The Psalms have gained prominence among Christians since the rise of COVID-19. Psalm 91 has been particularly popular. This is understandable given that it speaks of how God will save you “from the deadly disease” (v. 3, NLT), and the assurance that “pestilence” and “plague” (v. 6, NIV) “will not come near you” (v. 7).
How are we to interpret such claims in the Psalms? What are we to think when we read that “no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent” (Psalm 91:10)?
Promises to Claim?
Some conclude that such words are God’s promises that we can bring into reality by declaring them into the spiritual atmosphere. However, Psalm 91 (and most of Scripture) doesn’t state that God’s promises are conditional on our declaration of them. Instead, we might say, God’s promises are “yes” and “amen.”
Alternatively, some conclude that Psalm 91 implies that divine protection from COVID-19 is certain for those who “make the Most High [their] dwelling” (Psalm 91:9). I think most Christians intuitively understand that this isn’t the case. As a result, even most of those who think they disagree with me will still practice physical distancing and wash their hands like they were just cleaning a dirty toilet.
Regardless, some will continue to insist that these are “God’s promises” for all Christians (even though this was originally a Jewish text…but that’s a whole other issue).
Jesus and Psalm 91
Personally, I’m going to go with Jesus on this one.
When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, Satan quoted from Psalm 91. Satan told Jesus that he should jump off the temple and not worry about getting hurt because God “will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11-12, quoted in Matthew 4:6 & Luke 4:10-11).
Jesus understood, however, that Psalm 91 doesn’t offer an absolute promise to be declared or assumed. And so he responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7 & Luke 4:12).
As one friend said to me recently, it’s a good thing Satan doesn’t tempt people with Psalm 91 anymore.
Principles of Interpretation
So, again, we must ask, how are we to interpret psalms like Psalm 91? Following the guidance of biblical scholars Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, I offer you three principles.1
Read Each Psalm in the Context of Other Psalms
Much like a hymnbook of old contains songs for different occasions on various topics, the Psalms were also read and sung in corporate Jewish worship. And within this context of worship, no individual psalm shaped the theology of the Jewish people–all the Psalms did.
Along with psalms of confidence and trust in God, there are psalms of thanksgiving, praise… and lament. Psalms of praise often give no hint of possible suffering or disorder. But the psalms of lament reminded the Israelites—and remind us—that the world is full of trouble, distress, and disorder. They recognize that sometimes our “bones suffer mortal agony” (Psalm 42:10) and that we may end up “overwhelmed with troubles” (Psalm 88:3).
Interpret Each Psalm as a Whole Unit
The Psalms were not written as a collection of encouraging verses to be read one-at-a-time on a daily calendar that sits on the windowsill. Rather, to understand one verse properly, one must consider the verses that surround it—this principle applies to interpreting every part of the Bible.
When it comes to psalms of lament, if one only read an early verse in the psalm, one might think that there is no hope. But these psalms are structured in such a way that they turn from a moment of complaint or petition, to a moment of praise and trust (for example, Psalm 22).
When it comes to Psalm 91, if one reads the whole psalm, there are clues that indicate that the assurance of “no harm” is not absolute (v. 10). First, the idea that one’s foot will never “strike… against a stone” seems unlikely. And the following verse even speaks of walking on “the lion and the cobra” with God’s protection (verses 13-14). This reminds us to…
Recognize Psalms as Poetry
Poetry is the language of the heart.
When we read complaint in the Psalms, we are likely to recognize the poetic nature of the text. For example, it is easy to recognize that it isn’t always the case that “everyone lies to their neighbor” (Psalm 12:2) or that the “wicked… have no struggles” and are all “healthy and strong” (Psalm 73:3-4).
We must also recognize the poetic nature of psalms that express confidence in God, such as the idea that God “will not let your foot slip” (Psalm 121:3) with the result that you will be kept “from all harm” (Psalm 121:7). Sometimes God does this, but not always.
We might compare such poetic statements that seem absolute to a modern-day greeting card, a sure place to find the best poetry today. While my wife’s birthday card might declare that I’m the perfect husband, my wife and I both know that this is not literally the case. But to expect a greeting card to always speak in a literal fashion would be requiring something of it that it was not meant to do.
My wife’s birthday card poetically points to the reality that I’m pretty swell—perhaps even perfect at times (who am I to disagree with her?). Likewise, Psalm 91 poetically points to the reality that we should trust in the fact that God does protect people—even in the midst of COVID-19.
The Psalms in Practice
We should continue “speaking to one another with psalms” (Ephesians 5:19). But not with just a verse or two from the psalms, or even just one psalm—but with psalms.
Reading from psalms will enable us to express our confidence in God and a vision of how God intended the world to be. But if we are truly reading from psalms, we will also be able to express our lament, concerns, and complaints to God, even while affirming at the same time that God is at work.
Walter Bruggemann warns “that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgement of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s ‘loss of control.'” 2 To the contrary, psalms of lament are indeed expressions of faith in God. After all, they are directed to God, rather than simply complaining to others about God.
Andrew K. Gabriel, Ph.D.
Vice President of Academics | Associate Professor of Theology
1 Stuart and Fee, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (now in its 4th edition).
2 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 52.