In Revelation 6, the Lamb begins to open the seals. As the seals are opened, the four living creatures begin to call forth the horses. When the first seal is opened, one of the living creatures cries,
“Come and see,” and the first horseman rides out on a white horse – the Antichrist. With the second seal comes the horseman on the red horse – War.
Then the horseman on the Black Horse rides out:
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.
Finally, the fourth living creature calls out the Pale Horse – Death, and Hell follows him. With this final harbinger of doom, we have the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
In this book, we are going to focus on the Black Horse, whose rider holds the balances of scarcity and hunger. In the Scripture, the color black is often associated with famine. This black horse is clearly the harbinger of famine and inflation. “To eat bread by weight” is a Jewish term that expresses the scarcity of food. In a home, it’s an indication of poverty when the food has to be measured out carefully to ensure that it lasts. Here we have market scales, and the wheat and barley are being measured out for sale.
The word for “measure” in this passage is χοῖνιξ – choinix – a unit of measurement close to a liter. Think of a one-liter bottle filled with grain. It’s enough to feed a man for two, maybe three meals if he cooks it like a cereal. If ground out into flour, it might make a loaf of bread. The King James translation of “penny” can be confusing, because we think of a penny as a small amount of money. The Greek word is dēnarion – a denarius – a silver coin representing a day’s wages as we see in the parable of the laborers in Matthew 20:2-13. In other words, the price of grain is high enough that one measure of wheat costs a full day’s wages.
It’s strange that the voice in the midst of the beasts mentions both wheat and barley. The barley here is much cheaper than the wheat, so that three full measures of barley can be purchased for the same price as the wheat. Barley is harvested in springtime, whereas wheat thrives in cooler climates and is harvested in the start of winter, which might indicate a time of year. Wheat has historically been considered the finer grain, while barley is a grain often fed to livestock. Today, we make bread from wheat and beer from barley. There might be several reasons for this. Wheat contains gluten, which gives it the elasticity to rise. Both wheat and barley produce gas when baked, but the elasticity of the wheat gluten allows it to capture the gas and rise nice and soft for use in bread. Barley is used in flatbreads and doesn’t rise well unless wheat is added to it. It therefore makes a harder, denser bread. Barley also has a stronger taste than wheat. Wheat is clearly the more upscale taste, which contributes to its higher cost.
Both grains contain a number of vitamins and minerals. Barley is a better food in some ways. It contains slightly more calories, 2150 per liter compared to wheat’s 1850 per liter, which is important when food is scarce. Wheat has to be milled before cooking while barley can be cooked as easily as rice. Barley has the highest fiber content of the grains, which is something we appreciate in these days of processed foods, and it is higher in protein than many grains like corn or rice.
“Hurt not the oil and the wine.” The oil and wine, the luxuries, are apparently in short supply. We infer that they are therefore precious, and people should be careful with the supplies that exist – not to damage them.
We do not see a picture here of complete starvation. When food for one man costs an entire day’s wages, though, there’s certainly trouble. The man doesn’t have to provide for himself alone. He could feed himself on a measure of wheat, but if he has a wife and children, there will be hungry stomachs. If buying food uses up all his resources, he will have nothing left for other basic necessities. What about fuel or clothing or medicine? The arrival of the Black Horse promises hard times.
What causes famines? There are 12 billion acres of land in the world used for agriculture. These include pastureland and orchards. A full 3.4 billion acres is arable land – tilled or ploughed land used for raising crops. This doesn’t count the land that has been abandoned. We live on a blue planet, surrounded by water, and we have the technology to remove salt from ocean water if necessary. It’s expensive to desalinate water right now, but it’s possible. What’s more, fresh water conveniently falls from the sky and pools up in lakes. It stores itself as snow and glaciers. We have thousands of different kinds of food at our disposal, fruits and vegetables and grains, insects and fish and birds and animals. What are the reasons that, despite all these things, millions of children go about malnourished while others die of starvation?
