by J. Alan Davidson, N. Ireland
“The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in Me” Jn.14.30.
THE SERPENT AND THE TEMPTATION
“The Messiah, of Whom former Psalms have sung and to Whom every singer of Israel had regard, is here prominently before us. In contrast to the utter failure of man in himself, here is Messiah’s safety in His God.”1
“In this Psalm of exquisite beauty, the proper subject is Jesus in the days of His flesh.”2
- 1. Bonar, Andrew A. “On the Psalms”. R. Carter, New York, 1861.
- 2. Pridham, Arthur. “Notes and Reflections on the Psalms”. James Nisbet and Co., 1869.
Other Psalms have beautiful Messianic sections but also include verses applicable to the government of God relative to the failures and even sins of the Psalmist. The revelations of God in this Psalm are purposely specific. It does not mention anything of God’s chastisement. This Psalm reveals Jehovah, the Almighty God available in all His promises and power to One beset by His enemies and the temptation of the devil. The subject can only be Christ.
The Psalm is written as a dialogue, not merely of passive trust but communications with God. The Psalm presents unbroken present blessing and conversation in the midst of snares and persecution. As this is enjoyed, it brings to a heavenly state in the assurance of honour and salvation.
“In contrast with the frailty of man contemplated in Psalm 90, here are celebrated the rights and prerogatives of that perfect Man in Whom there was no frailty. For all beside carried the sentence of death by reason of sin, but Jesus knew no sin. His nature was clean, He ever fulfilled the Divine pleasure to perfection, and was entitled to full security and blessing. And such chartered rights are here read out to Him.”3
- 3. Bellett, J.G. “Short Meditations on the Psalms”. Bible Truth Publishers, USA, 1961.
There is no inscription to this beautiful Psalm. The name of the human writer is of no significance since we come immediately to four names and titles of God available to faith but directly applicable to Messiah:
- “The Most High” v.1. Elyon. Far above the malice of Satan and the rage of enemies;
- “The Almighty” v.1. Shaddai. Power that no foe can withstand or frustrate;
- “The LORD” v.2. Jehovah. The Lord of sovereign grace, revealed in covenant-keeping power;
- “My God” v.2. Elohim. Personal relationship of dependence and trust.
The Psalm is written as a melody of encouragements and experiences. The change of pronouns (for example, “He” v.1, “My” v.2, “Thee” v.3) have suggested to some a song and chorus with a refrain of different voices in Hebrew parallelism. The last three verses end with the Divine voice, giving the six “I wills” of God’s promises. “In the whole collection there is not a more cheering Psalm, its tone is elevated and sustained throughout.”4
- 4. Spurgeon, C.H. “The Treasury of David – Volume 4”.
THE SECRET PLACE
“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High” v.1. This is the second Psalm of Book Four, the ‘Numbers’5 section of the Psalms, with Psalm 90 being written by Moses. If we consider the earthly aspect of this dwelling place we think of the Tabernacle. Here the veil is opened, the Mercy Seat is revealed, the covering cherubim are satisfied and the glory of the Most High opens to sight in the inner sanctuary of God’s presence. “Into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood” Heb.9.7. For the other days and months of the year no human eye ever looked upon these emblems of the Divine presence and no footstep broke the silence of the sanctuary; the sense of isolation, distance and unworthiness lasted for another year. Only One ever abode in “the secret place”: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him” Jn.1.18. “When He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” Heb.1.3. “He that dwelleth” is translated by some as “sitteth”, “settled”, to “pass the night”, as did Israel sheltered by blood on the Passover night.
- 5. The Psalms are divided into five ‘Books’ (Pss.1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150), which show a close correspondence with the five Books of Moses. Hence the fourth ‘Book’ parallels the Book of Numbers.
“He … shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty” v.1. This is an allusion to the wings of the cherubim, mystic symbols of the Ark and the Mercy Seat, emblems of the Divine presence and glory into which only Christ can enter. “For in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” Col.2.9. Yet in perfect manhood, Christ took the place of absolute dependence. He could say, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head” Matt.8.20. As the Messiah He found in God His “refuge”, “fortress”, “shield” and “buckler” vv.2,4. The devil quotes from this Psalm when attempting to ensnare the Holy One and to divert Him from the path of obedience. Of Messiah alone could the language of these opening verses be characteristically and descriptively used in a primary sense. The moonbeams often shone through the leaves of the trees on the Mount of Olives to discern a solitary figure in communion with the Father. He prayed in the quiet place, in the wilderness, on the mount, in the room and in the garden. He kneeled, He fell on the ground, He fell on His face, prostrate on the ground. He lifted up His eyes unto heaven. His prayer was always, “that the Father may be glorified in the Son” Jn.14.13.
