If you’ve been on social media during the rise of Covid-19, you will no doubt have seen several references to Psalm 91. One verse, in particular, has been quoted repeatedly, “no evil will conquer you; no plague will come near your dwelling”(verse 10).
Psalm 91 is an amazing song that has brought comfort to believers for centuries. But to quote a verse in isolation and make out that all will be well is unwise and unbiblical. It’s not a statement of faith but instead of foolishness. And we’ve seen plenty of that recently.
Mega Statements & Mega Risks
Consider the megachurch that assured members their faith in the Lord means “no evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling.” And the Church in Perth which released a statement telling followers they need not worry because they are ‘protected by the Blood of Jesus.’ The church’s leadership is “in agreement that this COVID-19 will not come near our dwelling or our church family.”
But Covid-19 is no joke, and the outbreak of this pandemic is not a time for spiritual bravado. It is a genuine threat as a church in Sydney’s north has found out after seven of its parishioners tested positive to COVID-19 following a service on March 8th. NSW Health asked the other 300 attendees to monitor themselves for symptoms. Why didn’t Psalm 91:10 work for them?
An evangelist speaking recently at a Christian gathering stated, “I promise you, the blood of Jesus will protect you from this!” Others have suggested that Covid-19 is a demonic spirit or a conspiracy. But, “Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling.”
It’s such a beautiful promise, except something bothers me, and that’s the elephant in the room. That elephant is the millions of believers who have died from a plague over the last 3,300+ years since Moses wrote Psalm 91.
Consider the impact of the Spanish Flu, which broke out in the US just over a century ago. Churches closed their services, but some kept their buildings open to be used as emergency hospitals by the Red Cross because the hospitals were full. Some Christians gave their time and energy to care for the sick. Some of them died from the Spanish Flu and Pneumonia.
And this has been the case for all time. As stated by Christianity Today last week, “If you interacted with someone with plague in 1350, or with Spanish Flu in 1918, there was a real possibility you would get it and die. The prayer, “and if I die before I wake, I beg the Lord my soul to take” was a real plea, not a night-time trope.”
Understanding Psalm 91
So, did Psalm 91 fail these followers of Jesus? Is it a false promise? Or was it because they had unconfessed sin or a lack of faith?
Remember, these were the accusations that Job’s miserable comforters expressed to Job. One of them, Eliphaz, was convinced Job had sinned and was being punished by God. That if he repented, “From six calamities he will rescue you; in seven no harm will touch you” (Job 5:19). But he was wrong. In fact, at the end of the story, God said to Eliphaz, “I am angry with you and your two friends because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). Job hadn’t sinned and didn’t lack faith, but harm still came to him and his family. One of the many amazing truths expressed by this story is that Job remained strong and righteous in his faith throughout his suffering, and, by God’s grace, so will we.
Understanding The Bible
So, how should we understand Psalm 91? I gave you a hint earlier in the blog. Hebrew tradition ascribes the authorship of Psalms 90 and 91 to Moses. These are the first two Psalms in Book IV of the Psalms*, the section that relates to the Book of Numbers. Remember, Numbers revolves around the Israelites, heading to the promised land under Moses’ leadership. The Nation was fresh out of Egypt, where God used Ten Plagues, so “the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” (Ex. 7:5).
The Israelites were settled in Goshen in the Northern part of Egypt, where the Nile flowed into the Mediterranean. While some of the plagues did effect Goshen (the plagues of blood, frogs, and gnats), the Israelites were supernaturally protected from the others: “But on that day I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the Lord, am in this land. I will make a distinction between my people and your people” (Ex. 8:22-23). In light of this, think back to Psalm 91, “nor shall any plague come near your dwelling.”
But, you may ask, some of the plagues did come near the Israelites, but Psalm 91 says, “nor shall any plague.” What do we make of this apparent contradiction?
Understanding Literary Styles
A couple of years ago, I taught a message at Bayside Church titled, Is the Bible Really True? In the sermon, I outlined three kinds of truth: truth as Fact; truth as meaning; and truth as life. I encourage you to watch this sermon when you want to give Netflix a rest during this season.
As we read and study the Bible, we need to ask ourselves, “Is this passage stating facts about physical reality? Is this “truth as fact” or am I reading something else?”
The Bible is full of various kinds of literature. There’s poetry, history, promises, commands, stories, songs, rhetoric, logic, proverbs, hyperbole, wisdom, irony, parables, figures of speech, apocalyptic and metaphorical language. When we’re reading the Bible, we need to ask what the meaning is behind what we’ve read. That is, we ask ourselves how this should be understood. What type of literature am I reading?
The Psalms are songs and poems which use poetic license just as our songs do today. Poetic license is the freedom to depart from facts when speaking or writing creatively. That’s what Moses does all the way through Psalm 91. Consider verse 4. “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” Is God a cosmic chicken, or is Moses conveying a more profound truth? What do those words mean to you?
Finally, I would do well to point out that Jesus was tempted by Satan, who quoted Psalm 91:11-12: “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”
In other words, come on Jesus, take this Psalm literally, do something brave and spectacular, then people will believe that you are who you say you are. Jesus response? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” We would do well to heed Jesus’ words!
Responding To Psalm 91 Today
What encouragement can we take from Psalm 91 at such a time as this? I’ll answer that question by telling you of an experience I had two decades ago.
In the year 2000, I made my first trip to Africa to visit a couple from Bayside Church who’d gone to Mozambique to establish a medical clinic. While I stayed with them, I was in a bedroom that was a distance from the main house. Each evening I walked to the bedroom using a torch to light my way. One evening we had dinner with a missionary couple who took delight in telling me stories of encounters with snakes. Apparently, there were people who had stayed in the room where I was sleeping who had black mambas dropping from the ceiling rafters onto the bed at night. Everyone thought this was hilarious. I joined in the laughter, but deep down, I knew I wouldn’t be getting much sleep that night. The fear I sensed was palpable.
The next morning, while I was reading and praying, I mentioned my fear to God. He led me to read Psalm 91, a psalm that has comforted me greatly on many occasions. Verse 13 stood out to me, “You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.” The fear I had experienced disappeared and, in its place, the most beautiful sense of peace. I did see some snakes while I was in Mozambique but fortunately not in my bedroom. But I didn’t take the Psalm literally. I didn’t go out looking for snakes and lions to step on and squash. If I did that, I wouldn’t be writing this blog!
And this is how Psalm 91 can comfort and encourage us during the Covid-19 pandemic. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way, use wisdom, follow instructions, don’t test the Lord, but do trust God. Spend time meditating in Scripture and praying. Allow the Holy Spirit to remove fear from your heart and replace it with his marvelous peace.
* The 150 Psalms are divided into five books that relate to the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch) as follows:
- Psalms 1–41 Genesis
- Psalms 42–72 Exodus
- Psalms 73–89 Leviticus
- Psalms 90–106 Numbers
- Psalms 107–150) Deuteronomy
The first four books are marked off by concluding doxologies.
Psalm 150 serves as a doxology for the entire collection of Psalms.