Read Psalm 91.
If one were to do a google search for “pandemics in the Bible” it wouldn’t be too long before you were directed to Psalm 91. Different words are used (pestilence, plague, etc.) depending on your translation but they all mean the same thing – deadly disease.
Verse 3 says that God “will deliver you…from the deadly pestilence.”
Verses 5-6 says: “You will not fear the terror of the night…nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness.”
Verse 10 says “no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.”
This all sounds like wonderfully reassuring news in the midst of our current situation. Do we just have to read Psalm 91 a few times each morning and poof, like a personal force-field, we are immune to COVID19? Do those who trust in the Lord have access to some secret PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) that others do not? Verse 3 also says that those who live in the shelter of the Most High will not get caught in the fowler’s net; which is a nice bonus – you can keep that in your back pocket just in case you find yourself lost in the woods next wild turkey season.
I believe Jesus really did heal people who were sick. And he really did raise people who were dead back to life. And I believe God is fully capable of rescuing and healing people who are sick today and He could end the current pandemic as I type these words or as you read them if He willed it. And we should pray for those things. James instructs us to pray for the healing of the sick (James 5:14). Jesus calls us to pray for God’s kingdom to come and plagues and pestilence and pandemics are not part of God’s kingdom.
I also know that followers of Jesus get sick and that COVID19, cancer, coronaries and all other contagions, contaminates and conditions do not discriminate. I know that suffering is an assumed part of the Christian life. So much so that Paul (Romans 5), Peter (1 Peter 1) and James (James 1) all describe suffering as one of the ways God is shaping us into people of compassion, endurance and hope.
I also know it is Passion Week and our elder brother Jesus was not spared great suffering. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried. And no servant is greater than his master.
So what are we to make of Psalm 91? It is a beautiful Psalm. It is inspired Scripture. But, it is easy to either see it as naive hyperbole, far removed from reality, or to mishandle it and assume it promises what it does not truly promise.
Sheltering in the LORD
Many of us around the world are currently being called to shelter at home. For some that has been a surprisingly refreshing break from an all-too-chaotic lifestyle. For others sheltering at home has only intensified and clamped down pressure on broken relationships, loneliness, challenging children, and financial fragility. For many, home has never been a safe place. Lord, have mercy.
Psalm 91 invites us to a different kind of dwelling place. The Psalm begins “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” Verse 9 repeats the same idea, “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place – the Most High, who is my refuge, no evil shall befall you.” Where do you dwell? Home, we believe, is supposed to be our place of comfort, rest and safety. But, that can only be true if he Lord is our home.
What have we learned the last few weeks if not that every other house is made of cards? The distraction of busy lives, the strength of the market, our cultural tendency to sweep the sick and elderly and vulnerable under the rug lest we remember our own mortality, have all begun to wobble or have already toppled.
The Lord is a different type of safety net.
The Psalm mentions calamities galore. In addition to pestilence and fowler’s traps are the terrors of the night and the arrows of the day (vs. 5), evil and plagues (vs. 10), jagged stones (vs. 12), lions and serpents (vs. 13). In verse 15 the Psalmist just calls it all “trouble.” And the over-arching promise of the poem is that God will protect, deliver, rescue and satisfy.
But how? What does it mean to dwell in the Lord? What kind of refuge is He?
The “shadow of the Almighty” is longer than the shadow of death.
I remember hearing David Powlison quote J. Gresham Machen, the founder of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, as saying that at the end of the day “our environment is God.” Machen was not referring to pantheism or some vague idea of God in the rocks and trees and streams. He was referring to the reality that all that happens happens under the sovereign gaze of God. This means that even when we are in harm’s way we are never truly in harm’s way.
Betsie Ten Boom said to her sister, Corrie, before she died in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp during WWII, “There is no pit that He (God) is not deeper still.” In light of the rest of Scripture we know that Psalm 91 cannot be promising all of God’s people perfect physical safety. But it is promising something better: God’s shadow (vs. 1) is longer than death’s shadow.
When Jesus healed people he was giving us a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God. There will be no pain, sickness or pandemics (Revelation 21-22). But, the people he healed presumably faced other disease later in their lives. Lazarus died a second time. Jesus’ healings were Old Testament promises played out in real time. Isaiah 35 promises a day when the lame will leap like deer, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the mute will speak. Jesus’ healings were the “first fruits” of that coming day. But, there is much more to come.
What do we do with the promises of Psalm 91? We hold on to them dearly as a preview of the coming kingdom. But, it is more than a preview. If perfect protection from all that would harm us is our ultimate future reality then it is also our ultimate current reality, regardless of what suffering we face. Our faith has always been a future looking faith. Not a pie-in-the-sky escapism but a let’s get to work now in faith, hope and love, come what may, because we know the outcome is secure. This is how God is our refuge. We know what he has done already on our behalf and we know what he will do for us in the future. Why would we think he has all of a sudden abandoned us in the present.
This is how the Apostle Paul endures shipwrecks and imprisonment, beatings and slander and call them “light and momentary troubles” (2 Corinthians 4:17). This is how Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom could survive the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp and lead secret Bible studies after each day of forced labor knowing that death was always imminent.
Satan’s Short-Sighted Misreading of Psalm 91
I have been reflecting on Psalm 91 this Passion Week not because it mentions pestilence and plagues but because it is one of the passages of Scripture that Satan quotes in his temptation of Jesus. In Matthew 4, Jesus is led to the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. I do not pretend to know what this looked like but in the second temptation Satan takes Jesus to the top of the temple and tells him to jump knowing that God “will command his angels concerning you and on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” This is a direct quote from Psalm 91:11-12.
Satan is correct; this Psalm is ultimately about Jesus. But not in the way he thinks it is. The temptation for Jesus is to take the easy way out – to find comfort in comfort food rather than in his Father’s sustaining love, to use God’s power as some sort of sideshow entertainment, to gain the kingdom without the suffering and horror of the cross. But, Jesus does not take the bait.
In the great irony of history, God uses Satan’s best weapon, suffering and death, against him. Satan’s temptation in the garden brought suffering and death into God’s good world; Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross puts death to death.
Satan’s reading of Psalm 91 was too shortsighted. He read it as a promise of health and wealth now. He assumed instant gratification was the only thing that mattered. He quotes verse 11 and 12 and offers an easy rescue for Jesus but it seems as if he forgot to read the very next verse.
Psalm 91:13 says “You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” The “you” here is ultimately pointing to Jesus. Jesus is the one who dwells in the shadow of the Most High. Jesus is the one who trusts perfectly in the Lord. Jesus is the one who holds fast to his Father in love and ultimately is delivered and honored. Jesus is the one who tramples on the serpent’s head. This has been the great promise since Genesis 3:15. The great Deceiver has been deceived. The fool quotes the very Psalm that reminds us of his demise.
The Psalm ends in a flourish of hope. The voice changes and now God himself is speaking. He speaks of what he will do for his Son. But because we belong to Jesus these words belong to us too. Read them and rest in them and remember one day we will revel in them.
14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”