I grew up hearing the word epidemic. After World War II many infectious diseases still threatened entire populations, especially children. And the medical profession was acutely aware of the international devastation caused by influenza in 1919 following WWI. We all know nowadays that the virus that we called the ‘flu’ mutates almost every year, so elderly folk and people with underlying medical problems are given a new vaccine injection each autumn by way of protection.
As a child I gained a lifetime’s immunity from chicken pox, measles and mumps after I had contracted all three complaints. Nowadays an MMR jab does the trick (against measles and mumps; the ‘R’ representing rubella, commonly called ‘German measles’ back then, can cause serious problems for pregnant women). Whooping cough was also still a major threat during my earliest years.
Another epidemic in those days that became the focus of scientific research was polio (= poliomyelitis) known to us as infantile paralysis. But scarlet fever, that had previously sent young patients into isolation hospitals, had been conquered. Tuberculosis was currently under fire, as I personally discovered when TB infected both of my lungs when I was 18 years of age. With prolonged bed rest, fresh air and newly discovered antibiotic medication I recovered fully within a year or so, and have enjoyed good health during more than six decades thereafter.
Now in the 21st century a fresh war is being waged internationally against the Covid-19 virus, and the word in general use these days is pandemic. Well, how about this? According to Collins’ Dictionary the term means much the same as epidemic!
This is defined as ‘a disease affecting persons over a wide geographic area.’ The word derives from ancient Greek for ‘general’ [pan as in panorama, an overview] and ‘people’ [demos as in democracy, government of the people by the people]. It compares easily with epidemic that is Latin for ‘among the people’.
Incidentally, the biblical word pestilence means ‘any epidemic outbreak of a deadly and highly infectious disease’. The first four letters of the word offer the clue that the subject is not a topic to joke about – it’s a pest!
A plague is defined as: ‘any widespread and unusually highly contagious disease that afflicts or harasses.’
I recently bought the ‘Dictionary of English down the ages’ by Linda and Roger Flavell who tell us that their book is ‘a study of words and phrases born out of historical events great and small.’ When I got to their reference to the year 1347 and the word plague appeared, I learned that:
‘The Black Death’ – the common name for a ‘bubonic plague’ – became endemic across Europe in 1347, reaching England probably by infectious sailors the following year.
‘Its victims first experienced a raging fever. Then painful swellings (buboes) appeared in . . . groin and armpits, followed by the eruption of blackish blisters. Vomiting and delirium were other unpleasant symptoms. Death occurred within a day or two . . . Sometimes whole communities perished.’
‘It is reckoned that about a third of the population of England perished.’
‘More localised outbreaks followed, in 1360 and 1379 for instance, which took a further toll’ and ‘again in 1592-3.’ And,
‘. . . in 1665 the Great Plague broke out in London. . . This was the last epidemic of bubonic plague to inflict the country. The particular reasons for its sudden disappearance are unknown but new quarantine regulations adopted by European ports were doubtless an important factor.’ (Flavell)
I thought I knew where I should search for the word ‘plague’ in my Bible, but I found almost no use of it in the story of the ten plagues that were put upon the Egyptian people who had enslaved the Hebrew nation in the months leading up to their exodus under Moses. When I revisited those famous plagues in the Greek version of the Old Testament used in Judaism (the Septuagint; LXX) I could not see the word plaga anywhere. However, in various English versions of the whole saga I discovered these pandemics occurred when the Lord ‘smote’ and ‘struck’ and ‘hurled’ these fearsome judgements with a ‘blast’ (all of which convey the same sense of meaning as plaga, namely to ‘strike’ or to ‘smite’ and ‘wound’. [See Exodus 7:17, 20, 25; 8:2, 16; 9;3, 5, 15, 15; 12:12, 27; 15:4, 8 New Living Translation.]
Significantly, the book of Revelation overflows with the term plaga when prophesying the release of the Christian community from the tyranny of the Roman Empire – as mirrored in Israel’s exodus from Egypt’s slavery [see Revelation 9:20; 11:6; 15:1, 6, 8; 16:9, 21, 21; 18:4, 8; 21:9; 22:18.] In fact plaga is also used in a literal sense of to strike or smite, as a ‘fatal wound ‘ in Revelation 16:21, 21.
THE foundation for deliverance from plagues
Finally, I saw in the concordance of the Septuagint that the word plaga was used in Isaiah 53:8, where the prophet foretold the experience of our Saviour on Calvary;
‘. . . he was struck down for the rebellion of my people’ (New Living Translation).
As I was about to conclude this study, the words of a hymn from my earliest days started to press into my memory. I’ll repeat a few lines in this week that will include Good Friday 2021:
Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood. Hallelujah! What a Saviour.
Lifted up was he to die. “It is finished” was his cry.
Now in heaven exalted high. Hallelujah! What a Saviour!
When he comes our glorious King, all his ransomed home to bring,
Then anew this song we’ll sing: Hallelujah! What a Saviour.
Meanwhile, being aware of the serious effects of long Covid on some people known to us, let’s pray in the name of the great physician himself for divine intervention beyond the faithful efforts of NHS workers and political law makers.