Working through the Book of Revelation the way we've been doing it means we sometimes get to a section that we don't necessarily know we were going to get into. Revelation 6:1-8 was supposed to be on the first 4 seals of the scroll, and then as we looked at it we found the famed 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse. The vivid imagery and the surface-level violence, along with the often confusing ciphers and codes, puts a lot of people off studying or even reading Revelation. As we progress through the book, our aim is to see what the images could be, what the key messages are, and how we could apply this to our everyday life.
We begin with a reminder that we are still in the throne room (from chapter 4) and we have found the slain Lamb who is worthy of opening the scroll. We now see a sequence of the Lamb opening each of the first 4 seals in turn, and each time one of the four living creatures says in a voice like thunder, “Come!” Following each of these invitations, we are met with a horse and its rider:
White horse - Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest, (6:2)
Fiery red horse - Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword, (6:4)
Black horse - Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand, (6:5)
Pale horse - Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him, (6:8)
These are often depicted as conquering, wars, famine, and death. Again John is calling on Old Testament references to reframe and redirect the hearer to a new purpose of this imagery. These 4 horsemen call into mind the book of Zachariah, but with the possible meaning of Ezekial and Jeremiah verses.
John is perhaps even calling up Greco-Roman themes. For example, the first horseman might be trying to link to gods such as Apollo, Eros, and Artemis - who all used a bow. White horses were a popular depiction for military leaders. The use of a bow might link to the Parthians, who were mounted archers and extremely successful against the strong and all-conquering Roman army. This along with the confirmed image of Jesus Himself on a white horse in Rev 19:11, prompts people to see this first horseman as a possible antichrist figure.
The red horse is linked to bloodshed and the sword, another weapon of war, while the rider on the black horse carries scales. The marketplace, commerce, and trade are key to the power of the Empire. The living creature that announces this 3rd horse and rider then defines the cost of wheat and barley (being expensive), but making reference to wine and oil being untouched. This extra detail shows us that food and food supply was an issue in Asia Minor. Grain was exported from the region and given to the citizens of Rome cheaply or even free. This left these provincial areas with a shortage and having to import grain from further away for a higher price. Meanwhile, luxury items such as wine and oil were at a surplus because it was profitable to ship that to Rome, so landowners removed grain and barley fields in favour of planting vineyards. Famine was not far away.
The fourth rider is on a green horse, (translated correctly as pale) when talking about complexion - and represents death. The use of Hades here as a reference points to Greco-Roman meaning.
These 4 horsemen together represent either the situation that the region of Asia Minor is experiencing during John's time, or the judgement that Jesus will bring in on the Day of the Lord - upon His return. We have taken the scroll to be a book of life/book of judgement that is to come, therefore the consequences of that judgement (i.e. the 4 horsemen) would be to come as well. If these 4 represent together the judgement to come, then it is unlikely the first horseman is the antichrist. It is also unwise to use the white horse (Rev 6:2 and 19:11) to support this. Perhaps it was the other way around in the text it might support (i.e. Jesus show first, then a psuedo-king figure later), but how are we to recognise the comparison, when Jesus on the white horse is not introduced to us for another 13 chapters.
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. (19:11)
It is more likely that the 4 horsemen here work for God (similar to Zachariah) across all nations, across all of the world, but the work is the judgement that will arrive when Jesus comes again, (linked to Ezekial and Jeremiah).
There is a lot here, and in the upcoming chapters, that just can't be confirmed or denied. This is why so much of Revelation interpretation varies. What then is the key message we can draw from this section? Obviously, it is memorable imagery that John uses, but it is highly likely that this depiction points to God's judgement and His sovereignty to carry out that judgement. God calls for the world's attention. Even if it is judgement that fell during John's time, it is a helpful reminder that God is in charge. That everything was created by Him and for Him. He alone can pass judgement. Whether it's war, conquering nations, famine, or even death - all is under the power of the creator. Terrible things may happen, things that seem to be beyond our explanation, but we know that God is using such forces to bring history to its climax. The symbols might have been different had John written this today, but our response is to be the same... to trust God - to draw closer in troubled times to the one who rules history. When nothing else is certain - He is!