The four horsemen of the book of Revelation have captivated the popular imagination of many. But who are these four horsemen and what do they represent?
They are the by-product of the first four seals of the scroll of judgment being cracked open by the Lamb, Jesus Christ, directly following His enthronement in Heaven (Rev 5).
The four horsemen here are patterned after the four chariots of Zechariah 1:7-11 and especially Zechariah 6:1-8. There, four differently colored horses are responsible for patrolling the earth on Yahweh’s behalf and punishing wicked nations. Here, in Revelation, the four horses are responsible for dispensing God’s judgment on the earth directly following the enthronement of Jesus. The number “four” likely represents the four directions of north, south, east, and west, showing the expansive totality of God’s judgment across the whole earth (see Zech 6:5-8; cf. Rev 7:1).
The White Horse
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. – Rev 6:1-2
This horse is described as having a rider with a bow and a crown which was “given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.” What does this mean?
Some interpreters understand this to represent Jesus since He is later described as riding a white horse in Revelation 19:11. Thus the “conquering” of the white horse here would represent the expansion of the gospel happening simultaneously with the other judgments. Tom Schreiner explains what this interpretation symbolizes, “Such a reading fits with Jesus’ prediction that the gospel would spread throughout the world before the end arrives (Matt. 24:14; 28:19; Mark 13:10). One characteristic of the present age is the proclamation of the gospel to all peoples in all places. Amid the woes and sufferings of the present age, the gospel continues to be proclaimed and to triumph throughout the world,” ESVEC, Revelation
Others understand the rider on the white horse to be a satanic parody of Jesus on the white horse, representing a false Christ deceiving the nations (see Mark 13:3-5; Matt 24:4-5; Luke 21:8). G.K. Beale writes, “Therefore, the first rider represents a satanic force attempting to defeat and oppress believers spiritually through deception, persecution, or both (so 11:7; 13:7). The image of the rider may include reference to (1) the antichrist, (2) governments that persecute Christians, or (3) the devil’s servants in general,” NIGTC, Revelation.
The Red Horse
When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, 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. – Rev 6:3-4
This horse is described as having a rider who is permitted to, in the words of Shakespeare, Cry “Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war. He is given a “great sword” and is permitted to take peace from the earth “so that people would slay one another.”
One of the consequences of the judgment of God on the earth is to have peace taken from the earth, for wars, murders, and violence continue to take place. Schreiner explains, “The coming of the Christ did not put an immediate end to war. Indeed, war and strife will persist until he comes again; no matter how many peace treaties are signed, war breaks out again.”
The Black Horse
When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, 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!”
The rider of this horse is represents famine and economic volatility. He holds a pair of scales in his hands–not as a symbol of “justice,” but as a symbol of economics. Scales were used in the marketplace to weigh out money to make sure the weight of the money matched the going rate via a counter weight. Osbourne notes, “The emphasis here is almost certainly upon exorbitant prices caused by famine and the resultant rationing of the food supply. In Lev. 26:26 and Ezek. 4:16, the image of eating bread on the basis of weight symbolized terrible scarcity,” BECNT, Revelation.
John hears a voice from among the four living creatures (see Rev 4:7) that calls out, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” A denarius was a days wage for the average laborer. Osbourne explains, “A quart of wheat was enough food for one person for a day, and three quarts of barley were barely enough for a small family (there were few small families except among the wealthy in the ancient world). Therefore a man’s entire earnings were barely enough to feed himself, let alone his family, and all the other costs like home or incidentals could not be met. These were famine prices, about ten to twelve times the going rate according to ancient records.” BECNT
As regards the final comment about the oil and wine, Schreiner comments, “The sparing of the olive oil and wine may mean that the rich continue to consume luxury items or that the famine doesn’t touch all the necessities of life. It is difficult to decide between these two, but the latter is slightly more probable, for oil and wine weren’t just luxuries,” ESVEC.
The Pale Horse
When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its 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. – Rev 6:7-8
This horse alone gives us the name of its rider, “Death.” The color of the horse is more accurately a pale green, like the color of a corpse. “Hades” is simply a reference to the holding place of the dead who await final judgment (see Rev 20:13-14) and who (along with “death”) have been ultimately conquered by the resurrected Christ (Rev 1:18). John cites Ezekiel 14:21’s “four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence,” as the means by which “a fourth of the earth” is killed. In a way, this seal is a culmination of the previous three, resulting in a massive amount of death and destruction, yet is limited to a quarter of the earth’s population.
Understanding what the purpose is of the limitation to a “fourth” of earth’s population is difficult to understand. However, the next two sets of seven represent an increase in the magnitude of their destruction: the seven trumpets affect a third of the earth (see Rev 8); the seven bowls affect the whole earth (see Rev 16). This might mean that as history marches on towards the second coming of Christ, the calamities and woes will only increase. But this interpretation is also suspect, since the sixth seal (Rev 6:12-17) and seventh trumpet (Rev 11:15-19) and seventh bowl (Rev 16:17-21) all conclude with the destruction of the world and the arrival of the Kingdom of Christ in totality. Thus, the book is not providing a linear, chronological unfolding of time, but a cyclical, recapitulation of time (starting with the first seal and ending with the seventh, then retelling the story again with trumpets, bowls). Nevertheless, the incremental increase in severity of judgment in each set of seven may still point towards a gradual increase of the expansiveness of the judgment till the final judgment arrives.
What do they mean?
Commentator Bill Mounce finally reflects on the purpose of the four horsemen for the original hearers: “Reviewing the various interpretations assigned to the Four Horsemen tends to rob the contemporary reader of the dramatic nature of the vision itself. It is good to place oneself back in one of the seven churches and listen to the visions as they are being read. Instead of discussing the probable significance of each of the four colored horses those first listeners would have recoiled in terror as war, bloodshed, famine, and death galloped furiously across the stage of their imagination,” NICNT, Revelation.
In G.K. Beale’s massive commentary on Revelation he argues that the four horsemen do not represent climactic events limited to happening just prior to second coming of Christ or inauguration of a millennial kingdom, but are representative of the typical sorrows and woes that have been present on the earth since Christ’s ascension to the throne. They are dispensed by God’s sovereign hand to administer justice on the earth, and to sancitify the saints as they await the second coming (parousia) of Christ. He writes, “Therefore, just as the four “living creatures” represent the praise of the redeemed throughout the entire creation [see Rev 4:6-8], so the plagues of the four horsemen symbolize the suffering of many throughout the earth, which will continue until the parousia.”
Of course, death, wars, famines, and pestilence have been apart of the earth since Genesis 3. But now, post-resurrection and ascension, they are being used specifically to prepare the world for final and total judgment to come.