Plagues and the People of God

These are unprecedented times.  The world has come to a standstill, towering economies brought to their knees, social constructs completely disrupted – all because of the Coronavirus. The ethos of fear and anxiety has surpassed that of 9/11, and like those bleak and troubling days, we have no sense of when this will come to an end.

And yet, this is nothing new.  Last week I shared a video about how John Calvin and the Company of Reformed Pastors in Geneva responded to the plague in their day. The Church has, throughout its existence weathered the political, social, and physical storms of each generation with a witness to the Gospel and a shelter for the soul.

Knowing this, I turned to the Scriptures and did a quick search on plagues in the Bible, trusting that God’s Word would give us insight into the crisis we face even today, so that we might have a heart of wisdom and know how we should respond. Here’s a brief summary of what I found.

  • The Scriptures are very clear that plagues, famines, and sicknesses do in fact come from the hand of God. The first plague we read of in Genesis 12 was brought upon the people of Egypt by God to prevent them from abusing Sarai. After that, we read (Exodus 8-12) of the 10 plagues upon Egypt, through which God brought out His people from slavery. From that point, the majority of the plagues we read about in Scripture are upon the people of Israel, as in the case of the people’s rebellion with Korah (Numb 16), their grumbling about meat (Ex 32), or for their infidelity and immorality as they were led astray by Balaam (Numb 25 & 31).
    The Westminster Confession reminds us that “God the great creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of  his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”
    To that end, we must come to understand that all things, even times of sickness and sorrow, come from the Sovereign will of God, who orders all things for the praise of his glory.  We must learn to see even pandemics such as this as God’s instruments through which He brings about His good and perfect will.
  • We know that the plagues against Egypt served to demonstrate that God is able to save His people, and to show that God alone is worthy to be worshiped and praise.  In Exodus 9:14 we read, “For this time I will send all my plagues on you (Egypt) yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth.” The plagues that come from God are the demonstration of His power and justice.
  • In Habakkuk 3:5, we read that when God makes Himself known, pestilence and plague come before and after, making His divine judgment upon the nations known. Likewise, in Zechariah 14, we are told that God will humble the nations that do not serve Him through plagues and punishment, so that every knee will bow in worship before the Lord.  This theme is picked back up in the book of Revelation, where in chapters 9 and 15-16, we read of the plagues of the judgment and wrath of God against the sinfulness of the world.

It is evident, through these passages, that God sends plagues upon the world as a demonstrated of His wrath and judgment of sin. But these aren’t the only times we read of plagues.

  • The majority of the plagues in the Old Testament are not directed toward the nations, but actually to the very people of Israel, the congregation of God’s people.  Here is a list of examples:
    • Ex 32 – A plague of the people of Israel because of the golden calf that Aaron made.
    • Num. 11:31-25 – When Israel complained of manna and insisted on meat, God sent quail to them, but brought a plague upon them while they were eating.
    • Num. 16 – Following Korah’s rebellion, the people complained that Moses had actually killed the rebels, and a plague broke out because of their grumbling.
    • Num. 25 – Called the sin of Peor, a plague came upon the people because of their immorality and infidelity.
    • Num. 31 – There was a plague on the congregation of Israel because many had been led astray by Balaam’s teaching.
    • 2 Sam 24/1 Chron 21 – A plague comes upon Israel because of David’s census.
  • These plagues are sent upon the people of God as discipline. The people were rebellious, unfaithful, and immoral, and God would correct them of their sin. The wrath of the Holy God of Israel  was visited upon His people when they sinned against Him.
  • Each time a plague comes upon the people, there is an intercession, by Moses or David, a prayer to relive the suffering of God’s people.

We see, then, through the Scriptures, that God sends plagues upon the land as a demonstration of His wrath against those that do not honor Him; but also to discipline His own people for their faithlessness, idolatry, and immorality.

But does this apply to this world-wide epidemic today? The circumstances may be different, but the principles remain the same.

This virus is not outside the bounds of God’s sovereign plan and design. This too will serve to bring Him glory, honor and praise. Even that which we consider evil, God will use for His good purpose.  Remember the story of Joseph, whose brothers sold Him into slavery. At the end, when he is reunited with his brothers, having saved them from the famine, he tells them, “What you intended for evil against me, God meant for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Gen 50:20).

We cannot know, in the midst of this trial, just what purpose God is working in these trials and challenges. We can, however, use this as an opportunity to repent and seek after Christ more and more.  The plagues came upon Israel because of their unfaithfulness to God, so that they may learn not to trust in false idols, but to worship God alone.  Our hearts are still prone to idolatry, and we must cast down the false gods that catch our eye, and look only to Christ, fixing our eyes upon Him.