Such a One was surrounded by hostile powers, plots and Satanic attack:
- “The snare of the fowler” v.3. “They send unto Him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch Him in His words” Mk.12.13;
- “The terror by night” v.5. As the prowler stalks in the darkness, so they came to take Him in the garden of Gethsemane on that dreadful night. “Are ye come out, as against a thief, with swords and with staves to take Me?” Mk.14.48;
- “The arrow that flieth by day” v.5. Cunning foes made cowardly attacks with crafty malice. “And they began to accuse Him, saying, ‘We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that He Himself is Christ a King’” Lk.23.2;
- “The lion and adder … and the dragon” v.13. “The chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take Him by craft, and put Him to death” Mk.14.1.
The powers of darkness moved by underhand dealing and then by open attack to destroy Him. The devil himself approached with fiery darts in blasphemous assault: “If Thou be the Son of God …” Matt.4.3,6.
THE SERPENT AND THE TEMPTATION
The faithful man of Psalm 91 succeeded the failing man of Psalm 90. He also far surpassed the first man, Adam. Adam was placed with tame animals in the garden. The Lord was in the wilderness with the wild beasts, Mk.1.13. Adam was granted dominion by God over creation and he fell. The Lord was offered dominion in the devil’s way and He refused. “So He drove out the man” Gen.3.24; “The Spirit driveth Him into the wilderness” Mk.1.12. The first man was tempted and sinned. The Second Man was tempted, tried, tested and proved, but the assailant’s plot failed; He could not sin. The serpent in the garden caused Eve to doubt the Word of God and she disobeyed with the fruit of paradise in her hand. The Lord in the wilderness hungered, yet He quoted the Word of God and defeated the devil. The sad story of Genesis chapter 3 concludes with “cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” Gen.3.24. Matthew’s account of the Temptation concludes, “Then the devil leaveth Him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto Him” Matt.4.11.
The Temptation occurred at the beginning of the Lord’s public ministry. The lesson is that we must withstand Satan before we can assail the strongholds of Satan. The Passover lamb was kept from the tenth until the fourteenth day, not to see if but to show that it was “without blemish”. The submissive Lamb of God, Who was always without spot, knew hunger, suffered thirst, shed tears and shed blood. He was not tempted to sin; He could not sin but He was tried, tested and proved as the Son of God. The word “tempt” can carry the thoughts of ‘pierce’, ‘discover the contents’, ‘ascertain the character’; and hence ‘to show’. He knew bodily testing, mental anguish and trial of soul. He experienced sorrow, grief, poverty and pain. He was misrepresented, misunderstood, maligned and mocked, as we learn in Psalm 91. Blood mingled with spittle ran down those cheeks which were as a bed of spices, comely with rows of jewels.
- Monarch of the smitten cheek,
- Scorn of Jew and scorn of Greek,
- Priest and King, Divinely meek –
- He shall bear the glory.
- (William Blane)
These sinful temptings could not reach Him; He was not vulnerable; there was nothing in Him to respond. Yet He suffered more; sin grieved Him more; His sensitive purity amid this morass of sin, briers of hate and kingdom of darkness caused Him to groan in spirit. “He Himself hath suffered being tempted” Heb.2.18. “Who in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications with strong [mighty, powerful, a word used of the storms of the sea] crying and tears” Heb.5.7. Do we hear some of these prayers in Ps.91.2, “My refuge and My fortress”? On the cross He cried, “My God, My God”, yet He said, “My God; in Him will I trust” Ps.91.2. He was ever dependent and submissive though assailed by “night” and by “day” Ps.91.5.
