When COVID-19 first broke out, a lot of Christians posted verses from Psalm 91 on their social media accounts. Several verses sound like God will protect people who believe in Him from pestilence:
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you (Psalm 91:3-7).
A friend said in an email recently that some psalms seemed to provide blanket protection, yet she didn’t think that’s what was meant. Therefore, she was having trouble knowing quite how to apply them.
Psalm 91 is one of those passages for me, so as I responded to my friend, I looked up commentary on it. One interpretation said we may have to face these trials, but we don’t have to fear them. That conclusion was based on verse 5: “You will not fear the terror of the night, . . . ” the arrow, the pestilence, etc. Another spiritualized it: we may have to face physical trials but we’re safe spiritually. The ESV Study Bible notes said on these verses:
Pestilence (Psalm 91:3, 6) and destruction are diseases that God sends on his enemies or his unfaithful people (cf. Ex. 5:3; 9:15; Lev. 26:25; Deut. 32:42, “plagues”). The terror and arrow, together with a thousand may fall, envision God’s people under attack. If the psalm were describing every situation of danger, it would clearly be untrue: faithful people have fallen prey to these and other perils. It is better to allow Psalm 91:8 to guide the interpretation [“You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.“], pointing to cases in which these events (plague, battle) are sent as God’s recompense on the wicked (whether Gentile or Israelite); in such cases, the faithful can be sure of God’s protection (ESV Study Bible, p. 1054).
As much of a stickler as I am for context, somehow I had missed the importance of verse 8. And though I’ve read these comments before, I didn’t remember them.
So this psalm isn’t blanket protection: it’s not saying that God’s people will never suffer from disease or attack. But if God is sending disease or an invading army as a punishment or judgment, those who “dwell in the shelter of the Most High,” who “abide in the shadow of the Almighty,” and who trust in the Lord as their “refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (Psalm 91:1-2) will be safe.
However, not all plagues and diseases are sent as judgment on God’s enemies. Sometimes He allows His own to get deadly viruses, to suffer attacks. Hebrews 1 speaks of some who “were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:35-38). They were commended for their faith (verse 39) just as much as those who “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (33-34).
A missionary in Colombia takes issue with the phrase, “The safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.” He has amended that statement to say, “The most fulfilling, joyful, and peaceful place to be is in the center of God’s will. But it is not necessarily the safest.” After citing Scriptural examples, he says, “Most prayers in Scripture focus not on the personal safety and benefit of believers but on the power, majesty, testimony, and victory of God over his-and, of course, our-enemies.” He asks supporters to pray for their faithfulness.
If you’re like me, it’s unsettling to know that anything could happen to us. Does that mean we can’t trust in God’s protection?
We can. We can pray for it. We know that nothing that happens to us comes as a surprise to Him. We know He loves us and He is good: in Him is “no darkness at all.”
In Daniel 3, everyone was called to bow down to the king’s idol. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused, even in the face of the fiery furnace and the king’s threats. They stood firm, saying, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18). They were thrown into the furnace, and God manifested His presence to them, and to the king, in a marvelous way.
As Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
If God allows disease or trauma to come into our lives, He promises His presence:
I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him (Psalm 91:15).
And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20b).
He promises His strength and help:
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. . .For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you. (Isaiah 41:10, 13).
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
He promises His love:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:35, 37).
He promises His peace:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:27).
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
He promises His purpose:
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:3-4).
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:16-17).
We can rest in the hollow of His hand, knowing that nothing reaches us there but what He allows. He provides His grace to deal with anything that comes our way.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).
The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him (Nahum 1:7).
In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety (Psalm 4:8).
(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Global Blogging, Hearth and Soul,
Senior Salon, Purposeful Faith, InstaEncouragement,
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Such powerful words, thanks for sharing #globalblogging@_karendennis
Thank you, Karen.
I too had noticed that some people use Psalm 91 as a blanket protection, but it is not as simple as that – so thank you for taking this on and exploring the psalm further – very helpful!
