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The Shadow the Almighty: Pestilence and Protection in Psalm 91

March 22, 2020 Speaker: Kristopher Schaal Series: Psalms

Topic: Expository Passage: Psalm 91

The Shadow the Almighty: Pestilence and Protection in Psalm 91

Good morning! Please turn in your Bibles to Psalm 91.

I get the unique opportunity of being the first pastor at Life Point to preach to an all virtual crowd! So thank you for welcoming me into your living room this morning! This is going to be weird because I won’t have the benefit of your feedback, but I’ll do my best and trust that you’ll be patient.

My preaching today has been on the calendar for about a month and a half. Coronavirus has not. I was originally planning to preach a different text, but given the circumstances, I decided, “I have got to preach Psalm 91.” So let’s go ahead and read that text together (Psalm 91).

[Prayer]

I’ll warn you right now, this is not going to be your typical verse-by-verse exposition of Psalm 91. We’re going to talk about pestilence in the Old Testament, we’re going to talk about what to do with the overarching promises in Psalm 91, there will be some church history sprinkled in there, and then we’ll talk about some practical lessons, but it will all be centered around Psalm 91 and the current events. So I hope you can follow along. If not, I’m sorry. It made sense to me. J

I don’t know if you realize this or not, but for thousands of years, Psalm 91 has been near and dear to the hearts of people who were going through trials like the one we find ourselves in today. It was popular during World War I, Vietnam, and the War in Iraq. It has been very popular in Africa, where dangers are numerous. Our President quoted from Psalm 91 when he declared a national day of prayer last Sunday. Martin Luther loved Psalm 91, and so did Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Spurgeon said of the psalm, “In the whole collection there is not a more cheering Psalm…. A German physician was wont to speak of it as the best preservative in times of cholera, and in truth it is a heavenly medicine against plague and pest. He who can live in its spirit will be fearless, even if once again London should become a lazar-house, and the grave be gorged with carcases.”[1]

What Spurgeon was referring to was a cholera outbreak in London while he was a pastor there that killed over 1 million people worldwide. One author explained in a blog article I read last week, “A lazar house or lazaretto is a quarantine place, originally for lepers. Now that’s a timely image.”[2] So it is.

You see, we are not the first Christians ever to face these kinds of things. And Psalm 91 has been a comfort to many of those believers down through the millennia.

Psalm 91 is particularly relevant to our situation because of its many references to “pestilence,” or “plague.” Look at v. 3 (v. 3). Skip down to v. 5 (vv. 5-7). What shall not come near you? Well, among other things, the plague. Skip down to v. 10 (v. 10). So if you were counting, that’s five references to pestilence or plague in this psalm! And of course, we all care very much about what God says about protection from pestilence at this time.

However, before we jump into that, I think it will help us to take a step back and look at what the entire Old Testament says about pestilence so we can understand Psalm 91 in light of that context. So buckle your seatbelts; we are going to do a quick Old Testament theology of “pestilence.”

An Old Testament Theology of Pestilence

  1. What are they? Deadly sicknesses.

In the Old Testament, pestilence always results in death–not that the mortality rate is 100%, but that these are killer diseases. The common cold is not a “pestilence.” I hope you understand.

  1. Who controls them? God (although of course they are also a result of sin and the curse)

There is no such thing in Scripture as a plague that is just an accident. You won’t find that in the Bible!

  1. Why does God send them? They are tools of His judgment.

In the Old Testament, sometimes God sends plagues upon Israel, and sometimes He sends them on other nations, but they are always a tool of His judgment. Of course, in the New Testament, plagues show up again as a common theme in the book of Revelation.

“Sword, famine, and pestilence” is a common phrase in the Old Testament referring to three horrific ways that God often judges the nations. (I could show you twenty plus references, many of them coming from Jeremiah and Ezekiel.) Again, this phrase is echoed in the book of Revelation.

But we are also reminded in the Old Testament prophets that God’s judgments are always just; He does nothing without a cause.