In some cases, famine is caused by uncontrollable weather circumstances like severe droughts or floods that disrupt the ability of the people to raise crops or livestock. Farmers cannot plant maize or wheat if there is standing water in their fields, and if there’s no rain for months, even solid farming practices can be thwarted. Hurricanes can ravage half-grown crops or strip the fruit off of trees. An unexpected frost could wipe out an orange crop or destroy apple and peach blossoms before the fruit has a chance to grow.
If weather conditions are not a concern enough, warfare in all its forms can annihilate a nation’s agriculture. The movie Gone With The Wind does a fair job of portraying the agricultural devastation of war. Scarlett O’Hara made a picturesque scene digging a carrot out of the barren ground and declaring, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” Nearly 23,000 men were killed, wounded and lost at the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of warfare in U.S. military history. The armies of Generals Lee and McClellan also shot to bits the corn fields near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Battles in general were not as destructive as Sherman’s crushing March to the Sea, in which he purposely created a swath of destruction as his men pillaged food sources and burned anything that could be useful to the South.
Russia’s scorched earth policy successfully allowed Moscow to defeat both Napoleon and Hitler, burning and razing any resources that could be useful to the enemy as its armies pulled back toward Moscow. Stalin had long planned for the possibility of destroying his people’s land as a military strategy. The populations of large cities were relocated to Siberia – 25-30 million Russian civilians – and their towns and factories destroyed, along with bridges and railroads and crops. Behind them, the Russian soldiers left miles of blackened land, empty of anything valuable. The civilians rebuilt their factories at their new homes, but as historian Walter Sanning notes:
What was lacking, however, was the social infrastructure, such as housing and hospitals, to accommodate the many millions of civilians deported there between 1940 and 1941. As a result, 15-20 million civilians died of epidemics, hunger, overwork, lack of housing, lack of clothing and the brutal Siberian winter.
Even without purposeful laying waste to the land, wars can disrupt the daily ongoing economic pressures vital to food production. The normal buying and selling of crops can be interrupted, as can transportation of food to their markets. Pillaging and general lawlessness can prevent food from reaching its destination, and with little hope for gain, farmers might forgo the effort until peace resumes.
Large wars are not necessary to wreak havoc with the food supply. Marauders in local squabbles can cause just as much harm to the populace. In 2006, the Arab gunmen who terrorized the people in Darfur also spread over the border into Chad, stealing cattle, burning crops and slaughtering those who dared to resist. Arab herdsmen would drive their own cattle
to graze on the crops of Darfur farmers.
Certain corrupt and dictatorial governments, in fact, deliberately caused famines in the 20th century. In 1932, Stalin silenced any nationalistic aspirations of the Ukraine by starving its people to death. He required the Ukrainians to give up all their grain to the Russian government, destroyed the farming class, confiscated any private food stores people had in their houses, and sealed up the borders so no food could get in. An estimated 25,000 people were dying each day in the Ukraine by the spring of 1933.
Yes, some famines are caused by drought or floods, but more people died by man-made famines in the 20th century than by any force of nature.
I want to highlight a subtle lie that we encounter in our age of deceit. Here’s the definition of “inflation” according to Grolier’s Online Encyclopedia:
Inflation is a process in which the average level prices increase at a substantial rate over a considerable period of time. In short, more money is required to buy a given amount of goods
That’s a misleading definition. That’s what many people have come to understand as the definition of inflation, but if we go back in time a little, we can see that Grolier’s has missed the real point. The definition of inflation in the 1957 Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged is more accurate:
Inflation: an increase in the amount of currency in circulation, resulting in a relatively sharp and sudden fall in its value and a rise in prices.
See the subtle difference between these two definitions? Grolier’s treats inflation as a matter of course, as though market pressures cause the prices of goods and services to rise naturally. That’s not the actual situation. Inflation is caused by an expanding money supply, and the public has been conned into thinking inflation is the result of market pressures rather than monetary pressures.
Inflation is, in fact, the increased amount of money in the system, which devalues the money, which forces prices to rise in compensation. The goods and services don’t actually cost more; our money is just worth less. The government prints money without having to earn it, and it robs us of our purchasing power.
Assume a 5% inflation over the course of a year. That 5% devaluation applies not only to the money a person earned this year, but to all the money left over from previous years.
