After months of quarantine, the world finally seems to be getting back to normal. Masks are no longer required in certain places, non-essential business are opening their doors, and churches are starting to meet again. But the Coronavirus isn’t gone; it’s still here. Just because we hid ourselves from the virus doesn’t mean the virus will now start hiding itself from us. Now that people are beginning to gather in public places again, some may get sick with COVID-19—some may even die. That’s a scary thought. Many are uneasy about returning to normal life, and that includes Christians. Church leaders must now make difficult decisions about how to hold their services. Congregants must now decide whether they should even go to church right now or not. There is a healthy fear in all of us and it drives us to look to the Bible for answers. What hope does God give us at such a delicate time like this? For many evangelicals, Psalm 91 has been the answer. Its message is attractive, because it sounds like the pandemic we’re facing today:
For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper and from the deadly pestilence. (Ps. 91:3)
You will not be afraid of the terror by night, or of the arrow that flies by day; of the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or of the destruction that lays waste at noon. A thousand may fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not approach you. (Ps. 91:5–7)
For you have made the LORD, my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place. No evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your tent. (Ps. 91:9–10)
Psalm 91 may be the most common “spiritual vaccine” Christians are taking these days, because on the surface it seems to promise immunity from pandemics, like the Coronavirus. But is that what Psalm 91 is promising? After all, the Bible never promises immunity from disease anywhere else. In fact, it guarantees the opposite:
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. (Ps. 34:19)
God is not in the business of quarantining His children from hardship—and that includes deadly illnesses. On the contrary, God often takes His people through the pain and uncertainty of disease to increase their faith and obedience (Ps. 119:71).
While not everyone will experience the same degree of suffering or suffer for the same reasons, God always leverages the difficulties of life to cause His children to grow into the image of His victorious Son. (Rom. 8:28–30; James 1:2–4)
Psalm 91 then must be talking about something else—and it is. There are three key themes in Psalm 91 that help us identify its meaning:
Psalm 91 is about the Curse
Among all the dangers from which Psalm 91 promises protection, deadly disease is the most frequently mentioned (91:3, 6, 10). But the contagious virus found in Psalm 91 is not your average pandemic. It is a type of curse God promised would sweep through Israel as a direct result of their disobedience to God. Life-threatening pandemics today may or may not be God’s judgment against a group of people; that’s not something God has told us. But the pestilence, destruction, and plague mentioned in Psalm 91 is the direct consequence of Israel’s disobedience to God’s Law. We know this, because the book of Deuteronomy warns Israel about such curses for disobedience:
The LORD will send upon you curses, confusion, and rebuke, in all you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken Me. The LORD will make the pestilence (cf. Ps. 91:3, 6) cling to you until He has consumed you from the land where you are entering to possess it. The LORD will smite you with consumption and with fever and with inflammation and with fiery heat and with the sword and with blight and with mildew, and they will pursue you until you perish. (Deut. 28:20–22)
I will heap misfortunes on them; I will use My arrows on them. They will be wasted by famine, and consumed by plague and bitter destruction. (cf. Psalm 91:6) (Deut. 32:23–24)
Generation after generation, Israel stands at the crossroads. They have the choice to obey God and live long, healthy lives or disobey Him and face deadly disease. History proved that Israel chose the latter over and over again.
So the LORD sent a pestilence on Israel; 70,000 men of Israel fell. (1 Chron. 21:14)
[T]hus says the LORD of hosts, “Behold, I am sending upon them the sword, famine and pestilence.” (Jer. 29:17)
Moreover, I will send on you famine and wild beasts, and they will bereave you of children; plague and bloodshed also will pass through you, and I will bring the sword on you. (Ezek. 5:17)
Israel was never able to avoid the curses of the Law, including deadly viruses. But strangely enough, Psalm 91 pictures one man escaping the clutches of a pandemic (Psalm 91:3–10). Against all odds, this person, whoever he is, will do something no Israelite could ever do: He will find a way to break the vicious cycle of the curse. That should make us wonder: Who is this person?
Psalm 91 is about Jesus
At first glance, Psalm 91 appears to be talking about the person reading the psalm. But that is actually not the case. Rather, Psalm 91 is talking about Jesus, the Messiah. We know this, because there are a series of verses in Psalm 91 that describe experiences the rest of the Bible applies only to the Messiah.
For He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. They will bear you up in their hands, that you do not strike your foot against a stone.
Psalm 91:11–12 is probably familiar to you. These two verses are the same ones Satan quoted to Jesus when he brought Him to the pinnacle of the temple to tempt Him:
Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘HE WILL COMMAND HIS ANGELS CONCERNING YOU’; and ‘ON their HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.’” (Matt. 4:5–6; cf. Luke 4:9–11)
Satan believed that Psalm 91 was referring to the Messiah and he seems to have intentionally misused these two verses to try to get Jesus to compromise. But is it possible that Satan misunderstood Psalm 91? Perhaps the Messiah is not the person talked about in the psalm. Satan is the “Father of Lies” after all (John 8:44) and may have erroneously assigned the subject of Psalm 91 to the Messiah. However, the next verse in Psalm 91 suggests otherwise.
You will tread upon the lion and cobra, the young lion and the serpent you will trample down.
