In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but sought help from physicians.2 Chronicles 16:13 (ESV)
I have avoided talking about the coronavirus as long as possible. I wish I could say that this was because of my superior level of faith and courage in the face of adversity. More likely it was because of a childish hope that if I didn’t talk about it, it would just go away.
Ignoring this global crisis is becoming less and less of a sustainable option, even in an out-of-the-way Polish city like Poznań. It is reassuring, in a small way, to know that many of these emergency measures are already in place around the world. For the next few weeks conditions likely will not be much worse, and may even be slightly better, in Poland than in the United States. But so that you can be reassured as well as know how to pray, here are some facts that have emerged in the last few days:
- As of this writing, Poland has approximately 50 confirmed cases of coronavirus, placing it quite low on the list of European countries in terms of coronavirus cases.
- All universities, schools, museums, and cinemas in Poland must remain closed for at least two weeks. Locally, we are noticing that some restaurants are closing as well. As of today, grocery stores remain open and well-supplied.
- My institution, Adam Mickiewicz University, has cancelled classes and events until at least March 24. Dormitory residents can move about freely, but visitors to dormitories are prohibited.
- President Trump’s travel ban yesterday on Europeans arriving in North America leaves U.S. citizens exempt, but finding a flight home will likely become increasingly difficult if not impossible.
- The predominant advice I have gathered from a variety of sources, including from a personal visit to the U.S. Consular Agent in Poznań, suggests that I should stay in Poland until conditions improve.
As you can see, my situation is not currently serious, but it can become serious quite rapidly depending on how the virus spreads here. Yet on average, it seems that the global situation is far more serious, and I am comfortable remaining in Poland and trying to get some semblance of academic work done while the pandemic plows along on its ugly path.
Although I am as clueless as everyone else about where this disease will lead, as well as thoroughly fed up with the completely contradictory and equally unhelpful opinion pieces spreading around on the Internet (Panic! Don’t panic! Wear a mask! Don’t wear a mask! Get a flu shot! Drink elderberry tea!), I will share a few of my own devotional ponderings here.
I’ve seen a lot in recent days, much of it well-thought and well-written, to the effect that the Bible’s most frequent command is not to fear. That’s true. But the Bible is also filled with commands to fear. Yes, really, it is. “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 6:12). “Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:5). “But with you is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:4).
Fear is an integral aspect of the Christian life. As Rev. Jeremy Veldman so memorably preached at a Reformed Youth Services retreat almost a decade ago, the defining motto of the believer should be not “No fear,” but “Know fear.” And what alarms me about the coronavirus is not that we have begun to fear a pandemic but that we have ceased to fear God. Like Asa, in our distress we have turned to physicians.
Obviously this is not a critique of following medical advice, practicing good hygiene, and using the best technologies available to care for the sick. It does, however, involve the admission that this bug is out of human control. It always has been and always will be. And the combined hubris of scientists, doctors, and enlightened bloggers who think that particular international policies or a homemade hand-sanitizer recipe will put this pandemic in the bag must rise up as a stench in the nostrils of our almighty God.
One of the most unnerving things about the coronavirus is its new and unpredictable nature. The best researchers are struggling to discern a pattern behind the spread of the disease. But there is a longstanding biblical pattern to plagues, and it is simply this: Plagues are signs. They are exhibitions of God’s power sent to warn rebellious people when they are in grave danger of forgetting the one who created them. And they are also litmus tests by which to measure how those people respond. This does not mean that an individual’s sickness is a sign of judgment from God–Job would have something to say about that. It does mean, however, that the Lord is offering individuals, communities, and nations a chance in the midst of the coronavirus. And if we fear him, we must take it.
What is that chance?
There is a rich thread of symbolism woven through Old Testament history which I would love to hear expounded by theologians in more detail. I will give just the contours here.
On Mount Moriah in ancient Palestine, Abraham stands with his knife poised over his son Isaac, ready to kill him in obedience to God’s command. And just at the crucial moment, an angel from heaven cries to Abraham to stay his hand. His faith is counted to him as righteousness. But God does not cancel his demand for an offering. Instead he provides a ram which Abraham offers in Isaac’s place. “On the mountain of the Lord it shall be provided” (Genesis 22).
Fast forward to the kingdom of David over Israel. In a moment of hubris, David orders a census of the nation–presumably forgetful of the God upon whom that nation’s prosperity depended. A prophet confronts him with a choice among three divine punishments: three years of famine, three months of war, or three days of pestilence. David says, “I am in great distress. Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.”
So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel, and 70,000 men of Israel fell. And God sent the angel to Jerusalem to destroy it, but as he was about to destroy it, the Lord saw, and he relented from the calamity. And he said to the angel who was working destruction, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was standing by the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. And David lifted his eyes and saw the angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell upon their faces. And David said to God, “Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done great evil. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father’s house. But do not let the plague be on your people.”1 Chronicles 21:14-17
The Lord hears David’s prayer, and David builds an altar to him on the site of the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.
What ties these two stories together? An out-of-the-way verse in 2 Chronicles 2: “Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had appointed, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.”
Two stories, one mountain. Where Abraham stands poised to slay his only son, the Lord’s angel stands poised to destroy his covenant people. And what stays the destruction is the mercy of God and the penitential sacrifice that results.
And on this same mountain the temple was built, where animals would be slaughtered daily as a reminder to the people of the plague that had been averted and the sinfulness that had brought it about. And on this same mountain, hundreds of years later, the temple curtain would be torn in two by a truly perfect sacrifice that broke open the way for true and complete reconciliation with God.
True and complete reconciliation with God, that is, for those who bow the knee to his Son, Jesus Christ. For those who stand in rebellion, the angel still stands with his sword unsheathed and stretched out over the city. In times of prosperity, the mists of affluence and the fogs of distraction may shield him from view. But in moments of crisis he stands in stark contrast against an ominous sky, in the most horrifying sunset known to man.
The sword is not just brandished against an individual. It is brandished against the city, against the microcosm of civilization as a whole, against the whole world.
For Abraham and for David, God relented. But he never revoked the need for a sacrifice. The angel stands as a constant reminder: There must be a sacrifice. There must be a sacrifice. There must be a sacrifice. Who will be sacrificed? Will it be the Lamb of God? Or will it be you?
As for me, the Lord says in Psalm 2, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill. He shall rule the nations with a rod of iron. So be wise, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear. Rejoice with trembling. Bow and kiss the Son, lest he be angry, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
The coronavirus is not the sword. The coronavirus is the merciful warning before the sword.
And the most effective prevention against that sword depends not on nutrition, lifestyle, or vaccination. Where hand-washing appears in the Bible, it represents a failed attempt to maintain one’s own sense of righteousness before God. Hygiene will not help; only posture will. The answer is in your knees. Bow! Bow to the Lord! Serve him with fear! For too long we, as individuals and as nations, have blundered on in catastrophic disregard of our tenuous status before God. And if we miss this chance, how many more can we expect to receive?
Fear–fear is the spiritual answer to the coronavirus. We must fall on our knees and beg for the Lord’s mercy in light of a global catastrophe over which we have absolutely no control. We must do this not just individually but together. Our churches and communities, and, if the Lord grants us this mercy, even our governments, ought to call for a shared day of fasting and prayer to implore God for forgiveness and for help.
For there is a promise associated with Mount Moriah and, spiritually, with the deliverance that it represents:
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name 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.2 Chronicles 7:13-14
I really don’t know what to do at this point other than just that. That’s where I must begin and end. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great. Let us not fall into the hands of man.