  1. How should God’s people respond? Prayer

Now this an interesting topic that we don’t have time to get into much this morning, but believers should respond to pestilence with repentance, intercession, and casting of burdens. Let’s turn to just one passage (2 Chron 6:28-31).

Now, we obviously can’t apply this passage directly to our situation, per-say. The church is not Israel, and the United States definitely isn’t Israel! However, I still believe that passages like this tell us to be on our knees at this time! And they also tell us what we should pray for! –not only for the plague to cease (although that is certainly an appropriate prayer), but that God would forgive our sins and send revival!

One last thought before we move on: although we ought to respond to pestilence with prayer, the prophets also teach us that there comes a point in which fasting and prayer are no longer effective in stopping what has begun because God has determined that now is the time He will judge. That is a sobering thought.

So against that background, Psalm 91 promises protection from (among other things) pestilence.

But that brings up another very important question: how are we to understand the promises of Psalm 91? I mean, you read the psalm; it seems to be saying that Christians will never get sick (or at least, never die of sickness) and that Christians will never die in war! Is that true? Well then what do we do with this psalm? More pointedly, if these promises are not true, what good is this psalm to us? These are questions that must be answered if this psalm will be any help.

How to Interpret the Promises of Psalm 91

Let me give you three options or examples.

  1. Brian Tamaki – Tamaki is a prosperity preacher in New Zealand who, in talking about COVID-19, said this to his church on March 1. He said, “The prince of the power of the air, Satan, has control of atmospheres, unless you’re a blood-bought born-again, Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, Holy Ghost-filled, tithe-paying believer. You are the only one that can walk through atmospheres and has a, literally a protection — the Psalm 91 protection policy around you….”[3]

So what is he saying there? He’s saying that if you meet the following qualifications (which, I don’t know where he gets “tithe-paying” on that list, but I guess it works for him), Psalm 91 promises that you will not die from COVID-19. Plain and simple.

By the way, Tamaki’s mega church, “Destiny Church” has ignored public health warnings and continued to meet during this time, although it looks like they may be going to a drive-in service this Sunday. But Tamaki continues to tout his “Psalm 91 Protection Plan” in sermons and tweets and says that his church is going to pray Psalm 91 over New Zealand.

So that is example #1. Now let’s go to a second example and a name you’ll have more respect for.

  1. H. Spurgeon – Spurgeon was one of the greatest preachers of all time and a very good theologian. But listen to what he said about Psalm 91. “[T]here is also a pestilence of disease, and even from that calamity our faith shall win immunity if it be of that high order which abides in God, walks on in calm serenity, and ventures all things for duty’s sake…. [Faith] will not in all cases ward off disease and death, but where the man is such as the first verse describes, it will assuredly render him immortal where others die; if all the saints are not so sheltered it is because they have not all such a close abiding with God, and consequently not such confidence in the promise. Such special faith is not given to all, for there are diversities in the measure of faith…. Too many among us are weak in faith, and in fact place more reliance in a phial or a globule than in the Lord and giver of life, and if we die of pestilence as others die it is because we acted like others, and did not in patience possess our souls. The great mercy is that in such a case our deaths are blessed, and it is well with us, for we are for ever with the Lord. Pestilence to the saints shall not be noisome but the messenger of heaven.”[4]

That is from Spurgeon’s commentary on the Psalms. He said that in writing!

Now, Spurgeon does come around there at the end and say for the Christian, our main hope is eternal life; but he also says very clearly that if you trust in God enough, you will not die of pestilence!

What is the problem with that? You simply cannot consistently hold what seems to be Spurgeon’s position and still be in keeping with the rest of the Bible! Take, for instance, v. 16! What does it promise? Long life! Can you think of a man who obeyed God perfectly and yet still died young? Of course you can! That was Jesus! And we as Christians are told that we will follow in His steps!

Furthermore, it isn’t just New Testament saints who die through no fault of their own! Hebrews 11 says there were many Old Testament saints who were killed despite their great faith! Psalm 44:22 says, “yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” That statement occurs in the same hymn book along with Psalm 91! And of course, the whole book of Job is about an exemplary believer who still suffers greatly.

