The current coronavirus pandemic which began in China a few months back has now spread to most parts of the world and is causing deep disruption in society and much pain and grief among those who are afflicted by it, either through its contagion or by the illness and loss of our loved ones suffering from it.
One of the most popular psalms that relates to this issue is 91 (Psalm 90 in the Septuagint), traditionally known by the Latin name of its opening phrase, ‘Qui habitat’ and regarded as a “psalm of protection”, commonly invoked in times of hardship. According to the Midrash, the ancient Jewish biblical exegesis, it was composed by Moses on the day he completed the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, when he was enveloped by the glory of the Divine cloud. Another Jewish text, the Talmud, calls this psalm, the “song of plagues” for “one who recites it with faith in God who will be helped in danger”. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), known as the ‘Prince of Preachers’ comments in his Treasury of David,
“Though it is impossible to prove that this highly beautiful ode was not written by David, the general drift of its scenery and allusions rather concur in showing that …. we are indebted for it to the muse of Moses that it was composed by him during the journey through the wilderness, shortly after the plague of the fiery serpents; when the children of Israel, having returned to a better spirit, were again received into the favour of Jehovah.”
Its opening phrase,
“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty” (verse 1)
refers to those who constantly live their lives close to God, which is to actively live a godly life. “Secret” here means a place that is known only to a small number of people, who live their lives in the presence of God, which places them “under the shadow of the Almighty”, and connotes closeness and great proximity, so that they are those whom He protects and for whom He provides a refuge from the storms of the world so they can live in peace, serenity, and security because of His assurance that He will shield them from harm. He is their “refuge and fortress” and will safeguard them from
“the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence” (verse 3).
Other translations, however, render verse one as, “He who dwells in the shelter or under the defense of the Most High”, to emphasise divine protection.
Quoting from Psalm 124: 7,
“Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowler’s: the snare is broken, and we are escaped,”
St. Jerome in one of his homilies on the psalms, raised the question, “What snare is this that has been broken?” which he answered by quoting from the Apostle Paul “The Lord will speedily crush Satan under our feet” (Romans XVI:20) and “that you may recover yourself from the snares of the devil.” (2 Timothy II: 26). St. Jerome then comments,
“You see, then, that the devil is the hunter, eager to lure our souls into perdition. The devil is master of many snares, deceptions of all kinds. Avarice is one of his pitfalls, disparagement is his noose, fornication is his bait. … As long as we are in a state of grace, our soul is at peace; but once you begin to play with sin, then our soul is in trouble and is like a boat tossed about by the waves.”
‘Noisome’ means noxious and harmful, whilst ‘Pestilence’ means a deadly and overwhelming disease that affects an entire community:
“The pestilence that walketh in darkness.” (verse 6)
Historic examples of these are the ‘Black Death’ or ‘Great Plague’, diseases which killed many of Europe’s population, and were certainly pestilences. So also is the coronavirus pandemic. ‘Pestilence’, riding a pale horse, is also personified as the first of the four Horseman of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation.
However, for those who faithfully serve the Lord no evil can reach them, for the outstretched wings of His power and love cover them from all harm.
Spurgeon states that Christ’s wings are both for healing and for hiding, for curing and securing us; the devil and his instruments would soon devour the servants of God, if He did not set an invincible guard about them, and cover them with the golden feathers of His protection. This protection is constant – we abide under it, and it is all-sufficient, for it is the shadow of the Almighty, whose omnipotence will surely screen us from all attack. It proclaims: “
“There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”(verses 10-12)
God’s ministers exist to ensure our protection. Daniel’s protection in the Lion’s den owed itself to God’s angel:
“My God sent His angel and shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, for I was found innocent in His sight” (Daniel VI: 22) whilst the Book of Hebrews (I: 14) recognises
“Are not the angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”
The power of evil will be destroyed:
“Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.” (verse 13)
These represent Satan and the powers of evil, as the Book of Revelation (XII:9) identifies them:
“And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”
Sin is like the wild beasts that God’s loving position trampled underfoot. St. Augustine points out that the lion is an open danger as St. Peter says (1 Peter 5:8),
“Your adversary the devil goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour”,
whilst the adder or serpent is noted because of its concealed deception which drove Adam out of Paradise.
Because of our love of God He will deliver us from evil, protect and uphold us. He assures us that He will be with us and will guide us to follow the path of goodness in which He will be our refuge and habitation. We will enjoy a long life finally leading to salvation and everlasting life.
Psalm 91 (with additions from Exodus XIX and Matthew XIII) has been used as the basis for a popular religious song, called “On Eagle’s wings”, written by Father Michael Joncan, a Catholic priest, liturgical theologian, and composer of contemporary church music. It’s title is inspired by Isaiah XL:31 “They that wait upon the lord, shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings of eagles”.
1He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in Him will I trust.
3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.
9 Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.
16 With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.