In times of crisis, God’s people have always turned to the Psalter, the biblical collection of laments and hymns, wisdom and worship. As we are temporarily “online only” as a church (out of appropriate deference to civil authorities but even more out of a desire to love our neighbors well), we have been teaching an online adult education class on the Psalms. The power of their poetry moves our hearts, not just our minds, and we find space to appreciate the holy as their images of God’s care wash over us. Nonetheless, as we read the Psalms during a rapidly escalating pandemic, this niggling thought starts to appear: do they promise too much? Do their words of comfort turn out to be hollow?
Words of Comfort
The psalms give us comfort precisely because of the sweeping nature of their promises. They paint a vision of a God intimately involved in our world and near to defend his people. Psalm 46 begins:
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
Psalm 46:1–3 (ESV)
The psalmist promises that God is not far off, but a present help when things descend into chaos. Though a sinkhole opens up and sucks us under the earth, though a landslide drops whole mountains into the sea, though that sea comes crashing into land – in these terrible natural disasters, the poet says, God is our refuge and our strength.
Psalm 91 develops these images even further. Returning to the common image of God as a fortress, it begins:
1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
Psalm 91:1–2 (ESV)
The image is that of an ancient citadel, a strong, defensible tower. The people of the town would mostly live outside the walls, but close by. They would work their farms and live their lives often in its shadow, always aware of its looming presence. And that presence was their security. It was a place of shelter in natural disasters, a place to run for protection when enemies attacked. Even its mere presence would deter many an attack or raid. Therefore, the psalmist says “my refuge and my fortress” as an epithet for “my God, in whom I trust.”
Psalm 91 adds another image that has comforted the people of God for millennia – the powerful wings of an eagle or hawk. An eagle’s wings are no comfort if you are a squirrel, of course, but they are a powerful protection if you are the eagle’s chick. God is like a mother bird, vigilant to protect its young and powerful to fight off any who would try to scale to its nest. And so the psalmist begins to list the protections God will give, from war and terror, from sickness and even the demonic :
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Psalm 91:3–6 (ESV)
If God protects his people in both night and day, then the psalm indicates he protects his people always.
Common to both psalms, of course, is the idea that trouble does come. Neither promises a life without difficulty, a straight-line sail into eternity. There would be no need for psalms of comfort if there were no troubles, no fears, no diseases, wars, and calamities. We can dispense with the idea that life will be easy for the people of God. The psalmists do, however, say that God will protect his people during those troubles and calamities, and they make their case in very strong terms:
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
Psalm 91:7–13 (ESV)
Whether in battle (v.7-8), in domestic life (v.9-10), or on a journey (v.11-13), God will protect. He will be like parents holding a one-year old child’s arms as the child begins to walk. Every stumble, every trip will be met with a pull upward on the arms, and he or she will simply float over the potential tumble. The point is unmistakable, that God is intimately involved in the care of his people.
The psalmists know, of course, that being protected and feeling protected are two separate things. God’s protection may be there, yet it may feel as if he is absent. Considering the evil of our world, Psalm 10 begins, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” The psalm goes on to meditate on all the ways the wicked seem to flourish while the righteous seem to be ignored:
2 In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor;
let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised.
3 For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.
4 In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God.”
5 His ways prosper at all times;
your judgments are on high, out of his sight;
as for all his foes, he puffs at them.
6 He says in his heart, “I shall not be moved;
throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity.”
7 His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.
8 He sits in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places he murders the innocent.
His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9 he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket;
he lurks that he may seize the poor;
he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.
10 The helpless are crushed, sink down,
and fall by his might.
11 He says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
Psalm 10:2–11 (ESV)
Nonetheless, at the end of the day, the psalmist returns to the belief that God does see this world and will in the end act for those who cannot save themselves.
14 But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,
that you may take it into your hands;
to you the helpless commits himself;
you have been the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer;
call his wickedness to account till you find none.
