Birthpangs of a Nation
What Do the Prophets Say?
For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be famines and earthquakes in divers places. But all these things are the beginning of travail. (Matt. 24:7,8)
In this very close study of each phrase in our Lord's answer to the apostles' question, "What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world," we have come to the last sentence.
"All these things," in the Greek, is panto tauta. To what do these words refer? According to a well-recognized principle of language, they can refer only to that which has immediately preceded, unless there is evidence in the immediate context indicating otherwise. Thus, "All these things" can only refer to a world war, famines and earthquakes all occurring at the same time in an intensified and heightened form.
"The beginning of travail": In the King James version of the Scriptures, this phrase is rendered "beginning of sorrows." What are we to understand by that? It is a rendering that is hazy, indefinite and without any specific meaning. The American Standard Version comes to our rescue by a clear-cut, definite rendering, "the beginning of travail," providing an accurate representation of the original. Upon the lips of our Saviour and in the ears of His apostles, what did this expression signify?
We are to suppose that the Saviour meant, and the apostles understood, it to have the current meaning of the day. In our interpreting language we must always bear in mind that people use words and phrases with their common significance unless there is positive evidence in the context indicating a departure from the normal, ordinary connotation.
The proper clue to understanding this phrase is found in the language of the prophets. Indeed, the background of the entire Olivet discourse is found in the imagery supplied by the Old Testament. Such passages as the following provide the desired information.
Isaiah 66:7-9: "Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came she was delivered of a manchild. Who hath heard such a thing? who hath seen such things? shall a land be born in one day? shall a nation be brought forth at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children (vs. 8).
This passage, as with all portions of Scripture, must be studied in the light of its context. A rapid perusal of chapters 65 and 66 shows that the subject matter of these predictions pertains largely to the purging of all sinners from Israel and to the Great Tribulation which immediately precedes the glorious Millennial age.
In our passage, Zion is represented as an expectant mother upon whom the birth-pains have come. The prophet, in a very dramatic manner, states that this woman brought forth her child without labor-pains! The incorrectness of this assertion is obvious; all good teachers, to spur the intellect of the student, at times use the same method. The audience will retort that the thing is impossible--it is contrary to nature! In their imagination they are then able to make the comparison between normal childbirth and the experiences through which Israel will yet pass in the future.
Four questions are asked by the prophet, all of which demand a negative answer. Then the concluding sentence of vs. 8 is, "For as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children." The translation is not the very best although it is grammatically correct.
The words translated "for as soon as" also mean "when." The choice of renderings must be determined by the flow of thought. In my judgment the latter accords with the facts here presented more accurately than the text reading adopted by our translators.
The position becomes the more obvious when we realize that the question, "Shall a land be born in one day?" demands a negative answer. No, a land cannot be brought forth in a day. Zion, therefore, must go through a period of travail.
The sentence which we are now considering, however, shows us that when the birth-pains do come upon Zion they will not be false pains--they will indicate that her time to be delivered is at hand. The rendering "when" is more in keeping with the facts of the context.
This position is confirmed by the rhetorical questions in vs. 9: "Shall I bring to the birth, and not cause to bring forth? ... Shall I that cause to bring forth shut the womb? saith thy God." These also demand a negative answer. God, the author of childbirth as the method of propagating the human family, does not thwart His plans by bringing the expectant mother to a period of travail and then stopping nature in its course. Having a definite purpose in this unfolding of new life, he continues the process until delivery, notwithstanding the pain and suffering. Thus it shall be with Zion. Before the new Israel--the faithful remnant--can be brought out into the larger and freer life of the great Millennial Age, the nation must pass through the period designated as "childbirth." In this passage, therefore, the period of distress constantly spoken of by the prophets as the "day of Jehovah" is set forth under the symbolism of childbirth.
In Jeremiah 4:23-31, the weeping prophet used this same illustration to describe a vision of the world in utter destruction: "I beheld the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and the heavens, and they had no light. I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved to and fro. I beheld, and lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled. I beheld, and lo, the fruitful field was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of Jehovah, and before his fierce anger" (vss. 23-26).
Verses 27-31, beginning with the conjunction "for," explain the significance of this vision, using the figure of childbirth to refer to the Great Tribulation, or the day of Jehovah: "For I have heard a voice as of a woman in travail, the anguish as of her that bringeth forth her first child ..."
