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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Plagues, Panic and Providence

Mar 20, 2020

Both biblical and secular history can be of great help in times of crisis:

As always, having an understanding of history can be extremely helpful, especially in dark times. Understanding that our current situation is not all that unique, and that there is much that we can learn from what has gone before is certainly of value. This is not our first pandemic, and if the Lord should tarry, it likely will not be our last.

So let me offer a few lessons from history, beginning first with biblical history. There we find this basic truth: God can and does often use something like plague and pestilence as an instrument of his judgment. The passages on this are many.

We all know of Exodus 7-12 of course which gives us the account of the ten plagues Yahweh sent on the Egyptians. But well before this God was also afflicting the Egyptians, as Genesis 12:17 states: “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.” There are many more such passages. Here are a few of them:

Exodus 32:35 Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made.

Numbers 11:33 While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague.

Numbers 14:37 the men who brought up a bad report of the land—died by plague before the Lord.

Numbers 16:46 And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.”

Deuteronomy 32:23-24 And I will heap disasters upon them;
    I will spend my arrows on them;
they shall be wasted with hunger,
and devoured by plague
    and poisonous pestilence;

2 Chronicles 21:14 behold, the Lord will bring a great plague on your people, your children, your wives, and all your possessions,

Psalm 106:29 they provoked the Lord to anger with their deeds, and a plague broke out among them.

Hosea 13:14 I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

Habakkuk 3:4-6 His brightness was like the light;
    rays flashed from his hand;
    and there he veiled his power.
Before him went pestilence,
    and plague followed at his heels.
He stood and measured the earth;
    he looked and shook the nations;
then the eternal mountains were scattered;
    the everlasting hills sank low.
    His were the everlasting ways.

Revelation 9:18 By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths.

Revelation 15:1 Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.

Revelation 16:21 And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.

A few things can be said about such passages. One, these are just some verses of many that could be mentioned here. Two, note that it is not just pagans who can be subject to the judgment of God via plagues – God’s people can also be the recipients. Three, thus far, despite some very severe plagues, mankind has persevered. The plagues mentioned in Revelation however may be the final ones.

Four, and most importantly, I am NOT saying that coronavirus is the judgment of God. I am not a prophet and I can only surmise what is going on here. COULD it be his judgment? Yes it could be. But certainly, it should help to wake us all up as to some important truths: life is short; we will all one day meet our maker; and we need to get our priorities right.

Let me return to history. The past few thousand years of human history also offer us lessons to be learned about plagues. They have hit us hard in the past, but life did go on. In an earlier piece I mentioned the Black Death of the mid-1300s: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/14/coronavirus-christianity-history-and-faith/

That was indeed a killer plague. Anywhere from a third to a half of all of Europe’s population perished in that outbreak. Christians had to deal with those trying times just as we have to today. To help us get some perspective on coronavirus, and to see what transpired back then, consider these descriptions that I have taken from Philip Schaff’s 8-volume History of the Christian Church.

Image of History of the Christian Church, 8 vols.
History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. by Array Amazon logo

I had read all 7000 pages of this great work decades ago while a missionary in Holland. I just now pulled out volume 6 and reread what he had to say about the great plague. Here are some intriguing excerpts:

During Clement’s pontificate, 1348-1349, the Black Death swept over Europe from Hungary to Scotland and from Spain to Sweden, one of the most awful and mysterious scourges that has ever visited mankind. It was reported by all the chroniclers of the time, and described by Boccaccio in the introduction to his novels….

In describing the virulence of the infection, a contemporary said that one sick person was sufficient to infect the whole world. The patients lingered at most a day or two. Boccaccio witnessed the progress of the plague as it spread its ravages in Florence. Such measures of sanitation as were then known were resorted to, such as keeping the streets of the city clean and posting up elaborate rules of health. Public religious services and processions were appointed to stay death’s progress….

The mortality was appalling. The figures, though they differ in different accounts, show a vast loss of life. A large per cent of the population of Western Europe fell before the pestilence. In Siena, 80,000 were carried off; in Venice, 100,000; in Bologna, two-thirds of the population; and in Florence, three-fifths. In Marseilles the number who died in a single month is reported as 57,000. Nor was the papal city on the Rhone exempt. Nine cardinals, 70 prelates, and 17,000 males succumbed….

No class was immune except in England, where the higher classes seem to have been exempt. The clergy yielded in great numbers, bishops, priests, and monks. At least one archbishop of Canterbury, Bradwardine, was carried away by it….

