I am writing this post in the middle of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which has completely upended our world. Politicians plan. Schools suspend. Businesses are bottoming out. Loved ones are lost. Our anxieties grow as the numbers infected every day rises along with the death toll and we realize we are living in unprecedented and scary times. What do the Scriptures say to God’s people during such a time as this? What is our distinctively Christian hope?
I have a burden. I have seen during this time of trouble some really theologically confusing messages coming from Christians. For example, I have seen some leaders saying this is all overblown and they are not going to shut their church assemblies down, even citing Hebrews 10:25 for scriptural support for this insubordination. I’ve heard other leaders say with certainty that they know this is in fact the end times and we are living in “The Great Tribulation” right now. I have seen televangelists saying reach out to the TV to be healed and others profiteering by selling some kind of strange remedy for this disease made from silver. With all of these twisted messages, I wonder, what are we communicating to the world? Where can we find an appropriate anchor for our souls in the midst of this storm?
Another concerning trend I have observed from believers on social media is posting scriptures claiming “divine protection” from this virus, such as Psalm 91. Perhaps this is well-intentioned, but I am concerned that these scriptures are not being used with sound hermeneutical integrity. Do the scriptures really teach immunity from all diseases for believers in Christ? Theology matters. Misguided theology can result in serious spiritual fall out such as disappointment, confusion and even bitterness toward God. But does the Bible actually promise that Christians are “exempt” from the coronavirus as some kind of an unconditional guarantee? In this post, we will examine this claim and take a closer look at Psalm 91 (NIV) which says this:
1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
5 You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
While the words for “deadly pestilence” and “plague” (in verses 3 and 6) can certainly refer to the kind of circumstances we are dealing with in our day, it is far too simplistic to read this as a guaranteed promise of protection. Yes, it appears at first glance that the promises in Psalm 91 say that God will keep us “safe.” But what does that mean? Safe from what? What it doesn’t mean is that nothing bad will ever happen to you. Other Scriptures make this abundantly clear, such as Luke 21:16-18, “some of you they will put to death.” Christians can certainly pray for protection and healing and sometimes God may answer, but other times the Scriptures are clear that this world may bring trouble (John 16:33) and that God actually uses suffering in our lives to shape and refine us (James 1:1-10, Rom 5:1-5).
At this point in our epidemic, thousands of people including believers across the world have died because of Coronavirus (COVID-19). There is a tremendous loss of friends, parents, grandparents and children. There are also smaller losses: loss of travel plans, loss of time with loved ones, loss of income and a loss of a feeling of security. Has God’s word failed them?
Does Psalm 91 really mean that those who trust God won’t be ensnared, won’t ever get a virus, won’t die in war, won’t experience sickness, won’t lose anyone in their family “their tent” to Covid-19, but will always be delivered and protected? To interpret this passage this way is to use it the way Satan used it. Satan wants us to think we should be exempt from all suffering. I believe this because this is actually how Satan used this exact psalm in the temptation of Jesus (see Satan’s use of Psalm 91 in Luke 4:9-11). What the devil did was he tempted Jesus to believe that His Father would never allow him to suffer. He even (mis)used the word of God to do so! Friends, I believe he does the same for you and me. Why? He does this so that when bad things do happen to us, we will cast off the fatherhood of God and become bitter and angry. I am urging you: Don’t fall for Satan’s trap. Our Lord did not. Instead of falling into the devil’s trap, Jesus embraced the cup His father gave Him. He wore the thorns. He endured the scourging. The nails pierced his hands and feet. He was murdered by wicked men. He endured the cross, all this for the joy set before Him (Heb 12:1-3).
Often in a crisis, instead of a life of faith, we want to live a life where we can sense being in control. We want to perfectly be able to predict the future. This desire can be so strong that we even “use” God’s own word for our own purposes, not to rely on Him, but to feel a sense of control.
“Safe” from What?
So what does Psalm 91 really mean? It means that God will keep us safe, yes, but “safe” in the ultimate sense. It means that God will keep us safe from the worst kind of suffering – separation from God because of our sin. Even though we may suffer through great trouble, when we have faith, we know we will be safe in eternity with God. Such evil will never befall you.
Here is the way Charles Spurgeon described the meaning of Psalm 91: “It is impossible that any ill should happen to the man who is beloved of the Lord; the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward. Ill to him is not ill, but only good in a mysterious form. Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honor, death is his gain. No evil in the strict sense of the word can happen to him, for everything is overruled for good. Happy is he who is in such a case. He is secure where others are in peril, he lives where others die.” (The Treasury of David, Vol. 2, Part 2, 93).
Did you notice that God said in Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”? The image there is of a mother bird which protects her chicks. This is the image of a substitute. In other words, if there’s horrible wind or rain or heat coming down, the mother gets hit with the wind and the heat and the rain instead of the chicks. If there’s a predator coming to eat them, the mother gets eaten. This is a picture of Christ our substitute. This is an image Jesus even uses, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” (Matt 23:37) Do you see what Jesus is saying? Jesus has become our substitute. Because He died for the sins of the world, all those who take refuge in Him will be kept safe … forever. In the end, “You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.” (Psalm 91:8).
Until His promised kingdom comes in all its fullness when disease and death will be no more, we wait. We wait in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. We wait while holding on firmly to His precious promises. Which promises are for me? We will discuss this concept further in Part 2.
Charles Spurgeon. The Treasury of David. (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1980). Originally published in 1869.
Tim Keller. Video Teaching. Thoughts regarding the mother bird image were drawn from this video teaching: “Trusting God in Difficult Times – Psalm 91 Meditation” a devotional by Tim Keller (Gospel in Life) To watch the full devotional go here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=_pXWZNtxS0Q&feature=emb_logo