in all capital letters. When you see God’s name like that in the Bible it is referring to God’s personal name “Yahweh”. He is the promise-keeping God, the eternal, unchangeable I AM, He who was, is, and ever shall be.

        Then finally he is referred to by the psalmist again in verse 2 as, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust”. The word used for ‘God’ here in Hebrew is ‘Elohim’. In using this name, the psalmist wants his readers to understand he is talking about the God who was in the beginning, the Creator God who created the heavens and the earth.

        This is what the psalmist is telling us, if you want to be protected in life, you’re going to have to learn to trust in God’s character. First, He is the Most-High God because He provides everything we need, He is the LORD, the eternal God, who keeps His promises, and he is Elohim, the Creator God.

        When we find ourselves going through troubles, we are told to focus on the God who is unlimited in His ability to protect us. In verse 4 we are given the image of seeking refuge under His wings. Picture in your mind those general affairs workers who do the landscaping work in UAUT. Often, they have to work under the scorching sun of Tanzania. Sometimes, you will see them taking a rest in the shadow of a tree. If you were to ask them, they would tell you, any shade from the sun is something which comes as a blessing.

        In our past Wednesday’s chapels, we have focused quite a lot on the characteristics of Jesus as we studied the gospel of John. These pictures, like the names of God we encounter here in this psalm, are what create faith in us because they create confidence in Him. Do you dwell in them? Do you find your rest in them? Do you, as verse 1 tells us, literally sit under our great God?

        This would be the opposite of what we learned last Wednesday from verse 1 of the first Psalm. There the ungodly are described as those who sit in the seat of mockers. But here in Psalm 91, the psalmist is talking about sitting in God's seat, sitting under God's shadow, existing in His presence, and being secure underneath Him.

        What is being described for us here is a life that is lived in communion with God, a life where the believer is literally at home in God! Are you at home in God? Are you dwelling in God? One Christian commentator named Matthew Henry puts it like this: 'This is the man who returns to God, who rests in God, who worships God [not to be seen by others], who loves to be alone with God - and nothing, nothing, comes between this man and God, but God will come between that man and harm'.

        In the Old Testament book of Numbers in chapter 25 we read of the city of refuge. There are six of these cities mentioned in the Bible. Now I can’t go into any great detail, but they were set aside by God in order to protect a person who killed another person by accident until all the evidence could be gathered and a trial held. When the innocent person got inside the walls of the city of refuge then he couldn’t be touched, he couldn’t be harmed by the relatives of the dead person who may have been looking for revenge. He was absolutely safe unless he left the city.

        In the same way, we need to make special note of the fact that the protection of God described in Psalm 91 is not guaranteed to all of God’s children. It is not freedom to do as we want because God will always protect us. It is only a guarantee if we are remaining in God. You must remain in Him, or you will not be protected. But isn't it wonderful to know that, if we abide and dwell in the character of God, we can say like the Psalmist in Psalm 31:20,  “In the shelter of your presence you hide them from all human intrigues; you keep them safe in your dwelling from accusing tongues”. God is our refuge! We should really place all our trust in the God who is revealed to us as the Almighty, Elyon, Shaddai, Yahweh, Elohim!

 

        There is something very important I want to point out that will be very wonderful and encouraging to us. In verse two we find the psalmist saying, “I will say of the Lord” and then in verse three he says, “Surely he will save you”. Do you notice the transition here? In verse 2 we have the description of the psalmist’s experience and then he moves in verse 3 onto our experience. This isn’t just some person writing thousands of years ago about an experience that only he had, and that we could never have. What he is saying in these two verses is, the God who protected me in this way, when I was going through troubles, is the same Great God, Almighty God, Most High, The LORD, The Creator God, and you can also experience him in the same way. You can know His protection as well.

 

        He goes on to describe the extent of God’s protection in verse 3, “Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare”. This is an image of birds that have been caught in a trap. What he's really talking about is all the plots and schemes of Satan and this world that are designed to break the believer’s confidence in God by trapping us in sin. The “deadly pestilence” that the psalmist mentions after the snare is also a metaphor. This means all types of evil that can come against us in our lives- if you're abiding in this God, He will protect you just as he did with the psalmist!