Bishops found cause in this neglect to enjoin their priests to preach on the resurrection of the body as one of the tenets of the Catholic Church, as did the bishop of Winchester. In spite of the vast mortality, many of the people gave themselves up without restraint to revelling and drinking from tavern to tavern and to other excesses, as Boccaccio reports of Florence. In England, it is estimated that one-half of the population, or 2,500,000 people, fell victims to the dread disease….

The English king prorogued parliament. The disaster that came to the industries of the country is dwelt upon at length by the English chroniclers. The soil became “dead,” for there were no laborers left to till it….

Hopefully all that gives us at least some perspective on our current crisis. Sure, it is early days with corona, and we do not know with any certainty how long it will last and how much worse it will get. But we can keep in mind that horrific pandemics have occurred before, and mankind has survived.

And that leads me to a final point. Christians believe that God is sovereign, that he is working out his purposes, and that he does know when this current world will come to an end. Coronavirus has not caught him by surprise, and he knows when and how things will be wrapped up on planet earth.

He also knows all about each and every single one of us, with even the very hairs on our heads being numbered. And he knows our appointed times. When it is time for us to leave this world, it will be according to his schedule, and not fate. Sure, these are terrible times and I am not seeking to make light of all this.

But faith, not fear, is to be the response of Christians. As others have said, when the world is in a panic, it needs a church which is rock solid, offering very real hope and a way forward. We need to stand strong on our Lord, the rock, and offer direction for the lost who are on shifting sands.

During this time of crisis Christians need to be at the forefront of leading the way in how we are to live. And as we do this, we need to be praying for our leaders, such as Trump in America, Morrison in Australia, and so on. They need divine help and wisdom right now as they seek to steer us through all this.

Two passages are worth closing with here:

Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

Philippians 4:6-7 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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11 Responses to Plagues, Panic and Providence

  • Thank you Bill. We must stand faithfully in prayer that people will turn back to honouring God and recognize and heed the warning in your second paragraph.
    We are all fortunate in this era for hope, as announced by President Trump last night:
    “This is a common malaria drug … it’s been around for a long time, it’s very powerful … and it’s shown very, very encouraging early results [against COVID-19], and we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately…”
    Doctors in Australia, France and elsewhere say they’ve had success treating coronavirus patients with hydroxychloroquine, a readily available drug that treats malaria, lupus and arthritis.
    “Prior to the clinical trials going ahead, the medications were given to some of the first Australian patients infected with COVID-19, and all have completely recovered without any trace of the virus left in their system.” -David Paterson of the University of Queensland
    To God be all praise!

  • Thanks Bill, very timely post.

  • Praise God- for voices of sanity and encouragement such as yours.
    I keep reading ‘these unprecedented times’ in emails etc- and think ‘Really? Without precedent??’
    And also- ‘these uncertain times’- Oh, you mean since we were turfed out of Eden?
    God be praised that He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow!

  • Another very helpful piece Bill, thank you.
    Careful about point four though – CV is not the enemy and it’s not random.
    Regards, Tony.

    “Four, and most importantly, I am NOT saying that coronavirus is the judgment of God. I am not a prophet and I can only surmise what is going on here. COULD it be his judgment? Yes it could be. But certainly, it should help to wake us all up as to some important truths: life is short; we will all one day meet our maker; and we need to get our priorities right.”

    Really Bill? With ready access to the Bible, does one need to be a prophet to understand God’s way of doing things? The sweep of scripture is that God blesses obedience and He curses disobedience. Mainstream churches will not consider this Biblical truth, let alone preach it – they surely have itching ears. They have heaped together tame pastors, tame priests and false prophets who tickle the ears saying ‘peace, peace’, when there is no peace. What was once the Church Militant has become a Sunday Club and in the space of a press conference God has removed it’s candlestick.

    The Bible tells us; that the spiritual man judges all things, yet he is judged by no man (1 Cor 2:15), that self-government under God is God’s prescription (1 Cor 11:31) and that God will never tolerate idols (Ex 20:2-6 and Deu 5:6-10).

    In the face of this clear revelation to man, why have Denominational congregations; (1) refused to judge anything and cowered instead of proclaiming righteousness in the public square, (2) accepted overreach of legitimate government into areas the state has no authority and (3) genuflected to the religion of “fear-of-man” instead of proclaiming that The Almighty does indeed visit evil upon all unrighteousness and to disobedient individuals & nations?

    Over the past 100 years Denominational congregations have steadily withdrawn from the fight necessary to change the culture to Christ. Remember from where you are fallen, is the warning given to the church at Ephesus (Rev 2:5). We dropped our mantle of being the dominant voice setting the standard for society, instead we withdrew into denominational boxes with no social impact. We ignored Jesus’ warning and He has removed our candlestick.