We must observe from Matthew’s account that it was this communion with God that formed the background to the devil’s attack. “And lo a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil” Matt.3.17-4.1. This attack took place immediately upon the identification from heaven of the Lord Jesus as the Son of God. “And when the tempter came to Him, he said, ‘If Thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread’” Matt.4.3. This was the test of true humanity. When Adam sinned in the garden, God said of the tree, “Thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” Gen.2.17. The tempter said, “Ye shall not surely die”. The first Adam “did eat” Gen.3.6. The Lord said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’” Matt.4.4.
The words of Ps.91.11,12 used by the devil are spoken in the context of the second (middle) of the three temptations. “Then the devil taketh Him up into the holy city, and setteth Him on a pinnacle of the temple.” The devil said to Him, “If Thou be the Son of God, cast Thyself down for it is written, ‘He shall give His angels charge concerning Thee:’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear Thee up, lest at any time Thou dash Thy foot against a stone’” Matt.4.5,6. The devil omitted the words, “to keep Thee in all Thy ways”. The promise of protection was in the “ways” of a life of dependence upon God, not in a reckless suicide attempt. The devil did not quote Ps.91.9,10, expressing Deity, or Ps.91.13, predicting Satanic defeat. The quotation, like most doctrinal errors, was completely out of context. The devil added, “at any time”. The devil sought to separate His dependent manhood from his eternal Deity. The Lord repeated the statement of His Deity: “Thou shalt not tempt the LORD thy God” Matt.4.7. The devil said, “Cast Thyself down” Matt.4.6. Again, the devil said, “Fall down and worship me” Matt.4.9. On the cross they said, “Come down”. The devil offered Him the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. The Lord will get the kingdoms but He must first suffer: “the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” 1Pet.1.11. He must suffer before He must reign. The devil still offers the easy way, the appealing method, something spectacular, sensational, something new, something different. God has reversed the schemes of the devil and the verdict of men: “God … hath highly exalted Him” Phil.2.9; “I will set Him on high” Ps.91.14. The answers of the Lord Jesus to the devil all refer to God: “the mouth of God” Matt.4.4; “thou shalt not tempt the LORD thy God” Matt.4.7; “thou shalt worship the LORD thy God“ Matt.4.10. The threefold attack was upon the Word of God, the Will of God and the Worship of God.
John’s Gospel does not present the One Who was tempted but John writes about the Son of God Who overcame the temptations. The first temptation was to turn stones into bread. The beginning of miracles involved the turning of water into wine, Jn.2.9. The second temptation was to display self-glory by casting Himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, outside. Jn.2.15 records the cleansing of His Father’s house by purging the Temple, inside. The third temptation was when the devil showed Him all the kingdoms of the world. In John chapter 3, the conversation with Nicodemus was about the Kingdom of God: “Jesus answered, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’” Jn.3.5. The devil said, “All these things will I give Thee, if Thou wilt fall down and worship me” Matt.4.9. John chapter 4 records the conversation concerning the true worship of the Father: “The true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him” Jn.4.23.
Satan has aimed his arrows and now his quiver is empty; he retreats, injured by his own craft and cruelty; his broken darts lie at his feet as trophies of truth and the triumph of Him Who is indeed the Son of God.
When Satan assailed the Son of God with his fiery darts, the written Word of God was His “shield and buckler” Ps.91.4, His coat of iron: “It is written … It is written … It is written”. Each was the stroke of the sword, a threefold defence after which the devil departed for a season, having already been defeated by the One Who would afterwards bruise his head, Gen.3.15. The Lord Jesus rained thunderbolts, blow after blow, upon the prince of hell.
“For we have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but He was in all points, apart from sin, tempted as we are” Heb.4.15 (literal translation). It would be a pity in this study if we omitted the practical lessons. Our blessed Lord, Who is able to save, as our High Priest is able to succour and able to sympathise. He will suffer with; go alongside to help the believer in every desire to live a life pleasing to God. This does not refer to our sins, for which we are to judge ourselves from the Word, and He is the Advocate to restore us. As High Priest He is sympathetic with our weaknesses when we try to do God’s will. He Himself triumphed over the wiles of the devil using the same means that are available to the simplest believer, which are the Spirit and the Scriptures. He had power over nature, He could still the storm and walk on the sea, yet he would not engage in the spectacular to attract the acclaim of the people. “‘He shall give His angels [twelve legions, that is seventy-two thousand angels, were available to Him, Matt.26.53] charge concerning Thee:’ and ‘In their hands they shall bear Thee up, lest at any time Thou dash Thy foot against a stone’” Matt.4.6. This is not a promise of deliverance from a deliberate suicidal act, as Satan proposed. “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death” Heb.2.9. The object of His Incarnation and the motive of His humiliation was His ability to die. “That through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” Heb.2.14.
