Psalm 91 bursts with assurances about the protection of God—replete with words like shelter, refuge, fortress, shield, deliver, rescue, and satisfy. At this time of global pandemic with the novel coronavirus COVID-19, this Psalm speaks God’s power, presence, intentions, and protection against fear. Described as a covering for His people, God’s comfort is a wing of security amidst this world’s uncertainties and suffering.
Will God Protect Us from Pestilence?
Psalm 91 was used by Satan to tempt Jesus in the desert (see Matthew 4:5-7). The Devil said that surely Jesus could place Himself in the way of harm in order to demonstrate the rescuing power of God. But Satan misused God’s Word, removing it from the context of the whole and unity of Scripture. Jesus, honoring Scripture, responded that God is not to be put to the test. Careless behavior is not condoned by God—and neither is misuse of Scripture.
Learning from Jesus, then, we also must handle Scripture well in our times. That God is our refuge, comfort, and shade amidst pandemic does not mean that if we believe in Jesus Christ we have physical immunity to COVID-19—all credible commentators agree.
However, verses in this Psalm do appear to promise present, bodily deliverance from pestilence. The word pestilence means any sudden fatal epidemic or pandemic, and in its Biblical use it generally indicates that these are divine visitations. The word is most frequently used in the prophetic books. Consider, for example, verses 3 and 6: “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence” and “You will not fear . . . the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.” How do we faithfully interpret those statements?
First, we can remember God’s covenants with Israel, in which God promises abundance as the nation is faithful. As listeners of this psalm commit themselves to God, He would give success in their purpose of inhabiting the promised land and being God’s beacon to the nations. As they trusted, no pestilence would keep the Israelite army from defeating its enemies and from becoming the nation God promised.
Consider Exodus 19:4-6a, which contains similar imagery to Psalm 91 of God’s protective wing:
“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
The psalm does not promise, then, that no Israelite would ever become ill. God promised that no pandemic would keep them from being the nation He foretold they would become. And the ones who would become ill and pass from this life are not excluded from the promises of God for Israel that will be fulfilled at the end of this age.
Three other interpretive notes can be considered concerning God’s deliverance from pestilence.
Perhaps this deliverance refers to a wide range of persistent attacks, including spiritual—and not necessarily always referring to illnesses. In this case, pestilence would be “a figure for various evils” literally meaning “plagues of mischiefs,” as stated in the Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible.
The deliverance promised can involve spiritual deliverance and protection for those who trust the Lord in the midst of these outward difficulties. As J. A. Motyer states, “the promise is not security from but security in” (emphasis in original).
The deliverance could also refer to future glory. Tremper Longmann writes, “Christians can pray Psalm 91, knowing that God is with them in the spiritual battle of this life and that, in Christ, God will give them eternal life.”
What Is God’s Deliverance?
To apply this to deliverance amidst COVID-19, we can glean the following principles:
- We know from the wider testimony of Scripture that God’s promised deliverance is spiritual in the present, while being spiritual and bodily in the age to come.
- We know that in God’s common grace in this world and in His Fatherly love for believers, all bodily healing that does happen in this life is from His generous hand.
- We know that God’s plans for this world are secure—His plans for Israel, as well as His plans for the Church and all believers.