When the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Ride — Revelation 6

Throughout two thousand years of Christian history, and several hundred years longer in Jewish history, the idea of an apocalypse has been studied. This predicted cataclysm is a series of earth-wide events, preceding God’s destruction of the evil ruling powers impacting humanity.

Although previously implied and even promised, these events are symbolically described in detail in a revelation from Jesus to the Apostle John, recorded in what is commonly called the Book of Revelation.

After being exiled to the small Greek island of Patmos, as punishment for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, John was shown a vision from the Lord and is told to write down what he sees and send the information to seven churches in Asia. In his vision John is told what to write in the church messages, which include criticism, commendation, comfort, and images of judgment for the wicked. He is shown many future events, including entities riding colored horses, angels blowing trumpets, bowls filled with wrath, and numerous other fantastic happenings all related to the end of this age.

There is the coming of an Antichrist and there will be a war with Satan, but by the end of the book, Jesus will be triumphant in defeating evil and then usher in a new age where there will be a restoration of all things lost, because of that first human sin in the Garden of Eden.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1a, 3-4, NRSV).1

This last book of the New Testament is challenging to read. It is prophetic and the scripture may have had one direct meaning when first written, but also have multiple applications over time, and adding that Jesus used symbolic visions, there has been much debate about what it all means. But don’t let its complexity stop you from studying it, for it is an interesting read and will give you plenty to contemplate.

Religious indoctrination, (or brainwashing)2 is some church’s teaching method, because they all think they have the only appropriate answer. But all denominations can’t all be correct, if they each have different answers, right? So, my teaching approach is to present the biblical information, tell you what various biblical researchers think, and throw in a few of my own ideas, then let the reader use their God-given free will to come to their own conclusion.

If we become confused and unsure of what to believe, we can ask God for help in recognizing truth and he will provide it. “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:22). There is an article published on this site that discusses receiving messages from God to help in identifying correct decisions. It is listed in the References & Notes at the end of this article.3

This last book of the Holy Bible is too perplexing to be discussed in one article, so we will be concerned only with the beginning of the real action therein — the opening of the seven seals. As each seal is broken, it activates an earthly event. Our discourse will cover the first four of these seals, as described in Revelation 6:1-8, when the Four Horsemen ride.

In its totality, this chapter describes a period in history when a large part of earth’s population will perish through a combination of wars, hunger, and diseases. These hardships begin with the opening of the symbolic seals securing a scroll which brings on the apocalypse.4 Some academics believed these events, although prophetic, predicted the near future at the time that Paul wrote them, which would be at some time in the past for us living today. Others believe the fulfillment is still yet future, at the end of this present age. Many think both are correct. A few believe the first horseman is now riding. One well-known denomination teaches the events as ancient history, starting long before the birth of Jesus.

The White Horse (Conquest)

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. (Revelation 6:1-2).

Who is this rider? Maybe a person representing some historical era? Or, could he be “one of God’s avenging agents sent to devastate the earth, as are the other three riders?” There is some similarity to Zechariah’s two visions (see: Zechariah 1:7-17; 6:1-8). Another interpretation is a conquering Christ enforcing God’s will upon the earth.5 In fact, most people believe this second idea, that Christ rides this white horse as the victor, just as he is depicted elsewhere (see Revelation 19:11-13).6

Others see the rider representing the leader of military conquests that dominate human history and leads to the catastrophes that follow,7 and John did live at the time when the Roman empire finally came to “the zenith of its world conquest.” Ten years after Jesus’ ascension, the evil Emperor Caligula8 tried to install an idolatrous statue in the Jerusalem temple, so these things were imbedded in the apostle’s mind.9 And, there was more — during a turbulent period in Roman history lasting 92 years, there were 32 emperors and 27 pretenders to the Empire causing incessant civil warfare and military despotism.10

So, many ideas have been suggested: God’s heavenly agent, numerous military suggestions, and even some long past historical character. Most of these ideas, although worth consideration, just don’t fit the situation for me. First, there is little common among them except, maybe, a horse. So, if it isn’t any of these other considerations, it must be Christ, right?