So as much as I appreciate Spurgeon’s effort not to explain away this psalm, he was wrong. So what is a better way? Well, here is option #3.

  1. Elisabeth Elliot – Many of you know the story of Elisabeth Elliot’s husband Jim. They were missionaries who were trying to reach the Auca Indians in Ecuador. Jim and four of his friends were tragically speared to death by the natives.

Later, Elisabeth wrote a book about the life and work of her husband, and you know what she called it? Shadow of the Almighty. That title was ripped straight from Psalm 91:1! Now how does that make any sense? Jim Elliot died. He wasn’t killed by an arrow, but he was killed by a spear. He died at twenty-eight years old. What argument was Elisabeth Elliot making?

She was arguing that her husband was killed “in the shadow of the Almighty.” God never left her husband. His angels were there when Jim died. And yet, he died. In other words, Psalm 91 does not promise 100% protection for even God’s choicest of servants. Obviously, she was right.

So then how do we interpret the promises of Psalm 91? We believe them, but understand that they were never intended as 100% guarantees. Some people might prefer to refer to them as principles, though I think that either word is appropriate.

We should especially be careful not to interpret these promises (or principles) as 100% guarantees today, because the Church is not Israel! In general, New Testament believers are promised persecution for following Jesus, whereas Old Testament saints were promised physical blessings for obeying the law.

As, well, I think it’s helpful to remember that Psalm 91 includes a lot of figurative language. It’s a poem! So, for instance, when v. 13 says, “You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra,” that doesn’t mean that we are supposed to go out there and stomp on rattlesnakes! There is an element of metaphor there, with the lion and snake standing for Satan and his forces, over which believers will one day triumph (although that verse is probably also talking about protection from actual wild animals).

The challenge is that in giving these qualifications, I don’t want to empty Psalm 91 of its significance by making it essentially mean nothing! Christians are commanded to sing the psalms, so these promises must have on-going significance! God does protect those who trust Him in a way that He does not protect other people, even if that doesn’t mean that you will never get coronavirus, which it doesn’t.

So having laid that foundation, let’s look at the two major lessons from Psalm 91.

Two Lessons from Psalm 91

  1. Walk Close with the Lord.

Perhaps more than anything, the coronavirus pandemic should motivate all of us to examine ourselves. In times of health and prosperity, we tend to get lukewarm spiritually. This crisis should wake us all up!

Where do you stand with the Lord? First, do you know Him as Savior? Have you come face-to-face with your sin and given your life to Christ? Have you come to grips with the fact that this life is not all that there is and that you cannot earn heaven by doing good works? Do you understand who Jesus is and why He had to die? Do you know where you will go if you die? If not, then please, find the answers to these questions before it’s too late!

But maybe you already know the Lord as your Savior. Are you walking close with Him? The promises of Psalm 91 are for the believer “who dwells in the secret place of the Most High”; do you dwell there?

You say, “Pastor Kris, I don’t know what that means!” Well, let me ask you this: what would it mean if I asked you, “Are you close to your siblings–your physical brothers and sisters?” (If you don’t have any brothers or sisters, insert the name of another family member.) You say, “Are we close? Not really. They live in another state!” I’m not talking about geography; I’m talking about relationship! What I mean is, “Do you talk to them often? Do you enjoy being together? Do you love each other? Do you trust them?” You know, “Are you close?” You say, “Okay, I guess that makes sense.” That’s the same thing I’m asking when I ask if you’re close with the Lord.

There are three aspects of being close to the Lord in this psalm. First, you have to know Him. Look down at v. 14 (v. 14). What does it mean to know God’s name? It is so much more than being able to pronounce, “God” or even “Yahweh,” as the Old Testament Hebrews would say. In Bible times, names were very significant. They often told you something about a person’s character. So to know a person’s name is to know his character, to know what makes him tick, to understand his emotions, to gaze into his soul. Did you know that God invites you to know Him like that? What a thrilling thought! Dating couples find it thrilling to get to know and be known by one another. You have been called to know and be known by God!

