The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is the most familiar image associated with the book of Revelation. It has become a standard symbol of judgment and the end of the world in European art and literature. The image is taken from Zechariah 1:7-11 and 6:1-8. In Zechariah’s prophecy the colors are varied slightly, but the idea is the same: the four horsemen are God’s instruments of judgment sent forth like the wind to the four corners of the earth. These four horsemen make up the first four of the seven seals; they stand as a unit. John also utilizes the 4+3 imagery in the judgment of the seven trumpets (8:13) – four, an interlude, then three. In interpreting these four horsemen, the color of each horse is somehow connected with the activity of the rider. It is unnecessary to assign a specific identity to the riders of these horses. They are personifications of the judgments they execute. Neither the four horsemen nor the three remaining seal judgments that follow should be interpreted as setting forth a chronology of events. When the Bible uses prophetic or apocalyptic language, the Spirit presents the general movement and force of divine judgment rather than detailing specific historical events, battles, or persons. These four horsemen should be taken as indicating the terrible, manifold, and destructive judgments that fell from heaven against the nation of Israel for final covenant apostasy in A.D. 70.
The White Horse: War (v. 2)
The first seal opens and the white horse and its rider are sent out. He goes forth conquering and to conquer, verb tenses that together indicate the might of this rider to conquer all in his path. The rider is equipped with a bow, standard military equipment in the first century. He rides already crowned with triumph to indicate the certainty of his success. The breaking of this first seal indicates that the doom of the Jewish nation is certain, and that the Roman armies will conquer the nation until it is destroyed, even as Jesus promised. This first seal is parallel to the “wars and rumors of wars” that Christ promised would precede the destruction of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:6; Mark 16:7; Luke 21:9).
A similar image of our Lord is used in 19:11. Both horsemen are the same color, conquer, are crowned, and make war. The two symbols should not be identified. (1) The Lamb is the One opening the seals and is not the specific content of the seals. Granted, the symbols in Revelation should not be forced into agreement, but the four horsemen are a unified vision. (2) There is nothing to distinguish the King from the other three horsemen, of which the first rider seems to form an inseparable part. (3) The 4+3 symbolism pattern used in Revelation indicates that the four are of the same kind. (4) The leading details of the two riders are strikingly different, with the rider in 19:11 clearly identified as Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Our Lord would not be depicted so blandly when heaven is shouting his praises.
The Red Horse: Civil War and Strife (vv. 3-4)
As Christ opens the second seal, another living creature summons the second instrument of divine justice: the red horse. This rider is given power to take peace from the earth, so that people should kill one another. This seal is an intensification of the first, indicating bloodshed, international and civil warfare, strife, and chaos. Society is unable to function in normal fashion. Jerusalem will be destroyed from without by warfare and within by civil strife. Jerusalem was as much plagued by the internal disorder and war between the various factions in the city as it was by the Romans (Josephus, Jewish War 4:3:2; 5:1:1,5). In the broader first century world, Rome was shaken by internal confusion, intrigue, and civil war as four different emperors came to power in the years A.D. 68-9.
The Black Horse: Famine (vv. 5-6)
Economic scarcity is the inevitable fruit of war. At the direction of Jesus Christ and summons of the angelic creature, another rider is unloosed in judgment upon the nation of Israel. A voice comes from the midst of the four living creatures and announces price updates on life necessities. These prices were 8 to 16 times higher than the common prices for wheat and barley during the first century world, indicating that a laborer would have to work for one full day simply to acquire enough wheat for himself for that day. Barley was a lower grade of food and hence more affordable. Wheat and barley are available, but a man must pay dearly for them. “Oil and wine” were also dietary staples (Deut. 7:13; 11:14; 28:51; 2 Chron. 32:28; Neh. 5:11; Ho. 2:8; Joel 2:19; Hag. 1:1). The command not to harm them suggests that they will be available but completely out of reach for the poor. Perhaps this is a divine taunt. Enormous inflation and exorbitant prices will reduce everyone to subsistence living. Those looking for general historical correspondence to this rider and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 will recall that Jesus prophesied of famine in Jerusalem prior to its destruction (Matt. 24:7; Mark 12:8; Luke 21:11) Josephus’ account of the famine in Jerusalem during the Roman siege is horrific (Jewish Wars 5:10:2-5).
The Pale Horse: Death (vv. 7-8)
The color of the fourth horse is a sickly green or ashen gray, a good choice to symbolize death. This horse appears to have two riders, but death and Hades (or hell) are frequently joined together in Revelation (1:18; 20:13-14). For the wicked, death and hell are inseparable. As bad as such a death may be, to know that it will be followed by the terrors of hell compounds the judgment to a degree that is impossible for men to consider without despair and madness. They are given power or authority over a fourth of the earth. Their impact will be felt by a significant portion of the world’s population. Death and hell were experienced by huge numbers of the world’s population in the first century in a variety of horrific ways: war, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and famine. Those were the “days of vengeance,” the fulfillment of the warnings of all the prophets and the avenging of the blood of all the prophets and saints (Luke 21:22; Matt. 23:35).
