Revelation 4-5 showed us how beautiful and powerful and loving God is. He made us; he sustains creation by his power; and Christ gave his life to redeem us and bring those who believe in him into God’s family. We need to let this vision orient us to everything that comes after — all the depictions of wrath and judgment that follow. God judges his creation because it has misused the freedom he’s given it and has rejected his perfect rule.
God is only wrathful because he is loving. He must take action against the things that destroy the goodness of his creation. It is because God is beautiful and because God is love that he judges sinful humanity in all its ugliness and corruption.
And when we start to read in the rest of the book about the forces of darkness and the rise of the Beast, we must keep Revelation 4-5 in mind: God is still on the throne, and evil can do no more than what God permits for his sovereign purposes. He may give evil a longer leash at the end of history, but Christians have hope and confidence because evil can never outwit God. He will use it for his purposes. In particular, he’s going to allow evil to have its way so that true, spiritual evil can be unmasked for what it is and end up bringing about its own demise!
I’ll try my best to unpack how that is as we go along. For now, let’s look at Revelation 6.
The Seal Judgments
The parallels between Revelation 6 and Jesus’ apocalyptic sermon (see Mark 13; Matthew 24) make it likely that the seven seals are describing common tribulations during the entire age from Jesus’ Ascension until his return. Note the following common features:
- Deception and false messiahs
- Wars and rumors of wars
Jesus says that these trials are just “the beginning of birth pains” (Matt 24:8; Mark 13:8), but the end is not yet. I, along with many commentators, take this to mean that these particular afflictions are the common characteristics of the “last days,” the days since Jesus’ resurrection.
The seven seals, then, serve as a sort of prelude to what’s to come when the scroll is fully opened — although, as I’ll explain later, the sixth and seventh seals give a preview of the final end of it all, so there is some chronological overlap throughout Revelation. (For more on Revelation’s timeline, see this post.)
The Four Horsemen
As the Lamb opens the first four seals on the scroll, four ghostly horsemen are summoned forth to cause havoc on the earth. These mysterious figures have attained quite a bit of popularity in art and culture over the years. Interestingly, they have a precursor in the Old Testament.
If you look at Zechariah 6:1-8, you’ll find an earlier depiction of supernatural apparitions that look like horsemen with variously-colored horses. They are not the same exact entities, but we might consider Revelation’s horsemen as a “remix” of sorts of Zechariah’s vision. In both contexts, these are spiritual symbols representing God’s judgment going out against pagan nations before the Messiah arrives to bring deliverance to God’s people.
The first horseman (white horse) is notoriously difficult to identify, as evidenced by the fact that commentators range from seeing this as representing a Roman emperor, or a foreign conqueror, or the Antichrist, or even Jesus himself (who rides a white horse in Revelation 19)! Considering that the four horsemen here function together as a unit and that all the other three are sinister, it makes best sense to consider the white rider here as likewise being a sinister figure.
The imagery of a conqueror with a bow might have conjured fear in the minds of John’s Roman readers, considering many of the empire’s foreign enemies on the borders relied on mounted bowmen (Craig Koester, Revelation, AYB [Yale: 2014], 394-395). The fact that readers often mistakenly associate this figure with Christ actually bolsters the impression that this is an antichrist symbol, which would correspond to Jesus’s warnings about false messiahs going forth before the time of judgment begins in earnest.
Putting all that together, the image of the white horse’s rider is probably best seen as a symbol of antichrist forces, or else of the general threat of conquest by a powerful enemy. Either way, the seals are off to an ominous start, and they only get worse.
The other three horsemen are easier to identify, thanks to the descriptions of their activities. The second horseman (red horse) is widely agreed to represent war, since it is explicitly said to have been given permission to “take peace from the earth, so that people would slay one another” (Rev 6:4). The third horseman (black horse) heralds the onset of great famine, with a loaf of bread costing an entire day’s paycheck and people warned to conserve whatever oil and wine they have left. Finally, the fourth horseman (pale horse) is explicitly named as Death, with the grave following right behind him.
Keep in mind that John is describing symbolic visions. He is painting a picture of the end-times in very broad strokes. And that means we must be very careful about trying to tie these visions down to specific events in history. I’ve written before about this important fact: the New Testament teaches that the last days began with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We are already in the last days, so John’s vision of the horsemen could very well be describing the way of the world we live in right now. Revelation gives us a theological perspective on the chaos in our world — it’s under God’s control, and it points to the fact that this present world order is in its death throes.
Theological Themes of the Four Horsemen
First and foremost, these visions remind us that God is sovereign over all the chaos in the world. Nothing happens apart from the notice and permission of the One on the throne. Notice that every horseman is “given” permission or ability to carry out judgment. They are kept on a leash until their acts of punishment are warranted.
But notice also that God doesn’t tell the horsemen to kill. He just lets them loose to do their thing. This represents the truth that God will allow people to be judged by the same evil they choose to exalt. Those who live by war and conquest will reap the consequences of famine, death, and destruction in the wake of such activity, and all of this will be heightened as the days grow fewer and fewer.
But in all of this, we must keep in mind that just because God uses historical catastrophes and natural disasters to accomplish his judgments doesn’t necessarily mean we should call every disaster a judgment from God. That kind of teaching can easily be abused. I’m reminded of the book of Job, where Job’s friends greatly abused that theology and attacked Job’s character without realizing that Satan was the one who instigated Job’s disasters.
Even though God may and does at times use disasters to judge nations for their sins, ultimately what we’re seeing in Revelation 6 is that God allows evil to escalate in the last days in part because evil is its own punishment. This world is fallen, and God will allow evil to run its course in order to show people their need for God and their need for repentance.
We’ll continue with the next three seals next time. Stay tuned!