This is an article in the series on the vision of the book with the seven seals (Rev 4:1-8:1).
The Four Horsemen form a Unit.
As indicated by the following, the four horsemen symbolize one thing that consists of parts:
1) All four are horsemen.
2) Seals 2, 3, and 4 symbolize sword, famine, and pestilence. The Old Testament uses these curses as a single expression of judgment. For example, “My four severe judgments … sword, famine, wild beasts and plague” (Ezek 14:21).
3) The Synoptic Apocalypse (Matt 24), when it predicts the nature of the church age, mentions the same things that we find in the four horsemen but describes them as characteristics of the ENTIRE church age; rather than as consecutive events.
4) The grammar of the white horse is extremely continuous and ongoing (Rev 6:2), implying that it covers the entire church age.
5) The fourth seal includes the bloodshed and famine of seals 2 and 3.
6) Revelation has seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowl plagues. As discussed in another article, the first four of each of these sevens are general and should not be individually interpreted.
Since the white horse represents the proclamation of the gospel over the church age, and since the four horsemen form a unit, symbolizing one thing consisting of parts, the next three horsemen symbolize the consequences of gospel preaching.
The Red Horse
“When He broke the second seal …
a red horse, went out;
and to him who sat on it,
it was granted to take peace from the earth,
and that men would slay one another;
and a great sword was given to him” (Rev 6:3-4).
The rider of the red horse has a sword and causes men to “slay one another.” This may refer to general violence. However, for the following reasons, the slaying in the second seal is likely the slaying of God’s people when the gospel is rejected:
1) Since the four horsemen form a unit, the bloodshed of the second must be the consequence of the first, which is the gospel.
2) The Greek word for the rider’s “sword” refers to a smaller weapon used for close-in combat OR FOR SACRIFICE.
3) The fifth seal shows “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God” (Rev 6:9). They are UNDER the altar (Rev 6:9; 18:24), meaning that they have been symbolically sacrificed ON the altar. This makes it evident that many of God’s people were martyred in the first four seals.
4) The word translated “slay” in the second seal is the same Greek word for “slay” as in the fifth seal and it is the primary word used for animal sacrifice in the Greek Old Testament.
As Jesus said:
“A time is coming when anyone who kills you
will think he is offering a service to God”
(John 16:2, NIV).
The Black Horse
“When He broke the third seal …
behold, a black horse;
and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand.
… a voice … saying,
‘A quart of wheat for a denarius,
and three quarts of barley for a denarius;
and do not damage the oil and the wine.’” (Rev 6:5-6)
This rider has a pair of scales. In times of scarcity, the quantity of things being bought or sold is measured very accurately. To do that, one requires a scale. Since this seal emphasizes food, the scale symbolizes a shortage of food; i.e., famine conditions.
This is confirmed by the “voice,” which sets very high prices for wheat and barley. Based on the quoted prices, it would cost a person his whole day’s wage to buy enough wheat for one day for one person.
For the following reasons, this lack of food can be interpreted symbolically as a famine of the Word of God; a time when the word of God may be hard to find or poorly understood:
1) Since the four horsemen form a unit, this famine must be the consequence of the second seal, namely of the persecution of the people who proclaim God’s word.
2) This horse is black. In the sixth seal, black is the opposite of the light of the sun (Rev 6:12). Since the sun may symbolize the gospel (John 3:18-21), the black horse may represent THE ABSENCE OF THE GOSPEL.
3) The Bible often uses food in a spiritual sense. For example, Jesus is, “the bread of life” (John 6:35).
The Ashen Horse
“When the Lamb broke the fourth seal …
behold, an ashen horse;
and he who sat on it had the name Death;
and Hades was following with him.
Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth,
to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence
and by the wild beasts of the earth.” (Rev 6:7-8)
The color of the fourth horse (ashen or pale) is the color of a very sick person; on the verge of death.
The name of the fourth horseman is Death. He is death personified. Hades, which is the dwelling place of the dead, followed after him. As in human experience, the grave follows after death. This seal personifies Death as an executioner and Hades as an undertaker.
