For many readers of Revelation, this is where things start getting exciting: we’re now ready to tackle Revelation’s tantalizing description of future events. Yet as we work through these images, we must connect them to what we’ve seen in chs 1–5. Like most books of the Bible, Revelation is meant to be read all at once (easily done in a couple hours, tops). So, if we do not pay attention to the earlier chapters, we will miss much of the message of the rest of the book.
This post addresses the first four of the seven seals, containing the famed “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” Many commentaries and books scrutinize each verse in this section, even dwelling on fractions of a verse. While we will address each verse here, we must not miss the forest for the trees by dwelling on details and ignoring the larger narrative. Like the seven trumpets and the seven bowls, the seven seals are a set, intended to be examined as a unit. Less often noticed is that Revelation also breaks down each of these “sevens” into four and three. Therefore, it makes sense to post about the first four seals here.
One of the fascinating, often overlooked, features of the first four seals is that it is one of the “four living creatures” from 4:7–9 (see my previous post) that issues the thundering command, “Come!” as the Lamb opens each one. Obviously, this order could have been issued by the Lamb, or by God sitting on the throne. That, however, would put the four horses on a par with God’s heavenly servants. Instead, God makes the four horses and their riders subject to the four creatures. Of course, we tend to be terrified by the evil powers of the horses and their riders. But in the big picture described by Revelation, the horses can do nothing until they are given power by God’s servants.
While we will look at the four horses individually, we must keep in mind that they are a set; they go together, just as the four creatures are always a unified group – while 4:7 briefly describes each individual creature, they always work together. This is apparent in the fact as the each of the first four seals is opened, John does not specify which of the four creatures says, “Come!” It does not matter which creature speaks, because they always work in concert. Therefore, we should understand that the four horses also work together. So while I will discuss each horse and rider, I will finish by talking about the four as a group.
Revelation 6:2 introduces the “Antichrist,” aka the “beast” of ch 13. His horse is white, the color that Revelation associates with God (for example Rev 1:14, 3:4–5, 4:4). The rider imitates God’s servants by wearing a crown (as in 4:8) and seeking to conquer (one of the key words of Rev 2–3; see my earlier post). Naturally, this makes it easy to take him for a servant of God – in fact, some commentators see this rider as a positive figure, distinct from the Anti-Christ. But the author reveals his true nature by giving an important clue: his weapon.
The weapon is unexpected: not a sword, but a bow. This puzzles many readers, as this is the only New Testament passage that references the bow as a weapon. But a prominent Old Testament passage helps us to identify the meaning of the bow. According to Gen 9:13, God hung his bow in the clouds after the flood in the time of Noah, promising never to use it again. (The New International Version obscures this meaning by translating “rainbow;” the Hebrew of Gen 9:13 is actually “bow,” as per the King James, New American Standard, New Revised Standard, and most other translations). John reminds us of this by pointing to the rainbow surrounding God (Rev 4:3). Therefore, the fact that this rider uses a weapon that God has permanently retired marks him as “anti-God.”
The second horse and its rider bring conflict (Rev 6:4). While many readers associate this horse with war, the verse goes beyond nation-vs-nation, referencing general efforts to kill.
The third horse (6:5–6) brings economic distress caused by food shortages: a full day’s wage is required for minimum sustenance (barley and wheat were the major grains in the region). While most people used oil and wine, these were more expensive items that people could manage without. The idea is that the rising prices of basic necessities will make it impossible to buy what one could buy before.
The fourth rider brings death – not just from the war and famine, but from disease and wild animals (6:7–8). Danger from animals (a real possibility in the much less densely populated ancient world) points to a general breakdown of communities’ ability to keep the roadways and residential areas safe.
The four horses and their riders describe four closely connected events. A charismatic figure arises who appears to many to have been raised up by God. He is determined to gain power, and his actions lead to war or other forms of civil unrest. Economic disaster soon arises, followed by extensive death.
While John and his audience may have had a particular figure in mind (scholars suggest various Roman emperors, including Nero and Domitian), the application of this passage is much broader. Since Revelation speaks to all Christians (not just those of a particular age or place), we must always be on the lookout for people like that first rider – leaders whose charisma causes many to see them as specially called by God.
The 20th century famously saw many examples of this cycle playing out. Two notorious figures, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, began their careers as “saviors,” promising to create a more just, more prosperous society. Obviously, things did not work out that way, as their ascents to power soon led to extreme civil unrest, war, economic disaster, and death. The sad irony about these leaders is that while their fascist views were plain even before they rose to power, both enjoyed strong Christian support. Despite the plain warning of Revelation 6, large numbers of Christians were seduced by their powerful words and images.
In the 21st century, we Christians need to learn from past mistakes. Unfortunately, the church in the USA is demonstrating a dangerous willingness to support people like the “white rider.” President Trump and his predecessor President Obama are certainly as different as any two presidents could be, but some things they, along with Trump’s possible successor Joe Biden, have in common, should make Christians stop and think. These men are powerful speakers with a gift for stirring up emotions so that we feel compelled to support them.
Republican Christians, of course, saw dangers posed by the Obama administration and see possible danger posed by Biden; Democratic Christians now warn about Trump – easy to do today, since the past months has seen substantial increases in civil unrest, economic disaster, and death. But those of us who wish to obey Jesus by remaining faithful to the end (Rev 2:10–11) must apply biblical standards to all secular leaders, especially those who share our political views!
I cannot predict who win the election in November. But I will say with confidence that any modern US president capable of becoming a “white rider,” a leader who makes us feel good, but who turns out to be interested in accumulating power (“conquering”). As we will see in coming posts, this is the kind of leader that God calls his people to resist, no matter how attractive.