Sunday, April 19, 2020

91 and 19

You will surely remember Psalm 91. That’s the one which begins, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty ...” It’s often attributed to Moses, and is famous for being very comforting — I heard it read at a funeral recently — and even more so for being quoted by Satan in his temptation of the Lord Jesus.

It also includes two statements which we might be inclined to try to apply to nasty little flu viruses that kill people, among other things: “For he will deliver you from ... the deadly pestilence” and “no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.” On a quick reading, it sounds as if dwelling in the shelter of the Most High and making God our refuge is the ticket out of most of the unpleasant and disturbing things that can happen to us in this life — not just new and virulent diseases, but war and wild beasts and even unfortunate accidents — as well as being the absolute guarantee of a long life. What a sweet spot to live in!

But does 91 really apply to COVID-19? Can Christians reasonably claim its promises in connection with the current pandemic? I hate to be a party-pooper, but a careful reading of scripture does not allow us to appropriate this familiar psalm for our own comfort quite so freely.

Let me explain why.

Reining in the Insults

The first reason is that claiming personally all the promises of Psalm 91 as a Christian is a massive, lingering insult to unbelievably large numbers of my fellow Christians, probably in the hundreds of millions over the last twenty centuries, and not a few Old Testament saints to boot. It is tantamount to saying (however unintentionally) that believers who died young did so because they failed to truly “dwell” in the shelter of the Most High. Sure, they may have had relationships of sorts with the Almighty, but those relationships must have been fitful, intermittent or only partially realized compared to mine. Had they really lived in full and continuing fellowship with Christ, then surely they would have experienced the protection promised in this psalm. Their untimely deaths are evidence they did not.

“Well, no, I’m not exactly saying that,” stammers the enthusiastic applier-of-psalms-to-self. I’m thrilled to hear it, and so will be the Christian relatives of believers afflicted with early onset Alzheimers or dementia, who succumbed to cancer in the prime of life, who went down with the Titanic, who died in the trenches in two world wars or were murdered in the USSR (a little over 12 million of them), who perished in car accidents and, yes, who have been taken from this world in untimely fashion by way of exposure to this novel Coronavirus we are all talking about incessantly. Their numbers are mounting, and their loved ones will probably thank you for not tarnishing their memories by characterizing their faith as sub-par.

Do I have to reference the tower in Siloam here? I didn’t think so.

Overlooking Contrary Evidence

The second reason is biblical. Claiming that Psalm 91 promises me I will live to a ripe old age because I dwell in the shelter of the Most High puts me in a class of rarefied faith which excludes not only hundreds of millions of my fellow believers but many of the finest faithful servants of God in his word. James brother of John, an original disciple murdered by Herod early in church history. John the Baptist, who may have died even younger than his more famous crucified relative. The prophets of the Old Testament who were stoned, sawn in two and killed with the sword, and surely not all at an advanced age.

Moreover, positing some sort of promise of exclusion from disease or injury in the Psalms for faithful believers ignores Timothy’s chronic stomach problems and “frequent ailments”, Epaphroditus, who was “near to death”, and Paul himself, whose debilitating “thorn in the flesh” remained though he had pleaded three times with the Lord for its removal.

Many of God’s most faithful and consistent servants in scripture died young, the greatest of whom never made it to the age of forty, and who himself bore the sin of the world. Are we going to suggest for a moment that there is any sense in which the Lord Jesus failed to make his home in the shelter of the Most High? Surely never.

A Closer Look at Context

My third reason is contextual, and that requires a little bit of set-up. Forgive me for a momentary digression. The reasons for attributing Psalm 91 to Moses are several. First, rabbinic tradition holds that you can often find the author of an unidentified psalm by looking at the previous one. Psalm 91 follows Psalm 90, which is specifically called “a prayer of Moses”. Second, Psalm 91 uses the expression חָשַׁק פָּלַט (“holds fast to me in love”), which turn of phrase is found only in Deuteronomy, a book also attributed to Moses. Thirdly, Psalm 91 refers specifically to “your tent” rather than “your house”, which suggests an original nomadic audience for the psalm rather than a settled one.

The identification of Moses as writer is not critical to my argument, but it’s going to help us with historical context a bit. Our question has become this: If the writer of Psalm 91 is not saying Christians can claim blanket protection from tragedy if we live our lives in characteristic fellowship with God, then what exactly IS he saying? What is the value of the psalm if it is not to be trotted out and used to calm our fears when things like this happen?

A Variety of Threats to Life and Limb

To understand better what our writer is saying, we need to look at the various threats to life and limb to which he refers: the deadly pestilence, the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day, the destruction that wastes at noonday, evil, plague, and wild beasts like the lion, the adder and the serpent. All these are mentioned in Psalm 91 as dangers from which the one who abides in the shadow of the Almighty is miraculously exempted.

You may be surprised to discover that all these things are judgments directly from God promised to Israel by Moses in this very same book of Deuteronomy (specifically chapters 28, in the curses, and chapter 32) if and when they departed nationally from obedience to God’s law: pestilence that would stick to them until they were consumed; terror in the night — and during the daytime too; the arrows of God himself; wasting destruction; heaps of evils; devouring plagues; and the “teeth of beasts” and the “venom of things that crawl in the dust” — in slightly more poetic language, lions and serpents.

