The London plague of 1665 was terrible. Most shops closed, orphans roamed the streets, parents wailed, and the dead were borne out daily. On July 16, 1665 businessman Walter Petherick, a widower with four children, took his family to the parish church. The sun was brilliant, the Thames smooth. But the heart of London was sad, and the somber church was packed. The minister read from Habakkuk 3: Fig trees may no longer bloom, or vineyards produce grapes; olive trees may be fruitless, and harvest time a failure; sheep pens may be empty, and cattle stalls vacant—but I will still [rejoice in the Lord].
That evening a horror fell over Petherick. He feared his children would die. He called them together, read Habakkuk 3, sent them to bed, then knelt and prayed earnestly for the first time in years. He cried over each child, saying, “If my children were snatched from me—my fine boys and lovely girls—the treasures that she left me—how could I rejoice in the Lord?” He continued praying in anguish, “Spare him, oh, spare him. Spare her, O Lord; have pity!”
As he prayed he realized he had long neglected prayer and the Lord. He had been more concerned for figs and olives and cattle and harvest than for the things of Christ. He wept, confessed, prayed on—and found peace.
The next year as the Great Fire consumed London. And, somewhere within the area swept by that red, red ocean of flame, was Mr. Petherick’s warehouse containing all, or practically all, his earthly possessions!
But that Sunday night the soul of Walter Petherick knew no such anguish as it had known a year ago. He thought of the ‘supposes.’ He read once more the prophet’s song of defiance and of triumph. He smiled to himself as he reflected that the flames could only take the gifts; they could not rob him of the Giver. ‘Therefore,’ he said to himself, ‘I will rejoice in the Lord and joy in the God of my salvation‘; for ‘it is a small thing to lose the gifts as long as you possess the Giver; the supreme tragedy lies in losing the Giver and retaining only the gifts!’ And that Sunday night, whilst London crackled and blazed, the sleep of Walter Petherick was once more like the sleep of a little child.
Fig trees may no longer bloom, Or vineyards produce grapes; Olive trees may be fruitless, And harvest time a failure; Sheep pens may be empty, And cattle stalls vacant— But I will still celebrate Because the Lord God saves me. The Lord gives me strength. He makes my feet as sure as those of a deer. (Habakkuk 3:17-19a)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). July 16.
1. Frank W. Boreham, A Handful of Stars (New York: Scriptura Press, 1959).