After John's vision of God's throne in heaven and the Lamb who has authority to open the scroll with the seven seals, John tells us how he watched as the Lamb opened the seals one by one. While there are seven seals in all they can be subdivided into groups according to their subject matter. The first four seals tell us of four horsemen who are sent out by the Lord to ride across the earth. The fifth seal gives us a picture of persecuted saints beneath the altar crying out to God for vindication. The sixth seal gives us a glimpse of the horror of final judgment, and the opening of seventh seal results in silence in heaven for about half an hour which in turn serves as an introduction to the sounding of seven trumpets. In this post I want to focus attention on the first four seals and the four horsemen that ride across the world. First there is a rider on a white horse, second a rider on a red horse, third a rider on a black horse, and fourth a rider on a pale horse.
If we are to understand what is going on here we need to keep in mind that these riders do not "come out of the blue." As with the book of Revelation as a whole this passage builds on Old Testament imagery. In particular, Zechariah 6:1-8, Ezekiel 14:12-23 and Leviticus 26:18-28 form the foundation for Revelation 6:1-8. This is not to say that these Old Testament passages are all talking about the same event. Each passage must be read in its own context. But there are connections of a literary and theological nature that exist between the passages that will help us understand Revelation and keep us from heading off in the wrong interpretative direction.
There is something else we need to consider. Given the nature of the first five chapters of Revelation it is unlikely that the opening of the first four seals and the four horsemen who ride as a result represent events that will happen at the end of the age just prior to the return of Christ. Jesus has begun to reign now. He is the exalted Son of Man (ch.1). He is giving direction to his churches (chs.2-3). God is reigning from his heavenly throne (ch.4). And Jesus has begun to execute the will of his Father in both redemption and judgment as a result of his death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God (ch.5). Revelation is NOT a book about a far off period of time, or about the "terminal generation." Revelation is about these days in which we live. About the time of the "gospel age" between the first and second comings of Christ. The four horsemen "ride" throughout this entire period of redemptive history. These events characterize the gospel age.
It is also important to understand that the opening of the four seals and the riding of the four horsemen do not follow one another in chronological sequence. This is how John sees them in his vision. They ride one after another. But this is a visionary way of describing what are simultaneous realities in history and experience. There is a close connection between each of the horsemen. Each one's activity is related to the others. This is also true of the events described in Zechariah, Ezekiel and Leviticus on which these apocalyptic riders are based. In other words, we should not think of these riders as riding centuries apart or something like that; they ride together back and forth across the world until the end when Jesus comes again.
In terms of the interpretation of the riders themselves it is best to see them as symbolic representations of various realities that characterize the gospel age. The rider on the white horse is probably not Christ as some suppose based on similar language in ch.19:11-16, but a symbolic representation of the warring powers of evil who constantly stir up trouble for God's people in this world while at the same time exposing and troubling the nominally religious and unbelieving people of this world. The rider on the red horse represents one of the consequences of this spiritual warfare; there is strife and discord, violence and murder. The rider on the black horse speaks of the economic hardships that so many, Christian and non-Christian experience on a daily basis. In spite of a variety of political and economic configurations, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses, there is still economic trouble and hardship, corruption and abuse in our world. The rider on the pale horse is explicitly identified as death. During the gospel age Christians as well as non-Christians die. Death comes in a variety of ways; sword, famine, plague and even by wild animals. What an age it is!
The great question, however, is what does the Lord Jesus want us to learn? I think there are a number of things. First, when we experience trouble, and we do as Christians, we must remember that God is in control of life and our lives. Suffering does not occur indiscriminately or by chance. It comes to us from the hand of God. This does not mean that we will like it or can understand it. But it does give us a place where we can take refuge. It does give us one to whom we can run and find mercy and grace to help in our time of need.
Second, when we zoom out from this specific passage and look at what the Bible says about why God allows the horsemen to ride throughout this world we find a number of encouraging things. For instance, God uses the troubles of this life to discipline and purify his people so that we might be more like Jesus. We are called upon to walk in the footsteps of our master and a cursory reading of the gospels reveals that his life was one of obedient suffering. The servant is not above his master. But God also uses the troubles of life to judge those who resist his will and persecute his elect. In and thorough these events he calls them to repentance. He bids them look beyond this vale of tears to himself as the source of true life and joy and peace.
Third, we must never forget that the Lord is greater than those who wage war, take away peace, starve and kill. That is one of the reasons why God gave us this Revelation in the first place. God wants us to know that he is sovereign over the affairs of men and nations. He is in control. He is working out his purposes. Nothing comes into our lives that he has not ordained. The four horsemen ride and do what they want to do but all the while God is doing all his holy will. He is revealing his grace and his justice, saving his elect and building his church.
Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!