“A thousand may fall at your side,
And ten thousand at your right hand;
But it shall not come near you…
No evil shall befall you,
Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling” (Psalm 91:7 & 10)
As in the past, when pandemics threatened the lives of thousands, believers sought comfort in the words of this beautiful Psalm: “No evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling”. And when war raged and unbearable suffering surrounded believers, then the words that “a thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you” gave believers peace of mind, rest for the soul.
Beautifully comforting, yes; but is there ever a more difficult text than this? It just doesn’t seem to fit reality. When the bubonic plague (black death) wiped out a third of the population in Europe in just a few years during the Middle Ages, and boomeranged back to strike again and again, it did not bypass the believers. Even in the days of Calvin it struck preachers and members of the Genevan church. Subsequently cholera, typhus, smallpox, the Spanish flu and other pandemics have killed millions, not to mention all those killed by wars—and sincere, faithful Christians were not spared either. So now, when confronted with the worldwide Coronavirus, what are we to make of this Bible text? Is it true for us believers that no death through war or plague can befall us?
Taking a text in isolation
Well, there are preachers, such as those of some megachurches, who proclaim that if only you have sufficient faith you will remain alive and well, and they point to this text to “prove” it. Of course, it’s not particularly comforting for those believers who become sick; the cold implication is that they must harbour a specific sin or lack of faith. A bit like the disciples of Jesus who asked: “Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” We know Jesus’ answer.
It’s not just the megachurches with their prosperity gospel who proclaim this. Last week’s news reported that Victory Life Centre (the church of which Margaret Court is pastor) also believes its faith will protect its congregation.[I] According to its website the corona virus “will not come near our dwelling or our church family”.[ii] Note the allusion here to the words of Psalm 91:10.
Now, we have learned to be very wary of reading a text in isolation. A text out of context and without comparing it with Scripture as a whole so easily leads to heresy. Christians, misled into carelessness by a text taken out of context, can be accused of helping spread a disease and easily give the world an excuse to mock Christianity.
Holwerda on Psalm 91
Yet what are we, reformed believers, to do with this text of Psalm 91? It seems so applicable in times of pandemics and war, and yet believers struggled with it when they saw loved fellow believers taken by war or pandemics—so much so that during the last year of World War 2, when starvation, disease, bitter cold and war itself claimed many lives, Prof. Benne Holwerda felt the need to explain this Psalm in a sermon.[iii]
This beautiful Psalm, said Holwerda, has comforted believers through the centuries, and rightly so. For it speaks about the Lord who cares for each of His children as the object of His love. The psalmist experiences the LORD as his refuge, his fortress, the God in whom he trusts. Amidst dangers and death on all sides—lurking enemies trying to trap, harm and kill him; thousands killed around him in war; fearful plagues and physical weakness—he takes refuge in the LORD. He knows God sees each individual in their needs and knows himself to be completely safe in God’s fatherly care.
And now, says Holwerda, you shouldn’t say that these words of the psalmist are a bit exaggerated, that he’s using poetic license, that in reality things are different. For then you would turn the truth into a lie and faith into a narcotic to calm us in the face of harsh reality. No, the psalmist truly means what he says when he shows that in times of war and plague the unrighteous will die and the righteous will be spared.
For we’re dealing here with the kernel of the gospel, the truth about the mother-promise—with its separation between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent—and that has tremendous significance. A bit further on he says, “The young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot”. Isn’t that the motif of the mother-promise: you will crush the head of the serpent? For in this Psalm we read of the righteous remaining standing when thousands of godless are destroyed—and that’s also the style of the first gospel message: God makes separation between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. And because that’s true it will become evident in real life. When a pandemic breaks out, or war rages, it must become evident that there’s a difference between the righteous and the godless. For God has set enmity between the woman and the serpent, between the righteous and the godless. God’s child will not be poisoned by the plague, even if everyone else is struck down.
And now, adds Holwerda, this text becomes difficult for us. We’d love it if this could still apply literally to us as it did in the time of the psalmist. We’d love it if the bombs that fall and the grenades that are hurled don’t touch us, and that no deadly virus would find its way into our homes. But we are affected by them; we see how they strike both unbeliever and believer. Is God’s Word then no longer true?
THE MORNING OF GOD’S DAY
To understand this, says Holwerda, you must remember that Psalm 91 is in the Old Testament. That doesn’t mean it’s insignificant, but when you compare the Old and New Testament you notice a big difference when they speak about death and dying. In the New Testament the reality of the resurrection stands central but in the Old Testament it remains in the background. To be sure, faith in the resurrection is seen in the Old Testament too but it’s sporadic; it appears in the later books and, even then, it is veiled.
That’s because the Old Testament child of God has a smaller horizon—he sees life in terms of one’s existence between the cradle and the grave. What he fears is an early, an unnatural or violent death. He’s not concerned about death as such; he just wants to become old and full of years and then be gathered to his fathers in peace. He’s not focussed on the future resurrection but on a long life. Old Testament revelation caters for man’s focus on this earthly life. Think of the 5th commandment: honour your father and mother so that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. That’s not a promise of eternal life but of a long life. It’s a promise fulfilled on this side of the grave.
