Albrecht Durer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498)
Revelation 6: 1-8 The Four Horsemen
1 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!” 2 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.
3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, “Come!” 4 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.
5 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, 6 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!”
7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, “Come!” 8 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.
The series of seals, trumpets and bowl which begin in this chapter and run through chapter nineteen are the portions of Revelation that many people are captivated and sometimes repulsed by. This is also the portion of Revelation where interpretations will vary greatly. Sometimes familiarity with the language of scripture and the images of the culture of the time of Revelation can make certain interpretive options more likely for John’s initial audience but ultimately any attempt to restrict the highly symbolic image laden language of Revelation to one meaning betrays the lingering power of these images which continue to resonate two millennia later. As I proceed through these cycles of images I will present a reading that I find compelling and interesting, but I also am aware that my own reading will not agree with many other intelligent, informed and engaged interpreters.
Among these images the most famous is also the first. The four horses with their riders, commonly referred to as the four horsemen of the apocalypse, correspond to the initial four seals and are announced by the four living creatures around the throne. To begin looking at the four horses and their riders and the three seals that follows begins with a choice of how to approach the seals themselves. The seals are on a scroll written on the front and back, but ultimately unreadable until the scrolls are broken, and it is only the appearance of the Lion of Judah which is the sacrificed Lamb who is worthy (see the pivotal reversal of the previous chapter) which enables the seals to be opened. Do the seals themselves reveal the content of the scroll and are therefore a part of the judgment of God or are they merely preparations that enable us to be prepared to receive this judgment. One can argue for either perspective but following the image of a sealed scroll I read these as preparations to be able to understand what comes afterwards. Especially the first five seals represent in my reading a way of understanding the world to which the later judgements will be addressed. Even though there is a lot of interplay between what I am labeling three cycles as shown in the table below and there is a sense of progression in the narration from seal to trumpet to bowls there is also a cyclical nature where each series can illuminate a common idea in a different manner.
|The Seven Seals (Revelation 6:1- 8:5)
||The Seven Trumpets (Revelation 8:6-11:13
||The Seven Bowls (Revelation 16:2-21
|S1 The First Horseman (Conquest/Empire)
||T1 hail and fire mixed with blood; 1/3 of the earth burned
||B1 Painful sores on those marked by beast
|S2 The Second Horseman (War, removal of peace)
||T2 Burning mountain thrown into sea destroys 1/3 of life of the sea
||B2 Sea becomes like blood
|S3 The Third Horseman (famine, inflation of food prices)
||T3 Wormwood falls making 1/3 of fresh water undrinkable
||B3 Rivers and springs become like blood
|S4 The Fourth Horseman (Death, ¼ of population killed by sword, famine, death and wild animals)
||T4 1/3 of sun doesn’t shine, 1/3 of moonlight and starlight removed
||B4 People scorched by the sun’s fire
|S5 Martyred Saints call for God’s action
||T5 First Woe: The Demonic Locusts
||B5 Darkness over the kingdom of the beast
|S6 Earthquake, sun eclipsed, moon turns to blood, stars fall, sky rolls up like a scroll
||T6 Second Woe: Four Angels of the Abyss and demonic cavalry destroy 1/3 of population
||B6 Euphrates river dried up, demonic spirits rally kings to oppose the reign of God
|S7 Silence in heaven followed by prayers of saints offered like incense
||T7 heavenly worship
||B7 Great city split by earthquake, islands and mountains disappear
Another parallel to these initial seals is to the description can be seen in what is sometimes called the ‘little apocalypse’ in Mark 13 (and parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21).
|Mark 13: 7-9, 24-25
|Violent conflict between nations
||S2 War, removal of peace
||S5 Martyred saints
||S6 Heavenly signs
|Son of Man comes in the clouds
||S7 Heavenly silence and prayers
(Koester, 2014, p. 358)
The four horsemen of the apocalypse have proven to be a powerful visual image for artists, storytellers and has slipped into our language in surprising ways. John Gottman can adopt the four horsemen as a metaphor for four practices which, in his research, are the four primary predictors of divorce (criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stone walling). Gottman as a practicing Orthodox Jew was able to pull this metaphor from the cultural references to the horsemen. They have occupied the worlds of fiction and film, for example the Clint Eastwood movie Pale Rider is built around a resonance for the final rider on a ‘pale’ horse whose name is death and hell follows after him. Even within the world of video games in the Darksiders series you can play as War or Death (riders of the apocalypse) in a destroyed world that may not be theologically related to the world of the bible (other than involving angels and demons) but uses these brief descriptions as an imaginative starting point to construct a character and the world in which they unleash their destructive power in a search for redemption (in the first two games War and Death respectively are the protagonists). The artist and writers will continue to utilize the four horsemen as a source for their imaginative constructions both literarily and visually yet the challenge for the reader of scripture is to ponder how these briefly described figures emerging from the seals might help us to make sense of the world we encounter.