The fourth horse has both the sword of the second seal and the famine of the third but adds to them pestilence and the beasts of the earth. It, therefore, combines and intensifies the second and third seals.
Since the four horsemen form a unit, the death in the fourth seal must be the consequence of the spiritual famine of the previous seal. It is, therefore, interpreted as spiritual death; permanent exclusion from mercy; the frightful consequence for people who have chosen to exclude God from their lives.
Zechariah’s Colored Horses
Zechariah’s visions also have colored horses and sound very similar to the four horsemen of Revelation 6. However, Zechariah’s horses serve as scouts and signify God’s awareness of what is happening on earth, compared to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse who actively bring the gospel and then major calamities. (Zech 1:8; 10-12; 14-16; 6:1-8) Because of these differences, Zechariah’s horses do not help us to explain the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
Conclusion: First Four Seals
As discussed elsewhere, the Synoptic Apocalypse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21) divides history into three great parts. Revelation 6 follows the same pattern. In this pattern, the first four seals describe the church age:
1) The white horse, which will never stop conquering, is the gospel.
2) The red horse symbolizes the persecution of God’s people when they proclaim the gospel. William Tyndale, for example, was the first to translate the Bible into English and was burnt to death at the stake.
3) The black horse is a famine for the Word of God that follows when the people who proclaim the word of God are persecuted and killed. During the Dark Ages, the church burned Bibles along with their owners.
4) Lastly, the ashen horse is spiritual death; the frightful permanent exclusion from mercy.
The bloodshed, famine, and death of seals 2 to 4, therefore, are the consequences of the preaching of God’s word.
– End of Summary –
Context of the Four Horsemen
In Revelation 5, God has a book that is “sealed up with seven seals” and nobody is able to break the seals and open the book (Rev 5:1-3). Previous articles interpreted this as follows:
- The book is the book of God’s judgments (the book of life).
- The seals are Satan’s informed and well-motivated accusations against God’s people, preventing the heavenly beings from being able to explain why God saves some sinners but condemns others.
But then the Son of God became a human being and, although He was tempted to the utmost, He “has overcome so as to open the book” (Rev 5:5-6). His entire life but particularly the hours of His death has demonstrated Him to be “the faithful and true Witness” (Rev 3:14); “worthy” to take the book and break its seals (Rev 5:9). In other words, by remaining faithful to God under the most severe circumstances, He was shown to be “worthy” to prove to the universe that God’s judgments are perfect.
At the same time, Satan, who was the one who said that the Son is unworthy, was confirmed as a liar and expelled from heaven in his capacity as “the accuser of our brethren” (Rev 12:9-10).
In Revelation 6, Jesus breaks the seals one by one, causing catastrophes on earth. By breaking the seals Jesus refute Satan’s accusations against the people God elected to eternal life. Jesus proves that God judges perfectly. For a further discussion, see – Why has Christ not yet returned? What is God waiting for?
Purpose of this Article
The previous article identified the rider on the white horse in the first seal as a personification of the gospel. The other three horses in Revelation 6:3-8 are also not literal horses. Even a superficial reading will show that their riders are also personifications, namely of bloodshed, famine, and death respectively. The fourth seal even gives the name Death to the fourth rider.
The purpose of this article is to determine whether this bloodshed, famine, and death in seals two to four are:
- Literal or symbolic, and
- Specific or general.
Seals 2 to 4 form a unit.
After God delivered Israel from Egypt, He entered into a covenant with them at Sinai. Leviticus chapters 17-26 explains the rules by which the Israelites had to live. Leviticus 26 concludes:
- If Israel was faithful, there would be positive consequences (blessings – Lev 26:3-13; Deut 28:1-14).
- If they disobeyed, there would be negative consequences (curses – Lev 26:14-33; Deut 28:15-68).
These covenant curses are very similar to seals 2-4. For example, God said, “I will:”
- “Multiply your afflictions seven times over” (v21, 24) – (There are seven seals.)