And it’s in that world, declares Holwerda, that the psalmist lives. The promise he gives is that God will satisfy His children with a long life. So here again we get the same: not eternal life but a ripe age. Their vision tends to stretch no further than the grave. And therefore God makes separation on this side: on the battlefield His Old Testament children will remain standing when the others fall; in the days of a plague it will not affect them. Since their field of vision tends to be limited to this life, God comforts by making separation here.
THE MIDDAY OF GOD’S DAY
But, says Holwerda, the time on God’s clock moves on. Through His prophets He pushes more of the curtain aside and people look beyond the grave. They no longer fear an untimely and violent death as judgement, but death itself. It no longer satisfies them that they will die at a ripe old age; instead, they become concerned about dying. The comfort of Psalm 91 is no longer enough: even if the plague were to bypass their dwelling, or they returned safely from war, death will sooner or later claim them too. God was teaching them to look for another solution than the one that comforted their fathers. The fathers rejoiced at the fact that the plague bypassed them and war did not destroy them, that thereby God showed separation between them and the unbelievers who were struck down. They knew themselves safe in God’s care. But whilst this comforted the fathers, it did not comfort their descendants. For God revealed more; He spoke through his later prophets of resurrection from the dead. That means: the radical fruit of separation is not seen here in this life but comes later. God will give us life through death; He takes us up into eternal glory. His people began to look beyond the grave, beyond their present little lives. And their hearts rejoiced: the dead rise!
However, that joy, adds Holwerda, was tempered by sorrows. To be sure: it was rich to be able to see beyond the grave, to have the wonderful expectations of life after this life. But it also meant that the separation was pushed back to the hereafter. The plague no longer spared them; nor did the battlefield. Psalm 91 could no longer be sung unqualified, for their horizon had broadened. And they had difficulty processing this. You should read this at the end of the Old Testament. The Preacher laments: all share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, those who serve God and those who don’t. And just how difficult this was for them is shown by Malachi. In his days the people saw that the same end awaited them all and it brought them to doubt: what was then the sense in serving God? You see how the earlier separation, that of Psalm 91, was not enough for them. But the definite separation on the other side of the grave was still hidden from them. As their horizon grew wider their faith was challenged more. That’s why there is then that yearning for the Christ, who makes the resurrection a reality and fulfils the mother promise. And that happens at Easter: Jesus Christ rises from the dead, and many who had fallen asleep rise from the graves. It looks as though the great moment has arrived: the crushing of the serpent’s head.
THE EVENING OF GOD’S DAY
First it was: the ungodly succumb to the plague and die in war, but the righteous don’t. That was, as it were, the morning of God’s day. Then it becomes: that which happens to the godless also happens to the righteous: both die from the plague and in war. That was the midday of God’s day. And yet, says Holwerda, we see that God postpones the fulfilment of the mother promise yet again. For the future is further unveiled. He reveals a new mystery: He shows me that death is the last enemy which He will destroy. First, He must ripen the world for the end. The unjust will become more unjust; the filthy, remain filthy; the righteous remain righteous; and the holy, are holy still (Rev. 22:11). He drives the antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent to its climax. The evening approaches, and God’s children face widespread murder so that their dead bodies are not even considered worthy of burial, for their bodies lie unburied on the streets of the great city and the godless live.
Note the development. In the past the godless die a violent and untimely death while the righteous are gathered to their fathers at a ripe old age (Psalm 91). But later it will become: the righteous die a violent death before their time and the godless become old. Once it was: while a thousand may fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, it shall not come near you; later it will become: at your side a thousand will remain standing while you alone shall fall. That is the picture Revelation paints of God’s children at the end.
The mother promise appears to be further than ever from being fulfilled. And yet, says Holwerda, God will fulfil it. He presses the antithesis to its climax. He drives the world to the judgement and will repay the wicked. For the righteous will go in to enjoy eternal life and the others to eternal pain.
Holwerda adds: I can’t comfort you with the assurance that you’ll survive war or plague because you are Christ’s. Is that bad? Oh no. God doesn’t comfort us by saying that we’ll survive plagues and war and be gathered to our fathers in a good old age. That was so in the days of the psalmist (Psalm 91). People’s perspective did not extend beyond the borders of this earthly life. But later, and particularly in the New Testament, that horizon was extended through further revelation. Jesus says to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25). And Paul says: If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” And in Him we all who belong to Him will be made alive.
“Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15).
Meanwhile we look forward to that day and live in the full assurance that we belong forever to Him who purchased us with His precious blood. Coronavirus, war or other calamity cannot change the fact that our Father, who governs all, and who loves us for our Saviour’s sake, will take fatherly care of us and turn to our good all that befalls us.
[iii] B Holwerda, Een Levende Hoop. Vol. V (A Living Hope), Boersma, Enschede, 1954, pp. 37-49. This sermon was held 22 October 1944.