Psalm 91 is a particularly relevant portion of Scripture to consider at a time of major outbreaks of plague and disease, because it considers the providence of God in respect of these afflictions upon men. “It is probable that this psalm was … penned by David” (1) , and some have thought he wrote it specifically when the grave pestilence recorded in 2 Samuel 24 had been taking place. A verse from that chapter helps us to grasp the import of Psalm 91, and also has direct relevance to the current coronavirus pandemic :
“And David built there an altar unto the LORD, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD was intreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel” (2 Samuel 24:25).
We thus learn that God is well able to take away epidemics from a humbled nation which calls upon Him. In New Testament times we offer up our prayers to God through what the Old Testament burnt and peace offerings foreshadowed, namely the mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So let us consider on a verse-by-verse basis the teachings of this psalm, which affords such great encouragement to believers in Christ.
v1. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty”.
The Hebrew word translated ‘secret place’ comes from the verb meaning ‘to hide’. The secret place is the presence of God where believers may hide and be protected. This place is exclusive to Christians, the rest of men being excluded. So it is the unique dwelling and refuge of those who are in the kingdom of God by repentance from sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The believer in communion with the most High God knows His ‘shadow’ over him, His defence, His protection. This is a protection of both body and soul. We read in Psalm 25,
“The secret of the LORD is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant” (Psalm 25:14).
Note again the use of the word ‘secret’. Believers in Christ have a special relationship with God called “the secret of the Lord”. This is a “close and intimate communion in which God makes Himself known to the soul” (2) . As David asserts in another psalm,
“For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion : in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock” (Psalm 27:5).
A ‘pavilion’ is a place of safety. The kingdom of God, comprising those who have sought salvation from sin, is the place of safety from this Satan-dominated world of unbelief, which lies under God’s terrifying condemnation.
Note these two titles of “the most High and the Almighty” which the psalmist gives to the Lord, stressing His irresistible power. God is all-holy, yet in great condescension He protects and comforts the believer in Christ, and grants to him an exalted status :
“(God) hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).
The Christian has become a citizen of heaven. This is another way of describing ‘the secret place’ and ‘the shadow of the Almighty’ under which the Christian abides. How comforting is this citizenship to believers, especially in a time of general alarm such as the coronavirus has created.
Since God is the Most High and the Almighty, that means that He governs all that happens in this world, not least in the natural and physical realms, and therefore His government includes the outbreak and removal of diseases. This sovereignty over all things leads us to the Biblical doctrine of God’s providence. The theologian Louis Berkhof writes,
“Divine Providence is that work of God by which He preserves all His creatures, is active in all that transpires in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end” (3) .
v2. “I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust”.
The psalmist speaks from personal experience. David of course believed the Scriptures, and was very familiar with the experience of Moses, who witnessed at first hand the plagues upon Egypt. How wonderfully God had protected His people in the midst of those plagues.
“The name of the LORD is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe” (Proverbs 18:10).
A refuge is a place to which one flees. The believer in Christ is safe from his three great enemies of the world, the flesh and the devil. To believe in Him is to trust in the One who saves from sin and from Satan. As the Lord Jesus Christ makes clear in the Sermon on the Mount, the believer is also the object of God’s special protection in physical and material matters, and so this protection has a particular application to plagues and diseases afflicting the human body. Our Lord taught in Matthew 6,
“Take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:31–33).
Here is a promise that the Lord will watch over the material needs of the faithful believer, and if He is able to protect the Christian in terms of food and clothing, then He is just as able to do so in matters of bodily health.
v3. “Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence”.
The word ‘noisome’ means destructive. The metaphor in the first part of this verse is of birds being trapped in a net. At the time of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, Pharaoh would have trapped the Israelites as in a net, but God rescued them from the advancing Egyptian army, even giving them safe passage through the Red Sea. And before this, when the destroying angel had gone through all Egypt killing the firstborn, Israel’s firstborn had been kept safe from God’s judgement, from the “noisome pestilence”, the destroying plague.