- “Send wild animals against you” (v22). – (fourth seal)
- “Bring the sword upon you” (v25). – (second seal)
- “Send a plague among you” (v25). – (fourth seal)
- “Cut off your supply of bread … they will dole out the bread by weight. You will eat, but you will not be satisfied” (v26). – (third seal)
Based on these strong parallels, there can be little doubt that seals 2-4 build on the covenant curses. Since God made the covenant with His people, this may suggest that the “war, famine, and pestilence” of these seals fall on the people of God who have wandered away from Him.
Another place in the Old Testament where we find the covenant curses is in Deuteronomy 32. Verses 23-25 mention the same things that we find in seals 2 to 4; famine, pestilence, plagues, wild beasts, and the sword that will fall on God’s people (v9). But then, when their enemies gloat about their victory over Israel (v27), “the LORD will vindicate His people” (v36, 41-43). Then the flashing sword and arrows will turn against their enemies (Deut 32:41-43). For that reason, it is also possible that the seals are judgments on God’s enemies.
The covenant curses are often summarized by later writers of the Old Testament, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but applied to all nations. In Ezekiel 14, for example, the LORD said:
“If a country sins against me,” He could “cut off its food supply and send famine upon it and kill its men and their animals … send wild beasts … bring a sword … send a plague into that land. … How much worse will it be when I send against Jerusalem my four dreadful judgments—sword and famine and wild beasts and plague!” (Ezekiel 14:12-21)
The terminology of Revelation 6:3-8 first appeared in the covenant curses but, later in the Old Testament, the “four dreadful judgments—sword and famine and wild beasts and plague” (Ezekiel 14) were used as judgments against various nations. The similarity of seals 2-4 to the covenant curses, therefore, does not prove that these seals describe judgments on God’s people, as some claim.
But what we do learn from this, firstly, is that the images of seals 2-4 are drawn from the Old Testament. Secondly, the Old Testament frequently refers to the sword, famine, and pestilence as a unit (Jer 14:12; 21:7; 24:10; 44:13; Ezek 6:11, 12; 5:12). And, similar to the fourth seal, Ezekiel 14:21 adds wild beasts to the list. For that reason, this article interprets seals 2-4 as a unit.
Support for this Conclusion
Support for the conclusion, that seals 2-4 form a unit, comes from the Synoptic Apocalypse (the Olivet Discourse), where Jesus predicts the nature of the church age. He mentioned the same things that we find in the four horsemen; wars, plagues, and famines (Matt 24:6-14; Mark 13:7-8; Luke 21:11). However, He did not describe them as sequential events but as different characteristics of the church age.
Still further support for this conclusion is that the fourth seal (Matt 6:7-8) includes the bloodshed and famine of seals 2 and 3.
For these reasons, this article first provides a verse-by-verse discussion of these seals, as brief as possible, and concludes with a proposed interpretation.
6:3 When He broke the second seal,
I heard the second living creature saying, “Come.”
4 And another, a red horse, went out;
and to him who sat on it,
it was granted to take peace from the earth,
and that men would slay one another;
and a great sword was given to him.
He broke the Second Seal
The word for “broke” is in the past tense because the prophet experienced these in the past. It does not necessarily mean that the symbolized events are literally in the prophet’s past.
Second Living Creature
In Revelation 4:7, the second living creature was the “calf;” a symbol of sacrifice. For example, oxen were sacrificed when David brought the ark up to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:12-15), during the ordination of priests (Exod 29:1-14), as a priest’s offering for sin (Lev 4:3), and on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:3, 11). While this seal uses war language (taking peace from the earth, killing, sword), the association with the calf brings sacrificial overtones.
The Greek word translated as “red” is purros. This word is related to the Greek word for fire. Hence, it is the color of fire. In Revelation 12:3, it is the color of the dragon. Since the rider on this horse has a sword and causes men to “slay one another,” this color may point to the shedding of blood.
