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!

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63 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. 🙏🏻✝️

    • Thank you for reading our articles, Diane! I’m really pleased that you’re finding them so interesting. The biblical texts are pretty outstanding, aren’t they? 🙂

  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

    • Hi William. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. 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. I would say, whichever translation gets you reading to Bible most often is the best translation 🙂

  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.

      • Any Targums in existence? Highly unlikely. Matthithyahu studying the LXX? Not! Access to Dead Sea Scrolls? None. You’ve cited zero valid sources for your premise..

        • You’ve made some strong assertions here, Robert… (1) the author of Matthew is familiar with the LXX — he cites it several times over. (2) While the Psalms Targums as we now have it dates to the 4th century, targumic renderings of the Hebrew Bible are circulating in Jesus’ day (e.g., the Qumran Targums of Leviticus and Job, the Tannaitic layers of Targum Jonathan, as well as the meturgeman’s Aramaic Torah translations in first-century synagogues); (3) whether or not the writer of Matthew had “access” to the actual DSS is not the question: the point is that the apotropaic interpretation of Ps 91 was common in the first-century Jewish thought to which Matthew contributes. One can trace this interpretational tradition from the Septuagint, through Qumran, and into the Talmud and late Midrashim. In other words, the use of Ps 91 to ward off demons is extremely well-attested in late antique Judaism. So we’ve got two options in approaching Matthew: (1) either Satan’s citation of Ps 91 is an incredible coincidence, or (2) the Gospel writer is aware of this very popular psalmic tradition.

          • Again, assertions without references: Where in Hebrew Gosp of Matthew does he “cite it (LXX) several times over”? My point: Talmud’s much later; “late Midrashim.”

          • The Gospel of Matthew is written in Greek, not Hebrew; we do not have a “Hebrew Gospel of Matthew.” In Matthew’s Greek text, the writer cites the Septuagint constantly. You’re right about Talmud and Midrash being much later than the Gospel, but again, we have the LXX and the DSS as witnesses to the apotropaic interpretation, which both predate Matthew. You seem to be inclined toward the Judaic context of Matthew, so why argue against the likelihood that the writer drew on Jewish tradition when he wrote the temptation narrative?

          • Youse are in Yisra’el but unaware of recent Hebrew Matthew manuscripts uncovered, in addition to Shem Tov? Ouch! Also Hebrew Yochanan, possibly Revelation, being translated..

          • Shem Tov’s Hebrew text dates to the medieval period, and no other Hebrew text predates the Greek manuscripts of Matthew. Hebrew texts that postdate our Greek manuscripts should not be used to reorient our understanding of the original Greek Gospel — or our understanding of any other New Testament text, of which all our early and best manuscripts are composed solely in Greek.

        • Shem Tov’s treatise was composed in the late 1300’s; the ancient Hebrew manuscript he used was included therein. Recent discoveries confirm Hebrew manuscripts predate Greek..

        • With all due respect, Jewish/Greek tradition may show that “the devil is a bit of a dunce”; Hebraic perspective never underestimates the workings of haNachash..

    • 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.

    • 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.”

  11. Hello,

    I would be interested in your perspective on who Satan is. I listened to a Rabbi instruct students that Satan as the devil is a Christian myth. He said Satan is (or was, I can’t remember his exact context) a respected member of the Heavenly Council.

    • Good question, Gordon. Satan’s role vis-a-vis God and the divine council is complex. One the one hand, there is no question that the Adversary or the Satan (ha’satan) is a member of the divine council according to Job 1-2. The Satan is part of God’s “payroll,” as it were, and functions as a kind of prosecuting attorney. However, it may be going a bit far to call the Satan a “respected member” of that council, based on other texts in which God “rebukes” the Adversary (see Zech 3:1-5) — there is clearly a contentious relationship between the Adversary, the Lord, and Joshua the High Priest in Zechariah 3. Thus, the Satan develops into someone who is still on God’s payroll, but has become a kind of problematic employee 🙂 I think that in the New Testament, there is good evidence to understand Satan (or “the devil”) as still being on God’s payroll, but becoming increasingly contentious: while Satan is clearly an adversarial character in the NT (i.e., Matt 4:1-11 above), Paul sometimes refers to Satan as functioning as someone who accomplishes essentially *good* outcomes, albeit in a kind of “nasty” way (this is quite similar to the Satan as we see him in the Tanakh, i.e., as someone who is still part of God’s divine council but is kind of a pain to work with; cf. 1 Cor 5:5; 12:7). Satan (or the devil) is certainly not a *Christian* myth, since these terms for this figure appear in pre-Christian Jewish texts. “Devil” (diabolos) is the Jewish Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew השׂטן in Job and Zechariah. The writers of the NT are just following a well-established Jewish tradition about this figure that begins in the Tanakh, gets developed in the Second Temple period, appears in the NT, and follows on through later rabbinic literature.

