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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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