No Plague Will Come Near You?
As the world continues to navigate the coronavirus crisis, Christian people are striving to think scripturally about the pandemic. An enormous amount of helpful material has been posted online within the last couple of weeks—so much so that we may be approaching a saturation point for “biblical worldview on the coronavirus.”
Then there are less formal efforts, especially on social media, to encourage fellow believers to trust the Lord. It is truly a blessing to see God’s people fighting fear and anxiety with the words of Scripture. On the other hand, the use of some passages raises perplexing hermeneutical issues when those passages are read carefully. Here I want to consider one such passage, a popular one at this time: Psalm 91.
Outlining the Text
Let’s begin with an overview of this psalm. In the first strophe the psalmist speaks in the first person of his confidence in Yahweh as his protector.
1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
In the second strophe the psalmist addresses to another believer a detailed description of Yahweh’s protective work.
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
Finally, in the third strophe the Lord himself speaks, promising to protect the believer.
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.”
Facing the Tensions
The first strophe sounds like many other psalms in its general affirmations of the Lord as a trustworthy source of security. The third strophe similarly promises that God will deliver his people in answer to prayer. Here the reader may wonder whether this is a blanket promise, and he may especially wonder whether verse 16 guarantees a lengthy earthly life to all believers.
But the second strophe’s colorful and forceful language in particular raises troubling questions even while it ministers comfort. Verses 3–13 seem to assure the believer that he will not suffer any physical harm—whether from sickness, attacking armies, or wild animals. How much more comprehensive can one get than “no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent” (v. 10)? And how can any physical adversary stand against the supernatural power of protecting angels (v. 11)?
When we make the most cursory comparison with the rest of Scripture, all kinds of counter-examples come to mind. Think of the intense suffering of Job, Joseph, Stephen, James, and Paul. Not to mention our Lord Jesus himself!
Speaking of Jesus, an incident from his life encourages us to keep asking our hermeneutical questions. In tempting Christ to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, Satan quoted Psalm 91:11–12 (Mt 4:6). Our Lord responded with Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Mt 4:7). Clearly, we ought to make at least this qualification: Psalm 91 does not guarantee protection when we are doing pride-motivated, foolish things.
If we continue reading the New Testament, we find grounds for additional qualification: multiple explicit declarations that God’s people will suffer in this life. Acts 14:22, Romans 8:18–25, 2 Timothy 3:12, and 1 Peter 4:12 come to mind.
Surveying the Options
What, then, are we to make of the promises of Psalm 91:3–13? We could understand them hyperbolically, exaggerated statements intended to emphasize a point. Perhaps, but I would struggle to state the point in a clear and meaningful way. “No evil” really means “some evil” or “most evil”? What kind of assurance is that? And how can we figure out which evil is and isn’t covered by the promise? Just today I was saddened to hear of a pastor who died from the coronavirus. Apparently that didn’t fall into the “most evil” from which this particular Christian was going to be spared? Or maybe, as prosperity preachers might argue, this brother didn’t have enough faith?
A better approach would be to understand Psalm 91 within the context of the Mosaic Covenant. Specifically, Yahweh promised a series of physical blessings to Israel if the nation obeyed the requirements of the covenant. These included military victory, financial prosperity, good health, and long life. See Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Psalm 91 could be applying to individual Israelites the covenant blessings of the Torah. This interpretation seems natural, but we should consider one other factor.
In the middle of Psalm 91’s promises, verse 8 states, “You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.” This statement connects the physical afflictions mentioned in the passage with God’s judgment on those who live in rebellion against him. Thus, the promises of deliverance do not refer to all forms of physical suffering but to temporal punishments that God brings on the wicked.
Even here some qualification is in order. Sometimes individual godly Israelites may have suffered as “collateral damage” in God’s judgment on a generally wicked group, whether Israel itself or some Gentile nation. Psalm 91 may have been addressing one specific occasion, likely a military crisis, when God promised to protect believers from all harm absolutely. The application of the passage to other Old Covenant scenarios would have to allow some latitude for exceptions. Indeed, the Wisdom Books taught Israel that the mystery of God’s providence included exceptions to the general pattern of his works.
Applying the Text
What about us, though? How does Psalm 91 apply to New Testament believers? Its broad assurances—verses 1 and 2 especially—firmly ground our trust in God’s power and his commitment to those who are his people under whatever covenant. We are secure in God’s protective shadow.
This doesn’t mean, however, that our lives will be pain free. Here is how the New Testament teaches us to think of God’s protective shadow: he orchestrates every circumstance in our lives—including our suffering—to contribute to his redemptive plan for us and to his own glory (Rom 8:28–30).
With this in mind, I would encourage us not to “claim” Psalm 91’s specific promises as guarantees that we will be kept from suffering particular harms. We are certainly free to pray that the Lord would spare us from physical affliction, and he may choose to grant this request. Yet we must humbly accept that often his purposes are more complex than that. For instance, God may deem some step of sanctification more important than our physical health (Jas 1:2–4).
To apply the specific promises of Psalm 91, we would do better to look to ultimate issues. If the threats in view are divine judgments on the wicked (v. 8), we may relate them to God’s eternal judgment. We will be spared from the lake of fire because Jesus suffered God’s wrath for us! That is infinitely better than being spared from a virus.
Finally, some day all God’s people will enjoy the physical deliverances of Psalm 91 in the strictest sense. Warfare will be banished in the Messianic kingdom (Is 2:4). No beast will hurt or destroy on Yahweh’s holy mountain (Is 11:9). Our God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away” (Rev 21:4). Whatever suffering God may ordain for us in this life should heighten our longing for the glories of the next.