16 The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from his land.
17 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
Psalm 10:14–18 (ESV)
So, at the end of the day, to return to Psalm 46, we can take comfort that we are in the hands of one who is stronger than we are. Verse 10a: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Like a little baby in his or her parents’ arms, we can be still, knowing that the one who holds all creation in his hands is the one who holds us.
But Mom Taught Me Not to Exaggerate!
The sheer comprehensiveness of the psalmists’ images, though, creates trouble of its own. How can such sweeping statements be true? Do the psalms not overpromise? And isn’t that the worst possible type of comfort – false or trite statements that we know cannot hold true? Why would we promise others, or ourselves, something we know may not come to pass? Simply put, Christian solidiers know that other Christian soldiers do fall in battle. Christians do and will get COVID-19. I teach seminary in New York City, and at least one of my students already has. And some Christians will die from COVID-19. Fortunately, as of writing this, none of my students or friends have, but it is distinctly possible. Churches have already lost pastors to this disease; and the grief of the near future will be deep, agonizing, and real.
More broadly, even once this pandemic has someday passed – whenever that will come – we know that Christians do get sick; their homes are burgled; they journey and have auto accidents or plane crashes. Following God does not obviate the laws of physics, nor do microbes respect religious boundaries. One only need live in the real world – or read the book of Job – to realize that those who follow God also suffer. What are we to make of all these promises in the psalms, then? Do they not overpromise? Do they not exaggerate? As J. Clinton McCann states regarding Psalm 91, “The sheer eloquence and comprehensiveness of the psalmist’s affirmation of faith make Psalm 91 powerful. These same attributes, however, can also be a source of misunderstanding.”  It feels that the psalm is either untrue or overpromising, does it not?
Jesus and Psalm 91
The issue is not with the psalms; it is with how we read them. Fortunately, Jesus shows us how we should accurately interpret these (and other) psalms. In Matthew 4 and Luke 4, the devil tempts Jesus with Psalm 91. How can the words of Scripture be a temptation? It’s not that Psalm 91 itself is a temptation; it must be that the temptation is to misuse Psalm 91. Jesus’ answer to the devil shows precisely that:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him 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, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:5–7, ESV)
The devil tempts Jesus to misuse Scripture, specifically to make Psalm 91 into a mechanistic promise, that God is a refuge, so we can presume upon his protection. He tempts Jesus to misuse Psalm 91, making it all about the “here and now” and making it a magic charm that we can apply to any specific situation. Jesus resists that interpretation of the psalm and instead offers a basic posture of hope and trust in God, one that trusts God even when it is terrible and difficult to do so.
Luke 10 throws greater light on this dynamic. Psalm 91 had said (v.13), “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” Now Jesus says in Luke 10:19, in a phrase that has given rise to an occasional movement in Appalachian Christianity, “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” Believers have a continual tendency to read the bible in a very atomistic way, plucking single verses out of chapters and then applying those verses broadly, without considering the intent of the original writer. A quick perusal of Luke 10 corrects the reading of snake handling. Verse 1 of the chapter indicates Jesus’ statement is in the context of his sending out 72 disciples to minister ahead of him. Then in verse 17, they return and say, “Lord, even the demons submit to us!” and Jesus replies, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Following that, Jesus gives verse 19 with its echo of Psalm 91. The context, then, makes clear the identity of the “serpents and scorpions” upon which a disciple may tread; it is the demonic powers, the devil and his minions, a clear echo back to Genesis 3 where the devil took the form of a serpent to tempt mankind.
God’s protection of us in Jesus extends beyond the physical world to caring to preserve us from all the forces of evil that would destroy us – not for just this life, but for eternity. A correct reading of the psalmists is not that we can force God into protecting us if we do something foolish. It is not that we can force God’s hand. Jesus did not respond to the devil with, “Watch this!” Jesus reminds us that the psalm is enunciating a general truth, not a mechanically specific promise. But has such an interpretation not just gutted the psalm? After all, the psalm emphasizes precisely that God is intimately involved in protecting his people, not just distantly caring in some abstract sense. Yet not a mechanical sense that allows no exception. How do we recognize both of those facts at the same time? Bruggeman is helpful here:
[These psalms] are generalized from the specific situation of deliverance and now can begin to speak generically of a relationship with Yahweh that is utterly trustworthy in the face of every threat. Presumably that deep conviction has grown out of a specific experience, else how would one know to trust? These psalms are some of the best known and best loved, for they offer a faith and a life that has come to a joyous trusting resolution. The speaker of these poems cannot imagine a situation that would cause doubt or trouble enough to jeopardize the trust. 
