On February 9th 2020 Megachurch pastor Joseph Prince made a bold announcement. While preaching Psalm 91 he promised the protection from COVID-19 over his entire church in Singapore. His bold claim: “We are completely protected.” Sounds like good news! But before we all run outside high-fiving and group hugging, it’s worth slowing down and considering the true and great promises of Psalm 91 a bit more closely. Has Prince got it right?
Psalm 91 certainly contains a profound promise, especially verses 5-7:
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.
7A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.”
The words encompass just about anything and everything you could imagine, but Prince has jumped on that word in verse 6, “pestilence,” and the strong assurance in verse 7: “A thousand may fall at your side… but it will not come near you.” Prince can be even more certain of his church’s protection from COVID-19 because this psalm begins and ends with the Hebrew letter ‘yod’ (י). His reasoning is that in the Hebrew language, the letter ‘yod’ is a pictogram of a hand. Because God’s protective hands open and close the psalm, we are completely protected from COVID-19.
He ought to be commended for taking the Bible seriously—even the very letters it’s written in! However, Prince has overlooked a few things that may have changed his interpretation entirely.
Psalm 91 — A Closer Look
First, we have to understand the context of this psalm. This psalm was written by a member of Israel, a nation in exclusive covenant relationship with God. When Israel entered into covenant with God, they did so under very particular conditions—you can find them in the book of Deuteronomy. Of particular interest is chapter 28, which mentions rich blessings for faithfulness, but pestilence and destruction awaiting Israel if they were to be unfaithful to the covenant. This was issued as a warning, that Israel might cling to the covenant, obey God’s voice and enjoy his blessing as his people. It’s in this context that our psalmist takes refuge in God’s special covenantal faithfulness toward Israel. However, there is no political system today in exclusive covenant relationship with God in the same way. Instead, people from among every nation are now included in God’s new covenant; one which doesn’t promise pestilence for disobedience.
Consider also Satan’s misapplication of this psalm in the New Testament. When he tested Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), Satan said, “Throw yourself down, for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’” (Matthew 4:6; cf. Psalm 91:11-12). Jesus knew this psalm wasn’t an expression of false self-assurance; it was about trust and reliance on God, so he answered, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7; cf. Deuteronomy 6:16). Now we know that Jesus trusted God and relied upon him, yet his life and ministry lead directly to death on a Roman cross. So where was the protection this psalm promised for Jesus? There has to be more to this psalm than first appears.
Finally, Prince may have overlooked a key phrase in Psalm 91:14-16 that stands out right in the middle: “I will be with him in trouble” (v15). Jesus was not spared the trouble, even the death on a cross, yet he did not need to fear because God was with him in the midst of his suffering. We can imagine him meditating on the divine promise of verse 16, “with long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” Indeed, Jesus was faithful, and God was with him in his trouble and vindicated him, raising him from death on the third day, never to die again. This was Jesus’ confidence.
Psalm 91 for Us Today
All of this isn’t to say this psalm terminates with Jesus and is of no value to the Christian today. In fact, we as Christians can find great hope in Psalm 91. This psalm speaks of God’s covenant faithfulness and the confidence we can have in him in the midst of trouble, and particularly in the midst of judgement. Verses 7 and 8 read “…it will not come near you, you will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.” We can see this is not some random event or mindless plague being described, but God’s judgement of ‘the wicked.’ It brings to mind God’s judgement upon the Egyptians when he saved the Israelites out of slavery in Exodus. The Egyptians received gnats, boils, hail, darkness, even the death of every firstborn, but those Israelites who painted the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of their homes were spared and freed—they had no need to fear.
There are many examples of God’s active judgement against sin in the past throughout the scriptures, whether dealing with Israel or the nations, but today we should all be concerned about God’s judgement to come in the future. The New Testament tells of a day that God has set when he will judge the whole world, calling everyone into account (Acts 17:31). The question is, do you or I have reason to fear that day? If your trust is in Jesus, you are a member of God’s new covenant community and God is still the God of covenant faithfulness. You dwell securely and have no need to fear. John 3:18 says, “whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
The Complete Protection of Psalm 91
Though we ought to admire Joseph Prince’s desire to look for comfort in the scriptures, unlike his bold claim, this psalm doesn’t guarantee protection from COVID-19. Instead, it offers a greater promise of protection and security. Although God has promised that he has set a day when he will judge the whole earth, there is good news: Jesus has already taken upon himself the fullness of God’s judgement against sin at the cross. Like the Israelites who painted their doorposts with the blood of the lamb, so the Christian can rely upon the blood of Jesus, shed for them and know salvation. Thousands may fall at your side, but judgement will not come near you.