“LOOK! a black horse; and the one seated upon it had a pair of scales in his hand.
With these grim words, the apostle John describes the third of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the one riding the black horse of famine.* Did you ever wonder when his wild ride takes place? You should. It heralds the greatest change this world will ever see.
Some feel that this horseman has always been riding among mankind. And it is true that history is full of accounts of famine from away back in the days of Abraham and Joseph up to the greatest recorded famine of all time, the one that struck China between 1878 and 1879. (Genesis 12:10; 41:54) Estimates of the number of Chinese who died in that famine vary from 9 to 13 million.
However, the black horse and its rider are not related to all the food shortages of history. Why not? Because in his vision John saw going ahead of the black horse the red horse of war, as well as a rider wearing a crown on a white horse. This rider is Jesus Christ, newly appointed as King and going forth “conquering and to complete his conquest.” (Revelation 6:1, 2) Hence, the galloping black horse and its rider picture the food shortages that afflict the earth when Jesus is appointed King of God’s Kingdom.
Famine—What Does It Mean?
WHILE it is true that agriculture has made a lot of progress in recent years, it is also true that since 1914 mankind has witnessed numerous food shortages. Let us examine some of these to see if they could possibly fulfill the prophecy of Jesus and the vision of the apostle John on the subject. If they do seem to match up, then we will look further and see whether there is anything about 20th-century food shortages that marks them as different from those experienced previously in world history.
Famine Amid Plenty
Some may feel that because there is so much wealth today, it is not logical to say that this is the time when the black horse of famine is abroad in the earth. But the Bible does not say that everyone would be starving at that time. In fact, the voice in the vision that announced a very high price for staple foods* also said: “Do not harm the olive oil and the wine.” (Revelation 6:6) Olive oil and wine were luxuries. Hence, Revelation indicates that some would be enjoying luxury while others suffered famine.
Jesus, too, while he prophesied food shortages, warned: “Pay attention to yourselves that your hearts never become weighed down with overeating and heavy drinking and anxieties of life, and suddenly that day be instantly upon you as a snare.” (Luke 21:34, 35) While some were suffering food shortages, others would be in danger of eating too much. Is that the situation today?
Yes. In fact, reports tell us that the raising of the living standards of some people is causing others to go hungry. “The improvement in living standards and the growing demand for food around the world have put pressure on food prices [causing food to be more expensive] making it harder for the poorest countries to import their food needs.” (The New York Times, August 16, 1981) In other words, the “overeating” by some is making the “food shortages” of others worse.
“In One Place After Another”
Jesus warned that there would be “food shortages . . . in one place after another.” (Matthew 24:7) Has that happened since 1914? Yes. To mention just a few: In 1921, famine brought death to some 5 million people in the U.S.S.R. In 1929, famine caused an estimated 3 million deaths in China. In the 1930’s, 5 million died of hunger in the U.S.S.R. Just a few years ago prolonged drought in countries bordering the Sahara Desert resulted in countless refugees and up to 100,000 deaths.
Remember, though, that in the apostle John’s vision the black horse of famine followed the red horse of war. Correspondingly, many of the food shortages of our day have been a direct result of war. (Revelation 6:3, 4) For example, the Spanish civil war brought famine to that land in the 1930’s. World War II brought starvation to Greece, Poland, Russia, Holland and other places. More than 1,500,000 died in Bengal, India, during the years 1943-44 in a famine due partly to that same war.
More recently, in the 1960’s, people died of starvation in the Congo (now Zaire) and Nigeria because of civil war. Starving Kampuchean children stared at us from our newspapers during the fighting in that land. Recently, we read that more than a million refugees are threatened with famine in Somalia, where they have fled from drought and fighting in Ethiopia. News sources claim that more than 9 million refugees are close to starvation in Thailand, the Sudan, Zaire, Nicaragua, Honduras and Pakistan. So the sad tale goes on.
Historically, famines have been caused by war, drought, insect plague or some other catastrophe. Have we seen more such food shortages than have previous generations? We cannot say for certain because statistics are incomplete. But this century has had its share of natural calamities and has suffered more from war than any other generation in history.* Hence, it may be that overall there have been more food shortages than ever before. Certainly, we have seen famine amid plenty, famine caused by war and food shortages “in one place after another,” just as was prophesied.
There is even a new kind of food shortage now developing that marks our time as different.
“Unique in Human History”
In his foreword to the book The Dimensions of World Food Problems, the editor, E. R. Duncan, explains that until recently food supplies had generally increased with population increases. True, disasters resulted in scattered famines. But the populations recovered. Starting in the 1940’s, however, a new factor entered the picture: a rapidly increasing world population that strains the world’s long-term capacity to feed itself. “This situation,” he says, “is unique in human history.”
India furnishes an example. India has experienced severe famines throughout her history, but today it is different. “It was not until this past century, and to a significant degree not until in this the twentieth century, that conditions became unbearable [in India]. This fact cannot be sufficiently underlined to repudiate glib talk about hunger and history as inseparable companions.” So says Georg Borgstrom, a leading international authority on world nutrition.
He goes on to explain: “When England first came to this rich subcontinent, about two hundred years ago, there were about sixty million people living within the area of present-day India. Of these, about ten million were on a starvation level. Since then, the population has increased sevenfold and now the situation is reversed, with the number of adequately fed amounting to approximately ten million.”—The Hungry Planet, by Georg Borgstrom.
A similar situation is developing in other lands. True, in the world as a whole there is still enough food produced to feed everyone, in theory. But if the population keeps expanding, that will soon no longer be so. Even now, many poor countries that once produced enough food for their needs no longer do so, and because they are poor they cannot afford to buy enough food to feed their population. Sometimes, even within a country that has enough food overall, a large group of the population is so poor that the people cannot afford to buy the food. So they suffer food shortages.
The Los Angeles Times reported last year: “The food shortage in Africa has deteriorated in the last six months and 28 countries are suffering from famine.”
The Vancouver Sun stated: “Today, at the close of a ‘normal’ year, the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] estimates there are 450 million people hungry to the point of starvation, up to a billion who do not have enough to eat.”
A report from the United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 17 million of the world’s children died from hunger and disease in 1981. That is more than the estimated deaths during the terrible Chinese famine of the years 1878-79.
Is there any solution? The New York Times reports: “World Bank calculations indicate that an investment of $600 billion in developing countries . . . will be required over the next 10 years just to maintain food supplies at present levels of hunger. No one is sure where that vast sum will be coming from.” So, there is no realistic solution in sight.
The Good News
The sheer scope of the problem of hunger today and the fact that it is likely to get worse makes it unprecedented. There is something else unusual about it. It is accompanied by many other difficulties that are seemingly insoluble.
In the vision of the apostle John, the black horse of famine was accompanied by the red horse of war and the pale horse of disease. And Jesus, when he foretold food shortages “in one place after another,” said that these would be accompanied by significant earthquake activity, pestilences, wars and many other afflictions. (Matthew 24:7-14; Luke 21:10-28) The fact that all these things are happening today marks this as the noteworthy time that Jesus and the apostle John were foretelling.