The Horses of a Different Color
Somewhere in Eastern Europe, an SS officer watched languidly, his machine gun cradled, as an elderly and bearded Hasidic Jew laboriously dug what he knew to be his grave. Standing up straight, he addressed his executioner. "God is watching what you are doing," he said. And then he was shot dead.
What Hitler did not believe, and what Stalin did not believe, and what Mao did not believe, and what the SS did not believe, and what the Gestapo did not believe, and what the NKVD did not believe, and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Blackshirts, Gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe, was that God was watching what they were doing.
And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.
John Lennox, Gunning for God (Lion Hudson, 2011), page 89
What every one of those world leaders thought was that they had created their own power and authority.
Leading my family
The authority to lead my family is not something I created or took on by myself
Ephesians 5:22-24, Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
1 Corinthians 11:3, Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
The authority and responsibility to lead my family comes from God
Leading the church
My calling to pastoral ministry was clear – it came from God
My ordination as an elder in the United Brethren in Christ denomination came after completing the necessary years of service, educational requirements, and examination from the regional Ministerial Licensing and Ordination Team and the approval of the Pastoral Ministry Leadership Team
The authority to lead in the church is not something I created or took on by myself – it comes from God
Romans 13:1, Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.
The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Authority at home
The authority you have in your home comes only from God
We may not recognize or acknowledge that it comes from Him
We like to think that we have created our own authority, but that’s not the case
Authority at work
The authority we have at work is not our own
It is given to us by those in authority over us
Ultimately, the authority is given by God
John watches as Jesus begins opening the seven seals on the scroll.
BIG IDEA – Evil is allowed to act only within the sovereignty of God.
GOD (Revelation 6:1-8)
What we see with the first four seals is what Jesus mentions during His Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:1-25; Mark 13:1-23; Luke 21:5-24)
One of His disciples comments on the size of the stones and the beauty of the buildings in Jerusalem
Jesus tells them that a time is coming when all the stones will be thrown down
The disciples want to know when this is going to happen and what the signs will be
Mark 13:7-8, When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.
Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
Jesus doesn’t say it is the end, but that it is the beginning of the end
“The seven seals are preliminary judgments on the earth that prepare for the trumpets and bowls.”
[Osborne, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Revelation, 269]
We see various colored horses in Zechariah’s prophecy
Read Zechariah 1:7-11
Read Zechariah 6:1-8
“The primary theme is divine sovereignty, as the Lamb initiates the event, and in three of them the divine passive ‘was given’ (6:2, 4, 8) controls the action.
This means that the activities of the horsemen take place only as authorized by God . . . the first four seals center on the depravity of mankind . . . In other words, God simply allows human sin to come full circle, turn in upon itself, and self-destruct.” [Osborne, 272]
This leads us to Revelation 6:1-8 and the first seal that is opened
White horse (vv. 1-2)
We know from Revelation 5:5 that there is One who is able to open the scroll and its seven seals
He is identified as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David
When John turned to see the Lion, he saw a Lamb that looked like it had been slain
This is the same Lamb mentioned in Revelation 6 that is opening the first six seals on the scroll
After the first seal is opened one of the four living creatures that is surrounding the throne of God speaks
His voice is like thunder
He simply says one word, “Come!”
In the Greek it is an imperative form of the verb, which is in the present tense
It means that living creature is saying it as a command
He is summoning something or someone to enter the scene
A white horse comes into view with a rider on its back
Who is this rider?
There are three interpretations of who this rider is
The first is that it represents Jesus Christ riding out in victory with the Gospel
Those who hold this belief look at Revelation 19:11 where Christ is identified as the rider of a white horse
Revelation 19:11, I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True.
With justice he judges and makes war.