To him who sat on it, it was granted
This is called a ‘divine passive’. Out of reverence, the ancient Jews were reluctant to speak the name of God. One way to avoid doing that was to use a passive tense when describing something God does. Jesus uses divine passives frequently in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:4, 6-7, 9). Jesus also used the divine passiveconcerningo Himself:
“All authority in heaven and on earth
has been given to me” (Matt 28:18, ESV).
It implies that God gave this rider his power. This does not mean that the rider on the red horse is Christ. Satan and the forces of evil can do nothing unless God allows it (e.g., Job 1:11-12; 2:5-6).
To take peace from the earth
In Greek, the word for “peace” here has the (definite) article. Therefore, it probably does not refer to peace in general, but specifically to the peace that comes with the gospel in the previous (first) seal. It is the peace that comes from trusting God. This is supported by the fact that the only other time that the word “peace” is used in the book of Revelation, spiritual peace is implied (“Grace to you and peace” – Rev 1:4) rather than the absence of violence.
That men would slay one another
“Slay one another” implies civil war, where people of common blood or faith are in combat against each other. Potential Old Testament background texts include Gideon’s blowing of the trumpets, which resulted in the Midianites turning their swords on each other (Judges 7:22); the Egyptians fighting amongst themselves (Isa 19:2); and the enemies of God’s people attacking each other (Zech 14:13).
“Slay one another” may refer to general violence, conflict, and war. However, the word translated “slay” (sphazô) and its equivalents are the primary words used for animal sacrifice in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) (Lev 1:5, 11; 3:8, 13; 4:4, 24, 33, etc.). Furthermore, the fifth seal uses the same Greek word for “slay” to describe the martyrs of God underneath the altar, which implies that they have been sacrificed on the altar (Rev 6:9). Since the fifth seal also makes it evident that the first four seals have resulted in many martyrs (Rev 6:9), and in the context of the gospel going forth in the first seal, the slaying in the second seal is likely sacrificial killing; the slaying of God’s people by people who have rejected the gospel, rather than just general civil war.
This conclusion is supported by the only place in the New Testament outside of Revelation that uses the word translated “slay,” namely, 1 John 3:12, where it is said that Cain murdered his brother because his deeds were evil and his brother’s deeds were righteous.
Divisions arise between people as the gospel is preached to them. Some accept the gospel, others reject it. People who reject the gospel begin to slander, hurt and even kill those who follow Jesus. In this way, peace is taken “from the earth,” causing men to slay one another.
A great sword was given to him
This “sword” is a machaira. The “sword” in the fourth seal is romphaia (Rev 6:8). Machaira can be used for swords in general, but when contrasted with the romphaia, it represents a smaller weapon used for close-in combat or sacrifice, as in the tool Abraham intended to use to sacrifice his son (Gen 22:6, 10). So, this word for “sword” is appropriate for sacrificial slaying rather than general murder or warfare.
6:5 When He broke the third seal,
I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.”
I looked, and behold, a black horse;
and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand.
6 And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying,
“A quart of wheat for a denarius,
and three quarts of barley for a denarius;
and do not damage the oil and the wine.”
One thing is striking in its absence. The first two horses “went out” after they were called. This horse does not seem to go out. It simply appears.
Third Living Creature
The third living creature had the face of a man (Rev 4:7). In the past, commentators attempted to use this information to explain the seal, for example, as the rise of heresy within the church in the early centuries or as the general principle that humanity suffers when it rejects God. However, to attempt to interpret the vision based on the face of the living being seems unjustified.
In the ancient world, black was the color of mourning and calamity (Jer 4:28; Lam 4:7-8). In this seal, black is closely associated with famine and mourning is one result of a severe famine.
In the sixth seal, “the sun was darkened, becoming black like sackcloth” (Rev 6:12). This implies that black is the opposite of the light of the sun. Since the sun symbolizes Jesus Christ (John 8:12; 9:5), the Word of God (Psa 119:105), and the gospel (John 3:18-21), black, by implication, means the absence of the gospel or even opposition to the gospel.
