May15FriMay 15, 2020
This week, when my wife Becky went grocery shopping, she had a brief conversation with the cashier, which started started off being about the amount of coffee she was buying. As Becky explained that she was shopping for our church’s food bank, the cashier said that she also went to church and that every day before work, she read Psalm 91 as a reminder of God’s protection.
When Becky came home and told me this, I laughed because I had just been corresponding with some of Becky’s family members via email about Psalm 91. Becky’s Uncle John (who lives in England) had sent out an email asking what we thought about how Psalm 91 applies to us during this pandemic. Becky’s other uncle, Uncle Philip (who lives in Holland), had replied that he had been asked to preach on Psalm 91 at his church. Becky’s dad (who is a missionary in Colombia) had commented that many Christians in Colombia were leaving their Bibles open to Psalm 91 as sort of a good luck charm against COVID-19.
Why all this interest in Psalm 91 all at once? Psalm 91 is a song of confidence in God’s protection in the midst of trouble. It starts off like 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.
This Psalm has many wonderful statements of confidence in God’s protection and salvation, and verse three is particularly encouraging as we face COVID-19. What a promise to hold today! “Surely he will save you… from the deadly pestilence.” No wonder it’s coming up so much recently.
However, is it really true that God will protect His people from COVID-19? Is that a promise that we can hold to? Surely some of the people who have died in this pandemic have been Christians. And let’s not forget that this isn’t the only disease that the world has ever faced. Luke 4:9-11 shows us how dangerous taking God’s Word out of context can be when Satan uses this psalm to tempt Jesus! So we need to make sure we understand what this psalm is actually saying.
When we read any part of the Bible, it’s important to read it in context. That means a couple of things. First, it means when we read a verse, we should read what’s around it and figure out how it fits into the whole chapter and even book of the Bible that it’s part of. But it also means we need to read verses in the context of the whole Bible. The Bible is a single story from beginning to end and knowing where a verse or passage fits into that large story helps us to understand it. The story of the Bible can be understood in terms of the covenants (sacred promises) that God made throughout the story. There are several key covenants in the story of the Bible, but when we read Psalm 91, we need to focus on two in particular.
The first covenant that we’re going to focus on today, is the covenant under which Psalm 91 is written. This is Moses’ covenant, sometimes called the Old Covenant. This covenant was given, through Moses to the nation of Israel. The Old Covenant was basically a constitution for the nation of Israel that laid out what it meant for them to exist as God’s people, with God dwelling in their midst in the tabernacle/temple. In this covenant, God promises to be their God and dwell with them. And He says that because He is holy, they too must be holy. If they follow His commands in faith, His presence will be a blessing to them. They will be protected from trouble of all kinds and be prosperous. But, if they reject His commands and turn away from Him, His presence will be a curse on them. They will face famine, oppression, and disease. You can read Deuteronomy 28 for all the details on that, and particularly verses 20-22, referring to diseases.
Why is all this important? Because Psalm 91 is an Old Covenant psalm. It is a song expressing confidence in God’s promises made to the nation of Israel in the Old Covenant. It is a song expressing confidence in promises that God made to Israel at a specific time, promises that are not given to Christians living today. If that’s the case, why do we still read Psalm 91? Why don’t we rip it out of the Bible and throw it away? Because it is still God’s Word and it is still true. How is it still true? Because Psalm 91 is a song of confidence in a God who keeps His promises. God keeps His promises. That does not change. God does not change. So as we read Psalm 91, we need to ask ourselves what promises God has made to us, Christians living today.
That’s where the second covenant we’re looking at today comes in. This covenant is called the New Covenant. It’s first mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:22-32 as a covenant that will come to Israel in the future. This covenant isn’t like the old covenant. It’s better. The Old Covenant involved following God’s laws so they could have God dwelling with them in the temple. This New Covenant is all about having God dwelling in His people directly and changing them from the inside so they want to obey God’s commands. It’s about God forgiving sin and cleansing His people.
When Jesus came, He inaugurated the New Covenant through His death and resurrection. He made it clear that this covenant wasn’t for Israel as a nation or ethnicity, but all of those who are God’s people through faith in Jesus. In other words, this covenant is for Christians today. This New Covenant is still in process. It’s promises have already started, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but they are not yet complete, and won’t be until He comes again. But Christians living today are under this already/not yet covenant with God. In this New Covenant, we aren’t promised protection from disease. We just aren’t. That promise isn’t for us. But we have an even better promise: that no matter what happens to us in this life, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That our suffering in this life is being used by God to strengthen us and prepare us for our glorious inheritance in Christ that can never perish, spoil, or fade. That we have the hope of eternal life after this world passes away.
So is Psalm 91 for us today? Yes, but we need to read it in light of Christ and His New Covenant. God will surely save us from the deadly pestilence. Because of Jesus, COVID-19 cannot truly harm us, even if it kills us.