Interpretation of the horses and their riders ultimately rests with the first horse and rider and how they are viewed. While the riders and horses may draw inspiration from the horses that patrol the earth in Zechariah 1: 8-10 (red, sorrel and white) and the four chariots in Zechariah 6: 1-8 (red, black, white and dappled grey) which represent the four winds of heaven, ultimately the four horses and their riders form a new and powerful image of conquest, war, famine and death. Hearing the description of each seal I imagine John on the ground because he sees the horse emerge first and then only after looking at the horse is the rider observed and described. Yet, it will be the horse and the rider taken together with their complementary descriptions that will make the images as powerful as they remain.
The first rider on the white horse is described having a bow, a crown is given to him and he came out conquering and to conquer. On the one hand there is not a lot of description but what is present is symbolically rich and has led to several interpretations. Some interpreters have focused on the white horse and the repetitive use of nikao (Greek word translated to conquer see discussion in Revelation 2: 1-7) in two different verbal forms and have assumed that the first rider is Christ as he is depicted in Revelation 19. If Christ is the first rider then the other riders will be in opposition to the first rider and though this, by itself is not decisive, this description emphasizes that the weapon given to the rider is a bow, while Christ conquers with the sword of his mouth. A mounted bowman is also not a unit that was used within the Roman legions but was used by the Assyrians and Babylonians when they conquered Israel and Judah as well as other non-Roman peoples like the Parthians. While it could represent conquest by non-Roman forces or play upon Roman fears it may represent conquest more broadly. The parallel between the white horse here and in Revelation 19 may also reflect the way that conquest often masquerades as something that is righteous or holy. This first rider may reflect an anti-Christ figure that pretends to be holy when it is a manifestation of the unholy. It is also worth noting that the bow is also used by the armies of Gog in Ezekiel 38-39 and as Ezekiel 39:3 can state:
I will strike your bow from your hand, and will make your arrows drop out of your right hand.
My best reading of this is that the white rider does represent conquest and that which parades as righteous but which Revelation will argue is demonic and within the progression of Revelation it will become clear that Rome is reflected by many of these images to the first hearers. As I mentioned the Roman legions did not use mounted bowmen at this point and yet the bow stands to distinguish the white horse here from Christ. Rome was the primary empire which built and sustained itself on wars of conquest. For me the seals reveal the world as it is for the hearers. Yet, the power of this and the other images of Revelation is the way they can typologically represent the experiences of multiple times. In many ways this rider which represents empire and conquest which often appears in the guise of righteousness but may truly be demonic should be an uncomfortable if poetic image to measure the powers and the actions of one’s time against. In my own context, in what ways does America masquerade as being righteous and benevolent and yet act in a way that models this rider rather than the crucified Lamb? Although he is referring to the image of the rider in Revelation 19, Miroslav Volf’s words resonate here as well. “We will believe in the Crucified, but we want to march with the Rider.” (Volf, 1996, p. 276) We may confess the crucified one who conquered through his suffering and death, but we may want to follow the strongman who conquers through military might.
The second fiery red horse and its rider with the sword who takes peace from the earth. The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, was one of the claims of the benefits of the empire. Rome’s military might and administration was supposed to guarantee peace, but the Roman peace was built upon the enforcement of the legions and the fear of crucifixion or other means of punishment. Readers with a Jewish background would be familiar with what we can call today the first Jewish-Roman war from 66-73 CE in which Roman legions under the command of Vespasian and his son Titus would destroy the temple, much of Jerusalem and wreak havoc on the towns and countryside of Judea. The second rider on a red horse, much like the rider on a red horse in Zechariah 1: 7-12, can see that the peace that has been brought to the earth by forces of empire have done so at a high cost to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah (see Zechariah 1: 12). Or in the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14; see also Jeremiah 8:11 and Ezekiel 13:10)
While the second rider could be a force which destroys the Pax Romana and sends the nations into turmoil I read it as a revelation of what the Pax Romana really is, war under the guise of peace. In the Roman pantheon Mars is second only to Jupiter in his importance and is viewed in the mythic genealogy of Rome as the father of Romulus and Remus. War was a central part of the Roman identity, theirs was a peace through continual conquest both on the borders of the empire and against any forces of insurrection internally. Rome was a strongman who conquered by the spear and the sword. As Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, could sarcastically remark, “pacem sine dubio…verum cruentam. Peace there was, without question, but a bloody one.” (Zanker, 1988, p. 187) Again, the question becomes for my own context to ask about the ways in which in America military might becomes worshipped instead of the crucified. Could some of our own struggles with issues around guns in America reflect a god more like Mars or more like the expected Lion than the Crucified Lamb.
