Plagues in the Bible

Throughout the Bible, plagues are sent or withheld solely at the behest of God. The plague was often used as punishment for Israel (Lev. 26:21) or Israel's enemies (Zech. 14:12), or as a clear demonstration of God's power (e.g., the plagues in Egypt, Exod. 9:14). Plagues are also often cited as signs of an end time. (Luke 21:11; Rev. 15:1). 

Terminology 

The English word plague is from the Greek plēgē, which means “blow.” Like the plague, many of the words for disease and suffering in both Hebrew and Greek, as well as in the surrounding cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Hebrew has maggēpâ (“blow,” “pestilence”), makkâ (“blow,” “disease” [especially as punishment]) and nega’ (stroke/plague) while Greek uses plēgē (“blow,” “plague”), mastix (“whip,” “illness”) and patassō (“to smite with disease”).

Plagues as Divine Weapons and Agents

For all ancient Mediterranean cultures, disease or plagues was interpreted as divine judgment. Plagues, as the visible manifestations of unseen weapons, were wielded by the country’s deity to enforce the moral and social code. The 10 plagues in the book of Exodus were the mighty works of God that gained Israel’s release and demonstrated God’s sovereignty and were called “plagues” (Exod. 9:14;11:1), “signs”(Exod. 7:3), and “wonders”(Exod. 7:3;11:9). They showed the God of Moses was sovereign over the gods of Egypt. Similarly, Egyptian and Akkadian texts commonly diagnose a disease as “the hand of [the god so-and-so],” usually naming a lesser, underworld deity as minister of the plague. Compare to the ancient Near Eastern text, the Bible employs a similar phrase, “the hand of God”(Exod. 9:3151 Sam5:11Job 19:21). 

Bronze figure of a bull wearing a sun disk and a cobra (uraeus) on his head

Bronze figure of a bull wearing a sun disk and a cobra (uraeus) on his head. His cult center was in Memphis. 

Plagues as Divine Punishment 

There is no question in the Hebrew or NT mind that plagues are part of the judgment God sends to individuals, families, and nations. The image of plague as a corrective blow from on high is common both for Israel's enemies (Ex 9:14Lev 26:21Num 11:33Deut 28:5929:211 Sam 4:86:4) and against Israel (Num 14:3716:48–5025:8–917–1831:162 Sam 24:21251 Chron 21:222 Chron 21:14Ps 106:29–30Jer 21:6). God himself threatens to send plagues to the Israelites in proportion to their sins (Lev. 26:21) and takes full responsibility for the Egyptian plagues (Jos 24:5). The OT plagues demonstrated God's control over the processes of nature just as do Christ's miracles in the NT.

The Art of Catastrophe

John Martin (1789–1854). The Seventh Plague. 1823. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, PD-old-100–1923)

As God's judgments against Egypt, the 10 plagues of Egypt served as visible attacks in a cosmic contest, “judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Exod. 12:12Num 3:4). These 10 plagues, as divine punishment, caused the discrediting of the gods of Egypt, marked at every step of the progress of the plagues. The accumulated effect of the 10 plagues must have had, and, indeed, had, a great influence upon the Egyptians. 

The Ark Among the Philistines

The Ark Among the Philistines. 

In the history of Israel, the Philistines won a battle and captured the ark of God(1 Sam 4:10, 11). God showed his power by allowing a fatal disease characterized by swellings or tumors to be prevalent. Because of the plague, the Philistines sent the ark on to Gath, but the people of all ages began to have buboes ("emerods") in the region of the groin (1 Sam. 5:9).

The Purpose of Plagues

The central purpose of the plague was the revelation of God. Through the events of the plagues (Exod. 7:17; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 16, 29), Pharaoh and the Egyptians, as well as Moses and the Israelites, would come to know the Lord. In the book of Romans, Paul stated the purpose: "that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth" (Rom. 9:17).

 

Bible Verses about Plague or Pestilence

1.Inflicted by God

Ezekiel 14:19 (ESV) — 19 “Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast,
Habakkuk 3:5 (ESV) — 5 Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels.

2.One of God’s four sore judgments

Ezekiel 14:21 (ESV) — 21 “For thus says the Lord God: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast!
Described as noisome
Psalm 9:13 (ESV) — 13 Be gracious to me, O Lord! See my affliction from those who hate me, O you who lift me up from the gates of death,

3.Israel threatened with, as a punishment for disobedience

Leviticus 26:24 (ESV) — 24 then I also will walk contrary to you, and I myself will strike you sevenfold for your sins.
Leviticus 26:25 (ESV) — 25 And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall execute vengeance for the covenant. And if you gather within your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy.
Deuteronomy 28:21 (ESV) — 21 The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

4.Desolating effects of

Psalm 91:7 (ESV) — 7 A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.

