Was Spurgeon Reading Off His Rocker?
It was a stretch you might say. A 19th century British preacher apprehended a 3,000-year-old psalm for peace and courage in the midst of dire circumstances. Andree Seu Peterson tells the story in a recent article:
In the middle of a cholera epidemic in 1854, Charles Spurgeon was returning home from yet another funeral when a shard of paper wedged in a shoemaker's window caught his eye. It said, "Because thou hast made the Lord … thy habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling." Surgeon subsequently wrote:
"The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm."
Peterson calls Spurgeon's resolve "extrapolation." She explains that, for Christians, it's what readers of Scripture do when they infer God will do something based upon what we know about him.
Reading Off His Rocker?
Inspired by another's example, Spurgeon believed Psalm 91:9–10 concluded that God would protect him. But should such an old psalm about Jesus really propel pastors into ministerial fearlessness?
Was Spurgeon reading off his rocker?
No, I don't think so.
Here's why: Spurgeon's application of Psalm 91 is at the heart of God's communicative intent in Scripture at large, and this psalm in particular.
To be sure, he could have walked away with plenty of wrong conclusions. What if he took this verse to mean that government no longer needs to exist and he joined an anarchist movement (or something bizarre like that)? My point is that any application won't do, but many applications could — so long as they fit with the goal of God discerned from the whole Bible, and are tethered to what he intended when he first inspired the words.
Reading It Right
We don't know what Spurgeon already had stored up on Psalm 91. He may have diagrammed the Hebrew at some point and even discovered connections within the psalter as a whole. But at face-value, as far as we know, he saw an English translation of two verses removed from their context and deduced (I'm arguing) the right thing.
No evil or plague shall be allowed to befall you if you take refuge in the Lord, says Psalm 91:9–10. Yes. As we have seen early in Psalm 2:12, refuge in the Lord is the ultimate hedge of protection from ultimate harm, which actually includes most fiercely the wrath of the Son. No evil would befall Charles Spurgeon. But what if he contracted cholera and died? Still, no evil would be befall him — no ultimate evil of ultimate harm. Words can't express the absolute safety in which God's children live. And he knew that. These verses broke in with a timely reminder.
Spurgeon felt secure. He was refreshed. The psalm became a turning point for him, a scene in his life of faith when God's grace toward him in Jesus reached further into his every day and staked the flag of gospel dominion. Which is, by the way, one primary goal of God in the Bible.
Behind Every Text
God is "for us and for our salvation" and so it is with his word. Behind every text of Scripture, each with their own particular meanings, there is a God who essentially reveals himself — a God who has preeminently made himself known in our Lord Jesus Christ and has given us the Bible as his definitive testimony.
Psalm 91:9–10 effected security in a Christian heart. Amen. Spurgeon read it and was changed. And the most astonishing thing about his story should be why we ourselves don't have the same experience more often. I fear that many Christians grow tired of reading the Bible because it feels boring. And it feels boring because we have removed God from the equation.
Many of us come to Scripture like Deists. Sure, God created the world and is involved in its sustenance. He has everything to do with the smallest things of his general revelation (Psalm 29:9; Matthew 10:29). But would we make him less involved in the hearing of his word? Is he hands-off when it comes to the comprehension of his special revelation? Certainly not! You see, behind every text of Scripture — and present and active as you read Scripture! — is a God who has bent low in self-giving love to tell us who he is that we might be drawn into his fellowship. That we might have more of him. More of his supremacy in our lives. More of his presence securing our steps. More of his refuge commissioning us out in sacrificial, risk-taking love.
Getting His Point Across
God is the only communicator there has ever been who is so sovereignly involved in getting his message across. No one else has the authority to always bring about exactly what was purposed when words go forth (Isaiah 55:10–11). No one else has a Holy Spirit who accompanies speech to make deaf ears hear and blind eyes see (1 Corinthians 2:12; Romans 8:27). Don't we know he is at work every time we read the Bible?
God doesn't save apart from his word (Romans 10:17). And God doesn't sanctify apart from it either. I want so bad, in my life and yours, what happened to Spurgeon that afternoon in 1854. God has a lot to say to us in his word — a lot to effect in us and change in us and through us impact the world. Let us read.