The Four Horsemen: The Black Horse

The Father is holy. Jesus Christ is worthy. The world is the way it is because God is winning glory for Himself. Jesus continues breaking the seals on the legal document He has received from the Father. As He breaks the third seal, the third angelic witness presents his testimony to the just judge for our benefit.

Revelation 6:1-8

Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.”

I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.

When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come.”

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.

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.

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.”

When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.”

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 four horsemen

John employs symbolism from Zecheriah 1:7-10 and 6:1-10 to describe what people today refer to as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. In Zecheriah’s image, the four horsemen were the four angelic spirits before God’s throne who went out to patrol the earth and report their findings to the Angel of the Lord—Jesus Christ. As Jesus breaks the seals on the book, Zechariah’s angelic patrols are reporting the earth’s condition like they did in Zechariah’s prophecy so that Christ may judge justly—rather, so we may know that He judges justly. If we read about the first four seals regarding Zecheriah’s imagery, we can’t read it as some future event or judgment. Christ, because of His substitutionary atonement, has all authority and is worthy to judge. Therefore, the cherubim (there are four cherubim whose testimony appears like four horsemen) perpetually patrol the earth and report their findings to Christ. Symbolically, before Christ reads the book, while He is still breaking its seals, He hears their report. Remember this isn’t a chronological puzzle; it’s a theological picture.

As we read the testimony of the cherubim, testimony that they have been giving since Old Testament times (Cf. 4:6-8; Ezekiel 4:1-24:27). We remember that a natural, proper, and contextual reading of Revelation reveals these symbols to be testimony, not God’s explicit judgment. Yes, that means most interpretations you hear of the symbols that accompany the breaking of the six seals is provably false.

The black horse (v. 5-6)

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.

Again, John describes a correlation, not necessarily causation. As Christ breaks the third seal and anticipation builds because the reader wants to know the book’s contents, the third cherub says, “come.” Unlike the first cherub, his voice of is not thunderous—at least John does not describe it as such. Unlike the first cherub’s testimony, then, John’s imagery is not calling our attention to the Law. We are continuing to read something about the world John sees around himself. The image, here, continues to resemble a Greek courtroom. The second living creature calls his testimony, and the image comes forth. The witness’s testimony is the image of the black horse and its rider. This rider remains silent and does nothing but hold up a pair of scales, not scales of justice but scales used in the marketplace to determine just payment for goods. The identity of the rider on the black horse is indiscernible—though, again, I am not opposed to identifying him as Jesus. Revelation is, after all, a picture and not a puzzle.

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.”

Some commentators take this symbol as a prediction of future famine, sometimes during a future seven-year tribulation. There is no indication of either a future seven-year tribulation or famine, here, unless we really work to eisegete the text and draw unnecessary inferences. Famine may be a reality at the time (Cf. v. 8), but this text doesn’t get at it unless someone infers something about the color black—which doesn’t necessarily have a specific apocalyptic meaning, here; It is an allusion to Zechariah’s patrol. This cherub’s testimony concerns the economic state of the world, the marketplace. The symbol dramatizes a world given to consumerism and that treasures production and self-gain instead of people.

The voice in the center of the four living creatures is not the voice of the four living creatures or the horsemen. The voice cries out from their midst. It must either be Jesus’s voice or the voice of the marketplace as the horsemen patrol and report about the condition of the world (Cf. Zechariah 6:1-8). Either way, this is a testimony about the current state of the world in John’s day, a testimony being presented to the Father as Jesus prepares His just judgment.

The voice declares prices for wheat and barley. At the time of Nero, thirty years before John wrote the Revelation, the price for wheat had risen to about one denarius for two quarts. Following Nero, inflation led to the devaluing of Roman currency and the rise of prices for goods like wheat and barley—which Roman emperors combated by setting price ceilings for certain goods. John is showing us a picture of the Roman economy during his own time. We are no stranger to this sort of consumerism and consequent inflation. The world has not changed. Though our economic system is different, it is still a worldly economic system.

The voice also instructs its hearers not to damage the oil or the wine. The interest of the world is the marketplace. Production is highly valued, and material goods are of utmost value. Supply and demand rules the land. The fact that the voice seems to be advancing the world’s marketplace leads me to believe that it is not Jesus speaking but the marketplace of the world. We can realize this tendency as we observe the world. Even churches are given to consumerism instead of caring for people and living as Christ’s body. People are there to pay their tithes and receive their services from the church. The church pays employees to do stuff for them rather than be faithful to Christ and shepherd the body without compulsion (Cf. 1 Peter 5:2). It’s all about production, performance, and getting your money’s worth. Though Christ’s true people must live in the world’s economic system, they are not of it. They are in Christ, and His economy is not the economy of the world. The church is not to operate under the consumer mentality of the world. We treasure people over production and are not ruled by the economic mentalities of this world. We are here to give of ourselves rather than take for ourselves. I will close with a quote from Martin Luther’s 95 Theses:

… the treasures of the Gospel are nets, with which, in times of yore, one fished for the men of mammon. But the treasures of indulgence are nets, with which nowadays one fishes for the mammon of men (Luther, “95 Theses,” 65-66).

Luther recognized the tendency in the Roman church of his day. It was a consumeristic system. People paid their tithes and retained their membership and the perks thereof. The church lost sight of the Gospel and became a social club. Here, we are reminded of the pitfalls of worldly economies and why we are called to be different.


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