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Psalm 91 and Pandemic Faith

Blog — 8th April 2020

Psalm 91 and Pandemic Faith

“For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler

 and from the deadly pestilence. . .

 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,

 no plague come near your tent.”

Do you agree to these words from Psalm 91? Are they true in the world today? The virus is here and many of us know people, yes, even people of faith, whom the plague has reached, for whom the deadly pestilence has become their reality. But Psalm 91 and other such promises in the Bible are no naive comfort. They are, after all, texts written by and for communities who did not enjoy the security of medical care, who knew first-hand what a disease can do to a people, how it fractures families, how it spreads with invisible force. Like them, we today cannot (or can no longer) read Psalm 91 as an easy promise of perfect health and we can read this text even less as a magic formula in the way it has survived on many ancient amulets. In this form and worse, as the pious incantation on the lips of Jesus’ tempter (Matt 4:5-6), these words will hurt more than heal.

It is important to see where Psalm 91 begins and where it ends. This poem is addressed to “the one who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,” who sits down and rests, who comes to a stop. If this first line runs past me, the rest of the poem will. If I cannot slow down enough to hear its call for calm, my pace will pervert what follows. What is promised in verse 1 is not health and happiness, but the hope to “lodge in the shadow of the Almighty.” The movement goes from sitting down to a sleepover, from one action to a state of being, to “abiding” with God. What does such people look like? This is what they sound like:

“I will say to the LORD:

 My refuge and my fortress,

 my God, I trust in him.”

Safety is here portrayed as speech. These words are warmth, well-being, and wonder. And as verse 1, this line calls to action: “I will say.” Sit and abide – speak and trust. This pairing of terms is not accidental in the poetic density of the Psalms and it is absolutely vital to inhale it deeply before the words about deliverance, disease, and death wash over us. “My refuge” is not my family, not my workplace, not my medical system, not my fit and functioning body. It is my God, who is always personal, always at work, always whole. Psalm 91 starts with the reorientation away from our default mode – running and rambling – towards a salvation of sitting, speaking, and safety.

If this is the starting point, if this is our refuge, if safety is introduced as abiding with a God who can be trusted, then neither virus nor void, neither disease nor dread, neither height nor depth can be a true threat. Since we forget these foundations of our faith so quickly, Psalm 91 reminds us halfway through its course that evil shall not befall us “because you made the LORD your dwelling place, the Most High, who is my refuge” (vv. 9-10). Echoing the personal resolution from the start – “I will say” – God as safety is no abstraction but is yours, mine, ours. To be safe is to be with God.

Psalm 91 is not naive, it is no call for denial, no call to smile when we are struck with tragedy.

Faced with the Corona crisis or, in the Psalmist’s world, with arrows, warfare, and serpents, we can lose much and, worse, lose many. Psalm 91 is not naive, it is no call for denial, no call to smile when we are struck with tragedy. But as this text frames such disaster by its opening confession, the poem makes a fierce proclamation of faith: we are already delivered, already save, already cared for because our heart and health are in the right place. We already sit, rest, and speak from the only place of refuge. As the streets get quieter, we hear God’s word. As we are isolated, we are not alone. As we die, we already live a life on the other side of death. Israel’s faith at times pushes in sincere protest and hope beyond the earthly realm (Ps 48:14; Job 19:26) and the resurrection of Jesus lives out this reality and gives our sitting and speaking certainty. There, with that man who suffered all the pain that Psalm 91 describes, is our trust, our health, our protection. There we must sit and abide.

What do I say today? What do I have to say to others? Where is the gospel, and where is God? The answer lies not in shallow messages of betterment, not in impersonal abstraction, not in magic and madness, but in simple words of worship: “I will say to the LORD.” When the facade of our health, permanence, and securities crumbles so very quickly as in these weeks, may it move us to sit and speak what is right and true – that we know, in the person of Jesus, a health that is deeper than a healed cough and a comfort that is deeper than cooled fever.

Psalm 91 is true, but only if we start at the right place when we read it and only if we abide in the actual refuge that it promises. To leave us no doubt about God as the one who can be trusted, as the one who hears and speaks, as the one who provides shelter, let us also not miss on how Psalm 91 ends: with a direct, divine speech that diagnoses a life that knows – and therefore lives and suffers and cares differently:

“Because you hold fast to me in love,

  I will deliver you;

  I will protect you,

          because you know my name.

  When you call to me, I will answer you;

  I will be with you in trouble;

  I will rescue you and honour you.

  With long life I will satisfy you

          and show you my salvation.”

Written by Samuel Hildebrandt: Lecturer in Biblical Studies (Old Testament) Nazarene Theological College, Manchester.