Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“The Horsemen”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. (Revelation 6.1-2)

These words usher in some of the most difficult chapters of the Bible.  The horsemen, just four of the seven seals, are enough to startle us.  The first conquers, which doesn’t sound so bad, but realize that the deaths of many soldiers and defenseless civilians will be involved in his conquest.

The second horse is “bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword” (Re 6.4).  Not only is he bringing suffering, death, and defeat to many, but inciting people to fight against each other, so there is no peace.

The third is

a black horse! And its rider had 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 denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” (Revelation 6.5-6)

It’s not that luxuries are drying up, it’s the food!  In our cushy, western lives, we don’t think much about food shortages, but this sort of thing leads to mass starvation, and the old, the children, and the sick are the ones most likely to suffer and die.

If we hadn’t had enough of death yet, here comes the fourth horse, a “pale” one, whose

rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6.8)

The term “pale” translates the Greek word χλωρός-chlōros-“green.”  But no, this isn’t a mistranslation, and it isn’t a horse out of The Wizard of Oz.  It means the horse looked sickly, hence “pale.”  The focus here is on disease, but it’s wrapped together with the third horseman’s famine, first and second horsemen’s sword, and attacks by wild animals, to top it all off.

This is all pretty scary stuff, not least because these horsemen seem to be supernatural beings, whether of heavenly or hellish origin is not completely clear. We’re confused by this, and left fumbling for interpretations.  There is no shortage of ideas about what all of this means, but it would be a mistake to reach a conclusion without all of the pertinent facts.  Is this the first time such horsemen appear in the Scriptures?  Practically all of the players, and even inanimate objects involved in chapters 4 and 5 are not being introduced for the first time, but are making second, third, or fourth appearances after showing up in Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  We can understand what they mean far better by examining those books, first.  The same is true of the horsemen. 

“I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.” (Zechariah 1.8)

This isn’t identical, but it’s the same idea of four horsemen, riding horses of different colors, in a vision from God.  Like us, Zechariah wonders in verse 9, “What are these, my lord?”  The answer comes in verse 10: “These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.”

Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses—all of them strong. (Zechariah 6.1-3)

Here they are again!  Now they are chariots with teams of horses, but the four divisions remain, and the distinguishing colors, too.  Zechariah again asks for an interpretation, which is helpfully provided: “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth” (Zec 6.5).  The specifics have to do with events surrounding the returned exiles of Judea, and their relations with the border world.  But note that in both cases, the horsemen are servants of God.  They patrol and carry out his will, and it’s not always pretty.  The number four represents God’s command of the whole earth, since they go “to the four winds,” north, south, east, and west.  They correspond to the four living creatures “on each side of the throne” of God in Revelation 4.6, who instructed the horsemen in chapter 6, “come!”  They’re carrying out God’s will, scary as it is.

So what’s the point?  We’ve established one central fact about the four horsemen of Revelation 6, but it didn’t tell us much we could use.  But it got us started, at least.  We’d have been lost, without considering all that God has said.  This is one easy demonstration of how handicapped we would be in trying to understand Revelation without knowing the Old Testament, but the obscure sections of the Old Testament aren’t just the big gun to bring in when nothing else can break through the walls that stand between us and an understanding of God’s Word and will.  If we’ll pay attention to all that he said, especially the difficult bits, we’ll be better equipped to understand and apply all of his instructions for us.

Jeremy Nettles