Times of Plague: A Curse or a Blessing?
By Andrea Woodworth
Several weeks ago, as we were in the initial phase of the “stay at home” orders due to COVID-19, I was asking God what He wanted me to read in the Bible. I was between studies and wasn’t sure if there was a certain book or theme I needed to focus on next. This conversation took place silently, in the space of just a second or two, much longer than it takes to read:
Me: God, what do you want me to read today? Where do I need to turn?
God: (Before I even finished praying) Jo…(I wasn’t expecting an answer quite as quickly as it came and I didn’t quite catch it at first.)
Me: Job? (Thinking, yes, that’s one of my favorite books, but I’ve read it quite a bit, are you sure I’m not supposed to read something else right now?)
God: (interrupting my thoughts) No, not Job. Joel.
Me: Oh! O.k. Hmmm…I know he’s a prophet. I’ve probably had to read at least part of the book for a school assignment or something but I really don’t remember anything about it.
So, I turned to Joel and WOW! If, like me, you’re not familiar with the book, it’s very short, only 3 chapters. Judah has been invaded by a plague of locusts and their entire land has been stripped of food and resources. Everything is gone, desolated! This book seems to be very applicable to what is happening today. Joel 2:6-11 gives a vivid description of the invading army of destructive locusts. Fear grips all the people, tiny invaders take over cities, and there seems to be no way to prevent their spread. Yet, the Lord is at the head of the column! He is in control! As we know from so many scriptures, not the least of which is the book of Job, nothing happens anywhere in the universe without God’s permission. Whether God sent this current virus as refining judgment or allowed Satan to use it in an ill-fated attempt to wipe God’s name from the earth, we know that it did not take God by surprise. He knows exactly how many people will contract the virus (asymptomatic or not, tested or not), how many will move from this world to the the next (to either eternal torment or eternal delight in God’s presence), and how many will recover and move on with their earthly lives (either submitted to God and His will or continuing in their rebellion against Him). Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the Lord. ‘And My ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so My ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts higher than your thoughts.’” We may not understand His reasons from our earthly perspective right now, but we can stand firm in His purpose for us. “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28) “For everything comes from Him and exists by His power and is intended for His glory. All glory to Him forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:36)
In Chapter 1, everything the people relied on to dull their senses, to drown out their consciences, to make them feel important (wine, jobs, material possessions) were stripped away, revealing their utter helplessness. There wasn’t just a shortage of toilet paper and cleaning products, there wasn’t anything left to manufacture toilet paper out of! There was no food and people were starving. Joel 1:8-10 says, “Weep like a bride dressed in black, mourning the death of her husband. For there is no grain or wine to offer at the Temple of the Lord. So the priests are in mourning. The ministers of the Lord are weeping. The fields are ruined, the land is stripped bare. The grain is destroyed, the grapes have shriveled, and the olive oil is gone.” The people were mourning, not just for their own losses, but realizing that they needed to repent and turn back to God. But they didn’t even have anything to offer as a sacrifice at the temple, the prescribed way to show repentance and receive forgiveness for sins in the Old Testament.
I find it interesting that, in contrast with some of the other Old Testament prophets, Joel doesn’t list Israel’s specific sins. There is no railing against the idolatry of kings or half-hearted worship by the priests or the unmerciful treatment of the poor in favor of the rich. Instead there is simply a call to the whole population to humble themselves before the Lord. The passages in Joel 1:13-15 and 2:15-17 are similar in that they issue a call to every level of society–rich, poor, leaders, farmers, men, women, old and young. Each one was called to cry out to the Lord. It wasn’t just the king’s job or the priest’s job but each and every person was called to repent. Leaders were to call the people together, but it was the person’s own response that mattered–not what their neighbor did or the person who had hurt them in the past or the pastor at church. I believe that, even today, we are primarily called to worry about our own response to God, not anyone or everyone else’s. These were the chosen people of God! Truly a nation set apart as His children. When this happened, the priests didn’t start pointing fingers at the surrounding nations, talking about how their sinfulness had brought the plague. No, they called for fasting. Think about that–the people were literally starving, and the priests called them to stop their striving, searching for any nibble of food that could be found, and lay themselves bare before the Lord. They called the nation of God to repentance. Surely there were some righteous followers left in the land before the plague! Yet everyone, righteous and unrighteous alike, were affected equally. Even the wild animals were affected! And the solution for all was to cry out to God and get their hearts right with Him!
“That is why the Lord says, ‘Turn to me now, while there is time. Give me your hearts. Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Don’t tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He is eager to relent and not punish.” Praise God! He has made a way to be made right with Him! Even in the Old Testament, we have a glimpse of what Christ’s death and resurrection is all about! Tear your hearts before the Lord! He doesn’t want or need your offerings of food or money. He gave those to you in the first place! What He truly wants is your heart–give it to Him with complete abandon, asking Him to cleanse you of all the wrong things you have ever done (and will do) and be willing to do whatever He leads you to do. And the even better news is that we don’t have to use a priest as a go-between anymore! In the temple, there was a thick, heavy curtain from floor to ceiling blocking off the Holy of Holies, where God’s Spirit dwelt, from the the Holy Place, where only priests were allowed. The common people had to stay in the outer chamber. Only the leader of the priests was allowed into the Holy of Holies and only once a year, bearing a blood sacrifice for the sins of the nation. This pointed forward to the time when Jesus shed His blood on the cross as the sacrifice for all sins for all time. Just before He died, the temple curtain tore from top to bottom. (Luke 23:44-46) We can now go to God anywhere, anytime, because of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection from the dead! (Hebrews 10:19-22) How amazing is that?!?