        I think it would be a mistake to associate this “deadly pestilence”, or any evil for that matter, with Covid-19. Viruses do not have consciences or wills and therefore cannot be evil. I’m not saying that they do not cause suffering, but we would be very poor interpreters of God’s Word if we interpreted everything literally and gave everything that is material its own reasoning and conscience.

 

        In verse 4 we read, He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”. This phrase literally means 'to hide, to run beneath, to take shelter in'. Now let me ask you this question: when your life becomes strange or ‘our of sorts’ what keeps you steady? When unpredictable things happen to you, the very things that you thought would never happen to you, what keeps you going? Let me tell you there is only one thing that the word of God says will keep you: your relationship with God! That's it! That is the only thing that can bring calmness to your soul.

        The first thing you need is Salvation. If you're not saved, how can you expect to face the troubles of life? But, if you are a born-again child of God and you're not dwelling on the name of God, the character of God, and if you're not sheltering under the tender wings of God, how can you even expect to be safe?

            When you think of the prophet Elijah what is the first thing you think of? That’s right you see him on top of Mount Carmel battling the prophets of Baal. You see a great many things happening in the spiritual realm. There is the great God and His prophet, and they defeat the prophets of Baal in a decisive way. There is now no question who is the greater. The Almighty God or the pretender idol Baal.

          But then when that encounter on Mount Carmel is over and Elijah is at the bottom of the Mount. I the very next chapter we find him running away from Jezebel a mere human. Soon he is just sitting there feeling sorry for himself and wishing he was dead. We find him praying to God in 1 Kings 19:4, I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”  But if you were to approach Elijah and ask him what God had done for him up until that time, he would probably have said, well he has protected me, fed me, and let me know of His tender presence in my life.

          Or we could also think about the New Testament account of the woman caught in the act of adultery. If you were to ask her for her testimony, she would probably say, “All these men were after me they wanted to kill me with stones of judgment. Instead, I was brought before Jesus, the Son of God, and he opened His arms wide and embraced me. He said, “I don’t condemn you, your sins are forgiven, go in peace”.

          In this psalm, we find three ways we can be confident and assured of God’s protection. First of all, if we are dwelling in God's character, secondly, if we are sheltering under His tenderness, and the third way is found here at the end of verse 4 there is if we are resting in God's strength. The psalmist writes, “His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart”. A ‘shield’, refers to something that is surrounding and protecting. A rampart is a high defensive wall. What God is saying through his servant here in this whole verse is: 'Even if something was to penetrate My tenderness it will not penetrate My strength'. In our morning staff devotions in the book of Ephesians, we had been learning the same thing about the armor of God. You put it on so that you may stand in the strength of the Lord.

          Now, as we come to the end of this sermon let me ask you: are you dwelling in, are you focusing on the character of God? Do you want protection from this life? Do you want to be shielded from all the troubles that everyone around you is falling victim to? The only way is found in verse 1 and repeated in verse 9: Make God your home, live in God, focus on the character of God, shelter underneath His tender wing, and rest in the strength of God's word - and if you do that nothing will touch you!

Will you do it? Will you come near to God and let Him come near to you? In doing that, even if the sticks and stones in this life touch your flesh, they will never penetrate your soul. As the apostle, Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day”.

.

 

Let's Pray, and as we do, remember that not one of us are exempt from trials and troubles, so take comfort from these words from Psalm 46:

 

Our God, we thank you that You are

Our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.

 

          Even though a disease may eat our flesh, nothing can eat our soul. Even if we forget You and what You have done in our lives, you will not forget us. As you promise us in Your Holy Word, “if we are faithless, [You] remain faithful, for [You] cannot disown [Yourself]. Our Father, help us to seek our refuge and live under the shadow of your tender mercy and compassion. Most of all may we live under Your truth that is a strong shield. Amen.