The Horsemen of Revelation: The Black Horse of Famine

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The food-rich countries' potential to feed the entire planet makes it hard to imagine a famine extensive enough to thrust the earth into a global crisis. Yet the third seal of Revelation 6, employing the symbol of a black horse, describes just such a horrifying scene. How could this happen? What would be its consequences?

Black horse of famine described in Revelation 6.
Source: Illustration: Sherwin Schwartzrock & Jonathan Koelsch

People are—and have long been—suffering from famine in many parts of the world. Famine has returned to Ethiopia where more than 7 million are in desperate need of emergency food supplies in order to avert starvation. Perhaps another 2 million require immediate help in Eritrea.

For Africa as a whole, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared in March that 23 of the continent's 53 countries—almost half—face dire food shortages.

More than two million people have died in the past decade in North Korea due to food shortages caused by a combination of flood, drought and bad government policy created by Kim Jong Il, the nation's dictatorial ruler, who currently threatens the use or sale of nuclear weapons. Periodically he has used his threats to gain aid, including food and oil, from the world community.

The scourge of famine has appeared cyclically throughout history. Often it is caused by drought, blight, floods and other natural means beyond human control. At other times the causes are all too human—war, social unrest and breakdown, and inefficient or outright malevolent government policy.

In today's global society, there should be no real obstacle to alleviating the effects of food shortages wherever they occur. Modern agricultural methods and generally stable weather patterns produce bumper crops in the developed world resulting in massive levels of food production, more than enough to feed the hungry of the world.

There is no reason to expect people to starve when this is coupled with the means to transport food to any location in the world. Yet famine and suffering from food shortages continue—and at times even grow.

It's easy to dismiss famine when it's on the other side of the planet or some far-off, isolated corner of the globe. Is it conceivable famine could spread to impact the wealthy, food-rich countries of the world?

The third horseman rides

In the last two issues of The Good News we covered the meaning of the first two horsemen of Revelation 6—religious deception and war. We come now to the third horseman's ride. What does it portend for the world?

Notice what it says in Revelation:6:5-6: "When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come and see.' So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, 'A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine.'" What does this mean?

The Expositor's Bible Commentary explains regarding this passage: "This amount [of money] suggests food prices about twelve times higher than normal ... and implies inflation and famine conditions (Matthew:24:7). A quart of wheat would supply an average person one day's sustenance. Barley was used by the poor to mix with the wheat." Food shortages cause inflation in food prices. And higher prices make the remaining food harder to afford.

Oil and wine, though, are typically symbols of plenty. The reference here could indicate there will be pockets of abundance in the midst of famine. Christ's reference to famine "in various places" (Matthew:24:7) indicates the same possibility.

The cry to not "harm" the oil and wine could represent attempts to safeguard the pockets of abundance against plundering. However, The Living Bible interprets the phrase in Revelation to mean that there is practically no oil and wine left. That would also fit with the admonition that what is left not be harmed—lest there be none left at all.

In any case, the opening of the third seal indicates the onset of a period of severe famine unlike any in the past. While famines of varying severity have struck throughout history, it appears things will get much worse. Most of us have seen pictures of famine in our time, usually in parts of drought-stricken Africa. In 1984, a famine in Ethiopia developed through natural means, but was aggravated by the unstable government. Millions were at risk of starvation.

Thankfully, a massive humanitarian effort from around the world stopped the famine from killing as many as predicted. (Even then, corrupt government officials withheld some of the donated food as a weapon to starve their political opponents.)

This was testimony to the generosity of the many wealthy nations and the global means of transport that is available. However, if a nation's social fabric begins to unravel, larger problems can set in. The crises in Africa may be a foretaste of larger tribulations to come.

Prelude to an apocalypse?

The six southern African countries of Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique currently suffer from large food shortages and will need help for months to come. Prolonged drought and bad farming practices have contributed to the problem.

But more recently another factor is having a growing impact on the ability of these countries to feed themselves: A large number of agricultural workers are infected with or have died from AIDS.

