A vibration of the earth caused primarily by the slipping or dislocation of strata along a fault line, a fracture, or by volcanic eruption. Shakings and tremblings of the earth occurred throughout Biblical history, at times as a result of natural geological forces, as when Judah suffered a severe earthquake in the days of Uzziah and Jeroboam (Amos 1:1; Zech. 14:5), or 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. For example, there recently appeared a very serious fault running N-NE from the center of the Gulf of Aqabah. Serious earthquakes have occurred in Palestine about once every fifty years, minor tremors being much more frequent.
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 not just an ordinary mosque but has become 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.—Ex. 19:19; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 12:18-21.
At times the fear-inspiring force of earthquakes has been an evidence of Jehovah’s hand in judging violations of his law. (Nah. 1:3-6) An earthquake was the executional method used by Jehovah against the rebellious Dathan and Abiram and the household of Korah, the earth opening its mouth and swallowing them down alive into Sheol. (Num. 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. (1 Ki. 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.—1 Sam 14:6, 10, 12, 15, 16, 20, 23.
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. (Matt. 27:45, 51-54; Luke 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. (Matt. 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.—Acts 16:25-34.
Jesus foretold earthquakes in great number and magnitude as a feature of the sign of his second presence. (Matt. 24:3, 7, 8; Mark 13:4, 8) Since 1914 C.E., and especially since 1948, there has been an increase in the number of earthquakes, especially of major ones. Before 1948, they occurred in clusters, with a rest period between, but since then there has been a major quake almost annually, in addition to a great number of smaller ones.—See The Encyclopedia Americana, Annuals, 1965-1967, under “Earthquakes.”
In the fifty-one-year period 1915-1965, 592,036 persons were reported killed by major earthquakes. There are 1,000 quakes a year large enough to cause damage.—World Almanac 1967, pp. 254, 276.
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 Babylon as the third world power and became merely a province in the Persian Empire—Dan. 5:30, 31.
Elsewhere, David describes Jehovah as fighting for him as by means of an earthquake. (2 Sam. 22:8; Ps. 18:7) Jehovah speaks of rocking the heavens and the earth, and 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.—Hag. 2:6, 7.
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 and 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.—Heb. 12:18-29.
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.”—Rev. 16:18, 19.