Fifth Seal: The Martyrs Cry from the Altar (vv. 9-11)
The Jewish Martyrs Cry to Be Vindicated
The scene changes with the opening of the fifth seal, from temporal judgments on earth to heaven where the martyrs cry out for justice. In the first four seals, God has begun to answer their plea for vindication. The connection of this altar to prayer suggests that it is the altar of incense, from which arises the prayers of the saints as a sweet aroma to the Lord (8:3-4; 9:13; 14:18; 16:7). There is a solemn bond between our prayers and the Lord’s mighty works of judgment and deliverance in history.
John sees the souls of the martyrs who were killed because of unwavering testimony to the Lamb. The Lord gave them this testimony to give, and they gave it faithfully to the end. These martyrs should not be limited to those of the first century church but include, according to Christ’s words, all the blood shed by the apostate Jewish nation since the beginning of its existence (Matt. 23:35). These martyrs cry out for vindication; their blood cries out for justice. The saints do not desire personal revenge. They recognize that God is just, and he will vindicate their faith and judge the wicked. Like the blood of Abel, the blood of these martyrs, and indeed, of all martyrs, cries out for the vengeance of God to fall upon those who persecute the church. The Lord will never forsake or forget those who spill their blood standing for his truth. He will come in judgment upon those men and nations that make war against the Lamb and his Bride.
Their prayer addresses God as the “despot” or sovereign Lord, a recognition of his supreme authority over men and nations. It is also the language of intense submission and allegiance to their great Lord and King. “How long?” asks the Lord to arise, judge, and vindicate (Ps. 6:3; 13:1,2; 35:17; 74:10; 79:5; 80:4; 89:46; 90:13; 94:3,4; Hab. 1:2; 2:6). The blood of the saints must be vindicated, for God is just. Murderers of God’s people kill God’s witnesses, and therefore attempt God-murder to silence his word and the voice of their own consciences. Historical and eternal retribution is necessary, not because of the worthiness of the men, though God loves his faithful witnesses. The shedding of innocent, righteous blood demands his vengeance, and he will repay (2 Thess. 1:6).
Rewarded and Waiting
God’s response to the cry of the martyrs is twofold. First, in the bestowal of white robes, the justness of their plea and the righteousness of their lives are recognized. The world may have condemned them as unworthy to live, but before the tribunal of the judge of all the earth, they are righteous, innocent. This gift is not so much a reward as a divine declaration. They are then told to “rest a little while,” an indication that God will soon answer their request and come in judgment upon their persecutors. The reason for the brief delay is to allow the number of the martyrs for which God will judge Jerusalem to be fulfilled. Once that number is fulfilled, the judgment will fall. Thus, we see that the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was absolutely required by the justice of God; the blood of the old covenant martyrs and the martyrs of the first century A.D. demanded divine retribution.
The Sixth Seal: The Wrath of the Lamb (vv. 12-17)
Earthquakes: The Language of Cataclysmic Judgment
The fifth seal reveals the cry of the righteous martyrs for God’s vindicating judgment. The sixth seal reveals the screams of the judged! The seal is almost always taken as indicative of the final cataclysmic judgment at the end of human history. Alford was so sure of this that he wrote: “We may unhesitatingly set down all exegesis as wrong, which view as the fulfillment of this passage any period except that of the coming of the Lord” (621). However, as Alford surely knew, the Old Testament prophets utilize language of this nature to describe any great visitation of judgment from God that brings remarkable historical changes for men and nations (Ex. 19:18; Ps. 18:7,15; 60:2; 102:25,26; Isa. 5:30; 13:3,10; 24:23; 34:4; Ezek. 32:7,8; Dan. 8:10; Joel 2:10,31; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Nah. 1:5). Therefore, the imagery need not refer to the Second Coming of Christ at the end of human history. The context must determine the referent.
The sixth seal refers to the cataclysmic judgment of God against the persecuting power of apostate Judaism, for its centuries of rebellion against God’s covenant, murder of the Messiah, and warfare against the church. The impact of his judgments will be so cataclysmic that heavenly signs and earthquakes are used to describe it. Rich and poor, strong and weak, free and slave will feel its effects; none will be able to escape it. Men will beg for the rocks to fall upon them and give them a speedy death rather than face the terrible wrath of the Lamb. Verse 16 is a remarkable parallel to our Lord’s words in Luke 23:27-31 and establishes the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as the fulfillment of John’s prophecy. Carrying his cross to the place of persecution, some women in Jerusalem wept over Jesus. He turned and said to them: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For indeed the days are coming in which they will say, Blessed are the barren, wombs that never bore, and breasts that never nursed! Then they will begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us! And to the hills, Cover us!” This is the cry of the Lamb’s enemies, as they face his judgment. It is the meaning of the sixth seal, from our Lord’s own mouth.
