An educational look at how Christians have historically thought of natural disasters. Here is Thomas Brooks writing after the Great Fire of London, September 2–5, 1666:
By Thomas Brooks, 1670
A serious discourse concerning “The Great Fire”
which recently turned our once renowned City
into a ruinous heap. Also the several lessons
that are incumbent upon those whose houses
have escaped the consuming flames.
Fire, as a symbol in Scripture
“So He poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart.” Isaiah 42:25
This 25th verse is the scripture that I intend to speak something to—as the Lord shall assist. Now the proposition which I only intend to insist upon is this, namely,
That God is the author or efficient cause, of all the great calamities and dreadful judgments which are inflicted upon cities and countries, and in particular, of that of fire.
Now, that God is the author or efficient cause of all the great calamities and dreadful judgments which are inflicted upon cities and countries, will evidently appear to every man’s understanding, that will but take the pains to read over the 26th chapter of Leviticus, and the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy, with that 14th chapter of Ezekiel, from verse 13 to verse 22.
That God is the author or efficient cause of this dreadful judgment of fire, which is at any time inflicted upon cities and countries, will sufficiently appear in these following scriptures:
Amos 1:14, “I will set fire to the walls of Rabbah that will consume her fortresses amid war cries on the day of battle, amid violent winds on a stormy day.” Rabbah, their capital city, was a cruel, bloody, covetous, and ambitious city; and therefore, rather than it should escape divine vengeance, God will kindle a fire in it, and burn it with his own hands!
Amos 3:6, “When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?”
Amos 4:10-11, “I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, declares the Lord.” Here “I” is emphatic and exclusive, as if he should say, “I, and I alone!”
Ezek. 20:47-48, “Say to the southern forest,”—that is, to Jerusalem, “‘Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says—I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it. Everyone will see that I the Lord have kindled it; it will not be quenched!” Men shall see that it was God who kindled the fire, and not man, and therefore it was beyond man’s skill or power to quench it, or to overmaster it.
Jer. 7:20, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says—My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and beast, on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground, and it will burn and not be quenched!”
The point being thus proved; for the further opening of it, premise with me these things—
(1.) First, That great afflictions, dreadful judgments, are likened unto FIRE, in the blessed Scriptures.
Jer. 4:4, “My wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done– burn with no one to quench it.”
Jer. 21:12, “My wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done– burn with no one to quench it!”
Lam. 2:3-4, “In fierce anger he has cut off every horn of Israel. He has withdrawn his right hand at the approach of the enemy. He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire that consumes everything around it. Like an enemy he has strung his bow; his right hand is ready. Like a foe he has slain all who were pleasing to the eye; he has poured out his wrath like fire on the tent of the Daughter of Zion!”
Ezek. 15:7, “I will set my face against them. Although they have come out of the fire, the fire will yet consume them. And when I set my face against them, you will know that I am the Lord!”
Ezek. 22:20-23, “I will melt you down in the heat of my fury, just as copper, tin, iron, and lead are melted down in a furnace. I will gather you together and blow the fire of my anger upon you, and you will melt like silver in fierce heat. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have poured out my fury on you!”
Thus you see that great afflictions, great judgments, are likened unto fire.
QUESTION. But in what respects are great afflictions, great judgments, like unto fire?
