By Liz Auld, Crosswalk.com
“…no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.” -Psalm 91:10
What a promise that is, the promise of no harm—but do we have the right interpretation when we read it? Does no harm mean that nothing bad should ever happen to me, including things like the coronavirus? As with many verses in the Bible, if we try to dissect it on its own, we can easily lose the bigger picture and true meaning. It’s important to study Bible verses in proper context and that means we should:
- Look at the full passage the verse is part of.
- Look at the sections preceding and following the verse/passage.
- Look at the book as a whole that the verse is located in: who is the human author, what’s the literary genre, what is the main theme and purpose, what was going on at that time in history, and who was the original audience?
- Other great questions include: What does this passage tell me about man? And what does this passage tell me about God?
- Additionally, we can access resources (articles, videos, books, audio, etc.) from sound theologians, pastors, and writers both past and present who put Scripture and the gospel first.
These elements provide important information for understanding the true meaning of a verse or Scripture passage. The Holy Spirit helps us to understand Scripture, but we need to use the tools that God has gifted us through literature, which is the medium He chose to use to record, keep, and spread His Word. Let us use the tools we have in prayer and with guidance from the Holy Spirit who lives in all believers.
Lord, as we study Your Word today help us to understand the meaning You have set in this psalm thousands of years ago. You have made sure that Your Word has remained strong throughout the centuries; guide us now, Holy Spirit, as we seek understanding and wisdom from Psalm 91. Comfort our hearts with your truth and cover us in your eternal peace. Remind us who You are and who we are in You. Give us strength in good times and bad and lead our hearts away from worry. In Your name, Jesus, by whom this prayer is possible, Amen.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has become a resource for many as we face growing fear and anxiety due to the Coronavirus pandemic. God is ALWAYS our source of protection, strength and peace during unknown times. In addition, the following articles may offer more encouragement for all to remember as we face the trials of COVID-19 together:
- Do Not Fear! 10 Verses about Fear & Anxiety to Remind Us That God is in Control
- Prayers for Peace Amidst Pandemic Fear
- Powerful Prayers for Coronavirus - Those Sick and Those Worried
- "Be Still and Know That I Am God": Meaning & Promise of Psalm 46:10
Comparing Translations of Psalm 91:10
First, let’s start by comparing a few translations of the Psalm 91:10 verse:
- “…no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.” - NIV
- “no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.” – ESV
- “no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.” CSB
- “No evil shall befall you, Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling;” – NKJV
- “no evil will conquer you; no plague will come near your home.” – NLT
These translations are very similar mostly using three sets of words: evil or harm, plague or disaster, and tent, home, or dwelling.
And now let’s read the full Psalm 91 in the NIV as it’s the most used translation:
"Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. If you say, ‘The LORD is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent. ‘Because he loves me,’ says the LORD, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.’”
Taking a Step Back for the Bigger Picture of the Psalms
Every genre in the Bible attributes to Scripture’s Truth, but genres have different styles and use different literary tools to get their point across. Understanding the genre can help us understand the meaning.
What do we know about the Book of Psalms and its genre?
The Book of Psalms is a lyrical book of 150 poems; they were written as songs for worship of the Most High God by the people of God. The ESV Study Bible states, “The Psalter is fundamentally the hymnbook of the people of God at worship. The Psalms take the basic themes of OT theology and turn them into song.” Because the Psalms are written in the genre of poetry and song, the reader needs to remember that elements of this genre include imagery, metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, and apostrophe. These tools provide an emotional structure for the words of the psalm.
Themes in the Psalms include monotheism, creation and fall, election and covenant, covenant membership, and eschatology. Many of the psalms have titles or notes, which tell us more information about the liturgy they were used in, the author, or the history behind it.
Who is the author of the Psalms?
The most common author listed in the Psalms is David; he is believed to have authored at least 75 (73 contain the phrase “of David” and two others are attributed to him by NT writers in Acts 4:25 and Hebrews 4:7.) We know that David, even before he was king, was an accomplished songwriter and lyre player (1 Sam. 16:16-23, 2 Sam 1:17-27, 2 Sam 22, 2 Sam 23:1-7). Additionally, the Sons of Korah (1 Chron. 9:19) are listed in 11 psalms, Asaph (1 Chron. 6:31) in 12, Solomon (1 Kings 4:32) possibly in two, and Moses (Ex. 15:1-18, Deut 31-33) in one. The remaining psalms do not mention a specific author in the text.
