Song of Plagues – wisdom for us in a time of pandemic

Current Affairs / Religion

Is there wisdom in scripture for us in the midst of a pandemic?

The library of books that we call “the Bible” is filled with literature written in all sorts of contexts over thousands of years. For the Bible’s “song book”, the Psalms, that’s especially true as they were written as laments or praise, supplication or complaints, depending on the experience of Hebrew people at the time they were composed. A moment like we’re experiencing was not unknown to the people who went before us, and as you’d expect, they wrote about it for the people who followed them.

According to an essay in Commonweal by Mahri Leonard-Fleckman, that’s especially true in the case of Psalm 91:

Song of Plagues | Commonweal Magazine:

In Psalm 91—known as the “Song of Plagues” (shir shel pegaim) in Jewish tradition—war and sickness occasion seismic upheavals, both individual and collective. The psalmist makes sure we grasp the connection, calling them “the hunter’s trap and the deadly pestilence” (v. 3). He then elaborates a few verses later. War becomes “the terror by night / the arrow flying during the day,” plague “the pestilence that stalks in the darkness / the destruction that devastates at noon” (v. 5–6). Both epitomize the material harshness of life in ancient Israel. We may chafe against the rigidity of our stay-at-home orders, but they hardly compare to the experience of ancient Israelites, who were never far from qeteb, “destruction.” It’s one of the three words (the others are deber and negaʿ) the psalmist uses interchangeably to signify “plague,” thereby underscoring its omnipresence in ancient life.

Social distancing doesn’t mean turning our backs on our neighbors. It means making sacrifices so they might live.
But Psalm 91 also contains a more important lesson. Its primary focus is not so much the hardships of war or plague themselves, but rather one’s inner orientation when living through challenging times. For the psalmist, God is our ultimate orientation, a refuge that helps us not just survive in times of crisis, but (and more importantly) grow through them. This is a promise, not a platitude, and the psalmist would know: the psalms were likely composed under taxing conditions, possibly as a response to the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C. (though we’re not sure).

There’s more at the link above, and I hope you’ll take a moment to read it.

The point made in the second paragraph is particularly important. How we orient our interior lives during the time of trial, the “temptation” spoken of in the Lord’s Prayer, determines the spiritual impact the experience has on our lives. Turning toward the transcendent, toward the creator God, toward love for our neighbor, is the way to inoculate our soul from the sort of immortal damage that a season like this can cause. I’m sad to note that some of our neighbors are struggling to find their spiritual feet right now. I’m grateful to recognize that our forebears left us signposts to avoid the worst traps.

God, grant us all light enough to see our way through the “hunter’s traps and this deadly pestilence.” Amen.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...