The Christian, as we have stated, is protected from his spiritual enemies, but the psalm is teaching that he is also protected in his everyday circumstances, even from actual physical danger. God is able to protect His people from disease, from epidemics and from other common calamities. He may alternatively allow His people to share in the common sufferings which afflict the generality of men, and cause good to be brought out of that participation in suffering.
In respect of the national adversity of the coronavirus, this is a call to the nation to humble itself before the God who controls the advent of diseases. The Bible deals specifically with this issue of nationwide disease, for example in Leviticus 26:15-16, where we read :
“If ye shall despise my statutes, … so that ye will not do all my commandments … I also will do this unto you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart” (Leviticus 26:15–16).
So here we see established a distinct connection between common calamities such as epidemics and national righteousness. Major outbreaks of disease are most definitely not a judgement upon individuals (and in any case all without exception are sinners in God’s sight), but they are a call to nations to seek the face of the God who controls all men’s circumstances.
All people, including Christians, living as they do in a fallen world, are subject to physical afflictions and sicknesses. Christians may of course contract the coronavirus, but as they do so, it is only in the context of remaining under God’s special protection. On the other hand, the Lord could possibly prevent certain of His own people from becoming victims to the pandemic, if He so chooses. The point is that He has absolute power over disease, and the power to act on behalf of His people. He is sovereign in all that He does, and this what it is so necessary to grasp at a time of crisis like this.
Christians must also not forget that in a fallen world there will never be a time when disease and viruses will be absent. We do all that we can to contain them, but what we cannot do is argue that Covid-19 is unprecedented in human history and therefore requires unprecedented measures, such as the shutdown of great swathes of economic activity.
v4. “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler”.
Again it is said of the Lord here that He will protect His own people. How many unknown calamities have we avoided, because God’s hand was upon us? Who knows, for example, how many times God’s angels have protected us, when we have been at the wheel of a car?
God discriminates in His government of the world between believer and unbeliever. When the Lord sent the ten plagues upon Egypt, the Israelites were kept safe. The swarms of flies, for example, did not affect the region of Goshen where they lived (Exodus 8:22). God’s ‘truth’ here in this verse 4 is His faithfulness to His promises. This will be the Christian’s sure defence, for God watches over His own people. This is also strongly brought out in Deuteronomy 32 :
“Jacob is the lot of his inheritance … he kept him as the apple of his eye” (Deuteronomy 32:9-12). Just as we instinctively protect the pupil of our eye, so it is God’s nature to protect His own people.
v5. “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day”.
It was at night that the firstborn of Egypt lost their lives. This was a judgement upon Egypt for its many sins including the worship of demonic false gods. The Israelites living in Egypt, however, were kept safe from the general judgement by the shed blood of a lamb. This is prophetic of the Christian’s protection from judgement, being covered by the blood of Christ, shed on his behalf to satisfy God’s justice.
Unseen horrors can afflict men especially in the night, but they are not confined to night-time. Even in broad daylight the flight of an arrow is not perceived by men. How few consider that its flight is directed by the Lord. Unbelievers who constantly ignore and defy God put themselves outside of the sphere of His special protection.
v6.“Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday”.
In this fallen word there may be aravaging plague striking men down in the night, or there may be a destructive daytime earthquake. Yet in the midst of such events believers will know God’s watchful care over them. This is not to say that they will never be affected by these common calamities – they may well indeed be caught up in them – but only in God’s providence, and never as being outside of His special defence of them. We read of this defending work in Isaiah 32 :
“My people shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places; when it shall hail, coming down on the forest” (Isaiah 32:18-19).
The eminent nonconformist minister E. J. Poole-Connor (1872-1962) felt these verses from Isaiah strongly speaking to him during World War 2, when London was being bombed. He had to leave his flat in Bayswater owing to bomb damage, and He was offered two other flats in different blocks. The one he declined subsequently suffered a direct hit from enemy bombing, and he would have been in it at the time, had he taken it. He saw in this God’s preserving hand, and that God in His providence still had work for him to do (4) .
v7. “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.
