Christian – stop using Psalm 91 against Covid 19!

If you haven’t already, expect to see it sometime soon: a misapplied, ripped out of context, application of Psalm 91 to believers in this present Covid 19 crisis.

Here’s the full Psalm:

Psalm 91

[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.”

[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.

[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 honour him.
[16] With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.” (ESV)

As you can see verses 6 and 10 appear to be the favourite reasons why this Psalm is being quoted as encouragement and security for Christians in our present crisis.

But let me give you one big reason, among many, why we should be extremely conscious of not applying this passage directly to us: Satan tried that on Jesus.

In Matthew 4 as a part of the temptations of Jesus, Satan quotes Psalm 91:11-12 and tells Jesus that if he were to jump off the temple roof then, according to this Psalm, God would take care of him. Jesus retorts that this would be testing God.

So, here’s a biblical interpretative principle for those who were not aware – if the Devil misapplies scripture then we would do very well to check we are not doing the same.

And especially when it comes to the particular passage that he misapplied.

Of the examples, I have been sent or come across recently the usage of Psalm 91 has been to take this Old Testament passage, treat it as a promise for believers today, and encourage the reader/listener to take hold of the promises contained within. Not only does this ignore biblical theology but it sets Christians up for thorough disappointment and accompanying disillusionment.

Think about it. If you take the promises of this Psalm and apply it directly onto our lives here in Covid 19 panic-filled 2020 then it raises some very important questions:

  • What happens if you, a believer, get sick with the virus? Has God not kept his promise?
  • What happens if a believer dies because of the virus? Did they not have enough faith that God would protect them?
  • What happens when you do feel afraid when the panic around you begins to settle into your own heart? Does that mean we have not been delivered?

The Psalm itself opens up some odd applications if they were to be directly applied to believers today. For instance, in v13 when it speaks of treading on lions and adders – there’s a language of dominion over these creatures. Of victory over them. Yet I don’t see Christians rushing out to their local zoo, or booking flights to Africa, to show off their victory in God by having dominion over these wild animals.

But let’s say you argue we should read v13 metaphorically – then can I ask why you read that verse metaphorically but not the other verses? Why does your hermeneutic (your principles of interpretation) change so dramatically within the Psalm?

Let me put it bluntly – applying Psalm 91 directly to ourselves is a misapplication and misinterpretation of the scriptures.

But don’t take it just from me. Jesus says so.

In Luke 24 Jesus gives us the proper way we should be interpreting the whole of scripture:

[44] Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” [45] Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, [46] and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, [47] and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. [48] You are witnesses of these things.

(Luke 24:44–48)

Right there in Luke 24:44, Jesus says that everything written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (ie the entire Old Testament) are about him and must be fulfilled. This is not to say that Jesus cherry-picked a whole bunch of verses that ‘prophesied’ his coming – he opened up the scriptures to the disciples to show them how each part pointed forward to his life, death, and resurrection.

So here’s how Jesus applied the Old Testament: as pointing forward and helping us understand who he is and what he came to accomplish. If your reading or application of the Old Testament doesn’t help you understand the gospel then you are fundamentally misreading it.

Or put it another way – if your reading and application of the Old Testament (or indeed the whole Bible) isn’t Christian, if it could be equally applied to the Jew or the Muslim, then you have failed to understand the point and purpose of the Old Testament.

So, then, how do we understand and apply Psalm 91?

Without going into a full exegesis of the passage let me make a few observations.

First, in verses 1-2 you can see the particular context and ground for the fantastic promises made in the Psalm: those who shelter, abide in, and find refuge in Yahweh. The idea of taking refuge – finding shelter and safety – in Yahweh is littered throughout the Psalms and the Old Testament. So only those who have sought refuge in Yahweh will experience the blessings promised within.

Second, as you go through the Psalm and compare it to Deuteronomy 28 you’ll notice that the blessings of Psalm 91 find a number of parallels to the blessings of the covenant in Deuteronomy. The parallels help us see that the blessings of Psalm 91, and Deuteronomy 28, are available for those who keep the Old covenant.

Which, let me be clear, is not Christians because we live under a new covenant.

But if I could summarise the main point of Psalm 91 I would say that those who find refuge in Yahweh will experience the fullness of victory and blessing.

