A sudden tremor or a shaking of the earth’s surface as a result of forces at work within the globe. The Hebrew noun raʹʽash refers not only to the “quaking” of the earth, or an “earthquake” (1Ki 19:11; Am 1:1), but also to the “tremors” caused by a tramping army (Isa 9:5, ftn), the “rattling” of war chariots or a javelin (Jer 47:3; Job 41:29), and the “pounding” of horses (Job 39:24). The Greek sei·smosʹ (earthquake) denotes a quaking, shaking, or trembling.
Shakings and tremblings of the earth occurred throughout Biblical history, at times as a result of natural geologic forces (Zec 14:5) and sometimes as direct acts of God for judicial purposes or for purposes involving his servants. The geology of the area explains Israel’s past history of seismic activity, which still is not finished.
The temple area of Jerusalem is situated on a line of structural weakness within the earth. The Mosque of el-Aqsa, located in the temple area (not the Dome of the Rock, which is a shrine), has been repeatedly damaged by earthquake activity.
A tremendous earthquake, apparently coupled with volcanic action, provided an awe-inspiring setting for the inauguration of the Law covenant at Sinai. (Ex 19:18; Ps 68:8) Jehovah had a direct hand in this display of power, for he spoke out of the mountain by means of an angel.
At times the fear-inspiring force of earthquakes has been an evidence of Jehovah’s hand in judging violations of his law. (Na 1:3-6) An earthquake was the executional method used by Jehovah against the rebellious Dathan, Abiram, and the household of Korah; the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them down alive into Sheol. (Nu 16:27, 32, 33) Elijah experienced a quaking of the earth before Jehovah spoke to correct his viewpoint and to send him back to further service assignments. (1Ki 19:11-18) Earthquakes have been a miraculous aid to Jehovah’s people, as when Jonathan and his armor-bearer courageously attacked a Philistine outpost. Jehovah backed up their faith in him by bringing about an earthquake that threw the entire camp of the Philistines into confusion, so that these killed off one another and were thoroughly routed.
On the day of Jesus’ death, about three o’clock in the afternoon, an earthquake took place, splitting rock-masses open, causing the memorial tombs to be opened, and causing dead bodies to be thrown from their graves. The curtain of the sanctuary in the temple rebuilt by Herod was torn in two, from top to bottom. Prior to this, darkness had fallen over the land. Some think that volcanic action was involved, for often volcanoes belch out smoke and dust that blacken the sky. But there is no real evidence that there was any volcanic action connected with this earthquake. (Mt 27:45, 51-54; Lu 23:44, 45) Another earthquake occurred on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, when an angel descended from heaven and rolled away the stone from in front of his tomb. (Mt 28:1, 2) The apostle Paul and his companion Silas, while in prison at Philippi, had their prayers and songs of praise answered by a great earthquake that opened the prison doors and loosened the bonds of the prisoners. This led to the conversion of the jailer and his household.
Jesus foretold earthquakes in significant number and intensity as a feature of the sign of his presence. (Mt 24:3, 7, 8; Lu 21:11) Since 1914 C.E., there has been an increase in the number of earthquakes, resulting in much distress. With data obtained from the National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, supplemented by a number of standard reference works, a tabulation was made in 1984 that included only earthquakes that measured 7.5 or more on the Richter scale, or that resulted in destruction of five million dollars (U.S.) or more in property, or that caused 100 or more deaths. It was calculated that there had been 856 of such earthquakes during the 2,000 years before 1914. The same tabulation showed that in just 69 years following 1914 there were 605 of such quakes. These statistics are a means of indicating the extent of suffering from earthquakes during this period of history.
Figurative and Symbolic Uses. Earthquakes are often used figuratively in the Scriptures to describe the shaking and overthrow of nations and kingdoms. Ancient Babylon trusted in false gods such as Nebo and Marduk, which in the people’s imaginations filled their heavens. They also relied greatly on the strength of their mighty military force, but God said in pronouncement against Babylon: “I shall cause heaven itself to become agitated, and the earth will rock out of its place at the fury of Jehovah of armies.” (Isa 13:13) As far as Babylon was concerned, it must have been a great shock when her empire fell and her territory ceased to belong to her as the third world power and she became merely a province in the Persian Empire.
Elsewhere, David describes Jehovah as fighting for him as by means of an earthquake. (2Sa 22:8; Ps 18:7) Jehovah speaks of rocking the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry ground, of rocking all nations in behalf of his people, with the result that the desirable things of all the nations would come in and he would fill his house with glory.
The apostle Paul uses as an illustration the awe-inspiring display at Sinai, comparing it with the greater and more awesome assemblage of the Christian congregation of the firstborn before God and his Son as Mediator at the heavenly Mount Zion. He goes on to follow through with the illustration of the earthquake that took place at Sinai and gives a symbolic application, encouraging Christians to continue serving in courage and faith, realizing that the Kingdom and those who hold on to it will be able to remain standing while all other things of the symbolic heavens and earth are shaken to pieces.
The greatest earthquake of all yet to come is a symbolic one, described in connection with the seventh of the symbolic seven final plagues of Revelation. It is pictured as wrecking, not one or two cities, as some of the most violent earthquakes have done, but “the cities of the nations.” John’s account of this cataclysm reads: “A great earthquake occurred such as had not occurred since men came to be on the earth, so extensive an earthquake, so great. And the great city [Babylon the Great] split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell.”