Many Christians who have served in the armed forces soldiers and who have lived through a battle have found this verse speaking to their hearts. When there are plagues, sicknesses, natural disasters and other providential afflictions assailing men, the Lord may choose to grant special protection to those who are His own children. A plain example of this principle is the escape of all the Christians from the destruction which came upon Jerusalem in AD 70.
This is not to say that Christians will never get caught up in common disasters, for they, like the rest of men, live in a fallen world, and many of course have fallen in battle, but for them, the afflictions will not be a matter of helplessness and fear. One Bible commentator, H.C. Leupold, explains this verse 7 like this : “(It) states, not what must necessarily happen, but what God can bring to pass” (5). In other words, if He chooses, He is perfectly able to cover His own people with a special shield and protect them from disease. Therefore, the believer in Christ should not be overwhelmed by excessive fear – he knows that his times are in God’s hands. It is sadly the tendency of a God-rejecting society to succumb to levels of fear which are more intense than is necessary.
Another commentator, Matthew Poole, states that this promise in verse 7 is “not to be understood absolutely and universally, as if no truly good man could be cut off by the plague or other common calamities, but with due limitations and conditions” (6). Poole is explaining here that the promise that “the destruction … shall not come nigh thee” is a statement of what God is able to do, if in His superior wisdom He deems it best for any particular believer. And we must remember that His ways are higher than man’s ways, so that the wisdom of what God decides in any one instance may not necessarily be apparent to us. Nevertheless, this verse 7 is a wonderful statement of encouragement for the believer in the midst of much depression and fear around him.
This verse also provides motivation for our earnest prayers : the Lord is able to protect each one of us from the effects of a pandemic, if He so chooses. If a believer contracts the disease, it does not of course mean that he has been more sinful than any other – we simply do not know the mind of God in some providences. What we can be certain of, however, is that God is able to protect us, and indeed our nation generally, if we seek His face and cry unto Him. His will might be to chastise the nation for all its rebellion, so that He can then show His mercy to those who are humbled, but that He can remove plague and epidemics in response to prayer must never be doubted.
v8. “Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked”.
Those who defy God may well come under His justice in this life, as the godly look on in fear and trembling at His power.
As we have stated, major outbreaks of disease such as we are now experiencing are not a judgement upon individuals, but they may be a collective disciplining of a nation which stubbornly continues to repudiate its Christian heritage and to ignore God’s commandments. They are a warning to nations to humble themselves before the God who controls disease. A nation afflicted by a grave medical crisis is a nation which God is unequivocally addressing, seeking its prostration, humility and repentance before Him.
Yes of course, we pray for the authorities in dealing with this crisis, we care for the sick and vulnerable, we seek medical preventions and solutions and take all the necessary precautions, and we pray for hardworking doctors and nurses. All this must be done, however, in the context of a nation realising that it is the merciful hand of Almighty God which alone will cause a harmful virus to be contained. People must seek His face and cease their rebellion against Him.
So we assert the seriousness of Covid-19 and the need to attend to sensible precautions, but that does not mean that society should succumb to excessive levels of fear. There are no medical or scientific grounds for treating the coronavirus as if it were, say, the bubonic plague of the 17th century; this is simply not an appropriate comparison. The carrying on by healthy people of their normal existence (yes, taking precautions), is an aspect of the Christian’s duty. The healthy are required to carry on working. The Lord knows that we live in a fallen world where viruses continually operate. In His common grace to sinful men, God has so ordered the human frame that societies are able to build up a corporate immunity without the need for the healthy to isolate themeless from other healthy people.
v9. “Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; v10. There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling”.
Again it is emphasised that those who have sought refuge in God will experience His special protection because of their status as His redeemed ones. This protection can even include remaining healthy in the midst of a plague.
Yes, as we have stated, it is also the case that believers will not necessarily escape the common afflictions which the rest of men all around them are experiencing. Yes, Christians have contracted, and will continue to contract Covid-19, but this will never be in such a way that they are outside of the sphere of the Lord’s special protection, and never in such a way that the affliction cannot work for their ultimate good.