But as we read the Psalm within the context of the Old Testament we find that none of these promises in Psalm 91 ever found fulfilment. There were hints of them through the kingship of David – but most of the history of Israel is not filled with any sort of total encompassing life victory that Psalm 91 holds out for God’s people.

That is until the coming of Jesus.

Jesus who lived a sinless life, who deserved to enjoy the blessings of the covenant (and Psalm 91), experienced the covenant curses on behalf of others. His resurrection was God’s approval that his substitutionary sacrifice sufficiently paid the penalty and curses.

And now, for those united to Jesus by faith, who are ‘in Christ’ (Yahweh’s King), they have been richly blessed with every blessing in the heavenly realms (cf Ephesians 1:3), and can now enjoy guaranteed future glory in Christ even though they suffer temporarily now (cf Romans 8).

Therefore, those in Christ, by faith alone, are able to enjoy the blessings of Psalm 91 because they are eternally secure in Christ and can now face any trial, suffering, or brokenness without fear.

Psalm 91 does not hold out a life free from suffering and sickness and Covid 19. Psalm 91, fulfilled for us in Christ, holds out the promised blessings that are eternally secured even in the face of present suffering and sickness and, yes, even death.

Christian: stop applying Psalm 91 directly to yourself and others. It is not only a misapplication of the text but also a shallow hope. Psalm 91, as it points us to the gospel of Jesus, gives us eternal hope even when we face the fiery arrows, the terrors of the night, pestilence and destruction of the present.

The Bible Project: THE BEST infographics

The Bible Project

 

I’m fairly certain that these guys are producing THE BEST, most creative, theologically informed infographic expositions of the ‘Big Idea‘ of the whole of scripture. These guys are really good.

And worth supporting financially.

 

Here’s their introduction as to what the Bible Project is all about:

 

That’s an ambitious project and I’d encourage all my Christian friends who understand biblical theology to support these guys.

Here’s their Genesis 1-11 video:

 

And their first ‘thematic’ video on Heaven and Earth:

 

Best of all, these videos are all free! There’s a few reasonable restrictions, so spread the word.

 

 

Noah: Review of the Reviews

Noah-Review of the Reviews

 

So I haven’t seen the movie yet. I probably won’t – not necessarily out of any conviction but mostly out of time.

But, one doesn’t need to eat a slice of the cake to know it’s sweet.

What I have been reading plenty of are the many reviews that have been posted up since the movies’ release. Facebook has also made it much easier to access these reviews since most of my FB friends are Christians and have posted up dozens of different reviews of the movie.

So what I thought I’d do is something different. Seeing as I haven’t seen the movie I might do a review of the reviews.

Let me start with some of the negative reviews, look at the positive reviews, then look at the positive and discerning reviews.

First to the negative reviews. The major theme I’ve picked up in these reviews is the spectrum of annoyance to deep frustration that the movie lacks much of the biblical detail, and the extra details the movie did contain change and/or twist the biblical story beyond recognition. Some of the reviews were negative not just on theological lines, but also on the strength of the movie itself: some claiming the scripting and directing to be below average in their own right.

I’ll put up my hand now and say that I posted before the movies’ release to state that I didn’t think it would be worth going to see – but rather sitting down with your friends to read the original story and pointing them to Jesus would be more worthwhile. I made these comments primarily because I believed that audiences expecting a faithful biblical retelling – or at least an attempt at faithfulness – would be disappointed. I also believe that the trailer gives enough scope for Christians to believe so as well. I have since changed my mind – more on that below.

I know some have expressed, including good friends of mine, that Christians shouldn’t have been so presumptuous – that just because a movie is based on a biblical character/story does not necessitate it to be ‘Christian’ in the sense that the story and message must match the biblical narrative. But I don’t think it was unfair for Christians to expect a faithful rendering of the story line. I base this judgement on the fact that the trailer itself appears to suggest a faithful rendering of the story (or at least leaves it very open that the movie will be faithful), and the other fact that it’s not very often we get to see biblical stories on the big screen. It’s not going too far to suggest that if movie studios realise the potential they have in recreating biblical stories for the big screen then flocks of Christians would come and pay their hard earned money to see these stories come to life (see ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and ‘The Bible’ TV miniseries).