It is as the Son of God that the Lord is still being attacked and denied in this modern world of sinful morality and apostate religion: Satan knew that Psalm 91 was Messianic. The Word of God in former times was burned and its faithful translators martyred. Now the Scriptures are changed, mutilated, altered to teach false doctrine, in spurious perversions. Under the guise of progressive knowledge or modern research, basic truths about the Son of God are declared non-essential, and become ‘no-go areas’. The devil omitted the words “in all Thy ways” Ps.91.11. Ways of obedience, God’s ways, are not ways of presumption and self-seeking. The flesh likes the spectacular. Today, many young believers, and some not so young, are forsaking the simple spiritual exercises of the assembly. They despise a little company of the Lord’s dear people where “two or three are gathered in [eis, ‘unto’] My name”. Many seek larger, more entertaining, ‘charismatic’ spectacles.
“Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when It testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” 1Pet.1.11. The Lord will receive the Kingdom but He must first suffer on the cross. The devil offered Him the kingdoms without going to the cross. Modern preachers offer an easy way of salvation without repentance and remission of sins through the blood. The devil’s way attracts the flesh and is independent of God. Adam acted as the independent man. Psalm 91 declares the dependent Man: “He shall call upon Me, and I will answer Him” Ps.91.15.
“Will I … shew Him My salvation” v.16.
“Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He shall presently give Me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?” Matt.26.53,54. As Messiah, He surrendered His chartered right, His Divinely-attested securities, in submission to His captors. “He was willing to be made sin for sinners, the vindicator and exhibitor of the full glories of God.”6 “And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” Phil.2.8. His perfect submission in life and obedience in death rose as fragrant incense before God.
- 6. Bellett, J.G., ibid.
Divine delight is expressed in the six “I wills” in Ps.91.14-16:
- He cried, “Save Me from the lion’s [roaring lion] mouth” Ps.22.21. God said, “Will I deliver Him” v.14;
- “The devil taketh Him up into an exceeding high mountain” Matt.4.8. God said, “I will set Him on high” v.14. “Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive” Ps.68.18;
- “Thou hast heard [‘answered’] Me from the horns of the unicorns” Ps.22.21. God said, “I will answer Him” v.15;
- “Be not far from Me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help” Ps.22.11. God said, “I will be with Him in trouble” v.15;
- “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name” Phil.2.9. God said, “I will deliver Him, and honour Him” v.15;
- “He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand. He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied” Isa.53.10,11. God said, “With long life will I satisfy Him, and shew Him My salvation” v.16.
We cannot leave our study of this Messianic Psalm without noticing the national background. On the Passover night when He delivered them out of Egypt, God said, “When I see the blood, I will pass over [hover over as a bird protecting her nest] you” Ex.12.13. The Lord wept over Jerusalem and said, “How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood unto her wings” Lk.13.34. This figure appears in this Psalm: “He shall cover thee with His feathers, and under His wings shalt thou trust” v.4. This is a beautiful thought of Divine tenderness and matchless love illustrated in the chickens nestling near, finding protection from the hawks in the sky, the adder in the field and the approach of the cunning fox. At the Red Sea they saw “the destruction” v.6, of their enemies. “Neither shall any plague come nigh to thy dwelling [‘tent’]” v.10. This is the ‘Numbers’ section of the Book of Psalms, answering to the journey through the wilderness, when they encountered “terror by night” v.5, “pestilence” v.6, those that “fall at thy side” v.7, the “stone” underfoot, v.12, and the fiery serpent, v.13. The nation rose to glory in the days of David and Solomon, yet by its subsequent conduct, cast the crown at the devil’s feet.
“Will I deliver Him … I will set Him on high … I will answer Him … I will be with Him … I will deliver Him, and honour Him. With long life I will satisfy Him and shew Him My salvation” vv.14-16. The salvation of Messiah’s seed will satisfy Him when He wears the crown of exceeding glory.
“And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen” Rom.16.20.