ANSWER. In these eight respects they are like unto fire—
[1.] First, Fire is very DREADFUL and TERRIBLE to men’s thoughts, hearts, and apprehensions. How dreadful was the fire of Sodom, and the fire of London—to all who were near it, or spectators of it! It is observable that some are set out in the blessed Scriptures as monuments of most terrible and dreadful vengeance, whom the kings of Babylon roasted in the fire; of them, it is said, shall be taken up a curse, Jer. 29:21-22. When any imprecated great vengeance from the Lord upon any one, it is said, “The Lord make you like Ahab and Zedekiah, whom the kings of Babylon roasted in the fire.” It is very dreadful and terrible for a man to have the least member of his body frying in the fire; but how terrible and dreadful must it be for a man’s whole body to be roasted in the fire! Just so, are the judgments of the Lord very terrible and dreadful to men. “My flesh trembles for fear of you; and I am afraid of your judgments,” Psalm 119:120. Hab. 3:16, “When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble.” But,
[2.] Secondly, Fire is very PAINFUL and TORMENTING—in which respects hell-torments are compared to fire—so are great afflictions and judgments; they are very painful and tormenting, they put a land into great travail. Next to the pangs of conscience, and the pangs of hell, there are none compared to those pangs which are bred and fed by terrible judgments, Isaiah 26:17-18. But,
[3.] Thirdly, Fire is of a DISCOVERING nature; it enlightens men’s eyes to see those things that they did not see before. Just so, do the terrible judgments of God enlighten men’s minds and understandings sometimes to know the Lord, Rev. 15:4; Ezek. 21:3-7. Hence it is that, after judgments threatened, God does so often tell them that they shall know the Lord. Sometimes God, by his judgments, enlightens men’s minds to see such an evil in sin that they never saw before; and to see such a vanity, mutability, impotency, and uncertainty in the creature that they never saw before; and to see such a need of free-grace, of rich mercy, and of infinite favor and goodness, that they never saw before; and to see such majesty and awesomeness in God that they never saw before, Psalm 66:3, 5. Job 37:22, “God comes in awesome majesty!” But,
[4.] Fourthly, Fire is PROBATORY and REFINING. And so are the judgments of God; they will try what metal men are made of; they will try whether men are sound and sincere, or hypocritical and hollow; whether men are real Christians or nominal Christians; whether they are thorough Christians or almost Christians; whether their graces are true or counterfeit; and whether they have much, or but a little, grace, Isaiah 1:25; Mal. 3:1-3; Acts 26:28, 29. Isaiah 31:9, “The Lord’s fire is in Zion, and his furnace in Jerusalem.” Zech. 13:9, “And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried.” 1 Pet. 4:12, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you.” Stars shine brightest in the darkest night. Grapes come not to the proof until they come to the press. Spices smell sweetest when pounded. Young trees root the faster for shaking. Vines are the better for bleeding. Gold looks the brighter for scouring. Juniper smells sweetest in the fire. The application is easy. But,
[5.] Fifthly, Fire is of a CONSUMING and DEVOURING nature, as we have lately found by woeful experience! Psalm 18:8, “Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it!” Jer. 15:14, “My anger blazes forth like fire, and it will consume them!” Ezek. 22:31, “So now I will pour out my fury on them, consuming them in the fire of my anger. I will heap on them the full penalty for all their sins, says the Sovereign Lord!” Isaiah 66:15-16; Psalm 21:9; Jer. 17:4; Ezek. 38:19-20.
Natural fire is a great devourer—but mystical fire, the fire of divine wrath, is infinitely a greater devourer. Men may stand before a natural fire—but no man has ever been able to stand before the devouring fire of divine wrath. The anger and wrath of God against wicked men is exceeding hot; it is a burning, fiery, flaming wrath, against which they are never able to stand! Isaiah 27:4, “Who would set the briers and thorns against me in battle? I would go through them, I would burn them together.” Briers and thorns are as well able to stand before a devouring fire—as wicked men are able to stand before the smoking wrath of that God who is “a consuming fire,” Heb. 12:29.
[6.] Sixthly, Fire breaks out SUDDENLY and UNEXPECTEDLY. In an hour, in a moment, when no man thinks of it, when no man looks for it; as you see by that recent dreadful fire, which in a few days turned a glorious city into a ruinous heap. Just so, the judgments of God, they come suddenly and unexpectedly upon the sons of men. Witness the judgments of God which came upon the old world of Noah’s time, Sodom and Gomorrah, Nadab and Abihu, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram: 1 Thes. 5:3, “For when they shall say, peace and safety, then sudden destruction comes upon them, as travail upon a woman with child, and they shall not escape.” Carnal security is a certain forerunner of desolation and destruction. The apostle, by the similitude he uses, shows that the destruction of the wicked is—
(3.) inevitable, Mat. 24:37-39; Gen. 19.
