- Our Refuge
by: Kerby Burton
It would be difficult to imagine that anyone would actually enjoy pain, hardship and suffering. In fact, most people spend their entire lives avoiding it. But, is that something Christians should even consider when going about doing their part in the work of God?
Many coming from the Sabbatarian Church of God culture have spent years considering the avoidance of future pain and misery. Much of the discussion about that topic centers round the "Place of Safety." The object of this article is not to insist that there will be no physical place of safety for some of the faithful during the Great Tribulation. Rather it is to discuss whether or not one of the central scriptures used to make that argument—Psalms 91 is actually definitive for that purpose.
It is true that Psalms 91 clearly endorses reliance on God. As a reward for that reliance, we will receive protection. What Psalms 91 does not appear to do is point toward a specific physical place where protection may be found as has been historically suggested.
In The Secret Place
Psalms 91:1 starts with a simple statement which represents the theme of the Psalm. It says: "He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty."
The Hebrew word rendered as "secret place" is "cether" which is used many other times in the Bible and implies a sort of secret or covert operation or place. This usage can be either figurative or literal. Because of that we may conclude that the secret place being provided by God is just that—hidden or secret. But, it is not necessarily or definitively physical in nature. It may well be used in a metaphorical sense.
Likewise, the Hebrew word for "shadow" is "tsel." The implication of this word is also one of protection and is also either figurative or literal. So, this usage could refer to an actual shadow or as shadow as a metaphor.
The wording in this passage is similar to that presented in Matthew 23:37-38 & Luke 13:34-35 where it records Jesus’ lament that Jerusalem was not willing to be-shadowed- by Him "…as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…" Jesus indicated the end result of that refusal by saying:, "See! Your house is left to you desolate…"
Psalms 91:2 continues by stating, "I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him I will trust.’"
A refuge is a place that one flees to in order to get away from danger. A fortress is a sanctuary that is protected by a garrisoned force of defenders. In the event that one flees to a fortress, it becomes the actual place of refuge. It is worthy of noting that, in order to get the protection, one must go to the fortress; the fortress does not come to the one to be protected. Here, the "Lord," "my God" is the refuge and the fortress. This does not imply an actual place. It says nothing about how God may accomplish the protecting nor does it indicate what form the fortress may take; it may be physical or it may be figurative. In any event, it is God, Himself who is the fortress and refuge.
In the next verse, Psalms 91:3, the psalmist continues by stating: "Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the perilous pestilence."
Here the one protected is likened to a bird being hunted. The form of hunting being employed is via use of a snare.
The snare presented here is a hidden net that is laid flat on the ground. Birds are attracted to the location of the snare by bait that is placed in the net. The unsuspecting bird walks in to get the food. Upon pecking at the bait the unsuspecting bird releases the trigger and the trap snaps closed.
Now notice: it states "…deliver...from…" This implies either—that the bird is taken out of the net after being trapped or prevented from getting into the net in the first place.
By contrast, Psalms 119:110-112 states that: "The wicked have laid a snare for me, yet I have not strayed from Your precepts. Your testimonies I have taken as a heritage forever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart. I have inclined my heart to perform Your statutes forever, to the very end."
Here it is God’s testimonies, not straying from God’s precepts and inclining one’s heart "to perform" God’s "statutes forever" that brings about the avoidance of the snare of the wicked. God’s statutes are a fortress and refuge from the snare in our path.
In Psalms 142:3 & 7, the psalmist continues in this theme when he states: "When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then You knew my path. In the way in which I walk they have secretly set a snare for me."
Yet it is God who determines where a Christian steps his foot. In Proverbs 16:9 Solomon states: "A man's heart plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps." It is God who is our safety.
Safety in Fellowship
In addition to stating a reliance on the refuge of God and deliverance by Him, Psalms 91 continues in verse 7 by stating that: "…the righteous shall surround me…"
This seems to indicate that being
with the "righteous" also provides protection. God often uses others as a source of deliverance for someone going through some tragedy.
Protected Like Chicks
Psalms 91:4 continues by stating: \"He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge..."
