Rev. 6:5 – When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and there was a black horse. The horseman on it had a balance scale in his hand. Then I heard something like a voice among the four living creatures say, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius – but do not harm the olive oil and the wine” (HCSB).
A balance scale in the rider’s hand
The rider on the black horse holds in his hand a balance scale, an instrument used to measure such commodities as wheat and barley. John hears “something like a voice among the four living creatures say, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius – but do not harm the olive oil and the wine’” (v. 6). While merchants sometimes rig their balances to profit from unsuspecting customers, scripture often uses this instrument as a symbol of fairness and justice. For example, in Job’s final claim of innocence he declares, “[L]et God weigh me with an accurate balance, and He will recognize my integrity” (Job 31:6). David writes in Psalm 62:9, “Men are only a vapor; exalted men, an illusion. On a balance scale, they go up; together they [weigh] less than a vapor.” And in Proverbs 11:1 Solomon reminds us that “Dishonest scales are detestable to the Lord, but an accurate weight is His delight.”
Wheat and barley are measured in Revelation 6, and it appears these staples are scarce because people are paying a denarius – a day’s wage for a laborer (see Matt. 20:2) – for a relatively small amount of these essential grains. “To eat bread by weight” is a Jewish phrase indicating that food supplies are sparse (Lev. 26:26). A quart of wheat is enough to sustain one person for one day; three quarts of barley are sufficient to feed three people for a day. So a laborer would have to resort to less-expensive grain in order to feed his family. Normally, a person in John’s time could buy eight to 12 quarts of wheat for a day’s wage, and much more barley. It seems this famine, as all others, falls most severely on the poor, who spend their entire wages on dwindling quantities of food, without spare funds for olive oil and wine, the delicacies of the rich.
Is there a spiritual message here? Matthew Henry comments: “When a people loathe their spiritual food, God may justly deprive them of their daily bread. One judgment seldom comes alone; the judgment of war naturally draws after it that of famine; and those who will not humble themselves under one judgment must expect another and yet greater, for when God contends he will prevail. The famine of bread is a terrible judgment; but the famine of the word is more so, though careless sinners are not sensible of it” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Re 6:3-8).
Next: Do not harm the olive oil and the wine (Rev. 6:5-6)