Monday, September 6, 2021

Numbers 25:1-9 "GOD AND EPIDEMICS "

 


Plagues and epidemics have always been a part of human history. A comprehensive list can be obtained from Wikipedia.[1]

A terrible plague struck the Greek city of Athens in 429-426 BC.[2], claiming up to 100,000 lives.[3]  The plague spread rapidly and killed fast – its symptoms beginning with fever and spreading through the body.

Towards the end of World War I, in January 1918, a new strain of flu began making its way across the globe. The origin of the virus remains unknown. As the virus spread, the heavily censored press suppressed the news of the outbreak in fear that it would damage morale. In Spain, the uncensored press was free to publish news of a deadly disease, which led to the virus being given its name: Spanish Flu. This deadly flu spread at a time   when the world was becoming increasingly interconnected, Troops coming to and from the front lines easily spread the disease to civilians. The Spanish Flu thrived in urban population centers and soon spread to the countryside, leaving few places in the world untouched. Businesses and schools closed. Quarantines were enforced. People wore face masks.  After three waves over the course of 18 months, an estimated third of the world’s population was affected, with as many as 50 million  people dead.

THE BIBLE AND EPIDEMICS 

Let’s turn to Numbers Chapter 25.  I am going to use this text illustratively as a launching pad for our deliberation on our subject, “God and Epidemics”. This text needs to be seen in context  and ultimately we need the full   weight and support of the whole Bible to make the point that Numbers 25 makes: 

(i) God hands people groups and nations over to plagues and disasters to punish them for disobedience. The fact that Israel had a covenant relationship with God does not exempt her. 

(ii) In this God frequently extends mercy when atonement is made or when people are repentant of their sin (25:8,11).  Illustratively then, here in Numbers 25 we find an account of a plague in which 24 000 people of Israel died (25:9). The plague was stopped by the action of Phineas who acted in righteousness.  The story needs some re-telling.

When Israel left Egypt, they spent 40 years wandering in a desert.  That wilderness wandering itself was a judgement from God. Again,  a reminder of this portion of history is needed.  Upon their arrival at Kadesh Barnea, which bordered the Promised Land of Canaan,  Israel  under Moses sent out twelve spies to survey the land and its people (Num. 13:18-25). When they returned after forty days ten of the spies brought a negative report: “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are…All the people we saw were of great size…We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes” (Num. 13:31-33). Only Joshua and Caleb gave positive reports (Num. 14:6-7). 

Sadly Israel believed the majority report and so they “raised their voices and wept aloud,” grumbling against Moses and Aaron, saying, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword” (Num. 14:1-2).  God, in turn said to Moses, “How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them” (Num.14:11).  Moses interceded for his people and turned away the wrath of God (Num. 14:13-20). Although God did forgive them, He decreed that “not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it” (Num. 14:23).  

And so they would wander in the wilderness for forty years, one year for each of the forty days they explored the land (Num.14:34). Furthermore, God would give them what they asked for: “I will do the very things I heard you say: In this desert your bodies will fall, every one of you twenty years old or more” (Num. 14:28-29). Additionally, the ten men who had given the bad report were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord (Num.14:37). Only Joshua and Caleb survived, the two faithful spies who believed God’s promise to give the land over to them.

With this in mind we find Israel (in their 40 year wanderings) steadily on the move towards the land promised to them on oath. Because God is with Israel, no one can essentially stand before them. Powerful and significant kings are defeated by them. 

The Canaanite king Arad  who lived in the Negeb was defeated (Num.21: 1-3). Then follows the story of the rebellion, when Israel became impatient, grumbling against God and Moses (Num. 21:4-9). God judges them by sending a plague of venomous snakes among them so that many die. Upon confession of their sin, Moses intercedes and God forgives. 

Thereafter,  Sihon, king of the Amorites (Num.21:21-30) and Og, king of Bashan (Num. 21:31-35), on the threshold to the promised land are conquered. 

When Balak, king of Moab sees this, he knows that they are next in line. He hires Balaam a powerful diviner to send curses upon Israel, only to find that he can do nothing against Israel. Then follows Chapter 25 in which we find Israel in the territory of Moab. And we read that,  “Israel began to whore with the daughters of  Moab… bowed down to their gods… so Israel  yoked himself to the Baal of  Peor and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel”  (25:1-3).  It all culminates in the plague in which 24 000 were killed. This is illustrative of many such accounts in the OT, where we read  of  plagues  falling on  nations in response to God’s  judgement.   Every judgement is from God.

The Law

Deuteronomy 32:23-24 (Context –the Song of Moses- a warning) 23 “And I will heap disasters upon them;  I will spend my arrows on them; 24 they shall be wasted with hunger,  and devoured by plague  and poisonous pestilence; I will send the teeth of beasts against them,  with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.”

The  Historical Narratives

1 Chronicles 21:7-12 (David’s census which displeased the Lord) 7 But God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel. 8 And David said to God, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.” 9 And the Lord spoke to Gad, David's seer, saying, 10 “Go and say to David, ‘Thus says the Lord, Three things I offer you; choose one of them, that I may do it to you.’” 11 So Gad came to David and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Choose what you will: 12 either three years of famine, or three months of devastation by your foes while the sword of your enemies overtakes you, or else three days of the sword of the Lord, pestilence on the land, with the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.’ Now decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.”

