Psalm 91:1–2 (NIV)
1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” 3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.
We love the psalms of trust. They calm our concerns. Fear subsides; faith soars. Beyond our immediate struggle, they help us see the unchanging love of our sovereign. We hold onto the one who holds us securely.
But there’s a world of difference between trusting God to hold us, and manoeuvring so God has to catch us. That’s what Satan suggested to Jesus: “Jump off the extremity of the temple: God said he’d look after you.”
The temptation is about how God’s Son will use the authority entrusted to him. Remember, he’s just been anointed with power by the Spirit and declared to be the Son appointed by the Father to represent his reign on earth. But Jesus is an unknown in Jerusalem. This would be what our politicians call “a photo opportunity.”
The top of the temple was 50 metres above the ground. There was another 60 metre drop over the retaining wall to the Kidron Valley below. Josephus described it like this, “If anyone looked down from the top of the battlements, or down both those altitudes, he would be giddy, while his sight could not reach to such an immense depth” (Antiquities 15.412).
Wouldn’t a divine rescue of their appointed ruler be a spectacular way to demonstrate to all Israel that he is the one God has sent to rescue them? For those standing near the Gihon Spring at the bottom, it might even seem as if he had descended from heaven! People would know who he was and the authority entrusted to him.
The scheme even seemed to have the support of Scripture. Ironically, Satan had heard Psalm 91 often: it was a favourite with exorcists. (See Dead Sea Scroll 11Q11, column 6.) Satan knew how people misused this Psalm to claim all manner of things from God.
And misuse it he does: by omitting a phrase. Psalm 91:11 talked of God commanding angels to guard you “in all your ways,” not in situations you designed so as to force God’s hand. As if to emphasize the missing phrase, Matthew inserts the word “and,” so we read it as two separate quotes. The ESV captures this nuance by formatting the verse like this:
Matthew 4:6 (ESV)
… for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’
Jesus recognizes that the problem with Satan’s exegesis is the underlying assumption that we can put God on the spot. He would be treating God as his servant if he jumped expecting God to catch him. And yet that’s what humanity does so often: attempting to domesticate God, using him for our benefit. Faith is not a formula for twisting God’s arm. God is not some kind of cosmic slot machine where you insert your faith and get whatever you want. God is God.
When God led Israel out of Egypt, it wasn’t long before they complained about God failing to give them what they wanted. They accused their new sovereign of planning to kill them of thirst (Exodus 17:3). They tried to force his hand: “Is YHWH among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). Moses named the place Massah, meaning testing. They tested God’s patience. Moses warned the next generation, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (Deuteronomy 6:16).
Jesus realizes he’s being tested to do the same thing — to force God’s hand, to put God to the test. The proposed “leap of faith” was motivated by evil.
As a human being, Jesus realized his place was to serve God, not the other way around. Do you think it’s important for us to understand that too?
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 133:
The vivid imagery of the psalm envisages some of the hazards which may be expected to confront God’s people, and promises God’s protection for them, but it does not suggest that they should take the initiative in courting such dangers. The devil’s suggestion, however, is to test out the literal truth of God’s promise of protection by deliberately creating a situation in which he will be obliged to act to save his Son’s life. In this way “man may become lord of God, and compel him to act through the power of his faith.” (Schweizer, 63) It would be “to act as if God is there to serve his Son, rather than the reverse.” (Keener, 141)
Robert H. Mounce, Matthew, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 30:
What Satan omits from the verses he is quoting (Ps. 91:11–12) is the important clause in verse 11, “To guard you in all your ways.” God has promised his providential care for life as we live it out daily in a normal fashion. He has not promised supernatural intervention when we decide to jeopardize life in order to prompt him to action.
Craig Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 85:
The devil’s mistake is to confuse the psalmist’s stumbling so as to fall with Jesus’ deliberately jumping off. We must not test God’s faithfulness to his word by manufacturing situations in which we try to force him to act in certain ways.