“He will order His angels to protect you.”
These words from Psalm 91 are a great comfort for many people right now. It says in verse 6, “Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness, nor the disaster that strikes at midday” (NLT). What a reminder that COVID with all its variants, and every other potential disease outbreak, are not outside God’s jurisdiction. Neither is the threat of nuclear war, nor a sinking economy. The promises here are meant to stir up our confidence in our Heavenly Father’s love and power today in the same way this Psalm encouraged the original hearers nearly 3,000 years ago.
But interestingly, this Psalm has also been used as a tool of temptation. We’re told in Matthew 4 that when Jesus was tempted in the desert, Satan quoted scripture at Him, portions of Psalm 91. It was the second of three temptations (read post, Choosing to Not Take the Bait). The devil took Jesus to the highest point of the Jerusalem temple and dared Him to take a leap. “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say, ‘He will order his angels to protect you. And they will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone’ ” (Matthew 4:6 NLT). This might sound reasonable to some of us as a way for Jesus to prove He’s the Son of God—performance of a superhuman feat! But Jesus did not give in to Satan’s use of this Psalm.
He responded: “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the LORD your God’ ” (Matthew 4:7 NLT).
What is that supposed to mean? I personally have never felt the slightest temptation to throw myself off any tall edifice to see if an angel would catch me. Curious? Maybe. Temptation? Definitely not. So, how am I to relate this incident to my own life? Is it testing God merely when I stupidly get myself into a dangerous situation and expect Him to snap His fingers and get me out?
No. I think there’s much more to it.
To better comprehend what Jesus was being tempted to do, we need to go to the verse He quoted back to the devil. Deuteronomy 6:16: “You must not test the Lord your God as you did when you complained at Massah.” And to discover what happened at Massah and understand why Moses warned the Israelites not to repeat it, we need to go farther back to Exodus 17 where the Israelites were sure they were going to die.
There were a million of them in the desert and they had no water. They were accusing Moses of trying to kill them all. But God showed up and performed a miracle by bringing fresh water out of a rock. The story concludes in Exodus 17:7: “Moses named the place Massah (which means “test”) and Meribah (which means “arguing”) because the people of Israel argued with Moses and tested the Lord by saying, ‘Is the Lord here with us or not?’”
So, the Israelites “tested” God with the words, “Is the Lord here with us or not?” Read those words again. Do they sound familiar? They’re especially poignant when we realize that right before this in Exodus 16 God miraculously provided manna and countless quail when the people were hungry. And in the chapter before that He miraculously opened up the Red Sea so they could escape the murderous Egyptian army. What more could God do or say to convince these people that He really was with them? Thus, I understand “testing God” to be another way of referring to unbelief in God’s goodness and a disregard for His track record of all the ways he has saved me in the past.
Jesus wrestled with doubts?!
Back in the Judean desert, Satan was attempting to lure Jesus into His own pit of unbelief. Was He really the Son of God? Would people receive His message? Doubts surely pushed in on Him, and the devil was offering his own brand of relief with a powerful, scripture-based way for Jesus to reassure Himself. Yet, in the previous chapter, Matthew 3:16-17, Jesus had experienced something quite amazing. “After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.’”
Satan was tempting Jesus to discount and forget what He had seen and heard from His Heavenly Father. By jumping off the top of the temple, Jesus would have been saying, “What you’ve already shown me isn’t good enough, Father. I’m not sure that I can trust that you’re actually with me and love me or that I am Who you say I am. Prove it again.”
But Jesus refused to jump. And He recognized the temptation for what it was. He didn’t test God because He chose to believe and rest in what His Father had already spoken and shown Him. Though Jesus wrestled with doubt (yes, he was tempted in every way like you and me—Hebrews 4:15), He remembered what His Father had promised. And that was enough.
Tempted to test God?
Each of us have God’s fingerprints all over our lives. Failing to recognize where He has touched us in the past and forgetting what He has spoken about us and over us is the first step in testing God. The temptation comes when we’re stressed, afraid, and flooded with uncertainties. “Will God come through for me? I’ve never been in a situation like this. Is everything I’ve believed about God just false hope?”
The second step is usually when we recall God’s promises or remember what He’s done in the past but then discount it. “Sure, God came through then, but this present situation is different or bigger with much more at stake. I don’t see how the Lord can come through in this one.”
To test God is to be so focused on the present that we discredit His past goodness and minimize or forget His promises for the future. And this can be an overwhelming temptation in times of crisis. Part of its power is that we don’t always see it as a temptation. We gloss over it by assuring ourselves that focusing on today’s doubt is the logical thing to do. The tempter offers us relief from the growing pressure within by helping us make a rational case against the odds of God showing up for the next one. And once we give in, it’s easier and easier to question, doubt and finally completely disbelieve in God’s goodness and His presence with us.
Where can you get the strength to fight such insidious enticement?
Recall God’s promises. Retell the stories of the past where He showed up. Write them down. Rejoice in the testimonies that focus on His faithful goodness, His power and His tender care. Ask friends for their stories and share yours with them. Put them to music and other artistic expressions. And then repeat it all as long as needed until the temptation to despair passes. You can stand and trust His goodness to carry you through whatever you’re facing now.
But what about the times where God disappointed me and did not come through in the way I was expecting? That’s where I have to choose to believe that there’s more going on than my little mind can comprehend. The worlds of the seen and the unseen are complex and far beyond my authority to demand answers that satisfy my extremely limited capacity. Through it all, I must work to hold on to the belief that God is still good.
No matter what.
Even when I don’t feel it or see it.
It’s also helpful to follow Jesus’ example in times of temptation and draw from the scripture. For the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword. Use it to slice the tempter in two! Recite and stand on Psalm 91 as your declaration of trust in God’s goodness!
(Edited and reposted from March 23, 2020)