The Major Prophets

Isaiah 45:7 “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

Jeremiah 14: 11-12 11 The Lord said to me: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. 12 Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”

Ezekiel 7:14-15 (concerning the  Day of the Wrath of the Lord)  14 “They have blown the trumpet and made everything ready, but none goes to battle, for my wrath is upon all their multitude. 15 The sword is without; pestilence and famine are within. He who is in the field dies by the sword, and him who is in the city famine and pestilence devour (see also Ezekiel 5:16-17- God’s wrath of Jerusalem).

The Minor Prophets

Amos 4:10 “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;  I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses,  and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord.”

Habakkuk 3:5  Before him went pestilence,  and plague followed at his heels.”


THE NEW TESTAMENT

Jesus, in His sermon on the Mt. of Olives foretells, “There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences…”(Lk.21:11;Matt.24:7).In Revelation 15 John mentions 7 plagues which in Ch. 16  become 7 bowls of God’s wrath[4].  Plagues are destined for Babylon, which in the book of Revelation symbolically represents all evil (Rev. 18:8).

In his letter to the Romans, Paul says that, “the wrath of God is being revealed … against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (Rom.1:18). The wrath of God takes on many forms, including plagues.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses Old Testament patterns of judgment as “types,” “examples to us”- to heed (1 Cor. 10:1–12) When rebuking the Corinthians for abusing the Lord’s Supper, Paul warns, “that is why many of you are weak and ill, and  some have died.” (1 Cor. 11:30).  There he labels sickness and death as a “judgment” (v. 29).

SO WHAT ARE WE HEARING?

Are biblical pandemics sent from God?  Yes!   

What is the reason for these chastisements? To rebuke people (especially God’s people) when they sin and go against created order) and to restrain sin.

What is God’s motive for these chastisements?  God’s motive is redemptive. He wants to bring His people back to righteousness.  He has no pleasure in punishing His people. Ezekiel 33:11 “11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”   The same applies to the church. Hebrews 12:5-6[5], makes the same point, “do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines those who he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.... for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant” (Heb. 12:5, 11).   This discipline does not exempt Christians. Events like the coronavirus make it clear that one’s piety does not prevent Christians from disaster.

So then, is the Spanish flu, the  Covid pandemic, AIDS, Ebola,  a  judgment  of  God against our society? Many people have great difficulty with reconciling this with what they believe about God. How can a good God allow evil stuff? And a related question- if this is not of God, then why does He allow it?  Both these questions assume that God is like us (the domestication of God). They both ignore that God is uniquely His own. He is holy. He is good. He is above evil (and infinitely beyond the devil). He is sovereign. He will not be usurped in any way. He will conquer evil.  He has the ability and authority to use the evil that Satan, demons and men design, and to turn that upon themselves. Just think how God turned the cross upon Satan!  He turns that which sin has brought into this world to chastise this world. In Romans 1:18ff Paul describes this as the process of handing people over to their own evil designs and life choices, and to chastise them, so that they can perhaps come to their senses. In the midst of all this He has the ability to deliver His people (who live in this sinful world) even through martyrdom and death by taking them to heaven. God works this evil system to His glory!

WHAT THEN MUST WE DO? 

When confronted with calamities the Bible calls us to look to God for both, comfort and self- examination. 

Our response should not be to point fingers at others, and to figure  out this  evil world system and its conspiracies, but to lament and repent, with prayers like Daniel 9:3–19,  in which  we own and confess “our sins” and plead with  for God to forgive us (2 Chron. 6:36–39, 7:12–14). 

And every outbreak of pestilence, should force the question upon us, “Am I ready for Christ’s return? Will I be put to shame at His appearing?’’ The coronavirus should impress upon us afresh that this world is passing away, that history is not going round in circles. It is heading towards a great and terrible Day of Judgment.

 It should drive us to pray and witness to this  world  with ever greater urgency.

AFFIRMATIONS

1.       We affirm that God is in control in the midst of calamity. (Psalm 46)

2.  Whilst being responsible and mindful of others, we must beware of engaging in unreasoning, paralyzing, despair-provoking fear that robs us of all hope, peace, and confidence in God.

3.    COVID-19 does not release us from our obligations as Jesus’ followers. Our discipleship is not contingent upon circumstances.

4.      The Christian life is one of sacrifice. Christ commands his followers to take up their crosses daily. We must be the ones who set the example for others. Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) admired the Puritan ministers who stayed behind to care for the sick and dying during the Great Plague of London in 1665. In 1854, a major cholera outbreak occurred near the church.  How did his church respond? 1. They adjusted meetings, but continued meeting. 2. They cared for the sick. 3. They were open to new evangelistic opportunities. 4. Spurgeon entrusted his life to God.[6]

5.      We are promised eternal life. We are NOT promised an earthly life free of sickness, discomfort, or pain. We are not promised long life on this earth. In fact, sometimes to be obedient to Christ means risking our very lives.



[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemics

[2] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1535/thucydides-on-the-plague-of-athens-text--commentar/

[3] the historian Thucydides (l. 460/455-399/398 BC), an Athenian who had the disease and survived

[4] Revelation 16: 2  painful sores ; 16:3 the sea  becomes like the blood of a corpse and every living thing died in the sea;  167:4  rivers and springs turn to blood; 16:8 fierce heat of the sun scorches people; 16:10; darkness ; pain , sores 16:12  Euphrates  river dries up

[5] quoting  Proverbs 3:11,12

[6] Geoff Chang, "Five Lessons from Spurgeon’s Ministry in a Cholera Outbreak," The Gospel Coalition

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Numbers 25:1-9 "GOD AND EPIDEMICS "

  Plagues and epidemics have always been a part of human history. A comprehensive list can be obtained from Wikipedia. [1] A terrible pla...