A pair of scales in his hand
In times of scarcity, prices rise. The more an item is worth, the more precisely you will want to measure the quantity being bought or sold. For that purpose, you would require a scale. This seal focuses on food. The scale, in combination with food, indicates a shortage of food. In other words – famine conditions. For instance, Ezekiel prophesied that, during the siege of Jerusalem, the people “will eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and drink water by measure and in horror” (Ezek 4:16; also Lev 26:26).
A voice in the center
of the four living creatures
It is not the voice of one of the four living creatures. As is often the case in Revelation (Rev 10:4, 8; 11; 11:1; 9:13; 11:12; 12:10; 14:2, etc.), the origin of the voice here is not defined. Since the sound comes out from the midst of the four living creatures, it must come from the throne (Rev 4:6). Therefore, it may be the voice of “the Lamb in the center of the throne” (Rev 7:17) or the voice of “Him who sits on the throne” (Rev 5:13). However, in Revelation, the throne and the altar are also able to speak (Rev 16:7).
Wheat … Barley … Oil … Wine
The voice first sets prices for wheat and barley and then warns the people not to harm the oil and wine. The three main crops of Palestine in ancient times were grains (including wheat and barley), grapes (from which wine was made), and olives, which were processed into oil (Deut 7:13; Deut. 11:14, 28:51, Psa 104:14-15, Hosea 2:8, 22 and Joel 1:10).
The denarius was a small Roman coin made of silver. It was considered the equivalent of a day’s wage. Based on the quoted prices, it would cost a person his whole day’s wage to buy enough wheat for one day for one person. A person could feed himself but not his family. If a person bought the less desirable grain (barley), a day’s wage could feed three people for one day, but larger families would go hungry. So, the text portrays a time of deep scarcity. According to Mounce, the prices quoted were about ten times higher than normal prices.
Do not harm the oil and the wine
Perhaps the idea still is that food was scarce. Oil and wine spoil easier than grains.
6:7 When the Lamb broke the fourth seal,
I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.”
8 I looked, and behold, an ashen horse;
and he who sat on it had the name Death;
and Hades was following with him.
Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth,
to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.
The Fourth Living Creature
The fourth living creature “was like a flying eagle” (Rev 4:7) but it can also be a vulture – the Greek aetos has both meanings:
If it is an eagle, it may imply a sudden disaster. The presence of the eagle is not perceived until it is too late.
Vultures, in contrast, feed on animal carcasses and symbolize death. The vulture is not the cause of the disaster like the eagle is but is evidence that disaster has occurred.
The adjective “pale” or “ashen” (NASB) is an attempt to translate the Greek word that was used in ancient times to describe the appearance of a very sick person; on the verge of death. The color red more naturally symbolizes the death that comes from violence or war. The pale color seems to symbolize the death that comes from “famine and … pestilence,” as is relevant in this seal.
And he who sat on it had the name Death
The fourth horseman is the only one that is named. He is death personified. He kills by “war” and by “famine.” If his name is death, perhaps the names of the first three riders are Truth, War, and Famine.
Hades followed after him
Hades (Greek: hadês) is the Greek equivalent of Sheol (Hebrew: she’ol), the place where the dead are buried; the underworld, the dwelling place of the dead. That makes it the rough equivalent of the grave. It is not a place of punishment. The English word “hell” is not grounded in the concept of Hades, but rather Gehenna, the place of burning outside Jerusalem.
In human experience, after death comes the grave. In the same way, Hades, in the fourth seal, follows after death. Hades collects Death’s victims and imprisons them in the grave. This seal personifies Death as an executioner and Hades as an undertaker. This recalls the Greek god Hades, who had the key to the grave and prevented its prisoners from leaving.
The book of Revelation always uses hadês together with “death,” implying that the two are one concept. For example, Jesus said:
“I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Rev 1:18).
Not a Greek deity, but Jesus is in control of death and hadês. That means that He has the power of resurrection. Those who go into the grave, He is able to bring out. At the end of the millennium:
“Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.