In this we must remember that poets talk in word pictures, with images meant to evoke, not just to instruct. And the general truth is that God does care for his people in specific and immediate ways, not just a vaguely general sense. Nonetheless, when the devil tempts Jesus to misuse Psalm 91, Jesus responds that we do not turn this into an equation to allow us to put God on the spot in a specific instance.
Psalm 91 and Us
In this we as servants are not above Jesus our Master. The devil quickly tempts us in the same ways when we read the Psalms, to read them wrongly, to apply them falsely, to take a false belief out of true scriptures. As has often been noted, for centuries both Jews and Christians have copied verses of this psalm and worn them in amulets; men and women have tried to take the comfort of the psalm and make it almost magical, thinking that will help them to ward off danger. Even if we do not treat the physical words of the psalm as magic, we are tempted to make these words a false comfort, a promise that God will take care of us even if we take foolish actions. And in this, we must remember that false belief has consequences. In the 16th century, Thomas Müntzer promised the rebelling peasants that God would be with them to deliver them in war. The unfortunate result for the peasants of the resulting battle was that the nobility’s cavalry and knights massacred the well-meaning, but misled, peasants. Psalm 91 would have been little comfort in the midst of the battle. Instead, we resist the temptation to presume upon the words of this psalm to try to manipulate God and expect he’ll protect us no matter what foolish (or unfoolish) thing we do.
How do we make sense of this? If we limit Psalm 91 mechanistically to this life, in the end, it lies; however, if this life is just a beginning, then it has truth. What the psalm promises is that the dangers will be temporary, but God’s deliverance will be forever. If our frame of reference is limited to what occurs in this life, we will eventually be let down, but if our frame of reference is longer than this life, then we will see its truth. In that we recognize the foremost thing in our protection, protection from the devil’s schemes that would destroy us forever.
Nor are we just spiritualizing away Psalm 91 when we do that. We must remember that the ancients were smart, that people have always been smart. They were not simply superstitious premoderns. They were premodern, but they knew how to struggle with the realities of life. They knew how to read a text, look at the real world, and compare the two. The psalmists lived in the real world too; so for argument’s sake, assume people who could create poetry of this richness also knew how to think basic thoughts that we moderns can have in fifteen seconds. Ancient Jews tripped on their journeys as well. Ancient Jews were bitten by snakes and killed by lions. They suffered and died in battle just as we do. They caught diseases – some ghastly – and died from them. The author of Psalm 91 doubtlessly knew those facts.
So what, then, was the psalmist trying to say? An eternal perspective means that we know God is working to protect us even when we do trip and stumble, that he is still working to protect us even if we die from disease. That he is answering our prayers for our protection in the life eternal. Just like Jesus, Satan tempts us to make the promises of the Psalms mechanical, to take the truth that God cares for us in detail and to presume upon that care, to take foolish actions and to assume that he will have to protect us. Christ warns us against over-interpreting the Psalms this way, against thinking we can presume upon his trust. So in this time of coronavirus, as in any time, don’t be stupid – don’t lick doorknobs. Don’t assume we can flout a microbe and not hurt people. Be wise. Recognize God’s promise for what it is not, but also for what it is. He will be with us in our times of trouble; he will ultimately deliver us, whether in this life or the next; and he will be with us even in the troubles we have right now.
 It could be read more naturally, but “the terror of the night” may well have been considered a reference to demonic spirits in the original imagery.
 J. Clinton McCann, Jr. Psalms (New Interpreter’s Bible, v.4: Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996), 1048.
 Walter Brueggemann. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 152.