The Oxford American Dictionary defines pestilence as “a fatal epidemic disease.” They cite the bubonic plague as the prototype of a pestilence. Of course, science has found an answer to bubonic plague, as they have yellow fever and polio and influenza—diseases that killed thousands of people throughout history.
In fact, during my growing up years, there was this feel that science was going to wipe out all the diseases that could sweep through a community unchecked. Science had the answers and the upper hand. No more did we have to quarantine people or fear for our lives because of casual contact with someone else who might be sick.
And then came AIDS. Suddenly there was an unconquerable disease in our midst again. But science redoubled its efforts and found, not a cure, but a life-sustaining treatment. AIDS was no longer a death sentence. And those suffering from the disease were no longer outcasts of society.
But diseases seemed to spring from nowhere. Suddenly there was the Bird Flu and the H1N1 Swine Flu. These viruses are apparently mutating, so what wasn’t dangerous to humans may become deadly. The health organizations remind us from time to time that a pandemic is in the realm of possibility.
More recently there was an outbreak of Ebola in Africa. This is another disease discovered in the twentieth century which has no cure—at least not yet. Science has been working hard to find a treatment.
But before we have properly educated ourselves about that deadly disease, we are now dealing with the Zika virus, another mosquito-borne disease like West Nile virus.
All this to say, my childhood idea that science will win out against disease is not happening. Instead, new deadly viruses are cropping up and literally going viral.
I’ve thought about disease in particular because of the prophecies in Revelation about pestilence. When God brings judgment on the earth, part of the means He uses will be pestilence. But how, I wondered, if science is wiping out diseases? Well, reality has set in. Science appeared for a time, from the perspective of this uninformed child, to be winning over disease. We had antibiotics, after all. The germ fighter that would wipe out deadly bacteria.
But we aren’t winning in the long run. We can’t anticipate how viruses will mutate, and we haven’t found a way to kill them.
Pestilence is listed throughout the Bible as one of the means God used when He wanted to judge a people. The others often mentioned were famine and the sword.
Famine was another thing I didn’t understand when I was growing up. I mean, we have stores of food and when an area such as Sudan is suffering from drought, we simply share with them from our excess. Except, it doesn’t always work that way. And what happens when America’s agricultural center experiences a drought?
“California is running through its water supply because, for complicated historical and climatological reasons, it has taken on the burden of feeding the rest of the country,” Steven Johnson wrote in Medium, pointing out that California’s water problems are actually a national problem — for better or for worse, the trillions of gallons of water California agriculture uses annually is the price we all pay for supermarket produce aisles stocked with fruits and vegetables. (“California’s Drought Could Upend America’s Entire Food System”)
Why all this contemplation about pestilence and famine? I’ll spare you thoughts about “the sword.”
With the reports about the Zika virus, I’m reminded that God’s word is true, that humankind is not master of our fate, that God still sends His judgment so we might know He is Lord.
For months we in Southern California were told to prepare for El Niño. County workers cleaned out storm drains. Shrubbery was cut back so gutters wouldn’t be blocked. Sand bags have been handed out. All in preparation of the monster storms predicted for us this winter.
Today the temperature reached 84° and record highs have been recorded all week in any number of cities. Not the rainy weather we were supposed to have.
Humankind simply is not in control. Sure we’ve learned a lot. Our satellites allow us to see weather developing and to measure winds and water temperatures in ways we couldn’t years ago. But we are not in charge. We can anticipate from all our data, and still we can be wrong.
God alone created the heavens and the earth. He also sustains what He has made. And He shows us Himself in what He has made.
The damage to life brought on by pestilence and famine is real. God’s gracious provision for His creation is interrupted. What was good has been spoiled, but God still works His purpose through it all. He uses the crises of life to draw us to Himself, to remind us that He is still over all, that we are not god.
He alone is the LORD.