I would think that “a vision of the victorious Christ would be inappropriate at the opening of a series which symbolizes bloodshed, famine, and pestilence.”11 Remember, too, that Christ is opening the seals and, probably, could not also be the rider. Furthermore, the sequence of events leads to death, not life as promised by our Savior. This rider on a white horse seems to be a parody of Christ, just as the beast in chapter twelve is a parody of the Lamb.12 And, what about that bow? A bow without arrows seems a bit incomplete, in my opinion.

One last thing — the crown was only given to the rider after he appears, maybe as a reward when he rose in the ranks due to his victories and skillful diplomacy. So, this white horse rider, I believe, is the Antichrist13 and he will be part of the strong and wicked deception (lie) predicted by Paul the Apostle in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians.14

“This man will come to do the work of Satan with counterfeit power and signs and miracles. He will use every kind of evil deception to fool those on their way to destruction, because they refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them. So God will cause them to be greatly deceived, and they will believe these lies. Then they will be condemned for enjoying evil rather than believing the truth.” (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12, NLT).

This Antichrist (or false Christ, a deceiver, a denier) also appears later in the book (see: Revelation 11:7), and some find this a similarity with the rider (the real Christ) in Revelation 19:11–16.15

The Red Horse (War)

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. (Revelation 6:3-4).

With the breaking of the second seal, a red horse appears and the rider has the power to take peace from the earth. In contrast with the first rider, who has a bow without an arrow, this second rider is given a great sword, which depicts war,16 as predicted in Matthew 24:6.17 The sword is a symbol of war and pictures the rider as a possible world political superpower.

The special word used for the sword, although described as ‘great’, means a shorter dagger-like sword usually worn by magistrates and executioners.18 Maybe ‘great’ means important or official or influential. The color red suggests blood will be spilled and the specific word interpreted as ‘bright red’ is described as ‘fire-like’19 and may indicate the passion and ferocity of uncontrolled killing. Like many uses of symbolism, there are many ideas, but little agreement among scholars.

The Black Horse (Famine)

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!” (Revelation 6:5-6).

Now this third horse and rider are popularly understood to be famine. This is the only opened seal that is accompanied by a voice description and John hears about high prices for wheat and barley and the commands that oil and wines are to be left alone. “The judgment of this seal is scarcity, of which the balance is a symbol, representing the time when food is doled out by weight” (see Leviticus 26:26; Ezekiel 4:16).20

Being necessities for life, the grains are weighed out and sold for exorbitant prices, but luxury items are unaffected. This probably points to the role greed plays in intensifying the effects of a famine.21 One interesting observation should be considered: in times of locust plagues, grain crops are more susceptible to severe damage than olive trees and grapevines, which root deeper.22

The Pale Horse (Death)

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. (Revelation 6:7-8).

This pale horse is really a light-colored green color, the same word used sometimes for ‘vegetation’ (see Mark 6:39; Revelation 8:7; 9:4). The Greek word is khlōros and generally means either green-yellow or pallid or ashen color. Based on uses of the word in ancient Greek medical literature, several scholars suggest it reflects the sickly and unnatural lack in color of a corpse.23

John states that the rider’s name was Death and that Hades was following close behind, implying the aftermath of war and famine, along with the resulting outbreaks of disease. After dying, wild beasts contribute to the clean up work.24 Hades, of course, is the realm of the dead ready to swallow up Death’s victims. Together, they have the power to kill and are a part of familiar Old Testament prophetic judgements (Ezekiel 14:21). Death and Hades will be active, but their time will also be running out, since death will eventually be destroyed. (1 Corinthians 15:26, 54; Revelation 21:4).25