Back to the reviews – in all the negative reviews I noticed an earnest attempt by the reviewers to try to engage with the movie. But part of the negative criticism came about because they felt disconnected from such a familiar story. I don’t necessarily disagree with the negative reviews, I just think that’s how the some will inevitably react.

Some other reviews attempted to point out how the movie isn’t Christian at all, but has either gnostic and/or kaballah elements. While some of it rings true, other reviews have dismissed these claims fairly convincingly.

The positive reviews, however, have been an interesting mixed bag.

First, most positive reviews took a fairly light view on the theological errors of the movie, and tended to take a strong finger-waving view against those who have negative criticisms, particularly those who were negative but hadn’t seen the movie.

Second, most of the glowing positive reviews always ended up in the same place – with the hopes that anyone watching this movie would go home, open up their bibles, and read the real account (and perhaps come to church afterwards).

To be honest, I think this hope is a tad naïve and forgets that with all the hype of ‘The Passion of the Christ’, according to Barna research, church attendance did not change one bit nor was there any significant increase in conversions. Certainly I want to affirm that God can and does use anything and everything to bring about his purposes – but I’m with Tim Challies on this to say that we should not hope for a movie to do what God’s Word already promises.

Other positive reviews have been quick to point out the strengths of the movie, the stunning visuals, and some also view the dialogue and directing more positively. This note you can’t really argue against – art is of the nature that one person might find something deeply intriguing and satisfying, and others just don’t ‘get it’. One of these days I’m going to post a review of mini-book ‘Art for God’s Sake’ by Philip Ryken.

Now to the positive and discerning reviews.

I can think of no two greater examples than this one by friend Nathan Campbell for Creek Rd Presbyterian Church, and this other one by Gregory Alan Thornbury guest blogging at the Gospel Coalition.

In both of these reviews you’ll see two things. First, you’ll see an appreciation for what the film does well – cinematically as well as theologically. Both reviews point out insightfully that Noah contains one of the best depictions of human depravity on screen – and that as a starting point in a conversation might make it worth viewing with a friend who has questions.

Second, both reviews do raise up alternative theological viewpoints in contrast to what is seen on screen. And this is where I’d commend Nathan’s review the most – for not only does he point out a contrasting theological view, but he does so with a biblical theology lens: always pointing us from Noah to Jesus.

Hollywood was never going to be able to do Biblical Theology well. And this, in some ways, has, I think, made Nathan’s review the best I’ve read – because it actually helps the reader think Christianly about the movie. Rather than navel-gaze and wonder why Aronofsky didn’t make a more faithful movie, the review takes what is there and points to something greater. That is a helpful model of cultural engagement.

Theology Thursday: Biblical Theology

Theology Thursday

 

Bible reading can be difficult at times. And it’s even more difficult when reading through the obscure and seemingly irrelevant Old Testament.

So I stumbled on this video recently posted from a friend on Facebook. It’s one of those clips which tries to summarise what the subject of each book of the Bible is about.

I appreciate that it can be hard to wrap up an entire book’s message into a short phrase, so I don’t want to say what is suggested is wrong but I guess you can’t cover all the nuances and details of a book like Genesis which has many themes running through it. And I’m not sure he’s landed Song of Solomon right…

But what the video helpfully highlights for this post is the constant looking forward in the Old Testament to Jesus.

Yes. The whole Bible is about Jesus.

And unless you understand this you’ll never fully understand the Old Testament.

Here is where a short plug for the Ignite Training Conference is apt. The conference is designed to equip Christians in learning how to read and teach the bible to others. You don’t have to be a super mature Christian to go – the only requirement is that you’re a Christian ready and willing to learn. Strand 1 (for first timers) focuses on the basics of exegesis – how to draw meaning from the text before you rather than bring meaning into the text (ie eisegesis). Strand 2 builds on that foundation and applies it to the overarching narrative of scripture, what is known as Biblical Theology. Strand 3 then builds upon this and then seeks to teach people how to draw what scripture says about larger topics (such as Resurrection, or God, or Salvation).

What follows is an expansion on what would be learnt in Strand 2. Point one is what Strand 2 spends most of the week exploring. The following points are adapted from a lecture given by Gary Millar in 2010 on a visit to QTC while I was a student.

So the question each point is answering is: how do I move from the Old Testament to Jesus in a way which is faithful to the text before me?