Again the allusion is one of chicks scurrying to the mother hen at her call and crowding under the shadow of her extended wings for protection from danger. Anyone from a farming background has seen this and would understand the implication. A mother hen protecting her chicks is very aggressive and will flog anything that represents a danger to her young.
God is a Shield
In the second half of Psalms 91:4, the psalmist turns to a military theme. There it mentions that God’s "truth" is a "shield" and a "buckler." So it is that by listening to and obeying God’s word that we gain protection. Shield and buckler (as is the shadowing of the mother hen’s wings) are coverings (and thus a protection) from offensive weapons directed against us.
The Hebrew word translated here as "shield" is "tsinnah ). According to R. H. Kennett in his lectures to the British Academy (1931), the "sinnah:" "…was a very large shield (sinna) covering the whole body.3 This seems to have been part of the equipment of the ordinary soldier, and when not needed in actual conflict it was carried before the warrior to whom it belonged by a person called a gear-carrier (Scottice 'caddie ').4 It was pointed out by Robertson Smith that the right translation of I Sam. xvii.41 is ' the man (sc. Goliath) was carrying the great shield in front of him '-consequently no part of him was exposed except his face, so that it required an expert marksman to hit a vulnerable spot."
Likewise, the word translated in this scripture as "buckler" is "cocherah." (Strong’s 5507). This word implies something going around or surrounding a person.
A buckler is a small shield with a convex form and is actually a combination defensive/offensive weapon. It has a center boss behind which was the holding handle. The surface was often greased. The form and the greased surface served to deflect offensive weapon thrusts and strokes. As an offensive weapon it was used to pin and trap the opponent’s offensive arm so as to give the warrior himself an opportunity for a killing attack. If anyone has ever seen the movie "Gladiator," it was a buckler that the main character, "Maximus" used in his battles in the Roman coliseum.
However, the term "buckler" seems inadequate to describe the type of protection being pictured in this scripture. The word "cocherah" is used only once in the Bible—here in Psalms 91:4. It is interesting to note that it does not specifically imply a buckler. This could merely be a difficulty in translating a word used only once in the entire Bible. There is no additional context that can be used to gain added meaning. The word does imply protection—as does the word buckler. However, a buckler does not "surround" as the word "cocherah" implies.
Furthermore, "cocherah" as a form of speech is an active participle of the feminine root verb "cachar" which means to travel or go about (specifically as though one were walking around another); it implies very close contact (as in actual palpitation). Now, in grammatical form, a participle is a word that has characteristics of both verb and adjective; an active form of the participle qualitatively describes the action involved in the verb. Therefore, in this context, the word "cocherah" seems to refer to being totally surrounded or protected—up close and personal to God—the recipient is being totally encased in the protective embrace of God himself.
Fans of the old television series Star Trek would immediately under-stand the condition presented by the word "cocherah." What is being described is not a buckler—it is what happened when Scotty turned on the force field around the star ship Enterprise. God is our "cocherah." He is our protective force field.
War and Disease
Understanding of the word "cocherah" clarifies the protection presented in Verses 5 & 6 where it states: "You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, Nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday."
After all, why should we worry—we are firstly protected by a shield that is so large that it covers us to the front except for just enough exposure that we can see where we are going and secondly we are totally surrounded and encased in protection by God. We are virtually being hugged and sheltered by Him.
Sheltered In Place
Now protection is only as good as its effect on us. What is the personal consequence of our decision to dwell in the secret place of the Most High and of our conscious inclination to abide under the shadow of the Almighty? Verse 7 provides an answer by stating: "A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you."
Here we see a vivid picture of folk—folk who are not in a physical "place of safety." Rather, these are in a place of real danger. In recent years, there has been a phrase that has grown out of the disaster response establishments. The phrase is "shelter in place." This protection by God is similar—it does not picture being taken to an out of the way place in order to be totally removed from danger but rather being protected from danger while in the midst of it. After all, it is "God" upon whom we have placed our trust—our faith—who has shielded and sheltered us. He has provided a refuge and a fortress and delivered us from the one who is hunting us as prey. He has delivered us from terror by night, arrows that fly by day, pestilence that walks in darkness, and from destruction that lays waste at noonday. He provides so much protection, in fact, that ten thousands fall to the disasters all around us and yet the ones who flee to God for succor or rescue are not touched.