His weapon in 19:15 is a sword that comes out of His mouth and not a bow
The only similarity is that both riders are riding on white horses
If Jesus is the One opening the seals, it seems strange that He would then ride out on a white horse at this point
The living creature is commanding the rider to come, and no heavenly being would command Jesus to do anything [Akin, Christ-Centered Exposition, Exalting Christ in Revelation, 134]
It would be unusual for one of the four horsemen to represent something good when the other three are representing the judgements of God on humanity
The second is that it represents the Antichrist
This is certainly a good and viable option
The Antichrist will attempt to look like Christ, to imitate Christ – riding on a white horse
He will appear to come in peace, but eventually his true purpose will be revealed
Daniel 9:26-27, “After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing.
The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”
Jesus mentions this prophecy from Daniel when He talks about the future with His disciples in Matthew 24:15
The very first thing that Jesus mentions in His Olivet Discourse is the arrival of those who will claim to be the Christ
Matthew 24:5, “For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.”
John 5:43, I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him.
The third interpretation is that it symbolizes military conquest
The second and third ones can be easily connected
The reason for making it distinct is that the other three are all symbolic of something else
Conquest would naturally lead to war, war would naturally lead to famine, famine would naturally lead to death
The rider is on a white horse and has two items that John mentions
Significance of the white horse, bow, and crown
In order to understand the significance of the white horse, bow, and crown we have to place ourselves in the 1st Century
The 1st Century hearer of this revelation would have immediately thought of a military force that utilized white horses and bows
“Parthians were famous, like Scythians, for their horses.
There were known as mounted warriors, and their cavalry were especially known for their formidable archery . . . the Parthians were all mounted archers; they were the only group of mounted archers know in the ancient Mediterranean world. White was the sacred color of the Parthians, and every Parthian army included some sacred white horses.” [Keener, The NIV Application Commentary, Revelation, 202]
The Parthians had conquered a Roman army twice – once in 55 B.C. and once in A.D. 62 [Osborne, 277]
They were a group of tribes east of the Euphrates River that were skilled at accurately shooting arrows from a charging horse [Osborne, 277]
The Parthian victory was probably part of the history taught to Greco-Roman children
Only the bow is mentioned here and not arrows, which some believe points to this rider coming in peace, which the Antichrist will do at first, but eventually will conquer the world through war, famine, and death
The crown is again the “victors crown” and not the royal crown
The Greek word is stephanos instead of diadema
Jesus will be wearing the royal crowns (diadema) when He comes, as we see in Revelation 19:12
For the hearer in the 1st Century the “victors crown” may have symbolized the independence of the Parthians from Roman rule – they had not been conquered by Rome
One more very important aspect of the crown was that it “was given” to the rider
The first, second, and fourth riders are all “given” certain things
Mounce cites Caird who says that normally in Revelation this refers to “the divine permission granted to evil powers to carry out their nefarious work.”
[Mounce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Revelation, 142]
This takes us back to our big idea that, evil is allowed to act only within the sovereignty of God.
God is in control of His creation and He orchestrates all that happens, even the final judgements on mankind
This rider is sent out by God to accomplish a particular purpose on the earth
His purpose is to conquer and he’s intent on carrying out that purpose
We don’t know the timeframe between the opening of the first seal and the opening of the second, but when the Lamb opens the second seal another horse and its rider appear
Red horse (vv. 3-4)
The second living creature commands the second horse and his rider to come
The color of the horse is symbolic of what will take place as this rider moves out – there will be bloodshed and slaughter
God’s sovereign control
The phrase “was given” is again important
It is mentioned twice in these two verses
The rider of the red horse is not acting on his own
Evil is allowed to act only within the sovereignty of God.
He is given the power or authority to do two things
Take peace from the earth
This goes back to what Jesus said in Mark 13:7-8, that there would be wars and rumors of wars and that nations and kingdoms will rise up against each other
There have been wars throughout history, but even during the two World Wars there were pockets of peace
That will not be the case when the red horse and its rider are released
He will remove peace from the entire earth
Many believe Paul is referring to the red horse and its rider when he shares with the Thessalonian believers about the man of lawlessness
2 Thessalonians 2:6-7, And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time.
For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way.