Jeremiah 16:6 (ESV) — 6 Both great and small shall die in this land. They shall not be buried, and no one shall lament for them or cut himself or make himself bald for them.

Jeremiah 16:7 (ESV) — 7 No one shall break bread for the mourner, to comfort him for the dead, nor shall anyone give him the cup of consolation to drink for his father or his mother.

Amos 6:9 (ESV) — 9 And if ten men remain in one house, they shall die.

Amos 6:10 (ESV) — 10 And when one’s relative, the one who anoints him for burial, shall take him up to bring the bones out of the house, and shall say to him who is in the innermost parts of the house, “Is there still anyone with you?” he shall say, “No”; and he shall say, “Silence! We must not mention the name of the Lord.”

5.Equally fatal day and night

Psalm 91:5 (ESV) — 5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,

Psalm 91:6 (ESV) — 6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

6.Fatal to man and beast

Psalm 78:50 (ESV) — 50 He made a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death, but gave their lives over to the plague.

Jeremiah 21:6 (ESV) — 6 And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast. They shall die of a great pestilence.

The Plague upon the Beasts

The plagues upon the beasts

7.Sent upon

1) The Egyptians

Exodus 12:29 (ESV) — 29 At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock.

Exodus 12:30 (ESV) — 30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead.

2) Israel for making the golden calf

Exodus 32:35 (ESV) — 35 Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made.

3) Israel for despising manna

Numbers 11:33 (ESV) — 33 While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague.

4) Israel for murmuring at destruction of Korah

Numbers 16:46–50 (ESV) — 46 And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.” 47 So Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly. And behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. 48 And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. 49 Now those who died in the plague were 14,700, besides those who died in the affair of Korah. 50 And Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting, when the plague was stopped.

5) Israel for worshipping Baal-peor

Numbers 25:18 (ESV) — 18 for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”

6) David’s subjects for his numbering the people

2 Samuel 24:15 (ESV) — 15 So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men.

8.Often broke out suddenly

Psalm 106:29 (ESV) — 29 they provoked the Lord to anger with their deeds, and a plague broke out among them.

9.Often followed war and famine

Jeremiah 27:13 (ESV) — 13 Why will you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the Lord has spoken concerning any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon?

Jeremiah 28:8 (ESV) — 8 The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms.

Jeremiah 29:17 (ESV) — 17 ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten.

Jeremiah 29:18 (ESV) — 18 I will pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them,

10.Egypt often afflicted with

Jeremiah 42:17 (ESV) — 17 All the men who set their faces to go to Egypt to live there shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence. They shall have no remnant or survivor from the disaster that I will bring upon them.

Amos 4:10 (ESV) — 10 “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord.

11.Specially fatal in cities

Leviticus 26:25 (ESV) — 25 And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall execute vengeance for the covenant. And if you gather within your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy.

Jeremiah 21:6 (ESV) — 6 And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast. They shall die of a great pestilence.

Jeremiah 21:9 (ESV) — 9 He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war.

12.Was attributed to a destroying angel

The Cry of Egypt

The Cry of Egypt

Exodus 12:23 (ESV) — 23 For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.

2 Samuel 24:16 (ESV) — 16 And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

13.The Jews sought deliverance from, by prayer

1 Kings 8:37 (ESV) — 37-38 “If there is famine in the land, if there is pestilence or blight or mildew or locust or caterpillar, if their enemy besieges them in the land at their gates, whatever plague, whatever sickness there is, whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house,

2 Chronicles 20:9 (ESV) — 9 ‘If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you—for your name is in this house—and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save.’

14.Predicted to happen before destruction of Jerusalem

Matthew 24:7 (ESV) — 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.

Luke 21:11 (ESV) — 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.

15.Illustrative of

1) God’s judgments upon the apostasy

Revelation 18:4 (ESV) — 4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues;

Revelation 18:8 (ESV) — 8 For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.”

2)The diseased state of man’s heart

1 Kings 8:38 (ESV) — 38 whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house

 

Images shared from:

  • Livingston, David. “The Plagues and the Exodus.” Bible and Spade 4, no. 1 (1991): 4–14.
  • Horne, Charles, and Julius Bewer. The Bible and Its Story: The History, Joshua to 2 Samuel. Vol. 3. New York, NY: Francis R. Niglutsch, 1909.

 

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