 

1.  Follow the plan

Follow the plan is the bread and butter of biblical theology. The plan centres around the theme of the Kingdom of God: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. The Kingdom of God pattern forms, as I like to think, the skeletal structure to the body of scripture. It unites scripture from beginning to end and also helps the reader plug into the ‘big picture’ (the metanarrative) of the bible.

Justin Taylor has a helpful summary from the author (Graeme Goldsworthy) who really started a lot of people thinking through scripture this way.

The basic idea of following the plan is that wherever you are in Genesis to Malachi you should be able to determine the three elements of God’s Kingdom by asking who are God’s people in this text before me, where is God’s place of fellowship and communion with his people, and how is God expressing his rule and blessing to his people.

Starting here is fundamental in not misapplying the Old Testament.

A commonly used example of how following the plan helps the reader avoid misapplication is the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. The classic interpretation and application of the passage runs something like this: Goliath was a seemingly undefeatable enemy of David. David was only a boy, but by faith in God he was able to overcome Goliath. Therefore we, like David, should have great faith in God and we too will overcome the ‘Goliaths of hardship’ in our lives.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in believing that faith equals victory over hardship. It’s certainly a theme echoed in the New Testament (with true fulfilment, overcoming and victory experienced in the second coming of Christ). But this is a classic misapplication of 1 Samuel 17 for the following reasons:

  1. David was the anointed King of Israel, he was Israel’s ‘messiah’ – we are not.
  2. David was an Israelite living centuries before Christ – the modern reader is certainly none of these.
  3. David lived under the Law of Moses – the modern reader will be under the Law of Christ.

Applying the basic principles of God’s Kingdom to 1 Samuel 17 we get this: God’s people are Israel with David as their representative, God’s place of fellowship and communion with his people is the land of Israel which is currently being attacked by the seemingly undefeatable Philistines and their hero Goliath, God expresses his rule and blessing to his people through the Law of Moses and his Tabernacle presence. What we see in the story, then, is how God raises up an unexpected saviour for his people in order to re-establish his people, his place and his rule. Following this plan through we can see how God is always raising up leaders and saviours for his people in order to re-establish his people, place and rule – until we finally see this happy fully and perfectly in his Son Jesus.

That’s pretty brief. For a greater look into the Kingdom of God I’d strongly recommend reading Vaughan Roberts’ ‘God’s Big Picture’ and Graeme Goldsworthy’s ‘Gospel and Kingdom’ or ‘According to Plan’.

Now, doing this every day or week to week can be pretty boring, and eventually reading the Old Testament simply becomes a chore in getting to Jesus through the plan. So the following brief points are other ways in which we can enhance our application of the Old Testament to our daily lives.

 

2.  Expose the problem

Ask yourself, ‘Is there is a weakness or pitfall in the passage?’ What causes the problem or what is the underlying issue? Exposing the problem helps us look forward to the answer in Christ. Showing the weakness of the character or story helps raise an expectation for something better.

An example of this came for me recently as we preached through 1 Samuel. In 1 Samuel 23-26 we see David acting very honourably in the face of persecution from Saul. Everything in chapters 23, 24, and 26 demonstrate the outstanding character of David. But in 1 Samuel 25 we’re presented with an almost exact opposite picture: David seeks revenge of a seemingly insignificant insult and only via the mediation of someone else does he calm down. In 1 Samuel 25 we see David, God’s anointed King, acting in very human ways (and possibly here sowing the seeds for his family’s downfall later). What 1 Samuel ends on is a tarnished picture of God’s chosen King – forcing the reader to expect a better ‘David’ to come.

 

3.  Explain the category

Here is where we consider what categories are before us. For instance, ‘The Law’ in scripture is a fairly wide term and could refer to specific laws within Exodus or Leviticus, but it could also refer to the first five books of the bible together (yes, even the narrative).

Within the Law there are many subcategories also – and while I caution people to not too quickly draw hard and fast distinctions within the Law (eg the moral, civil and ceremonial distinctions) these are sub-categories that can help orient the reader.

But the question to ask in this section is really how are these categories fulfilled, or made better, in Jesus? For instance, when you’re reading through Leviticus and notice that lengthy instructions for the priesthood it should help us appreciate the priesthood of Jesus all the better.

