It is not often in human history that words like plague and pestilence become household terminology, but here we are. As strange as these words feel on our tongues, they are not as uncommon in the Bible. For example, Psalm 91 speaks directly to the notion of plague or pestilence three times, boldly claiming, “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence” (v. 3), “You will not fear . . . the pestilence that stalks in darkness” (v. 6), and finally, “No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent” (v. 10). While we as Christians glory in the declarations of the psalm, we can’t help but notice the current “plague” creeping ever closer to our neighborhoods and homes. Does Psalm 91 make promises that are not being fulfilled? How do we read Psalm 91 during a global pandemic?
Images of Comfort
While the original setting that gave rise to this psalm eludes us, the first-person statement in v. 2 reveals that the author speaks these words of hope and comfort as one who has personally experienced refuge and security by trusting in God in the midst of fearful circumstances. Indeed, Psalm 91 opens with a beautiful picture of God’s people dwelling in the shelter and shadow of the Lord. We are thrust into a metaphorical world where God is a refuge, God is a fortress, God’s faithfulness is a shield, and God even has wings that provide security.
The important thing to remember here is that the psalmist is creating figurative relationships between God and the created world that forge a new reality for the fearful. These creative images draw us out of our fear-entrenched perceptions into a new world that redefines our source of protection and peace. Verse 3 plays into this figurative imagery by likening us to a bird that will escape the net of the “fowler,” a term used to describe a bird-catcher in ancient times. In a parallel line, we are told “he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler, and from the deadly pestilence.” Just as the first line of this verse should be understood as figurative language communicating a general picture of deliverance, so should the second.
The mention of pestilence in v. 6 is also imbedded in a poetic structure that leads us away from forcing the language into a straightforward reading. Verses 5 and 6 are in a parallel structure that looks like this:
A – You will not fear the terror of the night,
B – nor the arrow that flies by day
A’ – nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
B’ – nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
The intentional parallel between night and day in v. 5 is picked up and developed in v. 6 with the ideas of darkness and noonday. Poetically, phrases like “night and day” or “dark and light” are called merisms. A merism is when an author poetically uses opposite terms to figuratively communicate a total or complete concept. Consequently, like the reference in v. 3, the language of v. 6 should not be stripped of its poetic and figurative quality.
No Evil in His Presence
While vv. 3-8 figuratively draw us into the refuge of God “in whom [we] trust,” v. 9 gives the reason for hope in the future grace of God—dwelling in his presence. The passage says, “Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place . . . no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.”
As those who live in the presence of God by the presence of the Spirit, we can testify with the apostle Paul that “no evil” will ever come upon those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). It is important to remember here that evil and hardship are not synonymous in the Bible—think about Job and Jesus. As God’s people, we read Psalm 91 with confidence, knowing that God’s providence toward his children is always good, not evil.
We can find hope in the promises of Psalm 91 without demanding an acute literalness of the passage. Interestingly, when the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness (Matt. 4:5-6), Psalm 91:11 and 12 are quoted, and the devil’s interpretation of these verses is highly literal. He takes Jesus to the top of the temple and tempts him to see if God would keep the promises of Psalm 91. Jesus then quotes Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test.” We are wise to follow Jesus’s lead in reading Psalm 91 as a beautiful picture of God’s power and protection for the faithful, not as a prophetic contract to be tested or hauled into the court of providential malpractice.
A New and Greater Refuge
Sometimes we struggle with the earthiness of blessing and comfort in the Old Testament. We struggle with passages like “no plague come near your tent,” wondering if the words could really mean what they say. Does this mean believers can’t get sick? There is certainly the potential for the figurative idea of general deliverance here, but the text could also be understood quite literally. Verses 11-13 communicate real-life issues of security and safety in the ancient world. So, is this simply an Old Testament promise that has fallen flat in the New Testament church?
“By no means!” as the apostle Paul would say. The Psalms and Prophets often display salvation and restoration for the people of God in old covenant imagery. Psalm 91 presents us with an old covenant vision of refuge and deliverance for God’s people in his presence (that is, a temple in the Promised Land). The end of the psalm describes this salvation as “long life” (v. 16). In many ways the psalmist is building upon the covenant framework established in Deuteronomy: keep my commandments and live long in the land.
We are not looking forward to a long life in Canaan. We have been united by faith to the eternal “dwelling place” of God in Christ Jesus, and we are awaiting an eternal life in the land where there will be no be weeping, mourning, disease, or sin. We must read Psalm 91 remembering that the greatest danger in this world is anything that keeps us from the next. With that perspective, read Psalm 91 and find refuge in the gospel which makes all of the glorious promises of this psalm yours in Christ.