How are you going to go about that? Well, God wrote a book. You’re probably holding it in your hands right now. If you want to know God, you need to read what He Himself decided was important for you to know about Him! You probably got to know your siblings by observing what they did in various situations and by listening to them talk. So read in the Bible about what God did in various situations and listen to Him talk! You will get a window into His heart.

In vv. 1-2 alone, God is called “the Most High,” “the Almighty,” “my refuge,” “my fortress,” and “my God.” Meditate deeply on these names. You will be blessed.

But communication with God isn’t a one-way street, is it? It’s not like listening to a lecture; it’s more like a conversation! We respond to God through prayer. And as you do so and complete that circle, you take a step forward toward knowing Him better.

If God were to have a talk with you about your relationship with Him today, what would you say? “I’m sorry Lord, I’ve just been really busy lately! There’s been a lot of news to catch up on!” What a lame excuse! What could possibly be more important than knowing and being known by the God of the universe?

If you’re anything like me, then this pandemic has woken you up to spending more time with family and keeping up better with friends. I’ve probably made as many calls, Facetime calls, and sent as many text messages to friends and family in past two weeks as I had in the last several months! Anyone else in that boat? If human relationships are important (and they are), how much more your relationship with God?

The second aspect of being close to God in this psalm is loving Him (v. 14). This is God speaking here. And God says that He will deliver the man in question “because he has set his love upon Me.”

I am convinced that one of the most important outcomes of this pandemic may be that it breaks Christians free from some of our idols, the most important of those being money.

There are two primary concerns in this situation, aren’t there? There are the health concerns, but then there are also the financial concerns! Some of you have lost a lot of money in the stock market. Some of you are without a job! Many of us are anxious about the financial uncertainties. But here is the question: which do you love–God or money? Jesus said that we couldn’t love both! “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also!”

If God uses this pandemic to burn up a bunch of material wealth, we will probably be better for it.

The third aspect of walking close to God in this Psalm is trusting Him (v. 2). Spurgeon points out in that verse that there is something significant about giving voice to your faith. He says, “Those who believe should also speak—'I will say,’ for such bold avowals honour God and lead others to seek the same confidence.”[5] But Spurgeon goes on to say that if you are going to claim that God is your refuge, you must also put feet to your words. “But what we say we must prove by our actions, we must fly to the Lord for shelter, and not to an arm of flesh. The bird flies away to the thicket, and the fox hastens to its hole, every creature uses its refuge in the hour of danger, and even so in all peril or fear of peril let us flee unto Jehovah, the Eternal Protector of his own.”[6]

That’s very interesting, isn’t it? If you surprise a rabbit, it will instinctively run to its hole. So where do you run when you’re scared? To friends? To distractions? To social media? To alcohol or cigarettes? To over-eating? To work? To shopping? To good hygiene? To hand sanitizer? Or to the Lord? Do you truly trust in Him?

I truly pray that researchers are able to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 very soon. But my hope is not in the medical community; my hope is in the Lord! I pray that President Trump and the various state governors respond wisely to this threat. But my hope is not in my country; my hope is in the Lord!

In this time of so much uncertainty, you must walk close with the Lord. If you do, you can also rest confidently in His protection.

  1. Rest Confidently in God’s Protection.

What does God promise to those who walk closely with Him? He promises them His presence, His peace, and finally, His protection.

First, God promises them His presence (v. 1). What is the significance of God’s shadow? Well, it’s if God’s shadow is there, God Himself is also there! The picture in v. 1 is of a mother bird, like an eagle, hovering over her chicks.

Verse 15 says, “He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with Him in trouble….” I was reading an update earlier this week from a friend of mine who’s a missionary in Spain. If you’ve kept up at all with the news, you know what is going on in Spain right now. My friend said that unbelievers in Spain are very scared, as you can imagine. But he said that in churches, by way of contrast, he is seeing “zero panic.” Why is that? It is because one of the most comforting things in the world is to know, “God is with me.” “I don’t have to face this alone–God is with me!”

Christians throughout the centuries have faced incredible trials with tremendous peace and courage because they knew, “God is with me.”

