Verse 19 opens with the statement: فَقَالُوا رَبَّنَا بَاعِدْ بَيْنَ أَسْفَارِنَا وَظَلَمُوا أَنفُسَهُمْ فَجَعَلْنَاهُمْ أَحَادِيثَ وَمَزَّقْنَاهُمْ كُلَّ مُمَزَّقٍ (Then they said," Our Lord, make (the phases of) our journeys more distant." And they wronged themselves, therefore We turned them into stories and tore them into pieces - 34:19). It means that so unjust were these people that they would go to the extent of dismissing the very blessing of Allah placed there to eliminate the hardships of travel, rather went deeper into their lack of recognition and straight ungratefulness by coming forward to pray that their Lord makes the distances they cover in travel longer - hoping that the habitations do not appear at such close distances, and wishing to see some hard areas of a forest or wilderness which ask for some rough traversing as well. Their case was similar to that of the Bani Isra'il. They used to get the excellent sustenance of mann and salwa, all free of cost. Bored with it, they asked Allah to replace it with vegetables and greens. In return for their ungratefulness and lack of recognition for blessings, Allah Ta’ ala released the punishment on them that has been called the flood of the dam earlier. The ultimate consequence of this very punishment has been stated in this verse in strong words, that is, they were virtually expunged from this world leaving nothing but idle tales of their wealth and luxury.
The word: مَزَّقْنَاهُمْ (mazzaqnahum) is a derivation from: تَمزِیق (tamziq) which means to tear and scatter (a people) or to destroy (a kingdom). The sense is that some of the inhabitants of this city of Ma'arib were destroyed on the spot and some others were scattered in a manner that small groups of them spread out to various countries. This destruction and scattering away of the people of Saba' became proverbial in Arabia. On such occasions, there is an Arab idiom: تَفَرَّقُوا اَیَادِیَ that is, these people got scattered away as were the luxury-laden people of the Saba'.
Ibn Kathir and other commentators have reported a long narrative about a soothsayer who had come to know about the coming of the punishment of the flood a little before it actually did. He made a swift and unique plan. First of all, he sold his entire property. When he had the money in his hands, he told his people about the coming flood and exhorted them to get out of the area immediately. He also told them that those who intend to shift to a safe far-away place should go to 'Amman, and those who have a taste for liquor, pita bread and fruits should move to Busra in the country of Syria, and those who would settle for rides that go through mud, come handy during the time of famine and prove efficient when dashing on a journey, should go to Yathrib (Madinah) which abounds in dates. His people followed his advice. The tribe of Azd went towards ` Amman, the Ghassn to Busra in the country of Syria and the Aws and Khazraj and Banu ` Uthman started off in the direction of Yathrib, the home of date palms. After reaching Batn Murr, Banu ` Uthman liked the place and settled right there. Because of this divergence, Banu ` Uthman were given the title of Khuza'ah. Batn Murr is closer to Makkah al-Mukarramah where they had chosen to settle down. As for Aws and Khazraj, they reached Yathrib and stayed there. After the long narrative in Ibn Kathir, the same detail about people scattering to different places has been reported on the authority of Said from Qatadah from al-Sha'bi. Thus, says Ibn Kathir, these people of Saba' were shredded into pieces, people who have been mentioned in: مَزَّقْنَاهُمْ كُلَّ مُمَزَّقٍ (We torn them into pieces).
The concluding statement in verse 19: إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّكُلِّ صَبَّارٍ شَكُورٍ (Surely in this, there are signs for everyone who is ever- patient, fully grateful - 34:19) means that there is a great sign and lesson in the rise and fall and in the radical change that hit the life cycle of the people of Saba' for a person who is enduring and grateful at its best, that is, when faced with some distress or pain, one observes patience over it, and when blessed with things of comfort, one is readily grateful for it. This is a life style in which one always comes out a winner. No matter what the state of his life is, he ends up in nothing but pluses, profits and gains. So says a Hadith of Sayyidna Abu Hurairah ؓ appearing in the Sahih of al-Bukhari and Muslim where the Holy Prophet ﷺ has been reported to have said:
'Certainly unique is the state of life a true believer is always in. No matter what Allah decrees for him, it turns for him into nothing but good and profitable. If he is blessed in one way or the other or has the desire of his heart fulfilled, he thanks Allah for it and it becomes good and beneficial for him in the Hereafter. And if he suffers from some pain or distress, he bears it with considered patience for which he is rewarded in a big way and thus, this suffering too, becomes good and beneficial for him' - from Ibn Kathir.
Some commentators have taken the word: صَبَّارٍ (Sabbar: very patient) in the general sense of sabr or patience - which includes remaining firm in all acts requiring obedience as well as abstaining from sins. In the light of this tafsir or explanation, a true believer remains comprehensively attuned to Sabr (patience) and shukr (gratitude) under all conditions and then, for that matter, every sabr is shukr and every shukr is sabr. Allah knows best.