About 25 percent of the adult population of these countries now is infected with the virus. As more adults succumb to this plague, fewer people are left to plant and harvest the crops. Worse yet, as the adult community dies, the knowledge needed for growing food for survival is not passed on to the younger generation. Consequently, the society loses its ability to produce food—even if weather and soil conditions were optimal.

An article in Britain's The Economist describes a woman whose tragic personal example depicts vividly this larger unfolding catastrophe.

"In the past, when food was short, Jenerah Michelo, a Zambian subsistence farmer, could buy or beg from neighbours. But then her husband died of AIDS, leaving her with six children, a nearly empty food pot and a debilitating virus in her bloodstream. Now she is too feeble to forage, and neighbors are reluctant to help because she is a 'patient.'

"Foreign donors sometimes bring food and tablets to treat convulsions. But the medicine should be taken after a full meal, 'so I get side effects, I become weak and dizzy, I cannot manage.' She cannot get hold of anti-AIDS drugs, but if she could, they too would be useless without adequate nourishment" ("Cursed, Twice Over," Feb. 13, 2003).

In his January 2003 State of the Union address, U.S. President George W. Bush pledged $15 billion in emergency medical aid to Africa over the next five years. This is a generous, noble and helpful step in a mounting battle, but medicine alone will not solve the crisis.

Other needs, not the least of which is education, come into play. Food is also a major factor. A person infected with the HIV virus needs extra calories, especially protein, as well as powerful drugs, to keep the infection from developing into full-blown AIDS. When there are massive food shortages, the death toll keeps rising.

In large portions of rural Africa today, the future looks bleak. In fact, the future is dying. The combination of famine and disease is hitting mainly those who are in their most productive years, those under 40.

A majority of victims are women who traditionally do most of the farming. As parents die, the children leave school to take care of themselves and other children in the family. The tribal village has been the traditional backbone of African society, but it is beginning to crack under the strain of loss from the famine.

A social breakdown is occurring in many areas of Africa due to the twin problems of famine and disease. The Economist ended its report by saying: "Indeed, there are signs of such a breakdown in Mrs. Michelo's village: her family cannot help her, her neighbours will not, and some have even been stealing her chickens. Such theft was unknown during previous food shortages, as was hoarding by the better off, which has now become commonplace" (ibid.).

Devastating famines of the past

Famine is listed in Revelation 6 as following the previous horsemen of religious deception and war. While nature—drought, floods and insect infestations—is often the cause of famine, quite often war and misrule, as well as malignant political or religious ideology, are prime factors. A look at past famines gives us an idea of how devastating they can be.

During the 20th century two humanly engineered famines brought devastating consequences. In 1932-34, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sought to suppress Ukrainian nationalism by forcing a system of collectivized agriculture on the peasants. Food supplies were removed to the cities, crops failed and food supplies were barred from the region. This manmade famine resulted in the starvation of between 6 and 8 million people. It was a state-sponsored attempt at genocide.

China's "Great Leap Forward" in 1958-60 resulted in mismanaged food production and the disruption of distribution chains. Fertile rice fields were plowed over and factories built on them. Farms were collectivized. Farmers who knew only the land were at a loss in factories. Coupled with bad weather, the result was the death of 20 million people by starvation during 1960 and 1961.

Famine in prophecy

Let's step back in history to the book of Leviticus for a look at God's warning to man through the example of Israel. Here we can see the consequences of false religion, war, famine and pestilence when Israel was unfaithful to God.

Leviticus 26 is a chapter of promises from God—the promise of blessings for obedience and of curses for disobedience. The first step toward blessings is faithfulness in the worship of the true God. "You shall not make idols for yourselves; neither a carved image nor a sacred pillar shall you rear for yourselves; nor shall you set up an engraved stone in your land, to bow down to it; for I am the LORD your God. You shall keep My Sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary: I am the LORD" (Leviticus:26:1-2).