[7.] Seventhly, Fire is IMPARTIAL. It makes no difference between rich and poor, high and low, honorable and base, bond and free, male and female, etc. Just so, the judgments of God are impartial, they reach all sorts and ranks of people. But,
[8.] Eighthly and lastly, Fire is VIOLENT and IRRESISTIBLE. We have had as dreadful a proof of this in the late dreadful conflagration of London, as ever any people have had since the Lord Jesus was on earth. Just so, are the judgments of God violent and irresistible. Witness the raging pestilence and the bloody sword that, in 1665 and 1666, has sent many score thousands to their long homes. And thus you see how that metaphorically or typically, great and sore judgments do resemble fire. But,
(2.) Secondly, Premise this with me: Fire is sometime attributed unto GOD. Heb. 12:29, “Our God is a consuming fire.” Sometimes fire is attributed to Christ: Mal. 3:2, “But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appears? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap.” And sometimes fire is attributed to the Holy Spirit: Mat. 3:11, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance—but he who comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear; he shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”—that is, with that fiery Holy Spirit, that spirit of judgment and of burning wherewith the filth of the daughter of Zion is washed away, Isaiah 4:4. But,
(3.) Thirdly, Premise this with me: The word fire in Scripture is sometimes used by the Holy Spirit to set forth SIN by. Isaiah 9:18, “For wickedness burns as the fire, it shall devour the briers and thorns, and shall kindle in the thickets of the forest, and they shall mount up like the lifting up of smoke.” So the burning lust of uncleanness: Romans 1:27, “They burned in lust one towards another.” So 1 Cor. 7:9, “It is better to marry than to burn.” And so Sodom was first in a flame of burning lusts, before it was burned with fire from heaven. But this is not the fire that is here meant in the proposition which we are upon. But,
(4.) Fourthly, Premise this with me: Fire is sometimes taken for the blessed ANGELS. Psalm 104:4, “Who makes his angels spirits, his ministers a flaming fire,” Heb. 1:7. Hence it is that the angels are called seraphim, which signifies burning or flaming ones, and they are set forth by this name to note their irresistible power, Isaiah 6:2; for as there is no withstanding of the furious flames, so there is no withstanding of these burning or flaming ones. Jerome, Musculus, and several others, are of opinion that the angel which destroyed Sennacherib’s army of a hundred and eighty-five thousand in one night, that he did it by fire, burning their bodies, their garments being untouched, 2 Kings 19:35. But the fire in the proposition cannot be understood of the blessed angels, for several reasons not here to be alleged. But,
(5.) Fifthly, Premise this with me: Fire in Scripture is sometimes taken for WARS. “The fire of your enemies”—that is, the wars that shall be among the nations—”shall devour them.” “You shall be visited of the Lord with a flame of devouring fire; but the nations that fight against the altar shall be a dream,” Isaiah 26:11-12, etc., and 29:6-7. Now fire in this sense is not to be excluded out of the proposition. But,
(6.) Sixthly, Premise this with me: Fire sometimes notes the special presence of God in a way of special love and favor to his people. In Exod. 3:2 you read how “the Lord appeared unto Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.” Here was a representation of the church’s affliction, which was then in Egypt, a house of bondage, in the midst of a fiery furnace, Deut. 4:20. But now the Lord was in the bush, while the bush—the dry bush, or the bramble-bush, as the Hebrew word signifies—was in a flaming fire. In Deut. 32:16 you read of “the good-will of him who dwelt in the bush.” God was there in a way of merciful protection and preservation. They were in the fire—but the Lord was with them in the fire; in all their fiery trials God did bear them company. But,
(7.) Seventhly, Premise this with me: In the blessed Scriptures we read of supernatural fire, of fire that came down from above, and that first as a sign of God’s anger. Just so, fire came down from heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah, Gen. 19:24. Also fire came down from heaven on those who offered incense in the conspiracy of Korah, Num. 16:35. And so fire came down from heaven on the two captains and their fifties, 2 Kings 1:10-12.
Secondly, we read of fire that came down from heaven as a sign and token of God’s favor. And so fire came down from heaven on the sacrifice of Solomon, and on the sacrifice of Elijah, 2 Chron. 7:1; 2 Kings 18:38. God in those times did delight to show his special love and favor to his precious servants by fire from heaven. But in the proposition we are to understand not supernatural—but material fire. But,
(8.) Eighthly and lastly, Premise this with me: Fire is sometimes taken literally for that material fire which consumes houses, towns, cities, and the most stately structures. Jer. 21:10, “For I have set my face against this city for evil, and not for good, says the Lord; it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire!” 2 Chron. 35:13, 2:3, 2 Chron. 36:19; 2 Kings 19:18, and 21:6; Psalm 74:7; Deut. 13:16. Now this material fire is the fire which is meant in the proposition. O sirs! God is as much the author or efficient cause of this judgment of fire, as he is the author or efficient cause of sword, famine, and pestilence. This I have in part proved already—but shall more abundantly make it good in that which follows.