This is the second death” (Rev 20:14).
Authority was given to them
This is another divine passive. God gives Death and Hades permission to do their work. God is not the author of death or of suffering. He does not desire the human race to suffer. But out of respect for human freedom, He allows human beings both the freedom to choose and the consequences of their choices.
Over a fourth of the earth
“Earth” here does not refer to the physical planet but the world of human beings.
To kill with Sword and with Famine and with Pestilence and by the Wild Beasts of the earth.
The fourth rider has both the sword of the second seal and the famine of the third but intensifies them with pestilence and the beasts of the earth. As with the Old Testament covenant curses (Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 32, and Ezekiel 14), the judgments here are progressive, becoming more and more forceful and severe.
Pestilence is a contagious, deadly disease that destroys people in mass casualties.
Zechariah’s Colored Horses
After the brief verse-by-verse discussion of the seals above, before we venture an overall interpretation, we need to discuss another Old Testament passage that sounds very similar to the four horsemen of Revelation 6.
In Revelation 6. there are four horses of different colors; white, red, black, and ashen.
Zechariah’s visions also have colored horses. Zechariah 1 might have four horses; “red, brown and white” (Zech 1:8). The LORD sent them “to go throughout the earth” and they reported back to “the angel of the LORD,” saying, “We have … found the whole world at rest and in peace” (Zech 1:10-11). In other words, the riders and horses of Zechariah serve as scouts and signify God’s awareness of what is happening on earth. This is substantially different from the horses in Revelation, who first bring the gospel and then major calamities.
In Zechariah 1, “the angel of the LORD” then asked, “LORD Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem … which you have been angry with these seventy years” (Zech 1:12)? This refers to Jeremiah’s prediction that Israel will be in exile for 70 years. The “how long”-question is parallel to the fifth seal, where the souls under the altar also ask, “How long, O Lord?” (Rev 6:10)
“The LORD Almighty” responded that He is angry with the nations that have caused so much calamity over Israel and that He “will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house (the temple) will be rebuilt” (Zech 1:14-16).
In conclusion, since there are similarities between Zechariah 1 and Revelation 6 and since, in Zechariah 1, the LORD will judge Israel’s enemies, some propose that the seals are also judgments on Israel’s enemies. However, this conclusion is not strong because the functions of the horses in Zechariah and Revelation 6 are substantially different.
In Zechariah 6:1-8, there are four chariots:
“The first chariot had red horses, the second black, the third white, and the fourth dappled.”
There are also parallels between the four horses in Revelation 6:1-8 and these four chariots:
Firstly, in both, we find horses of different colors, linked to the number 4.
Secondly, the four horses in Rev 6:1-8 are related to the four winds of Rev 7:1-3 and these four winds are related to the four chariots of Zechariah 6. To explain:
The four horses in Rev 6 are related to the four winds of Rev 6 because both groups are four in number and both are controlled by four angels: Each of the four horses is controlled by a living creature and each of the four winds is held back by one of the four angels.
Zechariah’s four horse-chariots are explained as “the four spirits of heaven.” Since “spirits” can also be translated as “winds,” this implies a relationship between the four chariots and the four winds in Revelation 7.
[The four winds of Revelation 7 are an end-time final escalation of the four horses; of both the gospel preaching of the first horse and the consequential calamities of the other three horses. Another article identified the four winds of Revelation 7 as the seven last plagues (see, Sealed for the plagues).]
However, Zechariah’s four horse-chariots are substantially different from the four horses in Revelation 6:1-8 because the chariots merely ”patrol the earth” while the four horses bring the gospel and the subsequent calamities.
Therefore, in conclusion, Zechariah 6 does not help us much to explain the four horses of Revelation 6.
This article will now offer an interpretation
The Gospel is part of the Unit.
Above, I argued that a single interpretation or meaning must be assigned to seals 2 to 4.
