What does Psalm 91 really say about the coronavirus?

Psalm 91 is a beautiful song that speaks of trust in God in the darkest of times. Because of its references to 'diseases' and 'plagues', it seems to be designed for what the world is going through at the moment with the coronavirus. 

The psalmist talks about God's protection, likening him to a mother hen with its chicks – 'He will cover you with his wings; you will be safe in his care', he says (verse 4, GNB); 'A thousand may fall dead beside you, 10,000 all around you, but you will not be harmed' (verse 7). 

These are lovely words. But when we begin to think about them, we might start to wonder just how we're meant to understand them. Perhaps there's a niggling doubt – after all, Christians do get ill and die. A few of us will catch the coronavirus, and some of us – though a tiny minority – will not recover. So is the Bible just plain wrong? 

There's a clue in the New Testament about how we're meant to understand Psalm 91. In Matthew 4 (and in Luke 4) we read about the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness. One of the temptations is for Jesus to cast himself down from the highest point of the temple; quoting Psalm 91.11–12, the devil says, 'If you are God's Son, throw yourself down, for the scripture says: "God will give orders to his angels about you; they will hold you up with their hands, so that not even your feet will be hurt on the stones."' Jesus answers with another Scripture: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test' (Deuteronomy 6.16).

One way of reading this is to say that Jesus is refusing to let the devil turn Scripture into a sort of exam on God's faithfulness. He knows very well that God's word can be trusted, and he won't let the devil twist it to say something it doesn't – a hint to us that we're to read Psalm 91 in the context of the whole of Scripture, rather than just looking at a few verses by themselves. 

When we do that, we find that God's people often suffer harm. There's a stirring list of sufferings in Hebrews 11: 'Some were mocked and whipped, and others were put in chains and taken off to prison. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword. They went round clothed in skins of sheep or goats — poor, persecuted, and ill-treated. The world was not good enough for them!' (verses 36–38). But these martyrs all knew about God's faithfulness – and many of them, if not all, would have known Psalm 91, with its lovely promise that 'no violence will come near your home'. 

So when we're thinking about Psalm 91 today, perhaps there are four things we can say. 

First, don't tempt God. It would be quite wrong, for instance, for Christians to take these words literally and refuse to stop meeting together in spite of the dangers posed by the virus, as a test of faith. We have Jesus' example to show us that it doesn't work like that. 

Second, let's trust the experience of our elders. The martyrs who've died for the gospel – like the ones the author of Hebrews writes about – didn't feel the Bible contradicted itself or was not 'true', just because they suffered. When we're tempted to doubt, we should remember those who've gone before us, and believe as they did. 

Third, let's hear the hope in Psalm 91. The psalm uses poetic language – vivid imagery, with  striking comparisons and contrasts, to say something deeply meaningful: that God always intends the best for us and that he is always faithful. It doesn't just describe the world as it is, but the world as it ought to be. It's not a dry statement of fact, but a prayer. 

So fourth, let's believe for the future. When God says in the last few verses, 'I will save those who love me ... I will reward them with long life; I will save them' (14–16), we can take these words as meaning not just salvation for this life, but for eternity. Things may go well for us in the here and now, or they may not. But God's salvation is for ever. 

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