In just a few short weeks, the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak has wreaked havoc on our way of life worldwide. Governments across the globe have mobilized to stop the spread of this World Health Organization-level pandemic. Thousands of people have died and hundreds of thousands have been infected. The world continues to reel from the effects the virus.
Disruptions on this scale were hard to imagine a month ago. Since the virus entered the US, businesses have closed, airplanes have stopped flying, the financial markets have crashed, and grocery stores have emptied due to government efforts to contain the virus. Things are bad.
The question is, “Does it reach the level of a biblical plague?”
But the question is, “Does it reach the level of a biblical plague?” In this overview, I aim to explore what a plague is from the Bible, some principles we can glean from biblical plagues, and ultimately answer whether the COVID-19 virus should be considered a plague from God.
Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines a plague as “a stroke of affliction, or disease. Sent as a divine chastisement.” The term plague comes from several words in the original biblical languages.
One Hebrew word for plague is daber (דָּ֑בֶר). It is often translated as “plague” or “pestilence.” Another word for plague is makkah (מַכָּה). The term makkah sometimes connotes other concepts besides what we understand as plagues. In the Old Testament, a plague often appears to have a natural cause as in a “pestilence after the manner of Egypt” (Amos 4:10). At other times, a translated word for plague appears to be more like a direct strike from God as in “nega” (נֶגַע) where Exodus 11:1 (ESV) says, “Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt.”
In the New Testament, we see the term plague functioning in a similar manner. There are several words translated as “plague” in different versions, including loimos (λοιμός), and plege’ (πληγή). Plege’ is the most common word for plague in the New Testament. Though not always to be understood as God’s judgment upon a group of people, the terms sometimes describe one. For example, Jesus used loimos when he said of Jerusalem, “There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences” (Luke 21:11). Or in Revelation 15:1 (ESV), the author used plege’ when he wrote: “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.”
Examples of Plagues in the Bible
There are several times we see judgments from God in the form of plagues in the Bible. This is not an exhaustive list, but it should help provide a framework for when plagues are discussed in Scripture.
- God sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians before the Israelites left Egypt. These plagues include the plague of blood, the plague of frogs, the plague of lice (gnats), the plague of flies, the plague of livestock, the plague of boils, the plague of hail, the plague of locusts, the plague of darkness, and the death of the firstborn (Exodus 7:14–12:36).
- God promised judgment if the people of Israel turned against the Lord. Part of God’s judgment included plagues (Leviticus 26:25).
- God sent a three-day plague to wipe out 70,000 men after King David sinned by numbering the people of Israel (2 Samuel 24:10–17).
- Amos prophesied that God would send several judgments against the nation of Israel, including plagues similar to what Egypt endured (Amos 4:10).
- God sent several judgments against the nation of Judah, including a plague, when he sent King Nebuchadnezzar to sack Jerusalem (Jeremiah 21:7, 24:10, 29:17).
- The plagues described in the Book of Revelation including those sent by the two witnesses (Revelation 11:6) and the seven final plagues sent by God (Revelation 15:1).
Principles from Biblical Plagues
There are two major lessons to glean from a biblical plague.
There are two major lessons to glean from a biblical plague. For one, a biblical plague is a part of God’s judgment against sin. Sometimes, God sent plagues or pestilences against unbelievers as when Egypt enslaved and oppressed the people of Israel. It was severe and left no room for speculation about who was responsible for the judgement. Even the ruler of Egypt knew God sent the plagues. “Then Pharaoh sent and called Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘This time I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong’” (Exodus 9:27).
At other times, God sent a plague against his own people to judge their sin. God sent numerous prophets to the people of Judah, but they still did not turn from their sin. So Jeremiah reports God’s Word when he said, “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” (Jeremiah 14:12).
The second lesson to understand from a biblical plague is that God usually extends mercy in a time of plague. At the same time God sent plagues to the people of Egypt, he also showed a measure of mercy to the people of Israel. He gave Moses, the leader of the Israelites, a way of deliverance while Egypt was being judged:
“Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, ‘Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you’” (Exodus 12:21–23).
So while every family in Egypt suffered the death of their firstborn child, no family in Israel endured the same heartache during the final plague. God judged Egypt with ten plagues, but he had mercy on his people at the same time. That’s why it’s important to see God’s mercy through any kind of judgment. Habbakkuk’s prayer is relevant in every challenging situation when it seems God is allowing bad things to happen. The prophet prayed to the Lord, “in wrath remember mercy” (Habbakkuk 3:2).
Is COVID-19 a “Biblical” Plague?
COVID-19 is certainly serious. The effects of this virus outbreak are significant as seen by numerous deaths, forced business closures, financial market-stopping events, and an unprecedented panic in the 21st century. But does COVID-19 qualify as a biblical plague?
The question is not whether it’s a biblical plague. Rather is it a plague akin to biblical plagues?
A biblical plague is, by definition, a plague mentioned in the Bible. So COVID-19 could never qualify as true, biblical plague. So the question is not whether it’s a biblical plague. Rather is it a plague akin to biblical plagues?
COVID-19 could qualify as a plague because its consequences are severe. As of the time of this posting, active cases have surpassed 500,000 and deaths are over 20,000 and rising, according to worldometers.info. The transmission rate is higher than the seasonal flu and is one of the reasons governments have been so concerned. Moreover, mortality rates differ across age groups with the older population being more susceptible to the virus. The current overall mortality rate is 3.4% according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Furthermore about 99% of fatalities are those weakened by underlying health problems.1 Add to this that governments have shut down commerce and are taking emergency measures to stem the rapid spread of COVID-19 in an effort to flatten the curve, it looks very much feels a plague.
Though we shouldn’t presume God’s intention through this pandemic, certainly God has reason to judge humanity. Prior to all the shutdowns in America alone, 3,000+ babies were being murdered every day through abortion (far more than what COVID-19 does). Sexual immorality is running rampant in the LGBT movement and in the church. As a culture, we have largely abandoned God’s Word as a standard for right and wrong and replaced it with man’s word. It’s easy to see why God would judge the world. But to say the COVID-19 outbreak qualifies as a plague similar to biblical plagues is too far.
However, God will not withhold his righteous anger forever. All sin is ultimately a direct offense to him. And in time, God will judge the world. “Because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:11).
Conclusion: Seek God in Good Times and Bad
Even when it seems like the world is falling apart, God is still in control.
As we weigh how to think during this challenging time, it’s good to remember the words of Job. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Even when it seems like the world is falling apart, God is still in control.
He knows what’s happening and is intimately involved in this and every situation, including in your life. However you’re affected by this event, God sees every detail and is merciful (Psalm 145:9). Continue to trust him despite the chaos that may surround you. He is worthy of our confidence.
If you don’t know the Lord or you are not sure if you do, seek him while he may be found. See the gospel of Jesus Christ.