An ancient prayer for a 21st century virus

As the world struggles to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, and as we live through times of global fear and upheaval, it can be hard to know how we should pray. We’re told to ‘cast all our anxieties on him,’ and are reminded of the wonderful reassurance that our Father in heaven ‘cares for you’ (1 Peter 5:7).

And yet it may still feel as if God is out of his depth. Is the COVID-19 outbreak beyond his control? How should we pray when faced with our own mortality in a way such as this?

Perhaps we can find help in a prayer written by our Anglican forebears many hundreds of years ago. It’s entitled In the time of any common Plague or Sickness and is one of several prayers to be used on different occasions in the Book of Common Prayer. It reads as follows:

O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with a plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who are now visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

The 17th century language may be unfamiliar but the prayer reminds us of three truths about God that can help us pray in this midst of this outbreak.

1. God sends sickness to show us he is angry with sinners

The prayer speaks of a time during Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. On one occasion, they rebelled against God’s appointed leaders, Moses and Aaron. Certain ringleaders ignored the fact that God is utterly different to us. They argued that anyone could approach God on their own terms. How wrong they were! God destroyed the ringleaders and sent a plague which killed 14,700 of God’s own people.

The Bible’s account of this story says, ‘Wrath has come out from the LORD; the plague has started’ (Numbers 16:46). Most of us don’t instinctively warm to the idea of an angry God. However, this account from Numbers makes it clear that God was rightly angry. To use the old language of the prayer: in thy wrath [God] didst send a plague. God’s people thought they could just walk up to him as if he were no different from them. But God is not like us; he is utterly holy and totally perfect. As we read elsewhere, ‘God is light; in him there is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5).

God was rightly angry with his sinful people in the wilderness, and he is still rightly angry with a sinful world today. When we turn to the New Testament, we read that, ‘the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Romans 1:18). Just like Israel in the wilderness, all of us instinctively ignore the truth about God. We think we can waltz into his presence on our own terms, perhaps imagining that we’re somehow good enough for God, but how wrong we are!

God is rightly angry with us because we’re all sinners who have rebelled against him. One way in which he demonstrates his anger is by sending sickness into the world. Unlike the people of Israel, we can’t be sure that specific sickness is the consequence for specific sin. In fact, we stray into dangerous territory if we begin to suggest that it is. However, in a general sense viruses and disease show us that we live in a world that is not as it should be. As we read later on in Romans, ‘the creation was subjected to frustration … [it] has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time’ (Romans 8:20, 22).

We live in a world that is under God’s curse; he is rightly angry with sinners. As we hear news of COVID-19 spreading around the world, let’s not hide from this unwelcome truth. By nature, it’s as true for us who’ve come to trust Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, as it is for our friends and loved ones who haven’t.

2. God slays to remind us we are mortal

The prayer continues with reference to another Old Testament plague. In the time of king David, [God] didst slay with a plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand. We probably didn’t learn this story in Sunday School (!) but it refers to the time when king David counted his fighting men.

Perhaps it seemed like a small thing, even a sensible thing to do, and yet, as soon as the numbers were in, David realised his mistake. He said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly by doing this … I have done a very foolish thing’ (1 Chronicles 21:8). What, we may say, was wrong with what David did? The key to the story comes at the beginning: ‘Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel’ (1 Chronicles 21:1).

God himself never does evil, ‘nor does he tempt anyone’ (James 1:13); yet evil is real and active in our world. Satan, whom Jesus called the ‘Father of lies,’ constantly wants us to doubt God’s goodness and love. It seems that David fell right into this trap. He was proud of his own achievements and so trusted in himself, not God. The results were catastrophic for his people: 70,000 dead.

This terrifying plague is a graphic picture of what it means to be human. Woody Allen famously said, ‘I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ We like to pretend otherwise but we are mortal and will all die one day. At the very beginning of the Bible, another man, Adam, along with his wife Eve, also listened to Satan’s lies. They decided to trust themselves instead of God. The consequence was death. God said Adam, as he says to us all, ‘for dust you are and to dust you will return’ (Genesis 3:19).

This disease, currently spreading rapidly around the world and overturning everything we thought was so secure, reminds us that life is not in our hands. Despite the wonders of modern medicine, life and death are in God’s hands. We will not live for ever. Do we remember that today? And if you are not yet trusting in Christ, have you considered what reality may lie beyond your own death when you meet the God who is rightly angry with you?

3. God saves sinners through Jesus, his Son

This ancient prayer is certainly sobering and serious. It is just what we would expect at a time of sickness and plague. And yet it is also full of hope. The two halves of the prayer are connected by these words of hope: … and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners. It then takes us back to those two Old Testament plagues. On the first occasion, [God] didst then accept of an atonement and on the second he didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing. The plague was not the end for his people on either occasion. God had mercy.

In the wilderness we read how, ‘Aaron […] made atonement for [the people]. He stood between the living and the dead and the plague stopped’ (Numbers 16:47-48). In other words, a priest offered a sacrifice which turned away God’s rightful anger against his sinful and rebellious people. God had mercy.

After David’s foolish and sinful census was completed, he ‘saw the angel of the LORD standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in his hand’ (1 Chronicles 21:16). It is a terrifying picture but David responded like Aaron had done many years before; he offered a sacrifice and called out to God. God’s response? ‘The LORD spoke to the angel, and he put his sword back in his sheath’ (1 Chronicles 21:27). God had mercy.

God is not out of his depth. He is not unable to act in the face of COVID-19 or any plague or sickness. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. All things are under his control so it is fitting that this prayer should end may [it] now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness. As we commit ourselves into the hands of health care workers and the decisions of our government, we must also commit ourselves into God’s hands. Ultimately, he is the one who can save us and our loved one from this sickness and from death itself and so he is the one to whom we must pray.

A start but not the end to our prayers

Sickness and death seem like such strange intruders into our otherwise largely comfortable Western lives. Perhaps that is why the current global pandemic seems so unnerving and frightening to many of us and our friends. Yet our forebears were much more familiar with both sickness and death than we are and so they knew how to pray in the face of it.

I suspect it would be very spiritually healthy and beneficial for us to learn to follow their example. Perhaps we could pray their prayer (or a 21st century version of it!) over the weeks and months ahead. We need to ask our Heavenly Father to take this sickness away from our world.

And yet, even though our prayers may start here, they must not stop here. We must also pray with renewed vigour for God to save many from the eternal consequences of sin.

After the census, David was asked which punishment he would prefer to face: three years of famine, three months of military defeat or three days of plague. David responded, ‘I am in deep distress [but] let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is very great‘ (1 Chronicles 21:13). God’s mercy is indeed very great so let’s ask him to have mercy on our families, friends, neighbours, and world.

Jesus ‘took up our infirmities and bore our diseases’ (Matthew 8:17). He suffered even unto death; he offered his own life as a sacrifice for sin; he bore the penalty our rebellion against God deserved; he stood between the living and the dead as he hung on the cross. Let’s put our trust in him for now and the future, and let’s pray others would do the same.