  12. Something I never noted before: Satan quotes from the Kethuvim, Jesus from the Torah. We know that if there is an order of authority in the OT scriptures, the Torah is always at the top of the list.

    Btw I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the devil deliberately quoted from Psalm 91 as a counter demonic text, just like Genesis 3: “Did God really say ….”

  13. 2 Timothy 3, 16-17 states: All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly equipped unto all good works.

  14. Let there be clarity when speaking of Satan. Satan is a murderer and a liar from the beginning. He is not at war with God because that is an impossible feat. God would exterminate him with one word. Satan is at war with what God has done concerning man. His fall was allowed by God or it couldn’t have happened. He was perfect in all his ways until iniquity was found in him. He was the anointed Cherub that covereth. He was found in Eden. Make no mistake about it, Satan is the (Adversary) and he is the (Destroyer). Evil

    • Satan is at war with God and in direct opposition to the direct will of God he is called the accuser and a murderer .

    • Satan dont need Gods permission to rebel against God he has a fallen nature so he wilfully is in opposition to God.

  15. Beautiful!!! Splendid !!!! Much appreciation for watering our knowledge and souls with the powerful apocalypse of God’s word…amen. Glory to God.

  16. I’m with Anonymous’ btw here. I don’t see 91 as a poor choice on satan’s part. Two “if thou be” and one “I will give”. Satan was tempting Jesus’ humanity and new just where to go in human psyche to achieve it. The second “if thou be”, went to fear of the unknow – certain pain resulting in death from the fall – in this instance. Majority of us fail in this regard, Mat 26:38.
    J.

  17. I’ve been enjoying your insight into Hebrew understanding of the Good Book.
    I am particularly curious about your understanding of psalm 17 verse.13 “Arise, O Lord, disappoint him, cast him down: deliver my soul from the wicked, which is thy sword”:
    Another version says….”Rise, O LORD, confront and cast them down;
    rescue my soul from the wicked.
    Slay them with your sword; with your hand, LORD, slay them;….”
    So.. Are the wicked sent by God to punish us? The sword of God or….
    Different versions give different reading
    Regards,
    Symeon

  18. Hi !
    I love Psalms 91 and yes I totally agreed with your articles. but I have trouble understand what is “cite” about Satan that pointed the Psalms? anyway my friend Glenda will explain later. I did have a dream about Psalm 91 and its quite long but . it was good one… Thanks for sharing it with me. God bless you.

    • Hi Dawn, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’m afraid that I don’t quite follow your question — could you rephrase it for me?

  19. Your article posits a question as to why the satan quotes from Psalms. You also supply some fascinating information on the historical understanding of Psalm 91. Thank you. I am having difficulty connecting how all this leads you to conclude Matthew has the Satan doing so to communicate that the adversary is somewhat of a dunce. Doing so weakens the challenge of the temptation,(the main point of the narrative) and lessens the Masters achievement as much as it belittles the adversary. It also implies Satan imploys Irony unknowingly. How can you conclude this from Satans usage of Psalm 91?

    • Thanks for your response and question, Douglas. That Matthew presents the devil as a dunce — or, at the very least, biblically uneducated — does not detract from Satan’s power or the challenge of the temptation for Jesus. After all, there are a lot of powerful people in the world who, let’s just say, are not our best and brightest. It’s clear that Satan has lots of power according to the temptation narrative — indeed, he seems to have sway over “all the kingdoms of the world” (4:8) — but such power doesn’t make him intelligent. In fact, every time that Matthew mentions Satan in the Gospel, the devil is always presented as doing or saying something stupid. For example, Jesus tells a parable in which the devil “sows weeds” (13:38) — not an agriculturally astute thing to do (no competent farmer would do such a thing); when Peter offers an ignorant response to Jesus’ declaration that he must die on a cross, his teacher tells him, ‘Get behind me, Satan… for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of humanity” (16:23) — Jesus frames Peter’s lack of understanding as satanic, which aligns well with Satan’s lack of understanding of Scripture during the temptation. Thus, the devil is a dunce according to Matthew, but Satan’s idiocy doesn’t detract from his capacity for evil; the devil’s dumb, but he’s also dangerous.

