We have worked through the easy parts of Revelation, with the exception of the final chapter, which pictures the new heaven and the new earth. From here on out is where the book gets cloudy for many. That said, I would like to give you an interpretive framework, which I believe will help you to make sense of the book. Many reformed scholars and I believe that Revelation is simply the same story told 7 times. Sometimes the story is told with a lot of detail about the present situation, sometimes it is told with a lot of detail about the past, and sometimes it is told with more emphasis on the future. But it is the same story told 7 ways. It would be like talking about your family history. One time you might start with your immediate family, and another time you might back up and include your parents and grandparents, maybe even some history of your ancestors. Or you might choose to simply jump from any point of interest in your family history into the distant future where you want to paint the picture of what the Kaemingk, or Roberts or Plekker clan will look like in 100, 1000, or 10,000 years.
If we adopt that vantage point, a number of things will become clearer, I believe. The first is that the letters to the 7 churches that we just finished were letters that focused on the present time for John’s recipients, but which also have bearing upon us. They are the story of the ways the church relates to the world and the call of Christ to each church that has either a healthy or unhealthy relationship with the world. The seven seals, like the seven trumpet and the seven bowls/vials also relate to this same period of time and tell the story of God’s judgment upon the unbelieving world. They are parallel accounts that simply differ in intensity. As God is trying to get the attention of the unrepentant world, he turns up the volume, if you will, in order to catch the attention of the world, but unlike the stereo that booms loudly and can’t be mistaken, we will see that the people of the earth simply curse God instead of turning from wickedness and repenting as Rev 16:10-11 relates “Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.” (I have included a brief outline for you indicating how I see the 7 versions of the same story being told. We can talk more about it in the Sunday school time for those who are interested.)
With that introduction, Revelation 6 begins with the Triumphant and Worthy Christ opening the scroll. If you recall the scroll is symbolic of God’s plan for history and the only one capable of bringing the Father’s plans to fruition in all creation is the crucified Lamb of God. Just as he walks in the midst of his church, so too, he sits enthroned in heaven receiving worship and as we will see, he also executes judgment and extends his kingdom throughout the face of the earth.
How does he do it? He does it through the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse. These riders are sent from heaven to earth and are completely under the control of the reigning Christ. He sends them forth and they are all present upon the earth at the same time. The white rider, the black rider, the red rider and the pale rider are busy with their work, under the limits that the Lamb has set for each one. One is not called back, and then the other sent out, rather they are all sent out in rapid succession.
So who are these 4 horsemen and what is their work? As strange as it sounds, I believe the man on the white horse is Christ himself, or at the very least angelic powers representing Christ and his kingdom. How can you say that, Christ opened the seal, he can’t also be a rider? Sure he can. Prophetic visions aren’t to be construed rigidly and literally, as if the laws of nature must be kept. The point of the vision is to declare to the persecuted church that history is under the control of Jesus. You see, in the same way that Jesus can be in heaven and on earth walking in the midst of his church, he can also be opening the seals and riding forth for conquest. So far, in the book of Revelation, the only conqueror that has been mentioned is Jesus. To the Laodiceans Jesus said, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame (lit. conquered) and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21). In Rev 5:5, the elders declare, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed (lit. conquered).”
Jesus and his people are the only conquerors mentioned in the book of Revelation. So it natural to draw the correlation between Christ and the rider of the white horse, especially given the fact that a white horse was the symbolic animal that conquering Generals rode into the cities they defeated. Add to that the crown upon the rider and the image grows in its relation to Christ. Furthermore, the bow seems to be an allusion to the messianic Psalm 45:3-6. Listen, “Gird your sword upon your side, o mighty one; clothe yourself with splendor and majesty. In your majesty ride forth victoriously in behalf of truth, humility and righteousness; let your right hand display awesome deeds. Let your sharp arrows pierce the hearts of the king’s enemies; let the nations fall beneath your feet. Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever…”
This is a picture of God the Father ordaining Christ to go forth and extend his kingdom until he makes his enemies a footstool under his feet (Ps 110:1). And as Jesus goes forth he makes war and he brings judgment for with him as part of the extension of his kingdom is the punishment of evil and wickedness which happens through war and persecution, famine and scarcity, economic disasters and plagues and ultimately death. This is a picture of the other side of Christ. For truly he is loving and merciful and full of grace, but he is also just and full of wrath, as the Psalm declares, “be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment (Ps 2:10-12).