We are different, however, from the people of Israel in one important point – we are redeemed, saved, and delivered from the wrath of God through Jesus Christ our Savior.  All the wrath of God for our sins was poured out upon Him, so that He has borne God’s judgment and punishment in our place.  We need not be terrified of the plague of God’s wrath, for Christ has become the plagued for us.

That does not mean that we will not still come under the discipline of God, for as a loving father disciplines his son, so our Heavenly Father disciplines those whom He loves that they may share His holiness (Hebrews 12:6-11).  God may use this time to wean us from the things of this world that were competing for His glory and attention.  God will refine and recreate His people in the image of His Son, and this time of upheaval may be just one of the means through which He chooses to bring that about.

In all, let us look to our Sovereign God, who cares for His people, and will never let them out of His hand. Let us trust in Jesus Christ for our salvation and peace. And, as the Holy Spirit moves upon us, let us grow in holiness and devotion to the Lord.

SDG

Burning the Word

“As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the fire pot. Yet neither the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words were afraid, nor did they tear their garments.”
Jeremiah 36:23-24

In Jeremiah 36 there is an amazing account of Jehoiakim, the wicked king of Judah, actually burning the Word of the Lord. Without getting into too much of the back story, Jehoiakim, the son of Josiah, did evil in the sight of the Lord (2 Kings 23:36), he “filled Jerusalem with innocent blood (2 Kings 24:5), and he even rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, leading to his capture and imprisonment.  Throughout the writings of Jeremiah, we also see that Jehoiakim had a strong dislike for the prophet of God.

Jeremiah had been threatened with death, banned from the house of the Lord, he had been ordered not to prophecy, all under Jehoiakim’s authority.  It is surprising then, that in chapter 36, the Lord tells Jeremiah to write down all the words that the Lord had spoken against Israel and Judah, so that the house of Judah would hear, “so that everyone may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and sin” (Jer. 36:3).  After all the rebellion, after all the idolatry, after all the wickedness, God is still merciful and sends His word that they may turn from their sins and be healed.

We are told then that Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, writes down all of the Lord’s words that Jeremiah had spoken, and takes the scroll to the house of the Lord.  When the scroll is read before the people, I believe the kings officials are grieved for their sins.  They are overcome with fear (Jer. 36:15), and they make plans to read the word to the king, after ensuring that Baruch and Jeremiah are safely hidden away.

However, as the scroll was read to Jehoiakim, “the king would cut (the columns) off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire… Yet neither the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words were afraid, nor did they tear their garments” (Jer 36:23-24). In an ultimate act of defiance and rebellion, Jehoiakim destroyed the very word that was meant to give him life. Though the word of the Lord convicted him of his sin, it was only so that he and all the nation could turn from sin and be forgiven.

As the chapter concludes, Jeremiah has Baruch write another scroll with all of the words of the Lord. This time, however, there is no promise of forgiveness given to Jehoiakim, only one of judgment and doom.

I highly doubt that anyone reading this would ever be so defiant as to cut passages out of the Bible and burn them. But there are more subtle acts of defiance that are still as damning.

  • We bury our Bibles – not in the ground – but under layers of dust, under piles of other books.  Which is worse, to hear the word and throw it into the fire, or to simply stop listening to the word at all?  An old adage that I heard long ago says, “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.”  We know that when we read it, the Bible will convict us of our sin, and call us to the righteousness of Christ, and so we don’t even pick it up to read it.
  • We edit the word – In order to justify ourselves, we often find ways to change the meaning of words or to relegate whole arguments to “cultural context.”  We’ve come to point where whole denominations can read “therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh…” (Gen 2:24), and, with a straight face, say that marriage can be between two people of any gender. Is this not a greater sin? Jehoiakim didn’t try to twist the words of God, he just threw them in the fire.  Selectively reading or editing God’s word is the practice of the Devil, who first asked, “Did God really say…?”

The word of God comes to us to show us our sin, not that we would be overcome with guilt, but that we would be saved through our redeemer Jesus Christ.  Do not neglect His word, but daily read it, hear it, and let Him put to death in you the sin that separates you from God.  Do not try to justify yourself in the light of Scripture by twisting or overlooking God’s word, but allow His word to cut to the very core of your being (Heb 4:12), revealing your sin, but also cleansing you by His grace in Jesus Christ.  Come to the living Word, Jesus Christ, and know the forgiveness He freely gives to all who receive Him by faith.

SDG