  20. The irony gives a false sense of security because it focuses attention and presents the test as being one of God’s provision, His protective ability, when in fact the real test is about mans/ Messiahs love expressed in trusting obedience. A trust demonstrated outside of obedience is in fact, no trust at all. Satans “up front” use of irony may not be an indication of incompetence but rather a skillful(remember scripture describes him as being of superlative craftiness) display of his craft in the presentation of a worthy test. Thank you.

  21. Thank you Dr. J. Schaser for your teaching which helps much to understand those difficult passages on the Torah. God bless you!

  22. You can call the Devil anything but he is certainly not a dunce. It is an indication that Satan knows the scriptures too.

    • Yes, Satan knows Scripture, but he doesn’t know the Jewish interpretive tradition that Psalm 91 was meant to drive him away; that is, of all the biblical texts available to him, Satan chooses the absolute worst one for his purposes. Thus, the devil doesn’t know the Scriptures very well…

  23. I grew up in a reformed church but for past 22 years attend a Baptist church. I learned early on that ‘you dont scratch the devil out behind every bush’ to explain sin and disaster in your life, until almost 4 years ago when my daughter was murdered by husband

  24. I don’t think satan is choosing the worst Psalm, rather, he is trying to be persuasive.”See, this Psalm says you shouldn’t fear me, that I can not harm you, so why not throw yourself off because no harm will come to you, or do you not really believe the scriptures?”

    • That’s certainly a possible reading, Stephen, and there’s nothing in the immediate context to preclude it. I would just note that, particularly in Matthew, the devil/Satan is constantly presented in less-than-intelligent terms: Jesus discusses Satan’s kingdom in the context of the Pharisees’ counterintuitive claims about exorcism (12:26); the devil sows weeds according to the parable of the sower (13:38-39) — not an agriculturally astute move; Jesus attributes Peter’s uniformed assertion to “Satan” (16:23). Each presentation of Satan in the Gospel is either couched in stupidity or obliviousness, which supports the notion that Satan would make yet another mistake in his biblical citations during the temptation.

  25. Thank you Dr Schaser for a very interesting and useful article. I would just like to add though in this instance we see Satan as a dunce we do need to be very wary of him. Remember he was able to deceive Adam who was stronger than us.

    • Your point is well taken, Colin. Satan’s stupidity doesn’t preclude his influence — even in Matthew the devil offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (4:8). Some of the most influential and authoritative figures in history have also proven to be some of the least intelligent… so the two are not mutually exclusive.

  26. Thank you for sending these articles because it is a good way for me to learn more about the Hebrew Bible which I really enjoy. I also can see the differences between the Hebrew and Christian bibles which helps me to understand a deeper learning of the Bible.

  27. This is a very good, well stated article. What I don’t understand is why, in your email and article you would use a picture of Yeshua portraying sun worship i.e.; the sun disc around their heads.

    • That’s a halo, Debbie. In Christian iconography, the halo is not associated with sun worship; instead, it signifies the light of divine grace — what the Orthodox tradition calls the “uncreated light.”

  28. Per Judaism 101, “The idea that “the devil made me do it” is not in line with the majority of thought in Judaism… Satan is merely a personification of our own selfish desires.” http://www.jewfaq.org/human.htm
    Your view makes Satan an ignoramus, and therefore clearly not Jesus’ “inner dialog”.

    • Thanks for this, Mark. Yes, there’s no evidence that Satan is Jesus’ “inner dialogue” in the temptations narratives. More, the characterization of Satan per Judaism 101 is oversimplified. While some Jewish sources equate Satan with the yetzer hara (selfish or evil inclination), many other Jewish sources present Satan as an actual being who accuses and/or harasses Israel (much like we see in the Gospels).

  29. Here’s thought, it’s possible ole Heylel ben shachar knew exactly what he was doing quoting that passage. If yeshua had “proved” it’s validity by doing as tempted, then He would’ve been putting Abba YHVH to a foolish test, but in doing so yielded Himself and His dominion to the adversary.

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