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.