Verse 13 recalls the famous prophecy made at the beginning of creation when a descendant from Adam and Eve will crush the serpent’s head:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel. (Gen. 3:15)
Psalm 91 identifies its subject as this descendant. There is no question that Satan would be painfully aware that verse 13 is forecasting his future demise. Therefore, it is not a stretch to say that Satan also properly construed verses 11 and 12 as messianic. His interpretation may have been surprisingly right, but his application was flagrantly wrong—an object lesson about Bible study we should all not soon forget.
So, Psalm 91:13 makes it clear that Jesus is the subject of the psalm. But are there any other clues in the psalm that indicate this?
Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name. He will call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. With a long life I will satisfy him and let him see My salvation.
The final three verses of Psalm 91 form a composite of words and phrases from a series of three messianic psalms:
May the LORD answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob set you securely on high. . . . We will sing for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners. May the LORD fulfill all your petitions. Now I know that the LORD saves His anointed; He will answer him from His holy heaven with the saving strength of His right hand. Some boast in chariots and some in horses, but we will boast in the name of the LORD, our God. (Ps. 20:1, 5–7)
O LORD, in Your strength the king will be glad, and in Your salvation how greatly he will rejoice. . . . He asked life of You, You gave it to him, length of days forever and ever. His glory is great through Your salvation, splendor and majesty You place upon him. (Psalm 21:1, 4–5)
Save me from the lion’s mouth; from the horns of the wild oxen You answer me. I will tell of Your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise You. You who fear the LORD, praise Him; all you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him. (Ps. 22:21–23)
Psalm 91:14–16 brings to light key descriptions that Psalms 20–22 apply only to the Messiah:
- The Messiah will be set securely on high. (Ps. 20:1; cf. 91:14)
- The Messiah’s victory will center around God’s name. (Ps. 20:5, 7; 22:22; cf. 91:14)
- The Messiah will be answered by God. (Ps. 20:1, 6; 22:21; cf. 91:15)
- The Messiah will be delivered from trouble. (Ps. 20:1; cf. 91:15)
- The Messiah will be glorified. (Ps. 21:5; 22:23; cf. 91:15)
- The Messiah will be given long life (literally, length of days). (Ps. 21:4; cf. 91:16)
- The Messiah will experience a glorious salvation. (Ps. 20:5, 6; 21:1, 5; 22:21; cf. 91:16)
Psalms 20–22 identify the Messiah as God’s anointed king. He is a man who will at first undergo significant suffering to the point of death (Ps. 22:1–21), but in the end He will overcome through the power of God’s salvation (Ps. 20:1–9; 21:1–13; 22:21–31). Psalm 91:14–16 summarizes the Messiah’s victory laid out in Psalms 20–22 and proves that He is the unmistakable subject of Psalm 91. This also means that Jesus is the person spoken about earlier in the psalm who will overcome the deadly pandemic (91:3–10). The victory He will one day experience according to verses 14–16 is a victory over the curse itself. But that leaves us with an important question we need to answer: What kind of victory can overcome the curse?
Psalm 91 is about a Resurrection
The last verse of Psalm 91 answers this question. Resurrection is the one and only victory that will overcome the curse. The Messiah will strike the curse with one final blow, because He will neutralize its greatest weapon, death:
With a long life I will satisfy him and let him see My salvation. (Ps. 91:16)
The long life God promises to satisfy the Messiah with is the same terminology for the length of days the Messiah will ask for in Psalm 21:4. This does not refer to any measure of a long-but-temporary life we might experience this side of heaven. Rather, it denotes eternal life. God promises to give Jesus the kind of life that will last forever.
But according to Psalm 22, this will only be attained through a resurrection. After describing His own gruesome execution (Ps. 22:16–18), the Messiah asks for deliverance (Ps. 22:19–21a) and God gives it to Him (Ps. 22:21b). This recalls Psalm 91:15, “He will call upon Me, and I will answer him.” The Messiah asks for God to give Him “long life,” and God grants Him this request by raising Him from the dead, so that afterwards, He can appear alive and proclaim God’s name to His brothers (Ps. 22:22a).
Therefore, Psalm 91 is not just a general description of the Messiah’s victory over disease; it is an intricate examination of His triumph over death itself. Rather than picturing a temporary reprieve from a deadly pandemic, it is forecasting a day when death will be permanently put to death by the Messiah’s resurrection.
This is the real application of Psalm 91, because the Messiah’s resurrection becomes the hope for our resurrection:
Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from death? O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting? (Hosea 13:14)
Hosea adds application to Psalm 91 by declaring that the Messiah’s resurrection will lead to our own resurrection one day. The two words for thorns and sting in Hosea 13:14 are the exact same Hebrew words for pestilence and destruction in Psalm 91:6. Hosea 13:14 serves as a commentary on Psalm 91, spelling out the wonderful implications of the Messiah’s victory over the curse of death. Because He will rise from the dead, we will too.
We Need Psalm 91 Right Now
As we take that first step back into the world, we need to remember Psalm 91, not because it is promising us immunity from the Coronavirus, but because it is offering us something better: A resurrection. It’s nice not to get sick with COVID-19. It’s even better not to die from it. But the best news of all is that you will one day rise from the dead. It may be scary to think about gathering together again, but you can take comfort in the hope of your resurrection. The truth is, unless Jesus returns, you will have to face death, whether it comes from the Coronavirus or otherwise. Your hope is not in escaping death; it’s in Christ’s victory over death. We all long for the day when the Coronavirus is gone and life can return to normal. But we should long even more for the day when death is permanently defeated and eternal life becomes the “new normal” with Christ our Savior.