I’m so thankful for every promise in God’s word. Psalm 4:8 is one I listen to nightly on a Christian meditation app as I drift off to sleep. In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
I’ve quoted that one often to myself, too. Our only safety comes from Him.
You have written a powerful and much-needed post here, Barbara. I believe you are right – a lot of people misinterpret Psalm 91 as saying God’s followers will live a life of ease. Of course, that’s not true. We are not promised safety. We are promised God’s love, presence, and His peace.
I love Psalm 91.
Me, too, Susan.
Thank you, Barbara, for this excellent post. It is something that we’ve dealt with in our own church.
Good thoughts. God’s love and peace is always available to us, even in times of hardship and trial. Thank you and have a good week.
I think it was Eugene Peterson who said the water around our boats is only a threat if it gets inside. We certainly have no promise of fair winds and following seas, BUT our faith is safe because God holds us in safety.
Very calm, rational thoughts here as usual, Barbara! I do like the Colombian missionary’s idea that being in God’s will isn’t always necessarily safe, but we can have peace knowing that, as you said, nothing that happens to us is a surprise to Him. One thought I’ve had throughout this pandemic and the widespread almost seemingly irrational fear is that unbelievers are terrified because this life is the only one they’re counting on. If they die, they feel that that is the end of everything for them. Praise God that we have an eternal future so much better than the current world to look forward to. AND, on a different note, yay for a menu plan for the week. I know it takes stress off of me, and I hope it will for you too 🙂
Well, I was one who was afraid of the virus at first, and I am looking forward to heaven. I know it will be better than this life, but I think God gave us a strong survival instinct. Even though I look forward to heaven, I don’t want to leave loved ones anytime soon, and I have some things I’d like to accomplish. If God should call me before that, it will be all right in the long run. But I hope He lets me stay here for a good while to come. When I get there, I’ll probably laugh at myself for thinking that way.
I think part of the fear came from the unknown and the way it was handled in the media. The fact that someone could have it for so long and be contagious without knowing it was scary, plus the fact that it seemed to be so easily caught. Now we know more about it, and we know the vast majority of people with it survive. Still, millions have died with it. With my husband and I both having health issues, I’d rather we both avoid it if we can.
This is excellent. A good reminder that scripture can be used out of context and if something sounds “not quite right” we should dig deeper into it.
Psalm 91 is one of my favourites and I love how you explore it here! I agree, it doesn’t mean we will always avoid trouble but I love the reminder that God is our refuge and that we can trust him even in the midst of difficult times. The list of promises you’ve put together is a comforting reminder too!
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I love this Psalm, one of my favorites and so right for this time we are living. Great post!
It resonated with me when you said, “We can rest in the hollow of His hand, knowing that nothing reaches us there but what He allows. He provides His grace to deal with anything that comes our way.” It made me think of something Beth Moore said years ago, and I can’t quote her exactly, but it was to the effect that if God does allow something to touch us, it’s only because He has a plan to bring greater good out of it. If it somehow does not help us, OR THOSE AROUND US, then He says, “No way, you are not going to touch my child.”
And of course, you are right, if He does decide it is best for us to go through something, He goes through it with us and helps us deal with it.
He’s a good, good Father. We have to trust in that.
Having just finished memorizing Psalm 91 with our Do Not Depart group, I really have been wrestling through these verses as well. I’m still not 100% sure what they mean. ha. But what I am sure of is that God is with me and will give me ultimate spiritual protection regardless of anything that happens. That is assurance.
Thank you, Barbara. I love Psalm 91 and pray parts of it often. And like how you unpacked it with meaning and context. Good and fresh insight.
Amen! He has promised to be with us through the good times & hard, no matter the outcome!
We’ve read Psalm 91 several times with our family. It has provided much comfort. Thank you for contextualizing this for us. Definitely saving this for reference in the future.