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Why do Christians suffer despite what Psalm 91 promises?

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Why do Christians suffer despite what Psalm 91 promises?
Posted on January 5, 2021  - By Rufus Simon Varghese

I have a question about Psalm 91. It’s a psalm full of God’s promises of security for those who trust in the Lord. But how should we understand this psalm, considering so many Christians do go through suffering? When we read verses like v.7 (“A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right, but it shall not approach you”) or v.10 about no plague coming near your tent, it’s difficult to understand when we know believers are not immune to suffering. In fact, we are promised suffering. So, why does the psalm say what it says?

We all suffer as Christians in this world. As you rightly noted, we are even promised the same. In fact, we are living in one of the most volatile periods of all time. But we also all read Psalm 91 where we come to the conclusion that God protects those who put their trust in Him from various sufferings and trials, as hinted in verses 7 and 10.

How do we make sense of our current sufferings even when we have trusted in God and are in a relationship with Him? Many have been physically sick and financially affected during this time. How do we reconcile these facts?

Conditional covenant

We need to understand that we who live in the 21st century aren’t the first people to read Psalm 91. The Israelites living in the Old Testament times were the original audience. They were under the Mosaic covenant (recorded in the Pentateuch) which is a conditional covenant. The blessings (along with life) and curses (along with death) depended on their obedience and disobedience respectively.

The Israelites living in the Old Testament times were the original audience of this psalm

Let’s look at a few points that overlap between Psalm 91 and the various passages in the Pentateuch.

  • God talks about himself as bearing Israel on eagles’ wings to Himself in Exodus 19:3-4. This corresponds to what Psalm 91:1, 4 says.
  • God promises the Israelites that if they listen to the rules that He gave them by keeping and doing them, He will take away all sickness and none of the evil diseases of Egypt will be inflicted on them (Deuteronomy 7:12-16). If they disobey, God will inflict the plagues of Egypt upon them (Deuteronomy 28:27, 58-60). This is implied by Psalm 91:9, 10.
  • Israel will be travelling from Egypt to Canaan and they will possess the land that is inhabited by nations that are greater and mightier than them. God who brought them out will drive their enemies out and defeat any threat that they might bring to Israel. Israel will be kept safe from the attacks of their enemies as long as they are obedient to God (Deuteronomy 5:37-40). Moreover, God protected them from the assault of Pharaoh and his army by dividing the Red Sea. This corresponds to what Psalm 91:7 says.
  • In Exodus 23:20, 32:34 and 33:2, we find that God will send an angel to guard Israel on their way to bring them safely to the place that He has prepared. Israel will have to obey that angel who is God’s representative and so, God will be an enemy to Israel’s enemies. This corresponds to Psalm 91:11, where the promise of God commanding his angels to guard them is found.
  • As we look at Psalm 91, we find that God’s protection and care come upon those who wilfully come under the shelter of the Most High, upon those who see the Lord as their refuge, dwelling place and fortress. Those who hold on to God in love will be delivered and protected by God. They will be answered, rescued and honoured by God when they call on Him. This corresponds to the nature of the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses.

Having seen what is common in Psalm 91 and the Pentateuch, we see that the psalmist (whose name we don’t know) wrote a song based on the Scriptures available to him at the time to remind his audience (Israel) that they who are under the Mosaic covenant will enjoy God’s protection, as well as agricultural and material blessings when they continue in obedience. This was an exhortation to the Israelites to know their responsibility of obedience and its benefits. The psalm is essentially a reminder of the Scriptures they had. This then is the purpose of Psalm 91.

Applying Psalm 91

How should we understand this Psalm in light of the current sufferings? Here are a couple of things we must bear in mind:

1. Don’t make the mistake of importing the conditions of the Old covenant to the New Testament believer. Try to understand each Old Testament text within its immediate and overall Scriptural context. Don’t make cliches out of Bible verses that say something different (from what we want it to say) and apply them to ourselves.

Try to understand each Old Testament text within its immediate and overall Scriptural context

We are under the New Covenant where our spiritual standing and well-being with God is not based upon our futile obedience, but on the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. We are not in a covenant which promises us material and agricultural blessings in the land that we live in — unlike the Israelites with whom God made the Mosaic covenant that involved the occupation of the land of  Canaan and its agricultural blessings. We are also not in a covenant where we have to be perfect to start a relationship with God and continue it on our own merits.

2. Don’t make the false assumption that we will be protected from all dangers and calamities in this sin-stricken world today. The opposite is true. We are promised suffering as Christians. We know that we will be subject to everything that comes in the world as part of the Fall. If all people are rescued from all calamities and sicknesses, how will people die? More importantly, how will salvation happen if God prevents the death of his Son?

We must see what happened to Jesus our Saviour. He was sinless and perfect, yet He was the recipient of the greatest suffering in history. Being an Israelite born into the religion of the Mosaic covenant, Jesus, who obeyed the Father always, was rejected and subjected to humiliation by His creation. He died for the sins of mankind. So, even the most innocent Man of all time was not exempt from the reality of suffering.

Dealing with suffering

So, how do we face sufferings? Jesus’ obedience to God was intact, irrespective of the suffering that came His way. His life teaches us that He did what the Old covenant and the Psalm 91 emphasised: relentless and faithful obedience and dependence upon God. He accepted the suffering as part of His path to the glory that came to Him as the Messiah. And God gave Him the ultimate victory over death by His resurrection.

Similarly, believers should constantly be aware that we have a narrow road to heaven and that it is through many trials and tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God — a futuristic reference to the present reality of being in God’s Kingdom. Hence, our responsibility is the same as what Jesus demonstrated: relentless obedience to God. The promise is that we will be rescued from the presence of sin and its consequences once and for all when Jesus returns as the one true King.

May God help us to rightly understand the Scriptures and apply them properly in our lives.

Rufus Simon Varghese

About Rufus Simon Varghese

Born and raised in Dubai, UAE, Rufus completed his Masters in Theology at Asian Christian Academy in Hosur, India. He has since been involved in personal outreach ministries and teaching youngsters Scripture. Currently based in Ernakulam, India, he is teaching at a Bible school as well as ministering to the Hindi-speaking immigrant working population in Kerala.



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