    Where do we go from here? I can tell you the answer is not Virtual Prayer Meetings directed against the corona virus. The enemy is not the Coronavirus.

    Membership of Jesus’ Church is dependent on belief (Jn 6:29) and many Denominational congregations have apostatised. The Denominational Churches that remain true are good at protecting the flock but unlikely to have a revolution when led by ballot and tame pastors. Change occurs when the congregation of Believers individually act outside the church walls. Christians must remember that all the world belongs to God (1Cor 10:26) and it is all subject to redemption (Rom 8:21). Abraham Kuyper said words to the effect that there is nothing that Christ does not claim “mine!”

    As I said above, the enemy is not the Coronavirus. Christians must pick up the mantle God has given us as Prophets, Priests and Kings. We must remember from where we have fallen and repent (but not for too long). We must return to our First Love and get to work in the public square.

    Quit ourselves like men.

    Onward, Christian Soldiers.

  • Thanks Tony. Let me offer a few replies if I may. I of course never said that corona is the enemy, nor that it is random. In my many articles on corona I have said repeatedly that God often does use plagues and pestilence as a form of judgment. And in the Old Testament we had God’s prophets telling us when this was the case. But since I am NOT a divinely inspired prophet, I will continue to walk a bit more humbly here, and not assume that my spin on things is the correct one. I will not put words in God’s mouth on all this and presume to know all things.

    Moreover, it is exactly because I am a finite and fallible believer, I dare not pull a text like 1 Corinthians 2:15 out of context, and ignore all the related passages on this. If it meant what you are implying, then I of course should refuse to listen to you – I would need no one else to counsel me or offer correction. But that is not what the text is saying. The NT makes it clear that we do need the correction, counsel and discernment of others in our lives.

    And actually no, the blessings and curses are not the sweep of scripture. They are specifically part of the covenant obligations Yahweh had with ancient Israel. And they are all related to the land: good crops, great herds, etc. New Testament believers have no piece of geography in the Middle East, and we are not the specific parties to that ancient covenant. But I discuss all this in some detail here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/01/03/misappropriating-old-testament-blessings-and-curses/

    Obviously however you will get no arguments from me about the need for Christians to get involved in the public square!

  • Good. Then there was Luther’s advice to a friend when the risk of plague was upon them both.

  • What I find very sad is Australia used to be the “She’ll be right” and the “No worries, mate” country – which I am certain was simply a part of our Christian heritage, i.e. our basic faith that God is in control and that our fellow man will stand by us. Now we are the land of anxiety and panic buying, which, of course, only makes a bad situation worse and is astoundingly unAustralian. It simply decreases our ability to cope, which was something Australia used to be good at. It’s like we’ve become a foreign, pagan country, which, I guess we have.

    Of course anyone who knows anything about warfare, not just spiritual warfare, knows that it is always a good tactic to create panic in your opposition. It’s just such a huge shame that Australia has now become susceptible to this.

  • Lets add Psalm 91 to your list.
    Worth reading

  • Thanks David. Yes it is a terrific psalm, but as with all of Scripture it must be read and interpreted wisely and carefully. See here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/10/difficult-bible-passages-psalm-9110/

  • People familiar with the sentiments in this oracle from the Post-Exilic prophet, Zechariah will understand Bill’s reluctance to claim any prophetic insights of the same quality as those found in the pages of the Holy Scriptures:

    “On that day, I will banish the names of the idols from the land, and they will be remembered no more,” declares the Lord Almighty. “I will remove both the prophets and the spirit of impurity from the land. And if anyone still prophesies, their father and mother, to whom they were born, will say to them, ‘You must die, because you have told lies in the Lord’s name.’ Then their own parents will stab the one who prophesies.

    “On that day every prophet will be ashamed of their prophetic vision. They will not put on a prophet’s garment of hair in order to deceive. Each will say, ‘I am not a prophet. I am a farmer; the land has been my livelihood since my youth.’ If someone asks, ‘What are these wounds on your body?’ they will answer, ‘The wounds I was given at the house of my friends.’
    – Zechariah 13:2-6 (NIV)

    Not a few of the true prophets of God of the biblical era paid with their own lives for their faithful witness to God’s righteous requirements…

    Nonetheless, Scripture does give us the track record of the Judge of all the earth when it comes to His executing sentence against recalcitrant humanity – While we all richly deserve His righteous justice, none of us will survive without His grace and mercy – Even righteous Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD – Without it, antediluvian humanity would have been entirely obliterated.

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