A QUESTION OF DIVINE JUDGMENT – I
by Bob Wheeler
Recently the Gospel Coalition, under the leadership of Dr. Julius Kim, called for a day of prayer and fasting to be held today, April 4. There is a Prayer Companion Booklet in which Dr. Kim says, “Like many of you, I have been grieved and at times afraid as I’ve watched events unfold in our world in recent weeks.” The booklet then goes on to give guidance as to how to spend the appointed time in prayer.
We are deeply gratified that at last someone has called for prayer and fasting on an occasion such as this. And yet at the same time we cannot help feel a little bit of disappointment. The prayer guide seems to treat the current pandemic more or less as a natural disaster which has people worried and frightened, and the guide is mainly focused on finding hope and comfort in a time of need, although the guide does contain instructions to pray for the conversion of the lost.
What is missing, however, is the sense that this may all be a divine judgment on human sin. Pandemics do not happen purely by accident; God is sovereignly in control. The question is, why did this one come about?
It is probably not possible to give an exact answer to the question. The outworkings of divine providence are subject to the secret will of God, and only He knows the precise reason for the current crisis. But Scripture does give us as least a broad idea of what is going on and how we should respond.
There is the case, for example, of Noah’s flood. We are told “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (Gen. 6:5,6; NKJV). The result was that God wiped out nearly the entire human race in the great flood that followed.
Then there is the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. “The Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry . . .” (Gen. 18:20,21). The outcome on this occasion was that “the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens” (Gen. 19:24).
And then there is the example of God’s dealings with Israel itself. Israel had entered into a formal covenant with God, and as a part of that covenant there was a series of blessing and curses conditioned upon Israel’s obedience or disobedience. The curses are outlined in Dt. 28:15-68. Significantly the list includes a large number of physical ailments. In verse 21 we are told that “The Lord will make the plague cling to you . . .” One commentator, P.C. Craigie, says that this “probably refers to a disease of epidemic proportions, which would cling to people (i.e., it would be impossible to halt its progress).” The list goes on to include “consumption, fever, inflammation, severe burning fever” (v. 22), as well as a wide variety of other physical ailments. In verse 59 it says, “then the Lord will bring upon you and your descendants extraordinary plagues – great and prolonged plagues – and serious and prolonged sickness.” God definitely uses sickness and disease to punish people for their sins.
What, then, are the people of God supposed to do when such chastisement strikes? Years later, when King Solomon was dedicating the new temple in Jerusalem, he prayed, in part,
“Where there is a famine in the land, pestilence or blight or mildew,
locusts or grasshoppers; when their enemies besiege them in the land
of their cities; whatever plague or whatever sickness there is; whatever
prayer, whatever supplication is made by anyone, or by all Your people
Israel, when each one knows his own burden and his own grief, and
spreads out his hands to this temple: then hear from heaven Your dwelling
place, and forgive, and give to everyone according to all his ways, whose
heart you know (for You alone know the hearts of the sons of men),
that they may fear You, to walk in Your ways as long as they live in the
land which You gave to our fathers” (II Chron. 6:28-31).
God responded to Solomon’s prayer by saying, “When I shut up heaven and there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among the people, if My people, who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (II Chron. 7:13,14). What we must do, then, first of all, is to “humble ourselves,” is to get off our high horses and frankly acknowledge our utter dependence upon God. Then we must “pray and seek His face” – we are to make a conscious effort to draw into the presence of God (“His face”) and communicate with Him. Prayer should never be an empty ritual. And then we are to “turn from our wicked ways.” If the disaster was brought upon us because of some moral failure on our part, then we need to acknowledge it and change our behavior. And if we do so, God has promised “to forgive our sin and to heal.”
As it turns out, Israel was not faithful to the covenant and was eventually driven into exile as a result. But years later the prophet Daniel realized what must be done, and in Daniel chapter 9 he prays a prayer of confession on behalf of Israel. Here we have a frank confession of sin (vv. 5-10 – “We have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled . . .”) and an acknowledgment of God’s hand in what had happened to them (vv. 11-14 – “And He has confirmed His words, which He spoke against us . . .by bringing upon us a great disaster; for under the whole heaven such has never been done as what has been done to Jerusalem” ). And then he asks God to turn away His wrath (vv. 15-19). It is a model of how we should respond then God brings chastisement our way.
Tomorrow: The New Testament perspective