In early 2020, when it became clear that COVID-19 was going to spread very quickly, various forms of lockdown were implemented across the world. In the Christian world at that time, perhaps no text of Scripture was more frequently cited than Psalm 91. In this famed psalm, we find promises of divine protection from all forms of evil and plague (see v. 10). Many Christians claimed divine protection from the disease on the basis of the psalm. Many others wrestled with exactly how to embrace the psalm’s promises while living in the real world.
If the psalm’s promises of protection from evil and plague are absolute, why do Christians suffer and die from various diseases? Why have Christians succumbed to COVID-19? Why are Christians persecuted and martyred across the world? Where is the protection that the psalm promises?
It has long been noted that Psalms 90 and 91 are twin psalms, almost as if the latter was written as a response to the former. Psalm 90 reflects on the difficulty and the brevity of life while Psalm 91 highlights God’s special protection of his people in the midst of life’s difficulties. The psalms do not contradict one another but instead highlight the tension that exists in the life of faith. Christians are aware of the difficulties of this fleeting life (Psalm 90) and yet must also remember that God’s presence in their lives makes a very real difference (Psalm 91).
But precisely what kind of difference does God’s presence make? The psalmist found solace in Yahweh as his “refuge” (v. 9). The words rendered “the LORD … my refuge” translate the Hebrew name Yahweh Machsi, which is the name of God that we will focus on this week. What does it mean that God is our refuge? What comfort and encouragement can we draw from this psalm?
Perhaps it will be helpful at the outset to state the obvious: This psalm can be (and has been) misused. There is no more obvious example of misuse than Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4:9–12). At one point, the devil led Jesus to Jerusalem and took him to the highest point on the temple. He tempted him to throw himself down, quoting Psalm 91 as a promise of divine protection. Jesus highlighted that the devil was misusing the psalm when he rebuked him for putting God to the test. While Satan quoted the psalm accurately, there was something in the way that he did so—something in the way that he applied it—that Jesus recognised as invalid. This is Exhibit A that the promises of the psalm can be misapplied.
In what sense, then, should we embrace the promises of Psalm 91? In what sense should we rejoice in Yahweh as our refuge? We could, no doubt, say a whole lot about this. Let me briefly suggest three things.
First, Yahweh Machsi is our refuge in times and ways that we don’t even realise. It is only when we face affliction, fall prey to sickness, or face financial ruin that we wonder why Yahweh Machsi has not proven faithful to his promises. The reality is, however, that we benefit more often than not from his refuge.
Every day, God protects you. There are a thousand things today that could have happened, but did nothappen, to you precisely because Yahweh is your refuge. Your bank account could have run dry a long time ago, but Yahweh Machsi has been kind to you and protected you from financial ruin. A thousand different diseases could have struck that haven’t because Yahweh Machsi has been your refuge. Every time you safely navigate the South African roads from Point A to Point B, Yahweh Machsi has kindly provided refuge for you. We tend to overlook these kind providences and neglect to recognise Yahweh as our refuge when things don’t go wrong, but we should remember that he is our refuge as much in times of safety as in times of danger.
Second, Yahweh Machsi is our refuge even in the midst of our afflictions. God’s promise to be our refuge does not mean that he will necessarily deliver us from every form of evil, though he often does that without us even realising it. A refuge is really only a refuge in times of turmoil. In the Old Testament, cities of refuge were provided as a place of safety in the midst of difficulty. Similarly, God is not only our refuge when he delivers us from affliction but also—perhaps more so—when he walks with us through affliction.
Remember, Psalm 91 appears to have been written as a response to Psalm 90. The two psalms should be read side by side. In Psalm 90, Moses wrote of the reality of being swept away as with a flood (v. 5) and of withering like grass (vv. 5–6). He writes of the reality of death (vv. 9–10) and the ferocity of God’s anger (v. 11). He wonders how long it will be until the Yahweh shows pity to his people (vv. 13–14). He laments the fact that Yahweh had so long afflicted his people (v. 15).
Moses saw the reality of affliction more than most. For forty years, day in and day out, he witnessed the reality of death. He saw God’s hand of judgement poured out on his unbelieving people. He fell under judgement himself and was refused permission to enter the Promised Land. Yet he knew that God was his people’s “dwelling place in all generations” (Psalm 90:1). He believed that Yahweh Machsi was a refuge for his people even in their affliction.
A part of embracing the promise of this psalm is embracing the truth that God is with you even in your affliction. He is with you even when dread disease strikes. He is with you even when your employment terminates and you face financial uncertainty. He is with you even as the world viciously opposes you for your commitment to Christ. In many ways, the realities of hardship help us to appreciate in an even greater way what it means for Yahweh to be our refuge. Even in the greatest affliction we can face—death itself—our refuge and our shepherd promises to walk with us.
Third, and finally, Yahweh Machsi promises ultimate deliverance from all forms of suffering and affliction. Prosperity preachers may abuse this text and offer promises of absolute deliverance right now. As we saw with Satan’s misuse of the psalm, that is not how it should be applied. But there is nevertheless a kernel of truth to that. The ultimate Christian expectation is deliverance from all forms of evil, suffering, and affliction.
The Bible envisions an eternity for Christians in which our bodies are resurrected and we experience a glorious reunion with Christian loved ones of past generations (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). It promises an eternity in which our mortal bodies will be wondrously transformed into immortal bodies, impervious to suffering and death (1 Corinthians 15:35–49). It assures God’s children of a glorious future without suffering, pain, affliction, or tears—a world in which God himself “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4). There is no ultimate promise of that in the present, but it is a glorious promise for our future when Christ returns. For all eternity, Yahweh Machsi will be our refuge from every form of suffering that we know in this life.
It is not always easy—or even possible—to know when or why God will choose to miraculously intervene and when or why he will choose not to do so. But we can, and should, know that, more often than we even realise, Yahweh Machsi protects us from unseen afflictions, that he is with us even in our afflictions, and that, ultimately, he will fully and finally save his people from all affliction.