Psalm 91 - "The Symphony of the Cross" - Doug Rehberg
It was a cold January morning in Washington, and a man sat on a chair in a subway station playing his violin. For 45 minutes he played six pieces from Bach. During that time it was calculated that some 8,000 people passed him, but almost no one stopped to listen. After 20 minutes an old man slowed down, dropped a few bills in his open violin case, and kept going. Minutes later, a woman dropped in a few coins. A little later someone stopped, leaned against the wall to listen, but after he checked his watch, he was off again, late for work. The one who paid the most attention was a three-year-old boy. While his mother tried to corral her other three children, he just stood there listening. But once his mother was successful, she grabbed him by the back of the coat and dragged him away. In 45 minutes only six adults stopped.
Two days earlier, Joshua Bell had sold out Boston Symphony Hall at an average of $100 a ticket. In the subway he got 32 bucks and virtually no audience. According to the Washington Post, when he stopped playing, no one applauded. No one noticed when he put his $3.5 million violin back in its case. It was all an experiment. The Washington Post had invited Bell to come in the day before the inauguration to help them conduct a social experiment. The question was simple. In a common place, at an inappropriate hour, do people perceive beauty? Do they recognize the gravity of what they see and hear when they’re busy with the pressures of their everyday lives?
The conclusion was obvious. The Washington Post asked, “If we don’t have a moment to spare to listen to one of the greatest musicians of our time, playing some of the greatest music ever written, how many other things are we missing?” And the answer is -- a lot.
Someone has said, “Meditating on God and His Word is like hearing a symphony when all around you others don’t.”
The Sons of Korah knew that. In Numbers 16 we read of their father’s rebellion against Moses and God. We can only imagine their horror as they watched the earth split apart and see their father be swallowed up by the judgment of God. And after meditating on it, they speak the words Tim preached last Sunday, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Someone has said that the Book of Psalms is the finest collection of meditation on God that we have in the Bible. And as we’ve said over the last eight weeks, the Psalms are a response to what God has said and done in the preceding 18 books. And nowhere is that clearer than in Psalm 91.
The early Reformers used to call Psalm 91 a catechism of trust. They saw it as a treatise on how God protects and delivers His own. Unlike nearly a hundred other Psalms, Psalm 91 has no author listed. It’s completely anonymous, adding to its timeless truth. The Psalmist writes, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” And immediately you think of Moses hiding in the cleft of the rock watching the shadow of God pass him by. Or you think of King Hezekiah who sees the shadow move backwards on the sundial in answer to his plea for more years of life. But of all the parallels to Psalm 91 none is more profound than the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Four times Psalm 91 intersects with the ministry of Jesus, and each time it’s the cross that’s in focus.
First, we see it in the wilderness. Look at Luke 4:9, “And the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple and said, ‘Throw yourself down from here. For it is written: ‘He will command His angels concerning you…’” Now notice the first person to quote Psalm 91 is Satan.
Luther once said, “Our souls wrestle against three enemies: the world, ourselves, and the devil.” But Luke switches the order. In Jesus’ ministry, His first wrestling match is not with the world, or Himself, it’s with the devil. Luke tells us He’s in the desert for forty days with no food and no human fellowship. The devil comes to tempt Him with food, and when that doesn’t work, he tempts Him with fortune. And when that doesn’t work he takes Him to the pinnacle of the temple, some 450 feet in the air, where he says in effect, “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down from here.”
Now weeks earlier Jesus had heard His Father say, “You are my Son with whom I am well pleased.” So here on the pinnacle of the temple Satan challenges Him, not only with those words, but the words of Psalm 91. “He will command his angels concerning you. On their hands they will hold up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Now think of that. While Satan never meditates on the Word of God, he certainly knows it. And he uses it for his own purpose. And his purpose never changes. The first Adam is fully fed, the second Adam is bereft of food. The first Adam enjoys the contact of another, the second Adam is all alone. The first Adam is in a verdant garden. The second Adam is in an arid desert. And yet the devil uses the same tactics. To the first Adam he sites the Word of God, but he twists it. To the second Adam he quotes it exactly right. And whereas the first Adam takes the bait, the second Adam doesn’t even bite. Instead He says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” To every temptation Jesus replies with Scripture. And when the devil recognizes he can’t win, Luke tells us he departs and awaits an opportune time.
