For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Sound familiar? The words are taken from Psalm 91 (vss. 11-13, NRSV), the last words of the psalmist before the final oracle in which God promises his salvation to those who love him (vss. 14-16). Verses 11 to 13 are given in explanation of the promise that no evil or scourge will be allowed to harm those who make God their refuge (vss. 9-10).
It should be no surprise that many have taken these verses to suggest that each of us has a guardian angel. There’s little question of the existence of angelic beings in Scripture who fulfill a number of roles under God’s direction. But to me, all of the references to angels in the Bible, taken together, don’t quite add up to the popular mythology of a guardian angel assigned to each person for their protection.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that angels don’t intervene in human affairs (the Bible clearly teaches otherwise), nor would I say that the Bible makes a clear case against the existence of guardian angels. My concern is more about the issue I’ve raised in previous posts: is a belief in guardian angels another instance of how we want to make the biblical story all about us and our well-being, instead of about who God is and the bigger picture of what God is doing?
I won’t try to resolve the question of guardian angels here. Instead, let me suggest that if the verses at the beginning of this post sounded familiar to you, it may not have been because of Psalm 91; you may remember them instead as being part of the story of Jesus’ wilderness temptation in Matthew 4.
You know the story. Having been baptized by John, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, where he is tempted three times by the devil. In the first two temptations, Satan begins with challenging Jesus to prove that he is the Son of God. It is in the second of these that Satan quotes Psalm 91. He took Jesus to the highest point of the Jerusalem temple, and once again challenged him to prove his divine identity: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone'” (Matt 4:5-6).
Jesus, for his part, quotes Scripture right back: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test'” (vs. 7). The reference is to Deuteronomy 6:16, where Moses instructs the people, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” The story is found in Exodus 17:1-7, in which the people accused Moses of dragging them out of Egypt so they could die of thirst. Through Moses, God did indeed give the people water. But Moses named the place Massah and Meribah — “test” and “quarrel” — because the people dared to suggest that God was not among them if he wouldn’t do this miracle on their behalf (Ex 17:7).
I imagine a longer conversation between Satan and Jesus in Matthew 4 might have gone something like this:
Satan: Okay, Jesus, look. You’re the Son of God, right? You don’t have to prove anything to me. But you know how these people are. They’re just not going to believe if they don’t see a miracle. So here we are, right where all the important people can see you. Jump, and God will catch you; the Bible says so. Then they’ll have to believe. That’s the fastest way to accomplish your mission, don’t you think?
Jesus: That’s not how faith works. A long, long time ago, the people put God to the test at Massah. Their attitude was, “If God doesn’t do this for us, then God isn’t with us.” I don’t want the people to follow me because of miracles alone, and I certainly won’t test the Father that way myself!
. . .
Again, this is my concern about the possible misuse of the promises in Psalm 91: is someone reading the psalm in such a way as to put God to the test? It’s one thing to draw encouragement from the psalm in the context of a relationship in which the person who seeks refuge already knows that God is trustworthy and faithful. But it’s another to approach the psalm with the attitude that God has something to prove.
Something like this, after all, is at stake in Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders who demanded miraculous signs from him. Twice, Jesus replies that “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matt 16:4; see also Matt 12:39). Jesus’ response to both the Pharisees and to Satan is that yes, there will be signs, but on God’s terms. And here, the additional message seems to be, “And if my death and resurrection isn’t enough for you, we’re just wasting time.”
My hope is that Psalm 91 will continue to be the source of wisdom, inspiration, and encouragement it was meant to be. It points us to the loving, steadfast, merciful character of God.
Let’s just not use the psalm to put God to the test.