Ara Pacis, The “Tellus” Panel were Pax (Peace) is portrayed providing fertility and prosperity
The black horse with the rider with its scales for commerce comes while a voice calls out from the direction of the throne exorbitant prices for grain. As Craig Koester can note (citing the Jewish historian Josephus), “The prices in Revelation were eight to sixteen times higher than usual, rates associated with severe shortages (Josephus, Ant. 14.28). A worker would have to spend his entire day’s pay to provide wheat bread for himself or enough barley for a small family.” (Koester, 2014, p. 396) The trade enabled by the infrastructure of the empire and the security provided by the Roman legions. In Roman artwork Pax, the goddess of peace, is portrayed in ways that relate her to Venus and Tellus who are gods of fertility and agriculture. Yet, reality among the people did not always reflect the images portrayed in the language and artwork of the empire. As Craig Koester can note:
In the imperial world the principal cause of food shortages “was the earmarking of vast quantities of grain to feed the city of Rome and the armies, while through the Empire large areas continued to be diverted from the cultivation of cereals to the more profitable production of wine and olive oil.” (Rom. Civ. 2:247) Some people made handsome profits in oil and wine, but reduced grain cultivation meant that when the harvest was meager or grain shipments were disrupted, many cities faced a food crisis. (Koester, 2014, p. 397)
A modern dystopic world built on a similar crisis is The Hunger Games novels written by Suzanne Collins. In the books the conquered districts send most of their resources into a capital district to finance their lavish lifestyles and appetites while the people in the districts deal with oppression, hunger and deprivation. In a world of trade which is based upon consumer demand and property and the resources of the world concentrate in economically stronger countries and regions this image of the black horse, its rider and the calling voice continues to provide a challenging image for the world in which we live. When the consumption of luxury goods (represented by oil and wine in Revelation) begins to crowd out the ability of subsistence farmers to grow the necessities for making the bread to feed the mouths of the world then we live in a world reflective of this horseman where securing the minimums for survival becomes a challenge for all but the wealthy. The society that the bible advocates for is one where every mouth is fed and the neighbor’s well being is provided for. Yet, throughout the history of Israel and the church this vision continually conflicts with the human instinct to hoard resources and to accumulate property, wealth and power. In Revelation 18 when Babylon (Rome) falls and the economic system that sustained it collapses it will be the merchants who brought the wealth of the earth to the capital who will shed tears and cry at the devastation of the city and their livelihood that was tied to this system.
The final horse emerges as a sickly green and its rider is Death personified. Just as the Romans could personify things like Victory or Peace into goddesses like Nike or Pax the Hebrew people personified Death and Hades as superhuman forces which have the power to grasp or consume people. The forces of conquest, war and an economy of trade and taxation have led finally to death. The promises of empire of prosperity and peace have been finally revealed as their opposite. Sword, famine, and disease is a common traditional list of ways in which death comes as a judgment (see for example 2 Chronicles 20:9; Jeremiah 14: 12; 21:7; Ezekiel 5:17; 6:11) and added to this is the threat of wild animals which enter the space of devastation and destruction in the aftermath of war and the loss of the protection of cities and communities.
For me the four horses and their riders provide a resonant image that continues to function today as a prophetic image to evaluate society by. When the forces of empire, military might and commercial commerce instead of promoting life for the entire society, and by extension the world, but instead become forces that are based upon war or economic exploitation then we mirror the horsemen and bring death instead of life. I believe that the horses and their riders point to the reality of the world as it is and that while they are not caused by God they are shown for what they are. Yet, even Death and Hades are ultimately subject to God and in Revelation 20 will be forced to surrender their captives before being sentenced to the lake of fire.