The text indicates they have authority over one fourth of the earth, but it does not say that all in that population will be killed, as some ministers of the Gospel now preach, only that those killed are within that selected group or area or allotment.26 Besides, “in apocalyptic literature such a numerical figure is not intended to be precise; rather it represents a large, but not a complete, devastation that would be created by God’s ultimate enemy, Satan.”27

Other Interpretations

Although many Evangelical and Chiasmatic interpreters are expecting an approaching Armageddon event, others interpret the horses differently, maybe based on ways the colors may be seen, such as White for Catholicism, Red as Communism, Black being a symbol of Capitalism, and Green representing the rise of Islam (or some other such scheme). And others equate the Four Horsemen with the angels of the four winds (example: Daniel 7:2).

Some speculate that the riders and their horses are similar to the events of the Olivet Discourse (see Matthew 24).28 I believe this last thought has much merit, since what Jesus said there had both sooner and later applications.29

Other interpretations, although a bit far-out, can also be found. One thought is that the Book of Revelation is “largely astrological in nature” and the Four Horsemen represent the planets Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn used in astronomical horoscope predictions.

The LDS (Mormons)30 imply all the events occurred in the ancient past. Their view of the Revelation scroll’s seals (seven in all) is the revealing of things concerning earth during the seven thousand years of earth’s temporal31 existence, each seal lasting for one thousand years. The White Horse, they say, involved Enoch and his ministry. The Red Horse concerns the wickedness and violence that led to the Great Flood. The Black Horse represents the period of Joseph (son of Israel) and the famines in his time. And finally, the Pale Horse involved the last thousand years leading up to the birth of Christ.32

Conclusion

The largest debate among Christian theologians has been who is the rider of the White Horse. This debate will probably continue until the end of this age, when those symbolic events are played out for real. From as early as the second century AD, the most popular belief has been that Christ is the rider, and the White Horse represents the successful spread of the Gospel. It wasn’t until later that the hypothesis surfaced that it may be the Antichrist.

My own observations make me believe that the first rider is the Antichrist, and the second, third, and fourth riders are related to the events after the Antichrist is revealed. So it was hard coming up with a song to accompany this article, but one by Johnny Cash, which includes some spoken words in Revelation from the King James Bible, is my choice.

“The Man Comes Around” was one of the last songs written by Cash, before his death33 and makes various biblical references — some specific to the Book of Revelation. You will hear Cash’s voice and music on the sound tract, but the visual singer in the video is an actor, playing his part. This presentation was for a music video project created by a student at Exeter College and you can come up with your own conclusions as to what he meant in the artistic scenes portrayed. Nice work for an amateur! Selected lyrics are below. A link to the video is listed at the end of this article in References & Notes.34

There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names.
And he decides who to free and who to blame.
Everybody won’t be treated all the same.
There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down.
When the man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.
One hundred million angels singin’.
Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin’, voices cryin’.
Some are born and some are dyin’.
It’s Alpha and Omega’s Kingdom come.

