The Four Horsemen: the Ashen 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 fourth seal, the fourth 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, there are four cherubim whose testimony appears like four horsemen, who 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 are provably false.

The ashen horse (v. 7-8)

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

Again, John describes a correlation, not necessarily causation. As Christ breaks the fourth seal and anticipation builds because the reader wants to know the book’s contents, the fourth 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 fourth living creature calls his testimony, and the image comes forth.

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 witness’s testimony is the image of the ashen horse and its rider. The first rider is identifiable as the angel of the Lord from Zechariah’s prophecy. The second and third riders are not clearly identifiable. John identifies this fourth rider as death. Hades, a greek word referring to the place of the dead, follows after death. Why do you think John names this rider and clarifies that Hades follows after him? Death and Hades are not actual beings, certainly not the single antichrist I keep hearing about in the pop-theology of our day. John has symbolically personified them as a testimony concerning the world’s current condition and Christ’s work. John is writing in order to encourage the local congregation through the tribulation, of which he is a partaker (Cf. 1:9). This symbolic testimony is now being presented to the just judge. Death is no stranger to the First-Century church. Hades is the place of the dead for those who die apart from salvation in Jesus Christ (Cf. Luke 16:19ff). The final destination of those in Hades is the Lake of Fire, or everlasting Hell (Cf. 20:11-15). In Chapter 20, verse 14, John will report the casting of death and Hades into the Lake of Fire, no longer to plague the earth. This testimony makes it clear, death plagues the earth. Though we want to be careful not to say that everyone who dies goes to Hades (the text does not indicate such), Hades does follow behind death swallowing up many who die on the earth in the First Century and today. 

This condition of the world ought to alarm us. You have, if you have spent any time in a church with a preacher who cares at all about the Gospel, heard something to the effect of, “There are people dying all around us and going to Hell.” Usually, the preacher is trying to move people to care about Jesus’s Great Commission (Cf. Matthew 28:18-20). John is pleading with the local churches in a similar fashion; There are people on the earth dying and being swallowed up by Hades. We should grieve over this condition of the world. God has not yet done away with death. He has not yet extinguished Hades so that no one can ever go there again. Let us be about the work of Jesus Christ—sharing His Gospel. The message is too urgent not to share it with as many people as possible. Death ravages the earth, and Hades follows close behind; But, eternal life is available in Christ—repent and believe. The rider on the white horse is, after all, conquering the earth and building His kingdom (Cf. v. 1-2). 

Authority is given to Death and Hades to kill. Remember, Revelation is a picture and not a puzzle. Death and Hades are personified symbols depicting the condition of the world. In this symbol, authority has been given to these personifications of current realities. Why do you think authority is symbolically given to Death and Hades? Could it be the same reason authority was delegated to the symbolic rider of the red horse in verse 4? John already revealed that the Father alone sits on His throne (Cf. 4:2-3). All authority is His and is delegated by Him. God’s authority is symbolically delegated to a rider. Even though the reality of death and Hades is worrisome for the local churches, especially since people really are dying and being swallowed up by Hades, John comforts the local churches by reminding them that God has all authority and is sovereign over every death and every soul that is swallowed up by Hades. God is not sitting idly by as people die and enter everlasting torment. He is not merely observing the condition of a world spinning out of control—God is not that deistic. God is sovereignly working all things together. We should be seriously concerned about the fact that people are dying and separated relationally from God because they never repent or believe upon the finished person and work of Christ. We do not, however, have to fear or worry because of that reality. We should be moved to evangelism, not syncretism.

Death and Hades were given authority to kill with violence, famine, pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth. So, the sort of death in view, here, is what we might refer to as premature death. John presents premature death as something that overtakes people because of their circumstances—hunger, sickness (viruses, pandemics, or common sickness), violence other than war (car accidents, riots, medical abortions, etc…), and animal attacks—outside their control. John presents this picture such that Death and Hades have not merely been given permission but authority to overtake people in this way. That authority can only be given by God, who sits on the throne (Cf. 4:1ff). As people, we try to protect ourselves from all of these uncontrollable dangers. John’s encouragement to the local church with him in this tribulation reminds them—God is on the throne, so you don’t have to fear the dangers of the world. If they take you, it is only by God’s own authority. We do not use this truth as an excuse to be foolish or reckless while we are still on this earth. As Christians, though, we do believe in God’s sovereignty. Therefore, we believe it wrong to stop living and worshipping our Lord in order to shelter ourselves away for the purpose of mere protection—especially when no protection is guaranteed with the current state of affairs in this world.

By God’s decree, then, premature death only overtakes one-fourth of the earth. Considering the apocalyptic language John is using, what do you think he means when he clarifies that one-forth of the earth will be swallowed up by Death and, possibly, Hades? Consider how John uses the number four throughout his Revelation. It is always a number that refers to the whole of the earth (Cf. 7:1; 20:8). John employs this apocalyptic number from prophetic imagery referring to the whole of the earth or land (Cf. Isaiah 11:12; Jeremiah 49:36; Daniel 7:2; Ezekiel 7:2; Matthew 24:31). “One-fourth,” here, is not necessarily a literal fraction. Revelation is a symbolic, not a literal, depiction. One-fourth symbolizes the fact that premature death will not overtake everyone. There will be many survivors who get to live into old age. In fact, the mean majority will live out the fullness of their days—which has been different in different cultural areas and in different epochs. Don’t let your hearts be troubled by the dangers of this age. God is in control.

The message of the four horsemen

John has taken the first four seals to inspire a yearning for a better earth-condition. War, oppressive economies, pestilence, and violence are currently given to humanity on this earth by God’s decree. He made this decree in Genesis as a result of original sin (Cf. Genesis 3:14-19). God has ordained these conditions so He might bring His people out of their unrighteous condition, made evident by original sin, into His own glory (Cf. 6:2; Romans 11:28-36). The world is in its current condition because that is a consequence of the Fall. We call these consequences the noetic effects of original sin. Christ will one day finish conquering the world by the sword of His mouth (His word; Cf. 1:16; and promise of peace; Cf. 6:2), bringing the world out of this wretched condition and fully establishing His perfect kingdom upon the earth (Cf. 21:1-2).


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