The Prosperity Gospel, Not
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
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.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honour him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.” Psalm 91
At first glance this Psalm may seem to teach the so called prosperity gospel. After all, the psalmist promises that although a thousand may fall from arrows and pestilences it will not happen to you (vv5-7). Later, in verse 10, he writes: “No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.” If that doesn’t make a good bumper sticker then I don’t know what will! However, there are three things to take note of in order to correctly understand and apply this Psalm.
First of all we need to ask ourselves what type of literature this is, what genre is this. In this case it is quite easy, we are in the book of Psalms, a collection of 150 poems. The genre is poetry. We do not, or at least we should not, read poetry in the same way as we do didactic (teaching) or narrative passages. We even refer to poetic license, which is, “license or liberty taken by a poet, prose writer, or other artist in deviating from rule, conventional form, logic, or fact, in order to produce a desired effect.” The psalmist has already done this in verses 3 and 4 and I am sure you had no problem interpreting those verses. When you read that the Lord will deliver you from the fowler’s snare I am sure you were not thinking, “Thank goodness that I don’t have to worry about that bird catcher down the road!” Or when we are told that we will find refuge under God’s wings we didn’t think that the Lord was a bird. Apply the same thought and carefulness to all your reading and you will be helped a lot, and you will help others.
Secondly, we interpret Scripture by Scripture. If this Psalm taught that nothing bad happens to God’s people then that would contradict not just most of the Psalms but the whole tenor of the Bible, as well as the testimonies of every child of God from Abel to the Apostle John. We know that God cannot lie and cannot contradict Himself so we interpret the less clear passages in light of the clearer passages. In other words, because of what the rest of the Bible teaches we know that whatever this Psalm is teaching it is not teaching the prosperity gospel!
Lastly, within the Psalm itself we find that this isn’t a blanket promise to health, wealth and prosperity. Verse 8 declares that, “You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.” Those who fall in this Psalm are the wicked who are receiving justice. That is the key. Christians will not escape suffering, sickness, struggles or sacrifice but they will escape judgement.
How is this possible? Notice the different images that the author throws up to describe God’s action towards us. He is our refuge, fortress, shelter, dwelling place, shield and buckler (a type of shield). What do these objects do? They protect us from the elements in the case of refuges and shelters while shields protect one from arrows, spears and sword blows. In each case it is the object that bears the full brunt so that the one inside or behind is safe. You and I will never experience the wrath of God, the righteous judgement of God, because Jesus Christ is our refuge and shield. He fully bore the just wrath of God the Father and turned it away from us, He is our propitiation. What a wonderful, wonderful saviour!
Closing comment, in verse 13 we see that we become partakers of the promise in Genesis 3:15 of a serpent crusher. Jesus is the true Serpent Crusher but through Him we are more than survivors, we are conquerors. May you tread on the lion and the adder today (Don’t try this literally, remember point 1).