Peace will be gone, because God will remove His hand of protection from the earth
He is the One who holds back the power of lawlessness
He is the One who has not allowed humanity to express its full depravity
We see the result of God removing His sovereign protection from the earth
Make men slaughter each other
The rider is also given the power or authority to make men slay each other
The verb in Greek is very strong and means more than just killing each other
It means to slaughter
There will be a thirst for blood
Any moral or ethical boundaries that God and society have established will be stripped away
We see this kind of thirst for blood in serial killers
Once they cross the line the first time, they have to continue taking lives
There is a rush, a euphoric feeling that pushes them to continue to take lives
All humanity will experience that thirst for blood
“Assassination and civil unrest, riots in the streets, and rebellion against authority will run rampant.
No one will be safe. One will live in constant fear of life not knowing whom to trust.” [Akin, 135]
Matthew 24:9-11, “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.
At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.
There’s a series of three movies called The Purge and the idea behind the series is that due to an increase in crime and overcrowding in the prison system, the government of the United States sanctions a 12-hour period every year where any and all criminal activity, including murder, become legal
When the fiery red horse and its rider are released, this idea from The Purge will not last just 12-hours, but will be continual
While the rider is given the authority to take peace from the earth and to make men slaughter each other, he is also given a large sword to accomplish this purpose
He is also given a large sword to accomplish his task
The sword that is referenced here is not the double-edged long sword
It is the Roman short sword or dagger that is used for close hand-to-hand combat
Peaceful conquest has given way to bloodshed, which prepares us for the next horse and rider
Black horse (vv. 5-6)
The third living creature commands the third horse and his rider to come
The color of the horse (black) is symbolic of what will happen when this horse and its rider are released on the earth – there will be famine
The rider is holding a pair of scales
The scale was a common tool used in the agora (marketplace) of every Roman and Near Eastern city in the 1st Century
It was a balance beam with a scale on each end, designed to ensure justice
They would use the scale to measure out the appropriate amount of grain
“During war the conquering army would live off the countryside, often taking the food by force and leaving a denuded countryside in its wake.
Famine was the natural result.” [Osborne, 280]
Farmers would have been included in the individuals who were slaughtering each other after the second horse and its rider were released, so you also have the scarcity of those who planted and harvested the crops
Having grain or bread measured out by weight was a sign of scarcity/famine
Leviticus 26:26, When I cut off your supply of bread, ten women will be able to bake your bread in one oven, and they will dole out the bread by weight.
You will eat, but you will not be satisfied.
Ezekiel 4:16-17, He then said to me, “Son of man, I will cut off the supply of food in Jerusalem.
The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair, for food and water will be scarce. They will be appalled at the sight of each other and will waste away because of their sin.”
While this rider is not given power or authority to do anything, we still see the sovereignty of God at work
God’s sovereign control
John hears what sounds like a voice among the four living creatures
It is not stated directly that it is the voice of God
The only thing that is among the four living creatures in the throne room scene of chapter 4 is God sitting on His throne, so it stands to reason that the voice is probably His
God was explaining the severity of the famine
Inflation for daily bread
This was the preferred grain, because it had a better nutritional value
It was primarily eaten by the wealthy
This was primarily eaten by the poor and fed to animals, because the nutritional value was less than wheat
It was less expensive than wheat because of supply and demand
This measurement would have been enough for one person for one day
Imagine having wheat or barley kernels poured out into your hands as they are cupped together – that is approximately the measurement used here
The standard for a day’s wage was a denarius, a single silver coin in the 1st Century
During that time period the day laborer was paid at the end of every day, so he or she could go to the marketplace and purchase food for themselves and their family
Leviticus 19:13, “Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.”