Now that’s all Luke tells us, but Matthew adds another critical detail. He says that when the devil leaves Jesus, angels come and minister to Him. Now think of that. The devil had promised angels if Jesus would do it his way. If Jesus would simply jump down rather than being hung up, He’d get the crowds, He’d get the acclamation, He’d get the angels. But you see, it’s all a lie. When Jesus complies with the wishes of His Father, look what He gets. He gets the ministry of angels.
Then second, we see it in Gethsemane. Look at Luke 22:41-43, “And Jesus withdrew from the disciples about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, ‘Father if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. And an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” Now think of that. In the wilderness it was the challenge of Satan. But here in Gethsemane it’s the challenge of the flesh, “Father let this cup pass from me…” Each time it’s the same temptation – to live His life His way - to accomplish His ministry His way, rather than God’s way. Here in the place known as the “winepress,” Jesus comes as close to sin as He gets. It’s the same battle He faces in the wilderness, but this time it’s internal rather than external. But notice, it’s the same result…” nevertheless not my will but thy will be done.” And Luke says that when He’s finished praying, His Father sends an angel to strengthen Him. It’s the same answer to the same promise – “He will give His angels charge over you…”
Then third, we see it on the way out of Gethsemane. Look at Matthew 26:53, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Now remember the scene. The chief priests and elders have come to arrest Him. Peter has just wielded the sword, and in response Jesus has said, “Put away your sword, for all who take up the sword will die by the sword. Do you not know that if I were to say the word, my Father would send me 12 legions of angels?”
In the desert it was the temptation of Satan. In the garden of Gethsemane it was the temptation of His flesh. But here on the way out of the garden, it’s the temptation of His own friends. It’s the same temptation – to do it any way but God’s way. But Jesus refuses. In the wilderness it’s Satan who cites the promise of Psalm 91 to deter Jesus from the cross. But here on the way out of the garden, it’s Jesus who cites Psalm 91 as a declaration that He will not be deterred from the cross.
You see, everything the Psalmist says in Psalm 91 is fulfilled completely and sufficiently in the cross of Jesus Christ. Every time an angel shows up in the life and ministry of Jesus, it’s to get Him to the cross. And that brings us to the last point.
Fourth, we see it on the cross. Look at Luke 23:39, “And one of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’” It’s the same temptation. “If you are the Son of God, if you are the Messiah of Israel, the king of the Jews, act like it. Save yourself and us!” In the desert it was the devil. In the garden of Gethsemane it was the flesh and the friends, but here on the cross it’s the world. Every single repository of will conspires to keep Him off the cross, but Jesus won’t have it. Why? Because He hears the music. He hears the symphony. While all around Him there are devil and demons and friends and foes and passersby who are deaf to the music. Jesus hears the symphony of His Father. Only He knows the end of the score - to save your soul.
The great agnostic, Bertram Russell, once wrote, “If I believed that Jesus died for my sins, I would not write and speak of anything else for the rest of my life.” Here’s a man who couldn’t hear the music, and yet he knew the value of the cross. Have you ever wondered if you are of any value to God? Have you ever wondered if you matter to Him?
Four times the promise of God in Psalm 91 is kept in Jesus’ life, and each time it’s for the same purpose. To get you right with Him. You say, “But wait a minute, there was no angel who showed up after the cross. Are you kidding me?” John tells us plainly, “On the first day of the week, while it was still dark they went to the tomb…and behold two men stood by them in dazzling white…” Two men. Two witnesses. Two angels. Now think of it. 1500 years before the cross the Psalmist says, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress.’”
Can you think of anyone who did that any better than Jesus? There’s only one man who ever stayed under the shadow perfectly and that’s Jesus. And the proof is the angels. Next time you’re tempted to think you don’t matter much think of the desert. Think of the garden. Think of the cross, and then look at this table. If you are willing to stop and listen, you’ll find that it’s more important to you than being at work on time. You see, it’s one thing not to have time for Joshua Bell. It’s quite another thing not to have time for God. Think about that… AMEN