Rev. Hanko is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

And there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.

Matthew 24:7b

And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.

Revelation 6:5, 6

Obviously the message is that there will always be poverty in the world. Especially toward the end, the poor become poorer while the rich grow richer. Besides false Christs in the church and wars in the world, Scripture now mentions signs of Christ’s coming in nature: famines, pestilences, and earthquakes.

Jesus speaks of famines. In our affluent times it is hardly possible for us to imagine the plight of those who suffer from famine. We know of crop failures, food shortages, recessions in the economy, and possibly also depressions. We have even heard of concentration camps and the gnawing hunger that was suffered there. But famines are foreign to us today. Yet even now there are countries where famines rage, where men, women, and children, who do not have the proper food nor enough to survive, starve to death.

We talk of being hungry, but we with our full larders do not know the empty feeling, the nausea and pain that grip the stomach and bowels in excruciating agony. We have not experienced the desperation of parents who are unable to obtain food for themselves and their children, the mournful crying of little ones with pale, hollow faces and emaciated, bony frames. We are not acquainted with times in which bleating sheep cry for pasture, animals with bloated bodies roam about scouring the waste lands for food, with the cry of the dying being heard on every hand and the skeletons of the starved lying in low valleys.

We have some idea of what real famine means when we read of the days of Elijah, when even the king was looking for grass for his animals, and Elijah was fed with the widow and her son with enough meal and oil for one day at a time. We see a clearer picture when we read in Scripture that in the time of the famine in Jerusalem a mother ate her son to satisfy her craving hunger.

Jesus also speaks of pestilences. We are reminded of Psalm 91, which speaks of “the pestilence that walketh in darkness.” In the narrowest sense this refers to any widespread and fatal infectious malady, such as the black plague that killed thousands in the past, or the more recent epidemic of influenza during World War I.

When an epidemic of these sorts strikes there is no prevention or cure to be found. Very few escape it, many are critically ill, and a large number die. During that epidemic in 1918, both churches and schools were closed for weeks, no group larger than seven people might meet together, ministers visited the sick by speaking to them through the window, even when that involved climbing a ladder to reach them on the second floor. Funerals, which were a daily occurrence since sometimes a whole family was wiped out, were held in the front yard of the home, with only the immediate family attending.

In a broader sense, all sicknesses and diseases can be included. It is true that through the means of modern medicine many of the common infectious diseases are brought under control. Some of them which took so many lives, like tuberculosis, small pox, or diphtheria, are hardly heard of anymore. But instead of those, such ailments as cancer prove to be very common in our day. And then there are the social diseases, among which the most common is the widespread epidemic of the HIV infection.

Ever since the fall of man in Paradise, maladies have always been present in the world and in an ever increasing measure. The gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus refer to many who were sick, lame, blind, or deaf. In fact, we are often surprised at the number of people who came to Jesus, and later to the apostles to be healed. But the fact still remains that, in spite of all modern medicines and cures, the number and intensity of diseases continue to increase. Hospitals and rest homes are always full; pain, suffering, the breaking down of this earthly tabernacle continue unceasingly. No man escapes it. We are always aware of death as the grim reaper, for it is appointed unto all men to die and afterward is the judgment.

Jesus also mentions earthquakes. Those of you who have experienced the power of the Almighty that shakes the very foundations of the earth can best understand the helpless feeling of total lack of stability. The psalmist speaks of the mountains trembling and shaking, dancing like a calf, or skipping like a young unicorn. Scripture also speaks of the mountains melting before the power of God. There are those who live in the mountains who have actually witnessed this.

When the earth totters and rocks on its foundation, much destruction of property is wrought, but also many human lives are taken. Only recently we read of an earthquake that brought landslides which engulfed many homes and took hundreds of lives. Untold damage and misery result from an earthquake which can strike at any moment, most unexpectedly, and bring with it many destructive after shocks.

Along with the famines, pestilences, and earthquakes we can well mention such disasters as tornadoes, hurricanes, forest fires, floods, heat, and drought that are reported again and again in the daily papers and in the newscasts. There can be no doubt about it that all these visitations are on the increase as the end approaches. We can certainly expect more, not less, in spite of man’s ingenuity to try to prevent them.

Luke not only speaks of “great earthquakes in divers places, and famines, and pestilences,” but adds: “and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven” (Luke 21:11).

All three signs, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes, are visitations of God because of sin. In times past they were often referred to as “acts of God,” as if the daily events like the rising and the setting of the sun were not in God’s providence. Unbelief no longer reckons with God. The unbeliever prefers to speak of natural phenomena, or freaks of nature, and will try to explain all events from natural causes.

Even in Jesus’ day, when the voice spoke from heaven saying: “I have both glorified it (God’s name), and will glorify it again,” some of the people said with a shrug of their shoulders, “It thundered.” Unbelief deliberately ignores these signs.

That attitude grows far worse as the end approaches. We read in Revelation 16:11, “And (they) blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pain and their sores, and repented not of their deeds.”

Earthquakes are mentioned in the Old Testament. It is quite significant that they occurred also when Jesus died and at the time of His resurrection. When Jesus died, God was pronouncing His condemnation not only on the Jewish nation, but also upon the inhabitants of the whole world, for we all stand guilty in the rejection of the Christ. Yet the earthquake at the time of the resurrection not only assures us of the final destruction of this present world, but also of the fact that God makes all things new. At the resurrection of Christ a new day dawns for the saints in Christ Jesus. This is the beginning of the “fullness of time,” the “last days,” the “day of the Lord,” the “days of the coming of the Lord.”

All these are the beginning of sorrows.

“All these” refers back to the false Christs, the wars and rumors of war, and the famines, pestilences, and earthquakes which the Lord has mentioned. These signs in the church, in the world, and in nature are referred to here as precursory signs, that is, they are the harbingers or warnings of the approaching end of the ages.

The word “sorrows” might better be translated as “travail” or “birth pangs.” They are like the experience of a mother who gives birth to her child. They are extremely painful, an agonizing experience, but at the same time God is carrying out His counsel in bringing forth a new creation in which righteousness dwells.

Paul states: “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19-22).

We can lift up our heads in blessed hope, for our salvation is drawing nigh. We who live by faith and not by sight recognize the fact that in most recent times we have experienced many disasters throughout the country: severe earthquakes and forest fires in California, forest fires in Florida, floods in the southern states and in Kentucky and North Dakota, and heat with drought in Texas that breaks all records. There is virtually no state in the Union that has not experienced some form of disaster, leaving destruction and causing the loss of human lives.

We need not be unduly disturbed, for we look in growing anticipation for the coming of our Lord. His footsteps are daily more clearly heard. His voice sounds through all the works of God’s hand: “Behold, I come, even speedily!”

Our prayer should be: Come, Lord Jesus, yea, come quickly.