Hosea, in chapter 13:12-14, uses the same figure: "The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; his sin is laid up in store." Here the iniquity and wrongdoing of Ephraim is stated. He shall suffer the consequences of his sin. "The sorrows of a travailing woman shall come upon him: he is an unwise son; for it is time he should not tarry in the place of the breaking forth of children." The figure of a travailing woman is used to describe the suffering through which the nation will pass.
Of course this language was spoken by Hosea to the ten northern tribes. Had the prophet been talking to the entire nation he would have used the same figure and included all, as Isaiah after him did. Though this prediction was applicable to an event now past, it awaits its complete fulfillment in the future.
The translation, "for it is time he should not tarry in the place of the breaking forth of children," presents a blurred picture. I must admit, however, that the original is difficult to render into English. A footnote in the 1901 American Standard Version gives this rendering: "When it is time, he standeth not in the place of the breaking forth of children." The picture of childbirth is continued here. The mother in labor pain must cooperate with nature, otherwise the ordeal is prolonged.
Some national characteristic is indicated by the phrase, "is an unwise son"; that is, Ephraim (the ten northern tribes) is unwise in that he is not willing to cooperate with the God or nature. The prophet foresees the birth of the new Ephraim and recognizes the suffering through which it must pass in the process. The Tribulation Period will be no time for Israel to draw back and fight against God. The birth-pangs will be upon her and nature is going through with the process. To be hesitant and rebellious against God will simply increase the intensity of the pain during the birth of the nation.
"I will ransom them from the power of Sheol; I will redeem them from death: 0 Death, where are thy plagues? 0 Sheol, where is thy destruction? repentance shall be hid from mine eyes" (vs. 14). It is clear that Hosea was speaking about the Great Tribulation through which Ephraim shall pass, at the end of which death will be swallowed up in victory. This event, we know, comes to pass when our Lord returns.
Micah, in 4:9-5:3 used the same imagery, as seen by an examination of his prophecies. Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah. A study of this passage shows that the travail mentioned in 4:9,10 refers to the collapse of Judah under the Babylonian siege, which occurred in 606-587 B.C.: "Now why dost thou cry out aloud? Is there, no king in thee, is thy counsellor perished, that pangs have taken hold of thee as of a woman in travail? Be in pain, and labor to bring forth, 0 daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail; for now shall thou go forth out of the city, and shalt dwell in the field, and shalt come even unto Babylon: there shalt thou be rescued ..."
The prediction of that catastrophe blends with the major one at the end of the age, which is described very vividly and graphically in vss. 11-13, "And now many nations are assembled against thee, that say, Let her be defiled, and let our eye see our desire upon Zion. But they know not the thoughts of Jehovah, neither understand they his counsel; for he hath gathered them as the sheaves to the threshing-floor. Arise and thresh, 0 daughter of Zion; for I will make thy horn iron, and I will make thy hoofs brass; and thou shalt beat in pieces many peoples: and I will devote their gain unto Jehovah, and their substance unto the Lord of the whole earth." In 5:2, the prophet gives the prediction of Israel's Messiah and follows that oracle by saying that the Lord would give the nation up until "she who travaileth hath brought forth." We are forced by logic to conclude the travailing mentioned in 5:3 is the same as the birth-pains of 4:11-13.
Other prophets used the same figure of childbirth in describing the judgments of the Great Tribulation period which will come upon the whole world at the end of this age. The old rabbis, whose opinions are crystallized in the Talmud, correctly understood this figure of speech. In speaking of the coming of Messiah, they used the expression "birthpangs of the days of Messiah." They very clearly understood the predictions concerning Israel's sufferings at that time.
Since the figure of childbirth was used by the prophets to indicate the ordeal of the Great Tribulation and since it is evident from the Olivet Discourse that our Lord was thinking and speaking in terms of the prophetic message, His use of this figure must be interpreted in that light.
Without positive proof in Jesus' message that he used this figure with a different meaning, we are logically bound to believe that He used the word "travail" expecting it to be understood as the great day of Jehovah. But what is the significance of the word "beginning"? According to the figure, we would say that the "beginning of travail" is the first birth pain--the warning pain. These things, therefore, which are called the "beginning of travail"--world war, famines and earthquakes occurring simultaneously in intensified form--stand as a warning. In relation to the Great Tribulation they are as the first birth-pain, a forewarning of the real labor pains of childbirth.