The Christ makes use of war to punish his enemies and persecution to purify his church. The extension of his kingdom brings division in the world. It sets, “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:53). Or in the cosmic scene, nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom (Matt 24:7). But the church should not fear these earthly turmoils, for they are under the sovereign grip of Christ and are serving to purify her and mark her members out from the world.
In the same way the black horse brings famine and economic inequality and trouble to the world and the church. Scales were used in commerce and the Lord detests dishonest scales (Prov 11:1). But as we will see the scales are being tilted against the poor. A quart of wheat was considered a day’s ration in the ancient world but a day’s ration normally cost 1/8 to 1/16 of a day’s labor.1 And the same was true of barley, three quarts of barley could be had for the same price as a quart of wheat. But now, inflation is setting in. A man’s wage consumes everything just to eat well himself or to eat poorly and feed his family. But notice, the fare of the wealthy is not touched. Do not damage the oil and the wine! (Rv 6:6d).
In such a world, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Furthermore, if you recall from the letters, Christ was upset with those churches that were making spiritual compromises for economic gain and labor. For Christians faced with making a good loving but compromising by doing a bit of idolatry or standing firm and suffering economically, our Christ is assuring us that even this is under his control. He is purposely bringing these judgments to the world and he is forcing the choices among his people for purity or for idolatry. And to make matters worse for the unbeliever, he will use this very inequality as part of his ammunition for judging the unrepentant world. Listen to Matthew 25:41-45, “Depart from me you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me…whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
In a world where economics are a means of divine judgment and a sign of compromise, the Christian businessman is faced with some hard choices. If the government demands that abortion care be provided for all employees and the scripture declares that every life is precious, will I render devotion to Christ and suffer or will I compromise and suffer. In a world where the government mandates that a business owner cannot refuse to provide services to a gay marriage, whether it is the baker, the photographer, the invitation maker, wedding planner or the clergy, will the Christian suffer and possibly go out of business or compromise will they stay on top economically but deny the Lord who purchased them? Or what about Doctors, if, and I am saying if because this is not the norm yet, but if medical schools required a resident to perform an abortion in order to graduate and be licensed, would potential Christian applicants shy away from the field or compromise with the culture?
The last horseman is the pale hose, which brings death, sword, famine and plague. Again this is unmistakably a quotation from Ezekiel 14:21-23. Ezekiel is addressing the sin of the Jewish nation as it has refused to live for God and the Lord says, “How much worse will it be when I send against Jerusalem my four dreadful judgments – sword, and famine, and wild beasts and plague – to kills its men and their animals! Yet there will be some survivors…You will be consoled when you see their conduct and their actions, for you will know that I have done nothing in it without cause, declares the Sovereign Lord.” If the Lord judged the Jews this way in the time of Ezekiel, how much more fitting would it be for the Lord to judge the nations and people that reject the reign of his Son upon the earth?
The presence of the pale horse is to intensify the work of the other horses. And though I would like to tell you that Christians are safe from these judgments of God upon the nations that would be false. We live in the midst of this world and though we are saved from it, we are not taken out of it. Famine affects the faithful follower and the idolater alike. War comes to nations and poverty and riches flow through our hands. When God pours out plague the Christian isn’t living in a bubble and guaranteed safety from suffering. No all of this pain and hardship and judgment the Christian must live through and even suffer alongside the unrepentant. And it is these faithful brothers and sisters that we meet in the fifth seal, under the altar. As the faithful die in this world, no matter what the reason their blood is poured out beneath the altar as further evidence against the sinful nations.