None Able to Abide His Wrath
While we might expect John to attribute this great judgment to “him who sits on the throne,” the remarkable thing about verse 17 is that the wrath of the Lamb is placed in parallel position with it. This is a unique reference in all the New Testament, but it coincides with the office and glory of Jesus Christ as revealed more fully in Revelation. He reigns for the sake of the church, and one aspect of his reign is the destruction of his enemies. His attitude toward those who hate him is not universal love and tolerance or regret that they will not respond to his entreaties of grace. Like his Father, he is angry at the wicked every day (Ps. 7:11). This reference rebukes the universalizing tendencies we see everywhere around us with respect to the gospel, as well as to the effeminate views of Christ’s person and work in the church that view him more as a good friend or therapist than an enthroned, judging, saving, reigning King. It is because he passionately loves his church that he is aroused in anger against the wicked who persecute her. He is the best, truest, and most tender Friend and Savior. He is the worst imaginable enemy.
The Hope of Our Savior’s Justice
Learn to Hate Sin and Love Righteousness
In light of this, we must learn to hate sin and love righteousness. How did Israel come to the place where the only remaining response was for the Lord of glory to destroy their city and temple with such dreadful finality? “He came unto his own, and his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). His coming was promised and his sacrifice witnessed for almost 2,000 years, but they wanted to worship idols and fornicate. They wanted their prestige and prosperity as God’s people, but they would not obey his word. How gracious the Lord was to give them his word, so that they might live by it and not walk in the blindness of the nations! Many times the Lord sent his servants the prophets to warn them, but they stoned some, beat others, and killed many! Stephen’s sermon preaches the whole indictment in Acts 7.
We must be more personal. Israel’s collective wickedness was the accumulation of individual infidelity, love for sin, enslavement to corruption, spiritual laziness, moral indifference, cold love, and a million daily decisions not to follow the Lord, not to yield to him, to rest in outward privileges but not love him with all the heart, mind, strength, and life. We see what happened to them and must learn from it (1 Cor. 10:11). We see how glorious and worthy Jesus Christ is of all our devotion and service! It is said of our Lord that he “loved righteousness and hated iniquity” (Ps. 45:7; Heb. 1:9). We are to walk as he walked (1 John 2:6). Therefore, seeing what fierce judgments fell upon his ancient people because they hated righteousness and loved sin, we must repent of our sins, learn to hate and mortify sin by the power of the Holy Ghost (Col. 3:5), and practice hourly obedience and devotion to our Savior. He will help us. He reigns to assist us, and his Spirit indwells to sanctify us.
Saints, PRAY for Vindication
Do not miss the glorious reality of the saints praying for vindication and the Lord answering them in judgment. “It is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you” (2 Thess. 1:6). Our exalted Lord’s coming in judgment against the nation of Israel in A.D. 70 was in response to the prayers of the saints. Let your faith be stirred by God’s response to his praying people! We so often limit our prayers to personal and local needs. We forget the greatness and righteousness of God. We forget that we are a kingdom of priests, so that our believing, humble prayers in some measure, by the worthiness of Jesus Christ, his intercession, and in submission to God’s word and will (1 John 5:14), contribute to the Lord’s working in judgment and deliverance. Therefore, pray for the Lord to vindicate his persecuted church in the world. Ask him to awaken his sleepy and worldly church, to awaken us! Give him no rest. Ask the Lord to deliver his people and avenge their blood, not from personal vengeance, for we are to forgive our enemies. But the Lord judges them. If we would see the Lord overthrow the schemes of the wicked to groom children for perversion under the guise of education, murder more babies, and build statist Babel, we must learn from these crying saints under the altar. For by faith, we may go there with them, in our prayers, through faith in Jesus Christ, asking for the Lord to deliver us from evil and glorify his name by making the kingdom of his Son to grow and fill the earth with gospel gladness and righteousness.
Expect Fire (Acts 14:22)
Why are the saints under the altar? Their dying testimony for the Lamb; they passed through the fire of persecutions. Peter wrote that we are not to be surprised or discouraged by the fiery trials that come upon us as believers (1 Pet. 1:7; 4:12). Paul encouraged the same believers that “it is through many tribulations that we must enter God’s kingdom” (Acts 14:22). Being a Christian is not about carving out a little spot of heaven on earth. It will not always be safe to be a Christian, if by safety we mean the world’s acceptance and protection from suffering. The Lord refines our faith. Since Abel, the wicked have persecuted the righteous, and it will be no different for us. The Lord’s refining fires vary from age to age, believer to believer, but each passes through the fires where he needs them most and where the Lord is most glorified. Let us expect the fire. Let us also expect the Lord to be with us and to vindicate us. One way we prepare to suffer for the Lord, as well as endure personal trials without discouragement and depression, is to arm our minds with the promises of Scripture. We cannot be fruitful, overcome despair, and love God with all our hearts unless our minds are fixed upon his word (Ps. 1:2; 2 Cor. 10:4-5). One reason faith grows weak and love cold is that we are not prepared for temptation by arming ourselves with God’s truth, promises, and his outlook on our earthly warfare. When the fire comes, the best way to endure is to have the heart and mind fixed upon the glory and power and faithfulness of Jesus Christ our Lord. Then, we can meet sin and Satan with the sword of the Spirit. He cannot be overcome. All his enemies must give away before God’s glory, wisdom, and power in his word.