Pestilence is a deadly disaster, usually a disease, that affects an entire community. Pestilence is contagious, virulent, and devastating. For example, the Black Plague in Europe that killed over thirty percent of the population during the late Middle Ages was a pestilence. In the Bible, pestilence is usually a sign of God’s judgment on a nation or people group (Deuteronomy 32:24; 1 Chronicles 21:12; Ezekiel 7:14–15). The God who protects and blesses is also the God who sends disaster and pestilence when it accomplishes His righteous purposes on earth (Isaiah 45:7; Ezekiel 5:16–17; Amos 4:10). Pestilence is promised as part of God’s final judgment on the world in Revelation 18:8.
The word translated “pestilence” is often translated as “plague” or “disaster” in new versions of the English Bible. However, because the word is often paired with both of those, it may imply a greater devastation than mere physical disease. Pestilence incorporates any and all forms of public and mass destruction and often accompanies famine (Ezekiel 7:15) or war (Jeremiah 21:9). Jesus forewarned of pestilence when He described the end times (Luke 21:11).
After David’s sinful census, the Lord brought judgment upon Israel in the form of pestilence: “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” (2 Samuel 24:15, ESV). God had also sent pestilence in the aftermath of Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16:49) and as a judgment for Israel’s immorality at Baal Peor (Numbers 25:9), but the epidemic recorded in 2 Samuel 24 was the most deadly ever to hit the Israelites. Then God had mercy and halted the judgment: “When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, ‘Enough! Withdraw your hand’” (verse 16).
Our sovereign God is Lord of any pestilence (Habakkuk 3:5). Knowing that God is in control, we do not need to fear, whatever happens (see Psalm 91:5–6). Believers are not immune from the effects of living in a fallen world, but we are assured that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). God may test our faith through a time of pestilence, but Christians know such an ordeal is not God’s judgment on them (see 1 Corinthians 11:32; James 1:3; 1 Peter 1:7).
Among the various forms of judgment that God brings upon the unrighteous and rebellious is pestilence. Not every epidemic is the direct judgment of God, but the Bible indicates that some instances of pestilence in history have been a punishment for sin. God sent pestilence to punish the Israelites for their ongoing idolatry and disobedience (Deuteronomy 32:24; Jeremiah 42:22), and during the tribulation He will send pestilence to punish the unrepentant: “The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly, festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image” (Revelation 16:2; cf. Revelation 18:8; Matthew 24:7).