But there is more. Not only is the one who relies on God protected from all those things mentioned, but they are also readily able to observe the end result of not relying on Him. Basically, Verse 8 say—just take a look around you and observe what doing your own thing gets for you. That verse states: "Only with your eyes shall you look, and see the reward of the wicked."
The next few verses continue telling the hearer other benefits of making use of this refuge. Verses 9-12 say that: "Because you have made the LORD, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling; for He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone."
This passage adds protection from evil to the list of benefits—certainly this is an important consideration in today’s world where we hardly go a day, and certainly not a week without hearing of some atrocity or school shooting or some other senseless act of violence somewhere in the world.
Then, there is protection from disease. Other scriptures speak of God’s eagerness to heal and relieve His children from their discomforts. Jesus drew an unmistakable parallel between forgiveness and relief from disease on an occasion when a paralytic man was presented before Him for healing. Jesus addressed the man by saying: "Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you (Matthew 9:2)."
When confronted by the scribes about this, Jesus confirmed the connection between forgiveness and healing. He said: "Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Arise and walk (Matthew 9:4-5)'?"
Those who make God their refuge become reconciled to Him. In Psalms 103:1-2, King David of Israel also voiced a connection between forgiveness and relief from disease when he stated: "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits: Who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases..."
Back in Psalms 91:13 it is evident that protection from discomfort extends beyond war, evil and disease. Continuing, we see protection if one steps on a snake or if they happen to trample over a lion sleeping in the grass. These are examples of those dangers that could confront anyone at any time. Again the point is that it is not protection from being in danger—rather it is protection while being in the face of danger. The place of safety described here is real. However, it is a virtual reality. It is more a state of being safe than being in a place of safety.
Why God Protects
At this point in Psalms 91 God reveals the real reason He is providing the benefit of safety to those He protects. God states through the psalmist in verses 14-16: "Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him on high, because he has known My name. He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him, and show him My salvation."
This is what we would expect if we had a "big brother" who loves us. Get into trouble and what do you do—run to Big Brother, that Rock, that Refuge, that Fortress, that One who is powerful to protect. I love Him, I rely on Him, I trust Him and He will not let me down. But, not just that—here we see that, "Because he has set his love upon Me…," not only does he get protection, but he also gets "honor," he gets "long life," and he gets the ultimate reward—"salvation." Not bad—Eh?
Not All Roses
So—what can we think here? Because of what we read in Psalms 91, can we conclude that ours will be a path going through roses and lush pastures—that there will be no difficulties in life—that we as Christians will be snatched out of all dangers and difficulties—that we will live forever in this life? As Hebrews 9: 27 points out: "…it is appointed for men to die once…" Not even Jesus, being a man, as well as God in the flesh, avoided that one.
We all know better than that to think that life will be all cushions and softness and that we will be removed from every difficulty and danger. Jesus did not. None of the great men and women of faith escaped danger and ultimate death. So, we know that the application of all that protection discussed in Psalms 91 has some limitation (as human thinking goes at least). Then again, with that said, for any Christian then or now to say they have not already experienced the providence of God in their lives is to insult His goodness and mercy.
It was the apostle Paul, just after he had been stoned who added focus to this subject. In Acts 14:19 we see the account of the apostle Paul (and who besides Paul can give us a better example of living and breathing a Christian life) being stoned in the town or Lystra. Then it says that those who stoned him "… dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead." One would expect that if there are those throughout the history of the Work of God who might receive "safety" through God’s intervention—Paul would be one. Yet—after this very event Paul himself stated in Acts 14:22: "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God."
What about our own lives? We know that danger comes. We know we will die. We can spend our time searching for safety and expecting death and destruction to waste all around us and leave us unscathed. Or—we can just simply go about doing our job. Just like Jesus did. Just like Paul did. Then—if we are in a dangerous place—and God spares us—then we can get up off the pile of rocks they stoned us with—and go do something else in God’s service. Or—we can die. If so, remember God’s words from Psalms 91:16. There He says He will: "..show him My salvation."