Copyright © 2020, Dr. Ray Hermann
OutlawBibleStudent.org

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References & Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved
  2. brainwashing: a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas; persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship.
    Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
  3. Hermann, Ray, “Is that Gut Feeling a Message from God?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 21 October 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/is-that-gut-feeling-a-message-from-god/
  4. Vučković, Aleksa, “Studying the End of the World: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, (Ancient Origins, ancient-origins.net, 30 October 2019), https://www.ancient-origins.net/unexplained-phenomena/apocalypse-0012794
  5. Elwell, Walter A., “Revelation,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, pp. 1209-1210.
  6. Barry, John D., et al., Faithlife Study Bible, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Revelation 6:2.
  7. The NET Bible First Edition Notes, (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Revelation 6:1.
  8. Caligula: One of Rome’s emperors, Caligula achieved feats of waste and carnage during his four-year reign (AD 37-41). His nephew was Nero.
    “Caligula”, (History, A&E Television Networks, 16 December 2009), https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/caligula
  9. Lumbroso, Gavriel, Yochanan (John) Presents the Revelation of Yeshua the Messiah, A Messianic Commentary, (Clarksville, MD: Lederer Books: Division of Messianic Jewish Publishers, 2018), pp. 70–71.
  10. Elliott, Edward Bishop, Horae Apocalypticae, (London: Seely, Jackson and Halliday, 1862), vol. 1, pp. 150-152.
  11. Swete, Henry Barclay, (Ed.), The Apocalypse of St. John, 2nd ed., Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1906), p. 84.
  12. Fee, Gordon D., Revelation, New Covenant Commentary Series, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), p. 93.
  13. Antichrist: (Greek: antikhristos) someone recognized as fulfilling the biblical prophecies about one who will oppose Christ and substitute himself in Christ’s place before the Second Coming. The term is found five times in the New Testament, and a similar term pseudokhristos or ‘false Christ’ is found in the Gospels.
    “Antichrist”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 14 February 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antichrist
  14. Larkin, Clarence, The Book of Revelation: A Study of the Last Prophetic Book of Holy Scripture, (Philadelphia, PA: Rev. Clarence Larkin Estate, 1919), pp. 53-54.
  15. The NET Bible First Edition Notes, (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Revelation 6:1.
  16. Walvoord, John F., “Revelation,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 2, pp. 947-948.
  17. Elwell, Walter A., “Revelation,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, p. 1210.
  18. Strong’s Greek #3162: μάχαιρα, machaira; der. of 3163; a knife, i.e. dirk [dagger], judicial punishment: sword.
    Strong, James, The New Strong’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996).
  19. Strong’s Greek #4450: πυῤῥός, purrhŏs; from #4442; fire-like, i.e. (spec.) flame-colored: red.
    Strong, James, The New Strong’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996).
  20. Vincent, Marvin Richardson, Word Studies in the New Testament, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887), vol. 2, p. 496.
  21. Barry, John D., et al., Faithlife Study Bible, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Revelation 6:6.
  22. Morris, Leon, The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, (Leicester England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), pp. 100-105.
  23. Mounce, Robert H., The Book of Revelation, (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), p. 140.
  24. Walvoord, John F., “Revelation,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 2, p. 948.
  25. Elwell, Walter A., “Revelation,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, p. 1210.
  26. Luter, A. Boyd, “Revelation,” in CSB Study Bible: Notes, (Eds.) Edwin A. Blum and Trevin Wax, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), p. 2026.
  27. Fee, Gordon D., Revelation, New Covenant Commentary Series, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), p. 95.
  28. “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 10 February 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Horsemen_of_the_Apocalypse#Other_interpretations
  29. Fomenko, Anatoly T., Nosovskiy, Gleb V., “The new dating of the astronomical horoscope as described in the Apocalypse,” chp. 3, p. 135-166, (Researches on the New Chronology, Chronologia.org, retrieved 18 February 2020), http://chronologia.org/en/seven/1N03-EN-134-166.pdf
  30. LDS: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Mormon Church).
  31. temporal: of or relating to time as opposed to eternity. Temporal existence is often contrasted with spiritual existence (which many religions teach is eternal).
    Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
  32. “Chapter 54: Revelation 4-11″, New Testament Student Manual, Religion 211-212, (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seminaries and Institutes of Religion Curriculum Services, 2018), also available online at: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/new-testament-student-manual/revelation/chapter-54-revelation-4-11?lang=eng
  33. “The Man Comes Around”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 25 January 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Comes_Around_(song)
  34. “The Man Comes Around”, Vocal artist and writer: Johnny Cash; Singing actor: Brian Sellers; Video creator: Samuel Sellers (uploaded 24 January 2018). Music audio from the album: American IV: The Man Comes Around, 24 May 2002, (Label: American Recordings, Universal; Licensed: UMG, BMG, others), [this was a college student class project: the audio tract is the voice of Johnny Cash, but the video characters are played by actors], VIDEO: https://youtu.be/PVAxpNdkFE8
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