Reading Revelation: The Four Horsemen

Yesterday I talked about a few things to keep in mind when reading the Book of Revelation. Today, I’d like to do a quick little exegesis (interpretation) of Revelation 6:1-8 to illustrate how our perception of this passage changes when we understand the symbolism. Before we begin, I want to mention that Revelation has two other thematic elements running through it. Yesterday I said it’s primarily a message of resistance and assurance. Woven throughout, John therefore engages questions of power:  who has it, what they do with it, and what God thinks of it. John is also constantly doing something Jesus did all the time, as did the prophets before him- he’s pointing out what happens as a consequence of our sins. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the text:

Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.

When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.

When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.

We remember that the Lamb is the only one who is able to open the seven seals, and that the slain Lamb (Jesus) was a surprising revelation, because John was expecting to see the victorious Lion. Already, we have a statement about power. The four living creatures surround the throne, and they act here kind of like narrators and stage directors. “Voice of thunder” is an indication of divine power and majesty.

The first horse is white, and carries a bow. This would tell John’s readers immediately that the rider is from Parthia, which was a nation east of the Roman Empire. Parthia wanted war (sword) and power (crown), and was coming to get it. And remember, Parthia isn’t literal- it’s a symbol of any nation wanting to conquer.**

The second horse is red, and has a “great sword.” This horse’s rider is “permitted to take peace from the earth.” And what happens when that peace is taken? They kill each other. This, then, is the horse of war. If those conquerors want war, here it comes. The red symbolizes bloodshed, the sword symbolizes the violence of war.

The third horse is black, and the rider is carrying two measuring scales. What John’s readers would have noticed is that the numbers don’t add up. Wheat and barley was not remotely that expensive. You could get at least ten times that amount for that price. They’d also recognize that these scales are used most often when weighing grains during a famine. So the third horse brings two things: inflation of goods, and famine.

The fourth and last horse is pale green, and the rider is Death, and Hades is right there with him. Pale green is not meant to be a pleasant color, but rather bring to mind decaying or infected flesh. Bright green, in contrast, reflects life, so pale green symbolizes life that is waning. And of course it would, with Death riding it! One quick note about Hades, although this could be a post all its own: Hades is not a literal hell. It is a symbol of godlessness. It is the absence of the presence of God. Lastly, this verse mentions that a fourth of the earth was given over to sword, famine, pestilence and the wild animals. This list would remind readers of both Deuteronomy and Ezekiel, where the same list occurs after war happens.

So what is this about, anyway? Very simply, it’s about the consequences of war. It’s the natural progression of things when we turn from God’s power and attempt to gain our own power instead. The white horse is desire for power and authority, and that desire, when acted upon, makes us vengeful conquerors. And then what happens? Bloodshed. We make others our enemy. Peace vanishes. And then what? The economics of war starts rearing its ugly head. Prices go up, and who is affected? The poor. The olive oil and wine, the more expensive items, are still available to those who can afford it, but the everyday stuff is ten times more expensive, and it hits all the people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Famine happens. And then lastly, death comes, and with all that is now reigning in our hearts and in our economy and in our society, godlessness is right alongside it. We traded God’s power for our own, to the worst ends. We have exponentially combined our problems- sword, then famine, then pestilence, and then so much death that wild animals are able to take over areas that used to be inhabited by communities of people. War leads to total destruction of our humanity.

And then the fifth seal is broken, and what comes is the prayers for justice from the martyred people of God. How long, O Lord, will you let this happen? When will your justice come? And then the sixth seal is broken, and an earthquake happens, which is again a symbol of divine power and majesty, and the earthquake is so vast that the kings and generals and rich and powerful all run away to hide because they are so terrified of the justice of God finally coming for them.

God then gathers God’s people, who did not seek war and power, and marks them as his children. This great multitude stands before the throne of God and waves palm branches and declare that salvation (healing) belongs to God. Palm branches should remind us of the triumphal entry, also a sign of God’s power, where Jesus comes into Jerusalem not on a horse but on a donkey. Salvation, healing, belongs to this God, not to the gods of war.

So- what do you think now of the four horsemen? They still invoke fear, but in a different way, right?

Again, we remember this letter is about resistance and assurance. Resist the Empire’s power, be assured of God’s power. And look how different they are.

 

**Another side note: this white horse and rider is a good example of how symbolism can be tricky, because John also uses the same symbolism for Christ in other places. I’ve sadly read some commentaries that have tried to say this IS Jesus, but that’s just plain wrong. This set of 4 is taken altogether, and what proceeds from the first horse should easily show why it isn’t Christ. Christ doesn’t bring about the next 3 riders. So, again, a reminder to study this with care.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. I love your take on the four horsemen. I have studied the classical interpretations of Revelation a lot — preterist, futurist, historicist, symbolist, pre-trib, post-trib, all of it. This interpretation makes the most sense given the historical context and the way it must have been heard by the first-century churches.

    The measuring scales of Empire are unbalanced today perhaps more than ever. What are we, God’s people, doing to resist it?

  2. Thanks Jim! (And technically, it’s Bruce Metzger’s take- you should get the book!) I agree about the measuring scales- I think that really hits home for us today (or it should), and we’d do well to heed Revelation’s words. We’re not nearly resisting enough.

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