The British Foot and Mouth Epidemic
Henry Ford famously, and fatuously, stated “History is bunk.” Far from being “bunk” however history is the unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes, it bears the imprint of his grace and judgements, and is intended, at least in measure, to awaken us to eternal realities. This conviction confronts us every time we open God’s Word. Again and again, the biblical writers refer to God’s dealings in history, to impress on God’s people the vast importance of taking their God seriously. “Remember Lot’s wife,” our Lord Jesus counselled his disciples. It was with this conviction that in 1857, Bishop Ryle wrote a little tract entitled “The Finger of God.” He was quoting, of course, the words of Pharaoh’s magicians as they saw their land afflicted by yet another plague. Ryle explains at the outset of his tract what it was that spurred him to write: “There is an evil among us that demands our serious attention. It forces itself on our notice, whether we like it or not. It has seized the nation by the throat, and will have a hearing. That evil is the cattle plague.”
Ryle goes on to insist that the epidemic has been sent from God,and sent from him “as a special national chastisement… because of our special national sins.” In other words, Ryle is urging us to recognise “The Finger of God” in the calamity that is now afflicting our nation. God judges nations. We have seen this in our studies in the book of Amos. God does not stand idly by while nations live heedless of his general and special revelation – he is a righteous and just God. Who of us would deny the national sins that presently scar our nation? Ryle lists seven sins that blighted national life in his day; covetousness, luxury and the love of pleasure, neglect of the Lord’s day, drunkenness, contempt of the seventh commandment (adultery), a growing tendency to look favourably on the Roman Catholic Church, scepticism and infidelity. As our nation continues its headlong plunge into ruin, we could add to Ryle’s list.
The tragedy, of course, is that historically we have been a vastly privileged nation. Our nation is not a stranger to gospel truth. The Reformation was a great mercy from God. But we have squandered our inheritance. We are much like the prodigal son; we are in the far country, eating pig swill, and in desperate need of coming to our senses. Is this not then how we should view this present epidemic? Should we not see it as a “severe mercy”, a sore providence sent by a just, but merciful God, to awaken us to the folly of sin? It is an indelibly engraved truth that “Righteousness exalts a nation”, and “sin is a reproach to any people.” If we sow to the wind, we inevitably reap the whirlwind. It is because the Lord has the eternal good of sinners at heart that he sends his judgements as awakening providences.
What then are we to do? We should see these sore providences for what they are, “severe mercies.” We should “humble ourselves under God’s almighty hand,” in order that he might lift us up in due time. This was Ryle’s counsel to the people of his own day; but he went on to write, “Alas, we are a proud and conceited nation … We are sadly blind to our many faults and sins.” Is that not precisely how it is with us today? More than ever we need to pray to the One who tells us he is “merciful and gracious,” who is “slow to anger”, who hears and answers prayer.
On the day of Jesus Christ, many will bless God for his “severe mercies.” Yes, his judgements are sore and humbling; but he “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” he would rather, much rather, that we turn to him and live. This is what the cross shouts out to us. There are no lengths to which God will not go, and has not gone, to save us from a lost and ruined eternity. May the Lord graciously give us the wisdom to see his “Finger” at work, and the grace to repent of our national and personal sins.
Ian Hamilton. Minister of Cambridge Presbyterian Church
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