It is impossible that this near-perfect confluence of basic Hebrew terminology between two chapters of warnings in Deuteronomy and this particular psalm is merely a coincidence. Moreover, if we have any doubt about the historical context of the psalm, we find the same claim made in the psalm itself, right there in verse 8: “You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.” In short, the psalm is telling its readers something like this: “Even though the judgment of God is being righteously poured out on your evil nation and on everyone around you, if you make it your practice to dwell in the shelter of the Most High, you will not be harmed at all.”

Thus, Psalm 91 has nothing to do with the myriad of mundane evils which may afflict Christians in a fallen world. It has to do explicitly with the judgment of God poured out on a wicked nation of covenant-breakers, and with the few who would escape that judgment.

COVID-19 and the Judgment of God

Now, the argument may be made that COVID-19 is, in fact, God’s judgment against the wickedness of the West. Some Christians are actually making it. I think it’s a ridiculous theological position to take, and one for which it is absolutely impossible to find unambiguous evidence.

If COVID-19 is indeed God’s judgment on the rampant immorality of modern Western culture, why does it afflict India, China, Malaysia and Africa ... basically, almost everywhere? Why does it affect Christians and the unsaved alike? If it is a judgment from God, it is a pretty generic and ubiquitous judgment, and it is quite unclear what it is designed to produce. “Repentance”, one might say. But repentance for what? What is the Christian supposed to repent of? Of course it can be argued that we’re all sinners in some way or another, but Christians who sin are generally corrected in much more direct, targeted and unambiguous ways, as the letters to the seven churches demonstrate.

But there is better evidence that COVID-19 is not a judgment from God. It may be all kinds of things, but it is not that. Why? Because it is a well-established principle of scripture that God does not judge the righteous with the wicked. He wouldn’t do it with the great Flood, he didn’t do it in Sodom, and he doesn’t do it today. This is the argument of 2 Peter 2:
“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned ... if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked ... then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.”
It is also exactly the same argument made by Probably-Moses in Psalm 91: people who characteristically walk with God are not the subjects of his judgment in this life, never and no-how. It doesn’t happen. God puts hedges around them when he sends his arrows against the ungodly. Or as the psalm itself puts it, “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” You might be murdered by the enemies of God, sure, and they will be called to account for that. You might die in an accident, or perish of some disease like so many others. Your genes might fail you. It happens. But you will never fall before the judgment of God. That is off the table.

COVID-19 demonstrably “comes near” the righteous and the wicked indiscriminately; ergo, it is not the judgment of God. It is just another in a long line of ordinary natural (or perhaps man-made) calamities brought to us courtesy of the fall of mankind. It’s certainly a fast-moving and relatively deadly one compared to normal, seasonal flu, but in the grand scheme of things it is not the fulfillment of prophecy, and it is not the active judgment of God on a sinful world, and certainly not on sub-standard believers.

One Final Reason

There is one final reason Christians should avoid grabbing hold of promises made to believing Israelites in Psalm 91 and misapplying them to the circumstances of our current pandemic, and that is this: we don’t need them. We are made of sterner stuff, and we have way better and more specific promises to call to mind. We were left in this world in full knowledge that here we will perpetually suffer tribulation, but it is this very fallen world-order and all that is characteristic of it that Christ has overcome through his cross.

Suppose I were to catch COVID-19 and die tomorrow? Would the cross be robbed of its power? Would any of God’s promises to me have failed? Would I no longer be an object of God’s love and fatherly care? Far from it!
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
The role of Christians in a dying world is to go through all the same things the unsaved go through, and to come out fearless, faithful and full of unspeakable joy. We should not be looking for a pass on the things which are currently afflicting our neighbors: rather, we need to be looking for opportunities to show them the reality of our faith and our worldview when it holds us up while theirs lets them down.

Life and Death

If Christians are spared in this pandemic at a higher rate than unbelievers, it will not be because of protections offered us in Psalm 91. Moreover, if Christians perish at a higher rate than unbelievers, it will not be because we failed to abide in the shadow of the Almighty. Life and death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That shouldn’t make us flippant about the current crisis, but it should make us every bit as confident as the faithful Israelite of Psalm 91 ... even if what is said about him cannot scripturally be applied to our own situation.


  1. "We should not be looking for a pass on the things which are currently afflicting our neighbors: ...". Then what's the point of your faith and especially the purpose and effectiveness of prayer? After all that is the special and promised entitlement of the Christian. One would expect it to work and be noticable exactly as described in the testimonial video below.

  2. "Then what's the point of your faith...?"

    "... to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven" (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

    "... and especially the purpose and effectiveness of prayer?"

    To commune with Christ and to learn to accept and desire his will, whatever that might be. Prayer is certainly effective, but it is not given to us as a tool to get what we want (James 4:2-3). It is a tool to help us serve more effectively the advancement of the kingdom of heaven. We ask in his name, not our own (John 14:14).

    There's nothing wrong with praying for delivery from sickness. That may be precisely what the Lord has in mind for us. And there's certainly nothing wrong with being grateful when we are delivered from some particular hazard. But we cannot claim perfect health and long life are promised to us in scripture. The evidence for that claim simply doesn't hold up.

    1. I would say that all your (over?)analysis concerning those points seems to have been anticipated by God. That's why he basically summarizes and answers all your points in the Lord's prayer .