By Clarence L. Haynes Jr., Crosswalk.com
Over the years in human history, there have been moments when disease has led to a great loss of life. When this happens, you can classify this as pestilence. The definition of pestilence is a deadly disease that affects and overwhelms an entire community and brings death into that community. A great example of pestilence is The Black Death which traveled from Asia to Europe in the 1300s. Some estimates say this disease killed nearly half of Europe's population. You also see plagues when you turn to the scriptures. God has used pestilence in the Bible primarily as a form of judgment of sin. When God chooses to use pestilence in the Bible, it is not just reserved for those who don’t know him. There are also times when God will judge the sin of his people with pestilence.
Pestilence in the Old and New Testaments
We see the word pestilence appearing in both the Old and New Testaments; however, the words have slightly different meanings. Here is an example from the Old Testament.
"When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people." – 2 Chronicles 7:13 (ESV)
The use of the word pestilence in this verse can also be translated as plague, epidemic, sickness, or deadly disease. You will find these words when you look at this verse in different translations. All of them point to the same thing. A form of calamity that leads to death which usually occurs in large numbers. According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, here is how they define pestilence.
“Any sudden fatal epidemic is designated by this word, and in its Biblical use it generally indicates that these are divine visitations. The word is most frequently used in the prophetic books, and it occurs 25 times in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, always associated with the sword and famine. In 4 other passages it is combined with noisome or evil beasts, or war.”
In the New Testament, we find a word for pestilence that has different meanings as well.
"And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth." – Revelation 6:8 (ESV)
The word for pestilence is the same word used for death. Some translations use death, plague, or disease when translating this word. Regardless of which one you use, one thing is certain where there is pestilence, there will be death that follows. One common theme for the pestilence we see in Scripture that you must not overlook is pestilence or plague has a divine origin, meaning it was God’s direct intention to bring the pestilence for a specific purpose which most often was some form of judgment.
4 Examples of How God Used Pestilence in the Bible
When you consider examples of how God used pestilence in the Bible, most often, it is a vehicle used for judgment. When you look at the story of Israel, you see God using pestilence all throughout their journey and always in response to sin. These pestilences or plagues were used on believers and unbelievers.
1. The Ten Plagues of Egypt
The story of Israel’s deliverance in the book of Exodus is perhaps the most well-known example of a plague or pestilence that flowed from divine origin. As you know, the purpose of these was to persuade Pharoah to let the Israelites go so God could bring them into the promised land. You could also add the plagues were a form of God’s judgment against Egypt for the way they mistreated the Israelites.
2. Exodus 32 – The Golden Calf
When Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days, the Israelites decided to make a golden calf and even began to worship it and make sacrifices to it. Obviously, this angered God. As a result of this, we see in the last verse God sent a plague on them.
"And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made." – Exodus 32:35
3. Leviticus 26 – Warning
In this chapter in Leviticus, God tells the Israelites how he will bless those who honor him and continue to honor him and how he will stand against those who abhor his decrees and choose to walk in disobedience. After listing many things (you should read them all) he would do to the ones who willfully disobey, he even adds this one.
"And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall execute vengeance for the covenant. And if you gather within your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy. – Leviticus 26:25 (ESV)
4. 2 Samuel 24 – David counts his men
A final example is when David decided to take a census and count the people of Israel. This angered the Lord, and as a result, God brought judgment against David.
"So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men." – 2 Samuel 24:15 (ESV)
Does God Still Use Pestilence Today?
You might wonder if God still uses pestilence today as a form of judgment, especially if you consider the Covid pandemic we have lived through the last few years. The answer is not so simple, which causes me to say possibly. While God can still use pestilence to bring judgment at any time (after all, he is God and still in control), it is difficult to say whether a specific incidence can be labeled as pestilence coming from the Lord. For example, if you believe COVID-19 was a pestilence that came from God, what do you base that on? If COVID-19 was a pestilence, then what about the other outbreaks of disease that have occurred over the centuries in various parts of the world? Would those be labeled as pestilence as well? If you remember the definition of pestilence, it is a sudden fatal epidemic, so while we have experienced various plagues and pandemics over the centuries, I am not sure how you can discern whether they are from the Lord or not. As we have seen in the Bible, God used pestilence as a direct response to sin.
One thing we do know is that Jesus talks about pestilence as a sign of his coming.
"There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven." – Luke 21:11 (ESV)
Based on Jesus’ words, we know pestilence and plague will continue to be more prevalent, especially as we get closer to his return. Let’s make sure we use wisdom to define what is from God and what may not be.
The last thing I would encourage you with is not to worry about pestilence that God initiates. Usually, when he does, it is toward a specific sin and for a specific purpose. When you read through Scripture, most of the time, those affected by it were those who were choosing to walk in disobedience to what God had said. For those who obeyed him, he was able to keep them despite the pestilence. Should pestilence come that he brings, I am confident he can still keep you through it. He protected his people back then, and he can still do the same thing today.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/RyanJLane
Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. His most recent book is The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. Clarence is also committed to helping 10,000 people learn how to study the Bible and has just released his first Bible study course called Bible Study Basics. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.