1 Timothy 5:18, For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”
In Matthew 20:1-16 we see Jesus’ parable of the workers
Each of them agreed to receive a denarius for the amount of work they did
Some worked all day while the others only worked a portion of the day
They were all called together at the end of the day to receive their wages – one denarius
The landowner did not wait until the next day to pay them
During the time of the black horse and its rider individuals will only be able to purchase enough wheat (one measure) or barley (three measures) to feed themselves
“Ordinarily, a person could buy eight to twelve measures for a penny, and much more for barley, which was the cheaper grain.”
We are looking at an inflation rate of 1000 to 1500 percent [Easley, Holman New Testament Commentary, Revelation, 107], about ten to twelve times the normal rate [Mounce, 144]
“There might be good reasons why many of us feel stressed by financial challenges. Economists have a term for our rising costs—they call it ‘Cost Disease.’ Here's how one researcher summarized all the stats about this ‘disease’:
So, to summarize: in the past fifty years, education costs have doubled, college costs have dectupled, health insurance costs have dectupled, subway costs have at least dectupled, and housing costs have increased by about fifty percent. US health care costs are about four times as much as equivalent health care in other First World countries; US subways cost about eight times as much as equivalent subways in other First World countries.
I worry that people don't appreciate how weird this is. I didn't appreciate it for a long time. I guess I just figured that Grandpa used to talk about how back in his day movie tickets only cost a nickel; that was just the way of the world. But all of the numbers above are inflation-adjusted. These things have dectupled in cost even after you adjust for movies costing a nickel in Grandpa's day. They have really, genuinely dectupled in cost, no economic trickery involved.
Scott Alexander, "Considerations on Cost Disease," Slate Star Codex (2-9-17)
We see next that God only allows the famine to go so far
Don’t damage the oil and the wine
This is an imperative from the Lord
Again we see God’s sovereignty at work
Evil is allowed to act only within the sovereignty of God.
“Ancient Mediterranean warfare included destroying the standing crops in the fields but not the vines and olive trees; destruction of vines and olive trees would produce long-range devastation of the local economies (and so negate the entire point of conquering the land).
Destroying wheat and barley meant hardship for a year until the new harvest would come, but destroying olive trees (which took about seventeen years to grow) and vines spelled enduring disaster.” [Keener, 205]
God was sovereignly protecting the olive trees and vineyards, for now, by limiting the black horse and its rider
Widespread famine naturally leads to death, which segues into the final horseman
Pale horse (vv. 7-8)
The fourth living creature commands the fourth horse and his rider to come
Perhaps you’re feeling like you’re experiencing the four horsemen of the apocalypse in your life right now
Maybe someone is deceiving you in a relationship
Perhaps your home is not a peaceful place and war is raging
You may be struggling to make ends meet and you’re wondering where your next meal is going to come from
An illness may be plaguing you and you don’t see any end in sight
It’s easy during those times to blame God and question His sovereignty
That’s what Job did
Jesus’ disciples also wondered who had sinned when He healed a man blind from birth (was it the man or his parents?) [John 9:1-12]
Jesus said it was neither of them, but it was all according to God’s sovereign plan, so the work of God might be displayed in his life (it was for God’s glory)
God’s sovereign protection is for His glory
We have to remember that the evil or difficult things that are happening to us right now are not a surprise to God
There are limits to what evil is allowed to do in our lives
Evil is allowed to act only within the sovereignty of God for His glory
That concept is difficult for us, especially within our culture
We think that bad things happen or difficulties come only when we are not following Jesus like we should
When difficulties come, we go back to church, start praying or pray more, begin reading the Bible or spend more time in the Bible
When we do these things we’re really showing that we believe in a works salvation theology
We show that we don’t really trust the sovereignty of God, that He has the right to rule and He rules rightly
We show that we’re really not interested in God’s glory, but rather our own comfort
My Next Step Today Is To:
Trust in the sovereignty of God and believe that what He is allowing to happen in my life is for His glory.
“Reviewing the various interpretations assigned to the Four Horsemen tends to rob the contemporary reader of the dramatic nature of the vision itself.