The first of God’s promises in this psalm is His presence. Next, He promises His peace (vv. 5-6). These are two of my favorite verses in the whole psalm! Together, they represent any unexpected, deadly, or fearful danger that a person might face at any time–whether by day or by night! Verse 5 is all about enemy attacks during war–whether sneak attacks at night or arrows that fly in broad daylight. Verse 6 is about all about pestilence–deadly, contagious diseases that kill at all hours of the day.

Some of you have been to war and can identify with v. 5. Others of you can identify with v. 6, given the current situation. But all of us know what it is to be afraid of something you cannot see! It goes back to when you were a little child, crying under the covers because you were scared of the dark.

But the promise of this psalm is that the person who dwells in the secret place of the Most High will not be afraid of these things! What a blessing!

Spurgeon said in his commentary, “Not to be afraid is in itself an unspeakable blessing, since for every suffering which we endure from real injury we are tormented by a thousand griefs which arise from fear only.” How true is that? If you long to be free from your fear, stay very close to the Lord.

Finally, in this psalm, God promises His protection. Verses 3-16 are loaded with bunches of very explicit promises! They come to a climax in vv. 7-12 (vv. 7-12). If you walk very close with the Lord, God promises you His protection!

Now, we’ve already talked about the fact that these promises are not 100% guarantees; I hope you understand that very clearly! I’m not at all preaching the Prosperity Gospel this morning, but I am preaching God’s Word! And the Bible says, “If you trust in God, He will protect you!”

Let me read vv. 9-10 again, and just listen to what he says (vv. 9-10)! Listen to vv. 11-12 (vv. 11-12).

My little sister is a nurse in a hospital in Phoenix. She works on the floor where they’re treating the coronavirus patients. On Thursday, her hospital tested twenty-six people for the disease. My sister has been married for about two years and has a five-month-old little baby. I picture my sister Rosemary working there on that floor with two angels hovering over her head, aware of every little virus that is floating around that place!

The next time you go to the grocery store, Christian, angels will be travelling with you. In fact, they are with you as I speak! They are active ministers of God’s loving care in your life!

Does this mean that you can be careless? No! Jesus proved that when Satan tempted Him with this very passage and Christ responded, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” In other words, yes God will protect you, but don’t do stupid stuff!

Martin Luther lived through an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in his hometown of Wittenberg. He said this about trusting God but being careful: “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.

So there you have it from Martin Luther: wash your hands! Observe the quarantine! Be careful! But at the same time, know that God will protect you.

But what if He doesn’t protect you? Well, then you can rest confident in the following truths. 1) God very purposefully allowed it. It was not an accident. He told His angels to let that happen. 2) This didn’t happen because you did something wrong. God is not mad at you. You are not experiencing “the reward of the wicked” mentioned in v. 8. 3) This is a great opportunity for you to grow and glorify God. 4) Even if you were to die (which we all will at some point), you will be safe in heaven, and that is the ultimate safety!

The commentators that I read this week agree that in v. 16, there is at least a hint of final salvation (v. 16). The salvation that God offers includes not only protection here on earth, but much more importantly, protection from His wrath in heaven for all of eternity! If you are God’s child, then in the ultimate sense, nothing can hurt you! And that is a promise in which all of us can take tremendous comfort.

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Psalms 88-110, vol. 4 (London; Edinburgh; New York: Marshall Brothers, n.d.), 88.

[2] Philip Jenkins, “The Pestilence that Walks in Darkness,” Patheos.com. Accessed March 16, 2020. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2020/03/the-pestilence-that-walks-in-darkness/.

[3] Brian Tamaki, “Tithe-paying Christians are protected from coronavirus by Psalm 91, pastor Brian Tamaki claims,” The Christian Post.com. Accessed March 3, 2020. https://www.christianpost.com/news/tithe-paying-christians-are-protected-from-coronavirus-by-psalm-91-pastor-brian-tamaki-claims.html.

[4] C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Psalms 88-110, vol. 4 (London; Edinburgh; New York: Marshall Brothers, n.d.), 90.

[5] Ibid, 89.

[6] Ibid, 89.

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