Revelation 6: 9-11 The Faithful Saints
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10 they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” 11 They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
With the opening of the fifth seal we see yet another revelation of the way the world is in the death of those who are faithful witnesses. The death of these followers of Jesus may have seemed a meaningless loss to those on earth but here in Revelation their deaths are given meaning as a sacrifice lifted up to God. Yet, as this sacrifice is lifted up there is an expectation that God will act upon their sacrifice and the act as judge and avenger. Their cry is a familiar cry to the people of Israel, “how long?” They believe and trust that God will not let injustice continue indefinitely. God is a God who will act on behalf of the faithful.
This fifth seal reveals the position of the church at the beginning of Revelation, they continue to wait on God’s action. They do not take judgment into their own hands and act as revolutionaries. Their prayers go up, their lives may be offered up as faithful witnesses and yet action rests in God’s hands. God’s kingdom comes to earth in God’s time and not the time of the saints. Yet, they do receive a white robe to clothe their bodies in the resurrection. The image here is not of a disembodied soul, even though the word soul is used at the beginning of this description but the movement of the hope of Revelation and the early church is an embodied hope of resurrected bodies on earth rather than souls remaining in heaven.
Most translations introduce the word ‘number’ into verse eleven and this translation points to a number of witnesses that must die prior to God’s action, and while this tradition is based on other ancient sources it is not present in Revelation. Ultimately verse eleven points to the completion of the work of the witnesses. Their work is not yet complete. God exercises a costly divine patience so that the witnesses to the gospel might carry their message to the ends of the earth and that the nations may have an opportunity to repent. Even with the death and destruction of Revelation, God continues to exercise restraint providing the opportunity for all those who can be redeemed to be saved. Yet, God will not ultimately allow the forces of conquest, war, exploitation and death to reign. God will not remain indifferent as forces threaten the creation, but God will exercise a patience that is costly to the witnesses of the gospel. Much like in Jesus’ parable of wicked tenants (Mark 12: 1-12 and parallels) God continues to send the servants even as they are ridiculed, tortured and even killed in the hope that these tenants might change.
Revelation 6:12-17 The Sixth Seal
12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
With the sixth seam the creation itself reacts to the violence on the earth. Like Matthew’s crucifixion narrative in particular, (although both Mark and Luke share some of these elements) where the sun’s light is blocked, and an earthquake shatters the ground as the elements of the creation bear witness to what most of humanity remains unable to see. Here in Revelation several traditional elements like the sun becoming darkness and the moon turning to blood (Joel 2: 31, also quoted in Acts 2:20). The stars falling from the sky were viewed as a sign of impending disaster while the sky being rolled up like a scroll echoes the language of Isaiah 34:4. Yet, in these cosmic signs the mighty and powerful of the earth and those without power can read the signs in the heavens and the earth and know that judgment is coming, and they attempt to hide themselves. They would rather have the mountains fall upon them than endure the judgment that is to come. Their terror is such that death is preferable to enduring the coming judgment. This transition at the end of Revelation 6 to the beginning of Revelation 7 is one of those great reversals that the New Testament loves. In the language of Mary’s song:
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors. Luke 1: 51-56
Now the mighty flee their thrones and their positions of power into the hills and mountains while the remnant of Israel are to be sealed and protected. For those among the faithful these signs are signs of hope and joy for they believe that God is finally ready to set the world right and to bring about the kingdom of God. In the language of Rory Cooney’s adaptation of the Mary’s song title ‘The Canticle of the Turning’
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn.
In the following chapter we will see the sealed remnant of Israel and the countless multitude of the nations who are able to stand while the political and military leaders and the wealthy and powerful quiver and hide among the rocks. God’s wrath may be an uncomfortable image for those who live a comfortable and sheltered life. God’s justice may mean the upending of the systems of conquest, military power, economic exploitation and ultimately death that the wealthy and powerful have benefited from. As a military veteran who lives in suburban America and who benefits from many systems where I have privilege these are difficult words to listen to. These can be words of judgment and hope, or to use Lutheran language law and gospel. The prophetic challenge should force us to reexamine the lives that we live and the policies we advocate for, but the prophetic hope calls us to dream of what would happen when the world turns, when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The change may be uncomfortable and there will be those who would rather die than change. Yet, in Revelation God’s justice will not ultimately be thwarted and God’s desire to dwell among humanity will finally be realized.