So we as Christians in the midst of a general nationwide calamity (and indeed worldwide calamity) can experience a very special oversight of us, along with a resulting peace of mind, if we take God at His word. We desire that many non-believers around us might experience this peace also.
Many are deeply concerned at this time about the health of their loved ones, and also about their livelihoods because of the economic turmoil which the coronavirus is bringing in its wake. Therefore the task of Bible-believing Christians at this time, alongside earnest prayer for our neighbours, is to preach the gospel of salvation with all of our hearts, so that those around us might come to possess, as they pray, “the peace of God which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
v11. “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways”.
The believer in Christ has the protection of the angels. This protection is of course conditional upon a man’s ways being the ways of obedience to God. The Lord who controls all men’s circumstances sends His angels to watch over the physical and material condition of His own people, and so that obviously includes all aspects of health.
“The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them” (Psalm 34:7).
Note that the prerequisite for angelic help is to fear the Lord. So again it must be emphasised that this protection of the believer depends upon his faithfulness, trust and obedience before Almighty God. This psalm 91 is plainly teaching that God provides defence to His own people in the midst of sore afflictions, if that is His sovereign will so to do. Employing the ministry of His angels, He is able to prevent whomsoever He wishes from contracting a highly contagious infection. It is therefore totally legitimate for believers at the current to pray for personal protection from the coronavirus, and for their families, and to enjoy a confidence and peace of mind from having so prayed.
v12. “They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone”.
Using the metaphor of a man running along a stony path, the angels will protect the believer from anything that would harm him in life’s path. This is not to say that Christians will never have physical accidents, or suffer medical crises, but as the Puritan Bible commentator, Matthew Henry, writes,
“Though trouble and affliction shall befall thee, yet there shall be no real evil in it, for it shall come from the love of God and be sanctified … (the angels) will keep thee in thy ways, that is, as long as thou keepest in the way of thy duty” (7).
It goes without saying that medical precautions are absolutely necessary in the time of a pandemic, but just as man shall not live by bread alone, so he shall not live by medical precautions alone. Above all else the nation in the midst of the coronavirus must humble itself before the Trinitarian God, He who has the ultimate power over all disease.
v13. “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet”.
The Israelites during their wilderness wanderings were protected from many wild and dangerous beasts. God today can likewise cause the believer to be protected from such dangers. It is worth remembering what happened when Samson was once threatened by a lion.
“Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid” (Judges 14:5-6).
In a fallen world which is no longer a Garden of Eden and which is under God’s curse (though He showers great mercies upon it also) there are natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, harvests can fail, there continues to be danger from wild beasts (even some domestically-kept dogs can be dangerous), plagues of locusts still devour crops, and there are still frightening outbreaks of disease. However, the message of this psalm is that those who trust in the Lord can in the midst of common calamities take refuge “in the secret place of the Most High” (verse 1), and that is exactly what many overwhelmed with anxiety about the coronavirus must do right now.
v14. “Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him : I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. v15. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him”.
This is God speaking about David as a believer in Him : He will deliver him. He will protect him from his spiritual enemies of the world, the flesh and the devil. Satan is a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, but he cannot touch those under Christ’s protection, unless they by foolishness and neglect let down their guards. This same God also protects in the physical realm, and that is the particular emphasis in these two verses. That means that the Lord is a shield to those who trust Him in respect of plagues and epidemics. This is why our nation above all else needs to cry out to the one true Trinitarian God at this current time of pandemic.
v16. With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation”.
God will tend to bless with longer life those who obey Him, although of, of course, He can overturn His own general principle as He thinks fit. So, whilst this is not an absolute rule, because God is sovereign and free to act in whatever way He wishes in His infinite wisdom, righteousness of life does generally have a tendency to longer days upon this earth. The same principle is stated in the book of Proverbs,
“My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments: For length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee” (Proverbs 3:1–2).
This longer earthly life of the faithful believer is also typical and foreshadowing of the eternal life which He grants to all who come to Christ and who persevere in their faith in Him. As the Saviour taught,
“And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).