Another article concluded that Revelation has seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowl plagues and that the first four of each of these series of seven are general and should not be individually interpreted. Following that conclusion, the gospel of the first seal is part of the unit. This also seems obvious from the fact that all four of the seals are represented as horsemen.
Above, I used the Synoptic Apocalypse to justify the view that seals 2 to 4 form a unit. The Synoptic Apocalypse also confirms that the first seal forms part of the unit, for, in it, Jesus included the gospel with the sword, famine, and pestilence as elements of the church age. He said:
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).
The grammar of the white horse is extremely continuous and ongoing (Rev 6:2), meaning that it covers the entire church age. By implication, the same applies to the other three horses. This also supports the proposal that the four horses form a unit with a single message.
Persecution is part of the Unit.
The fifth seal describes “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God” (Rev 6:9). This means that these people have been killed during the preceding four seals. Also, in the Synoptic Apocalypse, Jesus mentions the persecution of God’s people as another element in addition to the gospel, wars, plagues, and famines of the church age: “They will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you” (Matt 24:9). Persecution, therefore, is part of the first four seals.
For that reason, we can divide these seals into three categories:
- The gospel (seal 1),
- Persecution of God’s people (as evidenced by seal 5), and
- The catastrophic events; bloodshed, famine, and death (seal 2-4).
What the gospel and persecution are and the relationship between them is fairly clear, but the question is what the bloodshed, famine, and death of seals 2 to 4 are and how they relate to the gospel and persecution. Possible alternative interpretations include the following:
1) The bloodshed, famine, and death are literal disasters that God uses to draw people to Himself and His gospel.
2) Bloodshed, famine, and death are the natural and literal consequences when people reject the gospel. (Or, God’s judgments on people who reject His gospel.)
3) By interpreting the first rider as a personification of the gospel, we interpreted it symbolically. It is possible to interpret the bloodshed, famine, and death of the next three seals also symbolically:
- Second seal = Divisions and strife resulting from the preaching of the gospel;
- Third seal = Famine of the Word of God = Absence of the gospel and even opposition to the gospel;
- Fourth seal = Spiritual death – permanent exclusion from mercy
The following section motivates for this symbolic interpretation of the first four seals:
The evidence for a symbolic interpretation includes the following:
The First Seal is the Gospel.
As discussed in the previous article, the color white, the stephanos crown, and the “conquering” indicate that the First Horse represented the gospel.
The Second Seal is Persecution when the gospel is rejected.
The second seal uses war language. The phrase, “men … slay one another” does not sound as directly related to the gospel. It rather sounds as if all relevant groups are killing one another. The view, that the second seal must be interpreted as the general violence of literal war, is supported by the Synoptic Apocalypse. Due to the many word parallels, that sermon is relevant for the interpretation of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. In that sermon, Jesus distinguished between wars and persecution as different elements of the church age. He said:
“You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. …
in various places there will be famines
(plagues and famines – Luke 21:11)
and earthquakes. …
Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you …
This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matt 24:6-14)
On the other hand, however, the following may indicate that the slaying of the second seal is the strife that results when the gospel is rejected:
The context is the gospel and persecution of God’s people.
The first seal is the gospel going out but, eventually, the fifth shows “those slain because of the word of God” (Rev 6:9). This implies that the intermediate seals symbolize the responses to the gospel and produce those martyrs.
The word “slay” describes the killing of God’s people.
The second seal uses the same Greek word translated as “slay” as the fifth seal, where it is explicitly God’s people that are slain. And, the only other place in the New Testament, outside of Revelation, that uses the word “slay,” states that Cain murdered his brother because his deeds were evil and his brother’s deeds were righteous (1 John 3:12). These factors imply that the word “slay” in the second seal describes the killing of God’s people.
The sacrificial overtones imply persecution.
The following elements of the second seal have sacrificial overtones:
(a) The second living creature, who introduces the second horse, is a calf, and calves are associated with sacrifices.
(b) The Greek word translated as “sword” is appropriate for sacrificial slaying.