For keeping His statutes and commandments, God promises in the next verses the necessities for plentiful food production: "rain in its season" so that "the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit ... you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely."

Continuing, He says: "I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none will make you afraid; I will rid the land of evil beasts, and the sword will not go through your land ... For I will look on you favorably and make you fruitful, multiply you and confirm My covenant with you" (Leviticus:26:3-9).

By living righteously and avoiding false religion, Israel would be able to receive divine blessings of good weather, fertile soil and plentiful rainfall. Peace, material abundance, good health and the absence of disease would follow. In other words, the curses like those accompanying the horsemen of apocalyptic disaster would not go through their land as long as they sincerely obeyed God and worshipped Him in truth.

This promise will be applied to all nations after the return of Christ. In time, they also will receive these same promised benefits when they, too, learn to live the way God has revealed in His Word. But until then, we will continue to see cyclical occurrence of famine, from all sorts of causes, resulting in millions of people dying when they could have lived.

Terrifying look into the future

In Deuteronomy 28 God details the horror of a people stricken with the curse of famine. It demands our attention so we may understand what lies ahead for the world when the third horseman rides.

For disobedience, God says He would bring a nation from afar to besiege and blockade the cities. All the food stores would be forcibly taken. The resulting starvation would cause the social structure to unravel at a frightening speed. The results are horrifying to contemplate.

"You shall eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and your daughters ... in the siege and desperate straits in which your enemy shall distress you. The sensitive and very refined man among you will be hostile toward his brother, toward the wife of his bosom, and toward the rest of his children whom he leaves behind, so that he will not give any of them the flesh of his children whom he will eat, because he has nothing left in the siege ..." (Deuteronomy:28:53-55).

Famine-induced cannibalism is the lowest depth of depravity to which a nation can sink. Yet scenes like this have occurred in history —and God says they will happen again. Reading this in the light of today's reported tragedies is profoundly sobering. But such deeply distressing events inevitably occur when men and women become entrenched in their disobedience to God's laws.

Hope in the midst of horror

Jesus Christ wept over the fate that was about to fall on Jerusalem in the first century. He knew that terrible scenes would occur within the "city of peace." He wanted to gather the people into a loving and protective embrace and keep them from such tragedy.

But their sins and defiant attitude would not allow them to repent and escape what was coming. So the only course left for them was impending desolation and the cruel lessons of experience (see Matthew:23:37-39). The worst horrors described above in Deuteronomy 28 fell on them during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Those horrors will only grow as mankind continues its self-destructive course of rejecting God.

Nothing is more basic to human survival than food and water. Yet the entire world is wholly dependent on elements totally beyond human control—namely sufficient rainfall, sunshine, temperate weather and fertility of the earth beneath our feet—to keep us alive.

The many recurring reports of droughts, floods, losses of fertile land and disturbed weather patterns should wake us out of our complacency. Ultimately, we are dependent on God for everything. When He decides to pull the plug on the systems that support human life on earth, it will be too late to realize how much we've taken these things for granted.

One horseman is yet to ride in this grim scenario. We will see in our next installment that he rides in tandem with this third horseman. We have not yet seen the full depths of the catastrophe that awaits the world as the seals of Revelation 6 are opened and the human tragedies described in them unfold.

In His Olivet prophecy, Jesus gave the first description of the events symbolized by these seals—and His prophecy is unerring. He foretold that there will be a time of great tribulation, greater than any previous world conflict, and unless that time is cut short, no human flesh will survive.

No treaty, no cease-fire, no human being, will be able to stop this end-of-the-age cataclysm. Events will drive the world into an out-of-control spin. But for the sake of a remnant called "the elect," His true followers, "those days will be shortened" (Matthew:24:21-22).

Too often, people speak of this period as "the end of the world" or by some other similarly gloomy name. Terrible as that time will be, the world will not end and human life will not be extinguished. The Bible gives us hope that the light will dawn out of the chaos at the end of this age. It is when we keep our eyes firmly focused on this truth that we can have hope beyond the tensions of our present world.

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