A motion picture we could title Future World now begins. We are in a darkened theater, waiting for the opening scenes. Suddenly four frightening cinematic images gallop across the screen. They are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Four Horsemen have a symbolic message. They represent four strands of human suffering throughout the centuries. The effects which the horsemen depict continue through time and into the last days. They are followed by two other events to occur during this time — the cry of the martyrs and cosmic disturbances. (Rev. 5:9-17). All these events fall under six "seals." They are briefly described in a single chapter of Revelation, the sixth. They are part of a script written on both sides of a scroll (Rev. 5:1). The scroll referred to in Revelation was not the same kind of book we use today, made up of many pages bound together. It was one long sheet of parchment, rolled into a scroll. Words were written on both sides. The Revelation scroll had seven seals that had to be "opened" as a reader proceeded through it.
The Four Horsemen of Revelation
Jesus (the Lamb) is unrolling the scroll and opening each seal. John is invited to see its contents graphically depicted in a vision. John writes at the beginning of chapter six: "I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals [the first] and I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a voice like thunder, 'Come and see"' (Rev. 6:1). Each of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is riding a different colored steed. They are a white horse, red horse, black horse and pale horse (Rev. 6:1-8). The horse colors take on specific symbolic meanings, such as red for war. Let's take a brief look at the four portraits. The white horse is mounted by a rider who "had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer" (Rev. 6:2). Some have confused this image with the one in Revelation 19, also a rider on a white horse. A quick comparison of chapters six and 19 reveals the two riders have little in common besides riding on white horses. The horse in chapter six, for example, is bent on conquest. The intent of the rider in chapter 19 is to exact divine and just retribution for sin. "He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war" (Rev. 19:11). This rider is called "the Word of God" and "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (Rev. 19:13, 16). The rider on the white horse in Revelation 19 is unmistakably Jesus, the triumphant Messiah coming to rule the world. Who, then, is the rider of the white horse in Revelation 6? He is accompanied by three other horses. Their riders portray destruction and death. It would not make sense for this rider to represent the returning Christ who restores peace to earth. The white horse of Revelation 6 represents those who claim they can bring humanity what only the true Messiah — Jesus — is capable of delivering. These imposters seek to conquer and destroy those who disagree with them. The second horseman's meaning is clear. He is a symbol of war. The red horse has a rider who takes "peace from the earth" and wields a "great sword." In his wake, people "kill one another" (Rev. 6:4).
A Time of Great Famine
The black horse has a rider with "a pair of scales in his hand." A voice accompanies the vision. It announces, "A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine" (Rev. 6:5-6). The denarius was a Roman silver coin and was equal in value to the daily wage of a working man (Matthew 20:2). Anciently, oil and wine were not luxuries. They were basic commodities of life. Grain, new wine and oil was a standard threesome describing the staples of life (Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; Hosea 2:8, 22). We can see that this rider represents hunger and famine. He carries a scale to measure and carefully dole out food. This rider stands for a time when basic goods are sold at greatly inflated prices. There is a scarcity of things to eat. People are told to be careful not to harm precious foodstuffs. The pale horse has a rider called "Death, and Hades followed with him" (Rev. 6:8). Commentator Robert H. Mounce called this pale horse "the color of a corpse." The Greek word for "pale," chloros, elsewhere in Revelation describes the yellow-green of vegetation (Rev. 8:7; 9:4). It is here used for the telltale and sickly look of death due to a virulent pestilence. The Four Horsemen bring immense suffering to the human race. John writes, "And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth" (Rev. 6:8).
Jesus' Olivet Prophecy
That's all that Revelation tells us about these Four Horsemen. However, Jesus also speaks of the conditions represented by the Four Horsemen. (See Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21.) The disciples of Jesus had approached him, asking: "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3). Jesus then outlined the events to occur prior to the end of the age and the return of the Messiah. Most of the occurrences would come before and lead to the singular "sign" of Christ's return (Matthew 24:30). As does Revelation, the Olivet prophecy contains a story flow relating one event to another in general time order. Notice how Jesus began his outline of world events and how it corresponds to what is written in the book of Revelation. Jesus told his disciples: "Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows" (Matthew 24:3-8, italics added). Observe that Christ said there would be: (L) Individuals falsely usurping his authority and power, masquerading as deliverers and saviors, political and religious; (2) Wars and rumors of wars; (3) Famines; (4) Pestilences and earthquakes. Wars, of course, sometimes lead to politically induced famines. Famines can lead to pestilences as can natural disasters such as earthquakes. Notice carefully. The four conditions that Jesus described in Matthew 24 parallel the Four Horsemen visions as described in Revelation 6. These disasters come before and only anticipate or look forward to the last days. Jesus said "The end is not vet" and these are only "the beginning of sorrows." Various false saviors have come "in Jesus' name" throughout the centuries. These may have promised "deliverance" in terms of better religious, political, social or economic conditions. Wars have ravaged humans down through the centuries, and so have famines and disease epidemics. The Black Death alone killed upwards of one third of the people living in Europe in the 14th century. The worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918 killed twice as many people — perhaps 20 million — as did World War I itself.
THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF REVELATION False ideologies, war, famine and disease epidemics striking the human race are symbolized by the Four Horsemen. Left, rendering of a "Plague Hospital" for victims of the Black Death in 14th century Europe.
In more recent times, millions have died or been wounded in just three wars — in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf region and Kampuchea. As appalling as all these events have been, Jesus said we should not see them as necessarily synonymous with "the last days." They only give us a hint of what to expect in the end times just prior to Jesus' second coming. Now we come to the fifth and sixth seals of the book of Revelation. These are also in the sixth chapter. John writes, "When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held" (Rev. 6:9). In the Olivet prophecy Jesus also referred to this event described under the fifth seal. He mentioned it immediately after detailing the events of "the beginning of sorrows." Said Jesus, speaking to his own followers: "They will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake.... For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be" (Matthew 24:9, 21).
The Fifth and Sixth Seals
The fifth seal pictures a time of great tribulation — including a martyrdom for religious convictions. The New Testament, along with Revelation, emphasizes its impact on the spiritual people of God — his own Church. The great tribulation also falls on what was God's physical nation — the House of Israel, or the descendants of Jacob's 12 sons. Jeremiah wrote of this period and the events that immediately follow. He cried out: "Alas! For that day is great, so that none is like it; and it is the time of Jacob's trouble" (Jeremiah 30:7). Daniel called it "a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation" (Daniel 12:1). It is the same time described by Jesus in Matthew 24:21. This distress would climax in the death of mankind if Christ failed to intervene in human affairs (verse 22). Immediately following the great tribulation of the fifth seal come the cosmic disturbances of the sixth seal. These herald the beginning of the very last days. As Robert H. Mounce put it, this is the "grim announcement that the end of the world was at hand."
The Four Horsemen represent four strands of suffering afflicting humans throughout the centuries.
John writes: "I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth" (Rev. 6:12-13). Compare this description of the sixth seal with what Jesus said followed the great tribulation. Jesus explained: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken" (Matthew 24:29). Both in Revelation and in Matthew 24, these heavenly signs follow the great tribulation. In the sixth chapter of Revelation, then, we have these six conditions mentioned. Each is described under its own seal: (1) False Christs; (2) Wars; (3) Famines; (4) Disease epidemics; (5) The great tribulation; (6) The heavenly signs or cosmic disturbances. So far, these events parallel those Jesus cited in the Olivet prophecy.
After Heavenly Signs — God's Wrath
What follows the heavenly signs according to the book of Revelation? The last verse of chapter six tells us, "The great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" The prophet Joel put the day of God's wrath into chronological perspective. He wrote, "The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood" — two heavenly signs — "before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord" (Joel 2:31). Here we have an important sequence. The heavenly signs occur immediately after the great tribulation, or Satan's wrath, and before the day of the Lord. Disturbing portents in the atmosphere and environment begin shortly before the return of the Messiah. Great earthquakes are striking the earth. These are persistent features of divine visitation in the Bible (Isaiah 2:19; 73:13; 24:17-20; Haggai 2:6). The atmosphere is darkened as sunlight is blocked out. The moon appears blood-red. The "stars" — meteors — fall to the earth. The sky is "receding as a scroll." The mountains and islands are moved out of their places. Everyone will be mortally afraid when God's final wrath or the day of the Lord strikes. People will scream in terror, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!" (Rev. 6:16). The "wrath of the Lamb" is an unusual expression — used only once here in Revelation. Elsewhere the Bible calls this time "the wrath of God." This wrath of God is a basic theme in the Bible. The "day of the Lord" is a day of wrath and retribution (Isaiah 2:10-21; 13:6-16; Zephaniah 1:14-18). It isn't spiteful hate, but God's response to stubbornly unrepented — of sin that has caused untold misery and suffering among humans. The sixth chapter of Revelation then takes us right up to the time when God fully intervenes in the affairs of mankind during the last days. He does this by sending plagues and destruction of increasing severity to our planet. However, God cannot send the full fury of his wrath on the earth before he provides protection for his people. The scene temporarily switches in Revelation to show us what is happening to those who are obedient to him.