No Plague Near Your Tent: Reading Psalm 91 During a Global Pandemic

Today I’m sharing from Core Christianity.

No Plague Near Your Tent: Reading Psalm 91 During a Global Pandemic

By William R. Osborne 

It is not often in human history that words like plague and pestilence become household terminology, but here we are. As strange as these words feel on our tongues, they are not as uncommon in the Bible. For example, Psalm 91 speaks directly to the notion of plague or pestilence three times, boldly claiming, “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence” (v. 3), “You will not fear . . . the pestilence that stalks in darkness” (v. 6), and finally, “No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent” (v. 10). While we as Christians glory in the declarations of the psalm, we can’t help but notice the current “plague” creeping ever closer to our neighborhoods and homes. Does Psalm 91 make promises that are not being fulfilled? How do we read Psalm 91 during a global pandemic?

Images of Comfort

While the original setting that gave rise to this psalm eludes us, the first-person statement in v. 2 reveals that the author speaks these words of hope and comfort as one who has personally experienced refuge and security by trusting in God in the midst of fearful circumstances. Indeed, Psalm 91 opens with a beautiful picture of God’s people dwelling in the shelter and shadow of the Lord. We are thrust into a metaphorical world where God is a refuge, God is a fortress, God’s faithfulness is a shield, and God even has wings that provide security.

The important thing to remember here is that the psalmist is creating figurative relationships between God and the created world that forge a new reality for the fearful. These creative images draw us out of our fear-entrenched perceptions into a new world that redefines our source of protection and peace. Verse 3 plays into this figurative imagery by likening us to a bird that will escape the net of the “fowler,” a term used to describe a bird-catcher in ancient times. In a parallel line, we are told “he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler, and from the deadly pestilence.” Just as the first line of this verse should be understood as figurative language communicating a general picture of deliverance, so should the second.

The mention of pestilence in v. 6 is also imbedded in a poetic structure that leads us away from forcing the language into a straightforward reading. Verses 5 and 6 are in a parallel structure that looks like this:

A – You will not fear the terror of the night,

B – nor the arrow that flies by day

A’ – nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,

B’ – nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

The intentional parallel between night and day in v. 5 is picked up and developed in v. 6 with the ideas of darkness and noonday. Poetically, phrases like “night and day” or “dark and light” are called merisms. A merism is when an author poetically uses opposite terms to figuratively communicate a total or complete concept. Consequently, like the reference in v. 3, the language of v. 6 should not be stripped of its poetic and figurative quality.

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