 

4.  Highlight the attribute

A common misconception about the bible is that its primary purpose is to tell us how to live. No doubt there are many instructions and imperatives for the believer – but scripture’s primary purpose is to show us the character and nature of God.

For instance, a classic case of how this is often missed is in Jonah’s story in children’s bibles. Quite often children’s bibles will avoid the difficulties of chapter 4 by simply dropping it from their versions. So the story ends up becoming one about God’s forgiveness. But chapter 4, difficult as it is, is there to demonstrate not only the reason for Jonah’s reluctance to go but also how his reason is tied to the very nature of God as revealed in the book: his compassion and mercy for evil and wicked sinners outside of his own people.

Another example of this is found in the Laws of Moses which consistently highlight the holiness of God. Each part of the Law serves to highlight this in various ways. The trick to reading it will be to figure out how that part of the Law highlights God’s holiness.

 

5.  Trace the fulfilment

Where ‘follow the plan’ traces the overall big picture, or metanarrative, trace the fulfilment is more specific.

For instance, the Sabbath has lots of regulations stemming from Israel’s exodus from slavery as well as the creation mandate. The question for the reader will be how Jesus fulfils, changes and transforms our understanding of the Sabbath.

Another clear example from Genesis 3 is the warning given to the serpent of a future head crusher. In what way is this fulfilled in Israel and ultimately through Jesus? Or what of God’s promise to Ezekiel (chapter 36) to put a new heart into God’s people and God’s own spirit as well.

Each of those examples are fairly specific and that’s the point of trying to trace the fulfilment.

 

6.  Focus on the clear action

The emphasis here is to focus on what is clear in the action of the passage before us. A classic example is in 1 Samuel 17 – David and Goliath. This is a fairly well known, but generally poorly understood part of the Old Testament – and you can see how poorly understood it is every time the news uses the narrative as analogous to its reported story.

Often the focus in this chapter is on David’s physical battle with Goliath. But when you read through the chapter you’ll notice that this actually only takes up 30 words. Rather what takes up more space – a whopping 75 words – is David’s speech that God will take on His enemies. Focusing on what is clearly given the bulk of the airtime is what is needed.

So the question is where does the passage spend most of its time and is it clear?

Asking the clarity question also helps us get through things like Daniel 7. Daniel 7 has a lengthy focus upon four beasts and even the interpretation from the angel is a little unclear. But what is clear in that passage is that God, the ‘one like a son of man’, and his people reign supreme.

So always ask where the passage spends most of its time and what is most clear.

 

7.  Point out the consequences

Finally some passages are there to clearly spell out the consequences of our good or bad actions. This is partly how to read Wisdom literature – Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Wisdom literature is there to help us understand how to live rightly in a fallen world. It also needs to be taken as a whole since Proverbs by itself can lead to what is known as ‘retribution theology’ – basically A + B will always equal C. Much of Proverbs is a little like that, whereas Job and Ecclesiastes balance this view and suggest that it’s not always clear cut how we should live because this world is indeed fallen. But that’s the nature of Wisdom – it’s not about formulas for living, but growing in godly discernment so we have the tools to make decisions.

 

So there are seven ways to help improve your Old Testament bible reading. Have you heard of any other ways to link the Old and New Testaments together? Put them in the comments below.

The Way of the Master…?

There’s an evangelism technique which has gained popularity over the past few years called, ‘The Way of the Master’. The basic technique involves asking if a person considers themselves good, getting them to acknowledge that they have committed a sin of some sort, showing them that if they have committed that sin then they are a law breaker (according to the 10 Commandments) worthy of eternal punishment and condemnation and then pointing them to Jesus Christ, the Saviour.

For a long time this particular evangelism technique has unsettled me. Definitely not because people are evangelising, but in particular the use of the Old Testament laws to determine guilt or innocence.

In preparations for my presentation on the place of Exodus 32-34 in its literary structure I came upon this devastating point made by Peter Enns in his NIV Application Commentary on Exodus:

As we have seen in a number of other places in Exodus, this is a book written for Israelites and about Israelites. Its application is not for anyone except God’s people. We saw this with the Ten Commandments. It is a misapplication to think that the law given to God’s people should be used as a standard by which to judge unbelievers. (emphasis mine)

So what to do with ‘The Way of the Master’ now that we know that its a misapplication of the Old Testament?