In Matthew 4:1-11 (// Lk 4:1-13), the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness. The Messiah responds to the devil’s temptations with three references to Deuteronomy (cf. Deut 6:13, 16; 8:3; Matt 4:4, 7, 10), but Satan chooses to cite from Psalm 91: “He will command his angels concerning you and on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Ps 91:11-12). That Satan, the ruler of demons, refers to this particular text is ironic, since Psalm 91 was almost universally understood in the ancient Jewish world as a prayer against demonic forces!

In the original Hebrew, Psalm 91 reminds the reader not to fear violent enemies or agricultural disasters: “You shall not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence (דֶבֶר; dever) that stalks in the darkness, or of the destruction (יָשׁוּד; yashud) that wastes at noon” (Ps 91:5-6). Hundreds of years after this Hebrew psalm was first penned—but also hundreds of years before Jesus—the Jews who translated these verses into Greek saw a reference to the demonic: “You shall not be afraid of the terror by night nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the thing (πράγματος; pragmatos) that walks in darkness… and the demon (δαιμονίον; daimonion) at noon.” (Ps 90:5-6 LXX). Lest we think that the translator of the Septuagint was playing fast and loose with the Hebrew here, the Greek actually reflects a valid way of reading the original language: depending on which vowel points are appended to the Hebrew letters (these vowel points, or “nikkud,” were not included in the ancient Hebrew text that the Greek translators used), the words could read “pestilence” (דֶבֶר; dever) and “destruction” (שׁוּד; shud) or “thing” (דָבָר; davar) and “demon” (שֵׁד; shed) – the Greek translator decided on the latter meanings, “thing” and “demon.”

Then, hundreds of years after the Septuagint, the Aramaic translators of the Hebrew Bible (around the 4th century CE/AD) followed Greek-speaking Jews and found references to demons all over Psalm 91: “You will not be afraid of the terror of the demon (מזיק; maziq) that goes about in the night… nor of the company of demons (שׁידין; shedin) that destroy at noon…. No evil shall befall you, and no plague or demons (מזיקיא; maziqaya) shall come near your tent, for he will command his angels concerning you.” (Psalms Targum 91:5-6, 10-11). Thus, the devil’s decision to cite Psalm 91 during Jesus’ temptation is the worst possible choice to make, since first-century Jews would have known that Psalm 91 was a prayer that guarded against demons; of all the scriptural possibilities, Satan chooses a passage that was meant to drive him away! This comedy of satanic errors would have elicited a hearty laugh from Matthew’s original readers, and it shows that, according to Evangelist, the devil is a bit of a dunce!

For more ancient insights into the Psalms like these, click here to sign up for our exciting new course on the Psalms in their Hebrew context!

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75 COMMENTS

  1. Very good Dr Nicholas I have always read the splams as a prayer but some of it is scarey. I was told that the witches use a half of the book of splams to work witchcraft. I don't no how true this is. Bit I love these short post please keep sending them. Thanks and you are doing a good job keep it up.
  2. Oh wow! I think that’s the most interesting email yet! Now I know I’m gonna memorize that Psalm. I had a little encounter once with a low level devil which spooked me somewhat and I jumped outta bed and as I rounded the corner headed into my living room I heard the Lord quote Luke 10:19 and for years I held that over the devils head. Now he’s gonna get hit for sure with this one. THANKS! Keep’em coming! They’re sooo interesting. ??✝️
  3. This is one of my favourite psalms! Thank you for explaining it. Dr Nicholas.
    The psalm has comforted me in all my difficult circumtances of my 77 years.
    On a plane trip a anxious youngster sat next to me and I shared it with him. Always think of him and hoped that his assignment went well.
    Wonder if David wrote them at night or in the morning.
    Blessings for you ?
  4. I wonder, if it wasn't from the stand point of being a dunce that Satan chose this passage, but rather to strut his defiance and show that such an incantation had no hold on him, as if to apply a sense of doubt to the ailing Son if Man and bolster Satan's illusion of authority and power. A reminder of the arrogance later demonstrated also in such statements, as Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you.
  5. What a revelation!
    Why are people who are worshipping God in a different way use such a touching psalm is their so called rituals?
  6. I know from several discussions with dedicated believers, that there are several people, who feel anxiety about devil/satan, so couldn't this be the opportunity to tell, that several ancient and newer religions has an opponent to their god, which is something similar to the devil in the Bible
  7. Mary, yes some of the Jewish mystics have used Psalms in the sense that we use the word Spells. As the post implys this can range from legitimate exorsisms to innocent superstitions. And like anything Holy there are a small group of people who misunderstand and misuse them. But at it's root the Psalms are not a Book of witchcraft any more than the Divine names misused by witches in their rituals taint the names of God himself.
  8. Very informative. I'm 75 and preached for 30 years. Never knew this article. Good to know. What translation of Scripture do you recommended? Thank you and blessings
    • William, The question of Bible translations is kind of dependent on what you're looking for. In my experience, my own translations of the Hebrew and Greek tend to come out looking closest to the English Standard Version (ESV). I suppose I would recommend the ESV, but I also have some issues with its choices and assumptions. The NIV is quite readable, but it sometimes glosses important points of the original languages for the sake of readability. The CEB is a relatively new translations, which was done by some very strong and linguistically trustworthy scholars (some of whom were my professors); like the NIV, the CEB is in a wonderfully readable English, but sometimes is a bit too colloquial. The standard mainstream version that academics use is the NRSV. Whichever translation gets you reading to Bible most often is the best translation.

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  9. Since Matthew (or the author of the gospel) was not present at the Temptation, he would have no way of knowing what Jesus and the devil said to each other or what parts of Scripture they quoted. It is almost certain that the author of the gospel used his own imagination in writing the account and that the account itself says nothing about the devil's intelligence (or lack of it). I seriously doubt that the author was aware of the irony of having the devil quote from Ps. 91. The verse was chosen to fit the nature of the temptation.
    • Thank you for contributing to the discussion, Mike. Seeing that the Septuagint, the Targum, and the Dead Sea Scrolls all present Psalm 91 as an apotropaic prayer, it would be highly unlikely that the writer of Matthew did not also understand the Psalm in a similar way. The writer knows all sorts of Second Temple and proto-rabbinic traditions that appear across an extensive ancient library of Jewish literature. Thus, it would be hard to imagine that Matthew would not have been familiar, on some level, with this very well-attested reading of Psalm 91. More, one of Matthew's major literary tropes is what scholars refer to as "narrative irony" (entire books have been written on Matthean irony), so the notion that the Gospel writer would have employed Psalm 91 without being aware of its underlying irony would be, well, ironic.

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    • Just because Matthew wasn't there doesn't mean he had no idea what was said. No one was there except Jesus and the Slanderer, so obviously what was said came from Yeshua's own recounting of the incident. If anything, the fact that our Lord recounted it this way to Matthew gives yet another example of Yeshua's finely honed sense of irony.

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    • My good sir,

      David would worship and tap into the spirit world so deep that he would even utter the future without his knowledge;

      Read Psalm 22:16;

      Why do I say this, I say this so that you may not continue to question spiritual things, but understand that the absence of a person is not the absence of God.

      And I deeply respect your zeal for the word ... amen.
  10. I think it is just like the devil saying"I know what have been written concerning me, but do this for us to see if it is true."
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