These aren’t just martyrs for the faith, men and women who died for nothing more than witnessing to Christ. We met one of these in Rev 2:13 – his name was Antipas and he is described as my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city – where Satan lives. No, these are also those who offer themselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (Rom 12:1). They are the ones who come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14).
Every believer who dies in this world, no matter the reason or the way, finds himself immediately in the temple of God at the altar crying out for vengeance from the master of the temple. That may seem odd, but it shouldn’t. Imagine with me what it will be like to suddenly stand in the heavenly temple at the moment of your death. Suddenly the glory of God is revealed to you and the holiness of God begins to make sense and you recognize how far the world is from God’s intention for it to be a Garden of Eden where men and women love the Lord and love one another. And in the midst of that, you suddenly can see the truth and the contrast between good and evil and you recognize just how much evil tortured you in this world and just how evil, evil is. Wouldn’t vengeance be the only natural desire any believer could have? Judge the world. Cast evil into the lake of fire. Rid the world of this blight. Avenge my blood and punish all that has taken my God given right to live and be a son or daughter from me.
Oh and God’s response is encouraging. The judgment is coming, but wait a little longer until the number of [your] fellow servants and brothers who [are] to be killed as [you] have been [is] completed (Rv 6:11). What’s more is that the cry of the saints beneath the altar is very similar to a cry made in Zechariah 1:12 where an angel cries out for mercy upon the towns of Judah and Jerusalem from those who have oppressed her. And like God answered Zechariah promising to cause prosperity and abundance to flow forth and the offending nations to be punished so he carries on that promise in Revelation as he declares the end of the world to come as the heavenly hosts are shaken and the sky recedes.
The sixth seal fast forwards us to the end of time and the final judgment when all people who are not found under the altar are going to experience the wrath of the Lamb. And all of this ushers us into the seventh seal when the story will be told again in even greater detail.
So what hope does this give us? Certainly we can draw hope from the fact that our Lord is sovereign and everything that happens in our world is under his control. Christ’s kingdom is advancing and he is using many methods to try and bring the nations to repentance and to punish them for their disobedience. This should bring us peace, knowing that every act of violence perpetrated against the faithful either direct or indirect will be brought under the wrath of God and that every member of God’s house will be redeemed before the end of the world comes.
People of God, I urge you to take heart and view the things of history – wars, famines, plagues, even economics as instruments of our Lord for the furtherance of his kingdom. They are not good, but they are not to be afraid, for every one of them is a sign to us that God is still bringing history to its final culmination where every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Rom 14:11)!
1 Dennis Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, p.121
Daniel K.K. Wong, THE FIRST HORSEMAN OF REVELATION 6, BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 153 April-June 1996 p.212-26
“There is a striking similarity between the progress of Revelation 6 and Christ’s description of the end of the age in Matthew 24. In both accounts the order is as follows: (a) deception by antichrists (Matt. 24:4-5, 24; Rev. 6:1-2); (b) war (Matt. 24:6-7; Rev. 6:3-4); (c) famine (Matt. 24:7; Rev. 6:5-6); (d) death (Matt. 24:7-9; Rev. 6:7-8); (e) martyrdom (Matt. 24:9-10, 16-22; Rev. 6:9-11); and (f) cosmological convulsions (Matt. 24:29; Rev. 6:12-17).” P222
Though I like the comparisons and find the overall schema helpful, I cannot believe that the rider on the white horse is an antichrist. Such would make for a hard sell to see evil clothed in white where Revelation reserves white for the people of God and the Lord himself. Rather the revelation 6 passage has simply stepped in at point b-f and left the mention of antichrists out in the telling of the 7 seals. The antichrists will come into view soon enough in the book; we need not twist the images unnaturally to fit an intratextual reading.