(c) The Greek word translated as “slay” is the primary word used for animal sacrifice. This word is also used for Christ’s death (Rev 5:6, 9, 12; 13:8).
(d) The fifth seal shows the people who have been slain for their faith UNDER the altar (Rev 6:9; 18:24). This implies that they have been sacrificed ON the altar. The second seal uses the same Greek word translated “slay” as the fifth seal. This implies that the slaying in the second seal is also the sacrificial killing of God’s people.
The above implies that the slaying in the second seal is not violence in general, but sacrificial killing, namely, the killing of God’s people by people who have rejected the gospel. Based on this conclusion, several parallel texts come to mind:
“They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (John 16:2, NIV).
“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matt 10:34-36, NIV).
– Luke 12:51-53 is a parallel statement, but there Jesus is quoted as saying, “I came to bring … division,” rather than the “sword,” implying that the sword symbolizes division.
The Third Seal is Famine of the Word of God.
The first two seals were interpreted symbolically: The first horse represents the gospel and the second is the violence against God’s people. Therefore, the shortage of food in the third seal should also be interpreted symbolically. Throughout the Bible, food is used in a spiritual sense, for example:
The ten virgins experienced a scarcity of oil. Consequently, five were shut out from the wedding (Matt 25:1-13).
Jesus used bread to symbolize His body and wine to symbolize His blood (Matt 26:27-28; Mark 14:24-25; Luke 22:20).
Jesus is, “the bread of life” (John 6:35; cf. Psa 23:4-5; Luke 10:34; Matt 4:4; 13:23; Luke 8:11).
The black of the third horse might be understood as darkness and as the opposite of the white horse, and, therefore, the absence of the gospel. The lack of food in the third seal, similarly, may be interpreted symbolically as a famine of the Word of God. The words of the Sovereign LORD in Amos 8:11-12 seem particularly appropriate:
“The days are coming … when I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it.” (NIV)
Hosea, similarly, complained, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
The third seal depicts a time when the word of God may be hard to find or poorly understood, yet the gospel, the offer of grace and mercy, is still available. Is that not a good description of the time we live in? In our time people have more access to the Bible than ever before, but, because of the confusion caused by the evil one, actual knowledge of the Bible is very limited.
The fourth seal could be interpreted symbolically as spiritual death; permanent exclusion from mercy. It is a frightful consequence for people who have chosen to exclude themselves from God’s presence. They are suffering spiritual pestilence—a disease of the soul.
The four horsemen use Old Testament language to describe the experience of God’s New Testament people between the cross and the second coming:
The rider on the first (white) horse portrays the gospel that “shall be preached … to all the nations” (Matt 24:14).
Wherever the gospel is preached (seal 1), there follows the red horse of division and strife between those who accept and those who reject it (seal 2). People who reject the gospel devise rules for how people must behave. For those that accept the gospel, it means persecution and scorn. We need to be prepared to lose friends and family over the decision for Christ. We should do all we can to restore divided relationships but, in many cases, we will not be able to restore them.
Among those who continue to reject the gospel, there is the black horse of famine for the Word of God (seal 3). As human beings, we have been uniquely designed by God. His Word is like the owner’s manual in a car. It tells us where we came from, how we were made, and how we should best live. The worst possible disaster would be to turn our face away from God and try to do things our way.
As you go from seal to seal, the consequences get worse and worse. Ultimately, the fourth (pale) horse symbolizes spiritual disease and death (seal 4).
Read in this way, the seals are an ongoing process that can be observed at any age and any place. Such a reading has a particular affinity with Jesus’s summary of church history recorded in the Olivet discourse gospel – war – famine – pestilence – persecution until the end will come (Matt 14:14).
- The first four seals describe the church age.
- The white horse, which will never stop conquering, is the gospel.
- The red horse is the persecution of God’s people when they proclaim the gospel.
- The black horse is a famine for the Word of God that follows when the people who proclaim the word of God are persecuted.
- And the pale horse is spiritual death; the frightful permanent exclusion from mercy.