I’ve been thinking about Psalm 91 quite a bit since the coronavirus became a world-wide concern. The rabbi at my Messianic congregation recently wrapped-up a six-part sermon series on this psalm, and none too soon since the very next week churches were asked to stop meeting. There are hospitals overwhelmed by patients, non-essential businesses being ordered to close, and “stay at home” orders coming from governments. It’s scary out there. But we don’t have to let fear take over our lives.
Psalm 91 contains some of the most stunning assurances of God’s care and protection in the Bible, and it’s a good reminder that we need not fear no matter how bad the things around us get. And things are going to get bad. None of us know when Jesus will return, but we do know we’re getting closer. As that time approaches, we were warned to expect “wars and rumors of wars … famines, plagues, and earthquakes” before the end comes (Matt. 24:6-8). None of what is happening now (or which has been happening for the past 2,000 years) should be a surprise for Bible-readers.
We’ve also been told how to handle it when things get bad. We should watch, be ready, pray, stay faithful, and fear not. Easier said than done, though, especially in these times when fear and panic are running rampant. One way to keep ourselves from getting swept up in unfruitful anxiety is by holding onto the promises in God’s word, like those found in Psalm 91.
God’s Power To Deliver
He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of Yahweh, “He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91:1-2, all quotes from WEB)
Hebrew words often have a variety of meanings. The one translated “dwell” (H3427, yashab) can also mean remain, abide, inhabit, and marry. It’s that last one that seems out of place to us English speakers. How can marriage and dwelling mean the same thing? But if you think of marrying someone as giving a dwelling to them it starts to seem a little less unusual (Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew lexicon). The connection also makes sense as part of the recurring imagery of the Lord marrying His people and providing dwellings for them (Matt. 22:2; John 14:1-3).
This place spoken of in the psalm is a secret or “covered, hidden” location (H5643, sether) that belong to the Most High God. Dwelling here lets you rest under the shadow of the Almighty. Using these names helps remind us that God has all power and is perfectly capable of living up to the expectations the psalmist will speak of in the lines to follow. In addition, use of God’s personal name, Yahweh, demonstrates the closeness of relationship the psalmist has with Him and reminds us that He is the I AM who delivered Israel (Ex. 3:14-15).
A Different Response Than Fear
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler, and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers. Under his wings you will take refuge. His faithfulness is your shield and rampart. (Psalm 91:3-4)
It would be nice to have deliverance from nasty, destructive disease right now, wouldn’t it? Sometimes it’s hard to hold on to hope in dark times, but God promises He will work everything our for His people’s good in the end. That doesn’t always happen in the timing we want, but knowing God is in control means we don’t have to be afraid.
You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that wastes at noonday. (Psalm 91:5-6)
Fear is a natural human response to things like terror, violence, pandemic, and destruction. But we have other options as Christians. God “didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.” We can, as Jeremiah demonstrated in Lamentations, hold onto a sure and certain hope in the Lord’s mercies no matter how bad things get in the world around us (Lam. 3:22-24).
Moods of Faith
A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you. … Because you have made Yahweh your refuge, and the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling. (Psalm 91:7, 9-10)
I’ll admit, I have a hard time believing these claims should be taken literally, particularly since we know there have been people of incredible faith who’ve been “destitute, afflicted, ill-treated” throughout history (Heb. 11:35-40). Other Christians have wrestled with this particular question as well. In Philip Yancey’s book The Bible Jesus Read, he talks in depth about some of the struggles we can have when reading the Psalms. As part of this discussion, he quotes a Christianity Today article by Neal Plantinga that says,
“What Psalm 91 does is express one—one of the loveliest, one of the most treasured—but just one of the moods of faith. It’s a mood of exuberant confidence in the sheltering providence of God. … With a kind of quiet amazement, the psalmist bears witness that under the wings of God good things happen to bad people. You need another psalm or two to fill in the picture, to cry out that under those same wings bad things sometimes happen to good people.” (from the article “Can God Be Trusted?”)
The Psalms give us snapshots (and, taken together, a more complete picture) of what it’s like to be in a relationship with God. There are ups and downs, times of confidence and times of despair. We can rejoice in the times of spectacular deliverance — like those recorded in Psalm 91 — and we can also cry out to God when things don’t go as we hoped (as in Psalm 22, for example). Both these “moods of faith” can have a place in the stressful times we find ourselves in now.
Showing Us Yeshua
“Because he has set his love on me, therefore I will deliver him. I will set him on high, because he has known my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble. I will deliver him, and honor him. I will satisfy him with long life, and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91:14-16)
Psalm 91 concludes with these words from God. The promises here can refer to physical blessings and deliverance that happens in this life, but they are also operating on an eternal time schedule. We will be delivered, set on high, honored, and given salvation when we love God and know Him. That is a promise we can count on. And it’s one that God has already started to fulfill.
When we look in the Hebrew, the last line reads, “I will show him my yeshua.” Yeshua is the Hebrew way to say Jesus (both mean “salvation,” see Matt. 1:21). Now, the Bible probably isn’t pointing directly at the Messiah every one of the 78 times the world salvation/yeshua appears in the Old Testament. But in this particular case, it seems likely that Yahweh, the Most High Almighty, is pointing to the ultimate expression of salvation in Messiah Yeshua.
No matter how crazy things get in the world today, we can count on the fact that God is in charge and He has a plan. We can’t always figure out what He’s doing but we can trust that He will ultimately work things out for good. We can put our absolute confidence in His promise to never leave or forsake us. If we need proof of that, we can find it in Jesus. God cares about us so much that He was willing to die for us. There’s no room for us to doubt that He’s completely invested in His plan to redeem and save humanity.
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