Applying this psalm to Britain’s present situation
Covid-19 is a wake-up call to a nation which is openly failing to honour God and His commandments, and which is trying its best to repudiate its Christian heritage and replace it with the politically correct and Bible-rejecting doctrines of secular liberalism.
In 1865 there was a major outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain. At the time a minister of the gospel in Suffolk, the Rev. J. C. Ryle, produced an evangelistic tract called ‘The Finger of God’ (Ryle was later to become the Bishop of Liverpool). In this tract he spoke of the disease which was decimating enormous numbers of livestock all around the country, and he declared :
“It is a perplexing calamity. Mo medicines, no remedies, or modes of treatment, appear to have any effect on the disease … Even our statesman and rulers seem at their wits’ end”.
Ryle then went on to argue, “The sins of individual men and women are often not reckoned for while they live; but this is because there is a Judgement Day yet to come … for nations there can be no future judgement day. Sins of nations are reckoned for in time. Special sins and corruptions call for special chastisements.
I believe that is cattle plague is a special national chastisement on England … Does not (a father) show the highest love by checking (his children), when they do wrong? And shall not our Father in heaven do the same? Yes, indeed. God does not hate us. He is a God of mercy and love, and therefore He keeps up His providential government of mankind. There is love even in this scourge which is now upon us. The cattle plague is the finger of a wise and loving God” (8) .
So Ryle’s argument is that the onset of major national adversity is God speaking to the people, and in this Ryle is following clear Biblical teaching. Plagues, poor harvests, economic collapse and wars are all means by which God speaks to wayward nations, graciously calling them to repentance.
As well as in Psalm 91 the Bible deals specifically with the issue of plagues and nationwide medical emergencies in, for example, Leviticus 26:15-16 (see above), and Deuteronomy 28:15, 21-22. These passages teach us that if a nation carries on ignoring of God’s laws, He will withdraw His protecting hand in respect of that nation’s health and general medical well-being; He will also remove from a people who reject Him their economic prosperity. So the Bible establishes a distinct connection between common calamities such as epidemics and national righteousness. The advent of Covid-19 is God speaking to our nation.
Yes of course, in the midst of an epidemic we care for the sick and the vulnerable, and we take necessary medical precautions, but we must above all else seek the Lord Jesus Christ, and cry out for mercy as a nation which has failed to honour God. Nor must we succumb to levels of fear which are the direct result of failing to acknowledge the providence of God, the type of fear which is the product of the notion that only man and his scientific endeavour can rescue us.
Dealing with sickness was a major factor in the earthly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. He clearly taught that His healing of a variety of medical conditions represented the need for all to be healed from the plague of sin. He thus declared when healing a paralysed man,
“That ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, he saith to the sick of the palsy … Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house” (Mark 2:10–11).
Major outbreaks of disease are a providential warning to nations to seek the face of the God who controls all individuals’ circumstances along with the affairs of all the nations. How we need in this nation to humble ourselves before the one true God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, because there are many aspects of our national life which are a glaring offence to Him.
So a nation afflicted by plague and sickness is a nation which needs to examine its relationship to the holy God and to come in repentance and faith to the only Saviour of men, the Lord Jesus Christ, He who has power over all disease. May many turn to Christ in this current time of nationwide affliction, instead of putting all their trust in economy-destroying precautions and in vaccinations (9). Those who turn to the Saviour will then be released from the plague of excessive fear. We write these things out of a desire to help non-believers to find a way out of overbearing anxiety.
1 Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Hendrikson, Vol. 3, p479
2 J.J. Stewart Perowne, The Book of Psalms, Zondervan, p260
3 Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine, Eerdmans, p111
4 David Fountain, Contending for the Faith, The Wakeman Trust, p121
5 H.C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, Baker Book House, p653
6 Matthew Poole, Commentary on the Holy Bible, Hendrikson, Vol. 1, p146
7 Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Hendrikson, Vol. 3, p481
9 The appropriateness and efficacy of vaccinations is not an issue being discussed in this article, merely their role as a substitute for trust in God.
© Copyright 2020. Pastor Peter Simpson