What is the structure of the Psalms?
The original Hebrew text divided the Psalms into five sections or books, possibly modeled after the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). The last psalm of each of the five sections includes a doxology before the start of the next section, with Psalm 150 concluding both Book Five and the entire Psalter (ESV Study Bible). Psalm 91 is in Book or Section Four, which includes Psalms 90-106. Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses and it discusses God’s active role with Israel long before David was king. The Psalms in Book Four proclaim the truth that God reigns. The NIV Study Bible explains,
“Book IV answers the despair at the end of Book III. It says, in effect, that if people were tempted to look for their security in the Davidic king, then they would end up disappointed; they needed to look to the Lord as their refuge and strength and as their great King.”
The Overall Background and Theme of Psalm 91
The Matthew Henry Commentary suggests that David is the author of Psalm 91:
“It is probable that this psalm also was penned by David; it is a writ of protection for all true believers, not in the name of king David, or under his broad seal; he needed it himself, especially if the psalm was penned, as some conjecture it was, at the time of the pestilence which was sent for his numbering the people; but in the name of the King of kings, and under the broad seal of Heaven.”
As stated above, Psalm 91 is part of Book Four of the Psalms, which seeks to answer the darker questions of faith posed in Book Three. The response of the psalms in Book Four is that God reigns, God is our stronghold, and humanity can find refuge in God alone. Concerning Psalm 91, the NIV Study Bible relays,
“The psalmist’s chief theme is that the Lord is his refuge (vv. 1-2). This has three benefits: the Lord protects from danger (vv. 3-8), guards against calamity by providing supernatural assistance (vv. 9-13), rescues from trouble (vv. 14-15), and grants eternal life (v. 16).”
The ESV Study Bible goes on to describe the tender and intimate nature of Psalm 91, pointing out that the tone is one of confidence for the people of God—that through any danger or challenge the faithful may find refuge in the LORD, Yahweh.
The promise in Psalm 91—that God is our refuge—is for all the people of Israel and all believers today, but the circumstances in Psalm 91 (pestilence, terrors by night and arrows) are faced by particular people and the psalmist. But interestingly these circumstances would have been seen as metaphors, which the ESV Study Bible reveals:
“The snare of the fowler (v.3) seems to be a metaphor for the schemes of those who hate the pious. Pestilence (91:3, 6) and destruction are diseases that God sends on his enemies or his unfaithful people (cf. Ex. 5:3; 9:15; Lev. 26:25; Deut. 32:24, ‘plagues’). The terror and arrow, together, with a thousand may fall, envision God’s people under attack. If the psalm were describing every situation of danger, it would clearly be untrue: faithful people have fallen prey to these and other perils. It is better to allow Ps. 91:8 to guide the interpretation, pointing to cases in which these events (plague, battle) are sent as God’s recompense on the wicked (whether Gentile or Israelite); in such cases, the faithful can be sure of God’s protection.”
“The mention of a plague (v.10) is reminiscent of the plagues that fell on Egypt (cf. Gen. 12:17; Ex. 11:1), again clarifying that this is describing the safety of the faithful in a time of God’s judgment.”
The NIV Study Bible similarly states that the fowler’s snare is a metaphor for hidden danger and pestilence reflects the opposite, evident danger, and covenant curses (Deut. 28:21; see 1 Kings 8:37). The psalm is listing out dangers in the world and how God protects His faithful. And in “91:7-8 These verses teach that the Lord will shield believers from the judgment against the wicked, but they do not promise absolute protection from every harmful circumstance (v. 7).”
What Does Psalm 91:10 Mean by “No Harm Shall Befall You”?
Psalm 91:7-11, “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place—the Most High, who is my refuge—no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” (ESV)
This psalm takes place during a time of God’s judgment, and the psalm is clear that the recompense for the wicked is the destruction in verse 7, but those belonging to God have refuge in Him.
Psalm 91 is written by one of the people of God, most likely David, for the people of God to grow spiritually. Psalm 91:9 says “because you have made the LORD your dwelling place”—it’s clear that we are talking about God’s people, those whom He dwells with. Because of that fact, no evil shall be allowed to befall God’s child in the next line. Does that mean that Christians should not have to suffer or struggle?
