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!

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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 go 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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37 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

  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.

  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

  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

    • Great question, Symeon. This is tricky, since the latter half of the verse — פַּלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי מֵרָשָׁע חַרְבֶּֽךָ — woodenly reads: “deliver my life from the wicked your sword.” I think the best thing to do would be to supply the “with” in English: “deliver my life from the wicked [with] your sword.” Sometimes we need to add prepositions and conjunctives in order for the Hebrew to make sense in English, and this translation makes the most sense in the context of the psalm.

  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.

  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.

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