Even though, currently, “no joyful celebrations are held in the house of our God,” (Joel 1:16) because of the “safer at home” orders due to COVID-19, God’s people can celebrate anywhere they are! Maybe you’re working at home while also trying to teach your kids school topics you don’t understand yourself; or working at an “essential” job, praying you aren’t exposed and catch the virus; or home alone, struggling with isolation and loneliness or even hunger because you don’t have the resources you need (PLEASE call a local church or other organization like United Way for help!); or maybe you’re at a hospital, serving the sick or dying, or you ARE one of the sick or dying! Please know that many, many people around the world are praying! (If you need specific prayer, again, please contact a local church. Many Christian radio stations also have a way to submit prayer requests. Or simply reach out to a friend who knows the Lord.) Best of all, know that you are never alone! God is always there. Whether you’ve been a Christian for many years or you’ve never given God a thought, He is closer than your softest whisper, as close as your deepest thoughts. All you have to do is reach out to Him, aloud or silently, tell Him your fears, your failures, your needs. Thank Him for dying in Your place, believe not only that He can but that He WILL save you, and place your life in His hands. We all must face death here on earth, eventually, but those who rely on God for salvation will have eternal life in His presence, with no more pain, no more suffering, no more fear nor tears.
Joel 2:3 paints the picture of the complete devastation at the time: “Fire burns in front of them, and flames follow after them. Ahead of them the land lies as beautiful as the Garden of Eden. Behind them is nothing but desolation; not one thing escapes.” But in the middle of chapter 2, Joel transitions to a message of hope! After the call to repentance, he reassures the people that God will hear them!
“The Lord will reply, “Look! I am sending you grain and new wine and olive oil,
enough to satisfy your needs…’
Surely the Lord has done great things!
Don’t be afraid, O land.
Be glad now and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things.
Don’t be afraid, you animals of the field,
For the wilderness pastures will soon be green.
The trees will again be filled with fruit;
Fig trees and grapevines will be loaded down once more.
Rejoice, you people of Jerusalem!
Rejoice in the Lord your God!
For the rain he sends demonstrates his faithfulness.
Once more the autumn rain will come, as well as the rains of spring…
The Lord says, ‘I will give you back what you lost…’” Joel 2:19a, 20b-23, 25a
Did you see that? God will restore that which has been destroyed! He will provide for our needs! And we are to rejoice in His great works (past, present, and future) and in His faithfulness. And then Joel once again points us to the New Testament when he says that God will pour out His Spirit on His people–all of His people, not just prophets or priests. (Joel 2:28-29) Sounds a lot like Pentecost, after Jesus ascended to heaven, when the Holy Spirit filled Christ’s followers. In fact, Peter quotes from Joel when preaching to the crowd in Acts 2!
Chapter 3 points even further ahead than our current time. The plague of locusts in Joel was a taste of the punishment that would be received on the future day of the Lord, for those who have not repented. At the time, many Israelites thought that the day of the Lord would be a time of great rejoicing as God rewards His chosen people. Yet Joel reminded them that it would also be a time of great darkness, as God will judge those who are not following Him. Even His holy nation would not escape, if they were not fully committed to Him. If you are struggling with staying home, even with your family and connected to people via the internet, imagine being eternally quarantined in darkness, separated from every comfort, every acquaintance, from God Himself.
In that day of future judgment and redemption, all evil will be destroyed. Evil doesn’t exist without good to compare it to. God is the standard of goodness and holiness. If you take God out of the equation, all things are neutral–random results. Joel tells the nations of the world to prepare for the final battle when evil will be defeated for all time. All wickedness is stored up and will be destroyed at that time. Yet God’s people don’t have to be afraid either of that final battle or the battles we are in the midst of right now because God has His own warriors. (Joel 3:11) God’s people don’t have to rely on their own strength to fight evil. They are to take refuge in His fortress. (Joel 3:16) That day of judgment will be far more terrible than a worldwide plague. But, for God’s children, it will also not be time for fear but of blessing, when we get to dwell in His presence forever. Have you done your part to spread this Good News? People need to hear both of God’s holiness (If there is no sin, there is no need for repentance.) and His loving kindness and mercy. (If He is not love, there is no forgiveness. Without forgiveness, there is no hope.) God is both holy and loving.
I believe that Joel saw the plague not as a curse but as a blessing, in that it brought the people to a place where they had to evaluate their relationship with God. The Lord was giving them another chance to get their hearts in the right place and realign their lives to His will. And I believe that COVID-19 can be the same for us today. Have you ever given your life to God? If not, it’s not too late! If you have already given your life to God, have you actively been living like it? Can the people you interact with on a daily basis tell that you are being controlled by the Holy Spirit? Use this time to turn to God, humble yourself before Him, and ask His Spirit to reveal the areas that you need to repent and recommit your way to His will.
***All scripture passages quoted are from the New Living Translation (NLT)
Andrea Woodworth is the bookkeeper at Children’s Bible Ministries Headquarters in Townsend, TN. She attended Bryan College in Dayton, TN and John Brown University in Siloam Springs, AR, graduating with a B.S. in Broadcasting. She likes to say that God has a sense of humor because she hated math all through school yet God previously led her to work in an accounting department as Payroll Administrator for 8 years, instead of media, preparing her to handle the finances at CBM since May 2016.