The evil or harm spoken of in verse 10 is not the frequent trial or hardship that afflicts all humanity due to the fallen nature of this world, it is speaking of the harm that comes to God’s enemies or even eternal punishment. Though you find yourself in the middle of a storm, God is with you and your soul is safe in His hands. In using Scripture to interpret Scripture we know this must be the case for the usage of evil here, as Scripture is filled with the people of God suffering—and then growing in relationship to Him because of that suffering.
“Whatever happens, nothing shall hurt the believer; though trouble and affliction befal, it shall come, not for his hurt, but for good, though for the present it be not joyous but grievous. Those who rightly know God, will set their love upon him. They by prayer constantly call upon him. His promise is, that he will in due time deliver the believer out of trouble, and in the mean time be with him in trouble. The Lord will manage all his worldly concerns, and preserve his life on earth, so long as it shall be good for him. For encouragement in this he looks unto Jesus. He shall live long enough; till he has done the work he was sent into this world for, and is ready for heaven. Who would wish to live a day longer than God has some work to do, either by him or upon him?”
Let us not cling to the false promise that God will not let us suffer in this life, or that if we have enough faith we will not be afflicted, because Jesus’ words are clear that we will have trials in this life.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33
Instead, let us cling to the real promise that though we will have hardship in this life, our soul is hidden with Christ, and when the time comes that we breath our last breath on this earth we will be with God our Refuge forever. This psalm teaches us that we have nothing to fear with God as our protector. Death is not to be feared by the believer.
Paul reminds us of the believer’s eternal security: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” – Col. 3:2-4
The Treasury of David commentary on Biblestudytools.com shares these two quotes:
“There shall no evil befall thee, etc. It is a security in the very midst of evils. Not like the security of angels -- safety in a world of safety, quiet in a calm; but it is quiet in a storm; safety amid desolation and the elements of destruction, deliverance where everything else is going to wreck. Cicaties Bradley, 1840.”
“God doth not say no afflictions shall befall us, but no evil. Thomas Watson.”
What Does This Verse Mean for the Coronavirus?
Evil and harm cannot separate God’s children from Him and that includes pandemics, like the coronavirus, natural disasters, and wicked people among other things. God’s children are hidden with Him and their soul is safe with Him for all eternity. We are not guaranteed a pain-free or illness-free life, which is clear in Scripture from the Old Testament to the New Testament. We read in Scripture that it is often through strife and struggle that the believer grows spiritually with God and is an encouragement to others (Joseph, Jonah, Abraham, Moses, Esther, Paul, John, and so many others.).
Crosswalk.com Contributor, Debbie McDaniel, shared,
“Sometimes, maybe unintentionally, in the busyness or difficulties of living, we might strive to survive on our own. We forget that what we need most, God's protection and the comfort of His presence, are freely available to those who love Him and walk under His covering. This entire chapter of Psalm 91 is filled with the goodness and power of God. Great reminders that He faithfully works on behalf of those who love Him.”
Many of us are consumed right now by uncertainly and constantly changing news surrounding the coronavirus/COVID-19. But we can't fear what may or may not happen to us, God asks us to trust Him through all situations and Paul tells us God's grace is sufficient, whether that grace leads to healing or homecoming. Our focus should not be on fear and uncertainty but the Refuge that our God is even in circumstances of disease and trouble. We are called to hope and trust in God no matter what is happening in our world. And He can be trusted during this pandemic, He is sovereign over the world and your individual life.
Avoiding illness is a fate no one can escape in this fallen world; what is important is that we know where our true home is and who our God is. Psalm 91 is clear that for those whom God dwells with, their Refuge is God alone. The true home of the believer is with the Triune God—and God is with all believers every step of their earthly journey. And when that last step comes, Jesus is there to usher our life into glory, a life He paid for. Therefore, let us remember that in the storms and diseases God is with us, and in our joys let us give thanks to the Holy Spirit, and when our last day comes may we cling to the promise of Jesus—the promise that evil cannot remove us from the hands of God either in this life or in death. We are bound to Christ and when we die, we will live with Him in glory.
There is only one guarantee for the Christian in this life—that your life is hidden with Christ and you have been given eternal protection as an adopted child and heir of God. This is a glory we will not fully understand until we are standing before God our Redeemer. Home at last. The Psalms remind us of this hope. Psalm 91 points to God as our eternal Refuge and no evil or virus can take that away.
- ESV Study Bible, Crossway.
- NIV Study Bible, Zondervan.
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