And I heard a voice as if in the midst of the four living creatures say: ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the olive oil and the wine.’”—Revelation 6:5, 6.
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 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.