Let’s say it’s 1960, and we put a dollar in the bank. That dollar is worth a dollar. The next year, however, that same dollar has been devalued 5%, and it’s now worth just 95 cents – 95% of its original value. In 1962, the 95 cents is reduced again by 5%, leaving its worth at just over 90 cents. This wouldn’t be so terrible, except that it happens every year. By the time a person has worked 20 years, the government will have confiscated 64 cents of every dollar the person saved over those years, not by taxes, but by inflation. By the time he has worked 45 years, the hidden tax will be over 90%. The government will take virtually everything a person saves over his entire lifetime, not counting the income tax. We must constantly keep our money moving so that it can make money for us before it devalues.
The mathematics is simple to calculate: raise 0.95 to the power of the years that have passed. If 45 years have gone by, we calculate 0.9545, which leaves less than 9% of what was saved in 1960. The dollar we put in the bank in 1960 now has only the purchasing power that nine cents had in 1960. We’d have been better off spending the dollar in 1960. Inflation robs us of the money we’ve saved up over our lifetime.
We’ve experienced a slow steady inflation over the past century, but hyperinflation takes place when inflation gets out of control. Inflation harried Israel during the 1970s and ’80s. Prices in Israel went from a 13% increase in 1971 to 445% in 1984. There was a joke going around Israel in those days that it was better to take a taxi from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, because you had to pay a bus fare up front, but you could pay the cab fare at the end of the trip when the shekel was worth less.
In January of 1919, an ounce of gold in the Weimar Republic cost 170 German marks. By January of 1923, that same ounce of gold cost 372,477 marks, and by October 1923, it cost 87,000,000,000,000 marks, demonstrating how worthless a mark had become in just months. Only in retrospect did it become clear that the German Central Bank was to blame.
The bank had printed money to pay for war reparations after WWI, to get rid of the national debt and build up the post-war regime.
In 1921 Poland, food prices doubled every 19 days. In 1944 Greece, food prices doubled every four days, and in 1946 Hungary, they doubled every 15 hours. In 1989 Argentina, the peso was devalued three times, driving food prices up over 3,000% in a single year. In 1994 Brazil, inflation raged at 2,000% per year. In 1994 Yugoslavia, food prices doubled every 34 hours. In 2008 Zimbabwe, they doubled every single day. In these cases, hyperinflation had nothing to do with food availability, it had to do with government mismanagement and rampant printing of money.
It’s really a shock to realize how often countries have faced hyperinflation over the past century. The victims have included Angola, Argentina, Belarus, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Chile, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Israel and Japan, Nicaragua, Peru, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Zimbabwe and others.
This list of countries means far more than words on paper. These country names represent millions of real people who discovered that their money had become suddenly worthless – their lifetime of savings had evaporated. These were people who need to buy food for their families, but they could no longer afford the cost of a loaf of bread at the market because their wages had become meaningless. Real people had to deal with this rocking devastation to their economic systems. It’s staggering and difficult for us to come to terms with that.
By late 1923, 300 paper mills and 2,000 printing presses worked round the clock cranking out German bank notes with higher and higher values on them. On average, prices doubled every three days. Can you imagine trying to live that way? In a single month, prices exploded more than 32,000%, enough to drive prices up by a factor of 320 in a single 30-day period.
My grandparents, my mother’s mother and father, had a restaurant in Germany. When it went for sale, they planned to receive enough for it to retire on. By the time the formalities were completed, inflation had driven up all the prices and the mark had become worthless. The money from the sale ended up providing them with just enough to buy one loaf of bread. In late 1923, a loaf of bread cost 726 million marks. Obviously, they were wiped out, and they no longer had the restaurant to live on. The nation’s leaders had created the crisis by printing paper money with nothing to back it.
What does this have to do with you and me today? Everything. Quite simply, everything. Germany sank into the most severe hyperinflationary period in recorded history after doing what? After printing 1.3 trillion marks. In today’s terms, that translated into about 4 trillion U.S. dollars. The United States government has printed exactly the same amount of money – $4 trillion – since 2008. The same amount that brought the German hyperinflation has already been achieved by the U.S. since 2008. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.