Pestilence and plagues have been part of human history for centuries, bringing fear and devastation. Even the Bible, especially the Old Testament, mentions pestilences frequently as instruments of God’s wrath and signs of the end times.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: In the Bible, pestilence refers to deadly and destructive plague or disease that affects entire communities, usually sent by God as judgement or punishment for sins.
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the Biblical concept of pestilence by looking at relevant passages, analysis of the original Hebrew and Greek words, historical context of famous pestilences recorded in the Bible, and theological significance of how pestilence manifests God’s sovereignty over human affairs.
Understanding Key Biblical Passages on Pestilence
Exodus Plagues on Egypt
One of the most well-known Biblical passages involving pestilence is found in the book of Exodus, where God sends ten plagues upon Egypt to compel Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery. The fifth plague was a pestilence that killed Egyptian livestock such as horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep and goats (Exodus 9:1-7).
This severe pestilence was inflicted directly by God as a demonstration of His power over Egypt’s false gods and Pharaoh. The pestilence emphasized that the God of Israel had absolute control over the health and welfare of animals, which were vital to an agrarian society like Egypt.
This pestilence was limited only to Egyptian livestock in the fields, sparing any animals owned by the Israelites (Exodus 9:4-6). It devastated the Egyptian economy and religious system, while highlighting God’s care for His people.
Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, however, and he refused to let the Israelites go despite this display of God’s authority over disease and livestock.
Pestilence in Prophetic and Apocalyptic Literature
Pestilence is also mentioned frequently in the prophetic books of the Bible as a consequence or judgment for disobedience. God warns that pestilence will be one result of breaking His covenant in passages like Jeremiah 21:6-7, Ezekiel 5:12-17 and Amos 4:10.
He uses disease epidemics as a means of disciplining His people or getting their attention when they fall into idolatry or injustice.
The book of Revelation describes end times judgments involving pestilence during the tribulation period preceding Christ’s return. The fourth horseman of the apocalypse rides a pale horse and is named Death, accompanied by Hades, suggesting pestilence and massive death (Revelation 6:7-8).
Later in Revelation plague, pestilence and famine together lead to widespread death and suffering, demonstrating God’s righteous judgment (Revelation 18:8).
While pestilence is portrayed as a consequence of sin, an attentive and faithful remnant of God’s people is promised Divine protection even in the midst of plagues and epidemics, according to Psalm 91:3-10.
Meaning and Definition of Pestilence
Hebrew Word Deber
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word most often translated as “pestilence” is deber. This word refers to a plague or disease that spreads rapidly and can affect humans, animals, and crops (Exodus 9:3).
Deber often refers to divine judgments of deadly diseases sent as punishment for disobedience against God (Leviticus 26:25). Several times in the Old Testament, deber is connected with “the sword” (war) and “famine” as one of God’s three main methods of judgment.
Some examples of deber in the Old Testament include:
- The tenth plague of boils inflicted on the Egyptians (Exodus 9:14)
- A punishment threatened for Israel’s disobedience (Leviticus 26:25)
- A judgment from God that killed 70,000 Israelites after David’s census (2 Samuel 24:13)
- One of God’s “four dreadful judgments” (along with sword, famine, and wild beasts) prophesied to destroy Jerusalem’s people because of their sins (Ezekiel 14:21)
Greek Word Loimos
In the New Testament, the Greek word often translated “pestilence” is loimos. This word refers to virulent, epidemic diseases that are contagious and devastating to the population. It is most often seen in the prophetic biblical books referring to widespread disease conditions during the end times.
Some examples of loimos in the New Testament include:
- Jesus’ statement that pestilences would be part of the signs of the coming of the end of the age (Luke 21:11)
- A description of end time judgments of God, including pestilence, in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 18:8)
In both the Old and New Testaments, the biblical concept of pestilence indicates that disease can come from God as a consequence of sin and disobedience. However, pestilence is also viewed as a sign of God’s omnipotence as the one who controls disease and the rise and fall of nations.
Historical Context of Major Pestilences in the Bible
The Plague at Kadesh Barnea (Numbers)
As the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt, they arrived at Kadesh Barnea where Miriam died. Soon after, the people complained about lack of water and food. God punished them by sending a plague that caused many deaths (Numbers 11:1-3).
This demonstrates how pestilence could be viewed as divine retribution for sins.
David’s Plague (2 Samuel 24)
When David conducted a forbidden census of fighting men in Israel and Judah, God gave him a choice of three punishments. David chose a three-day pestilence which killed 70,000 people. This shows how mass disease was seen as a tool of God’s judgement (2 Samuel 24:10-15).
The angel of the Lord was about to destroy Jerusalem when God relented and spared the city.
Antiochus IV’s Demise (2 Maccabees)
The Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes arrogantly entered the temple in Jerusalem and stole treasures. Soon after, he suffered a disease causing worms and stench leading to his painful death. This was seen as divine judgement.
The historian Josephus attributed the disease to gout complicated by wounds (2 Maccabees 9:5-9).
These biblical pestilence accounts reveal ancient perspectives of mass disease as divine punishment for sins against God. Their inclusion demonstrates the significant impact such events had on biblical history and theology.
Theological Significance of Pestilence in the Bible
Judgement and Punishment for Sin
In the Bible, pestilence is often viewed as a judgement or punishment from God for people’s sins. Biblical authors frequently associate outbreaks of disease and calamity with rising immorality or idolatry.
For example, Amos 4:10 states that God sent plagues and pestilence among the Israelites because of their unfaithfulness and failure to repent. The imagery of disease as divine judgement emphasizes God’s displeasure with sin.
However, there is also a redemptive purpose behind such judgements. God can use hardship to encourage repentance and renewed faithfulness. As Revelation 3:19 expresses, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.” Suffering is meant to produce spiritual fruit in God’s people.
So biblical pestilence ultimately serves to reconcile and restore humanity’s relationship with their Creator.
Signs of the End Times
Pestilence figures prominently in biblical prophecies about the end times. Jesus claims in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) that pestilences will increase as part of the “birth pains” before his second coming.
The book of Revelation also foretells widespread death from famine and plague before God consummates his kingdom on earth (Revelation 6:7-8).
In this eschatological context, pestilence reminds believers that suffering has an expiration date. God permits evil in the present age, but it will not last forever. Christians thus view pestilence as a harbinger of Christ’s imminent return to abolish injustice, renew creation, and rule the world with peace and justice.
Demonstration of God’s Sovereignty
Stories of pestilence in Scripture underscore God’s supreme authority over both the natural and spiritual realms. Only God has the power to inflict and remove plague as he desires—whether to judge defiant nations like Egypt (Exodus 9:14) or spare those who trust in him like Israel (Exodus 15:26).
Pestilence humbles human pride about accomplishment and strength by proving everyone depends wholly on God for health and life itself.
In sum, biblical pestilence carries rich theological meaning. It stimulates repentance in God’s people, signals Christ’s imminent return, and displays God’s sovereign rule over creation. Rather than random misfortune, pestilence serves God’s ultimate purpose of reconciling the world to himself.
In conclusion, the concept of pestilence in the Bible refers to contagious plagues and diseases sent as divine judgement for sins, apocalyptic signs of the end times, and manifestations of God’s ultimate control over human destiny – often in response to mankind’s rebellion against Him.
By analyzing key terms in Hebrew and Greek, historical accounts of major pestilences, and their theological significance, we gain a deeper understanding of how pestilences in the Bible unveil the mysterious relationship between God’s providence and humankind’s suffering due to its own evil.