Previously: A balance scale in the rider’s hand (Rev. 6:5-6)
Rev. 6:5-6 – 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).
Do not harm the olive oil and the wine
So what does this third seal mean to John’s audience in the first century – and to us today?
The preterist – who sees the events of Revelation primarily fulfilled in the first century – points to the severe food shortages of the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. “Though initially there was enough food stored up to last a long time, the warring factions in the city, out of sheer spite, regularly destroyed the grain stores of the opposing factions! Thus food became so scarce that Josephus records at least one case of a mother eating her infant (compare Deut. 28:53 and 2 Kings 6:28f). It was with reference to this time that Jesus had said, ‘But woe to those who are … nursing babies in those days!’ (see Luke 21:20-23; 23:28-29)” (Revelation: Four Views – A Parallel Commentary, p. 110).
In fact, in an eerie parallel to scripture, Josephus records, “Many there were indeed who sold what they had for one quart; it was of wheat, if they were of the richer sort, but of barley, if they were poorer” (Wars, 5:10-12). The phrase, “do not harm the olive oil and the wine” could be a reference to sacrilegious Jews who pillaged oil and wine from the temple.
The ESV Study Bible notes, “Some think the command not to harm the oil and wine … could also be a prediction of events like that of a.d. 92, when the emperor Domitian during a grain shortage ordered the vineyards cut down to make room for more wheat fields. This caused such a backlash that he rescinded the order. In other words, extreme measures would have to be taken due to the progressive pouring out of judgment.”
No doubt, as preterists contend, this passage of scripture is fulfilled before the very eyes of John’s first-century audience. But is there an application beyond that?
Many historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the church age – see the black horse as financial oppression imposed by some of the Roman emperors in the third century. Taxes could be paid in cash or in produce, typically grain, oil and wine. Heavy taxation by such emperors as Caracalla (218-222 A.D.) crushed the Roman subjects and produced intense and widespread suffering.
Some historicists agree that the black horse symbolizes economic hardship, but place it at a later date. Grieved by heavy taxation, landowners resorted to destroying crops to avoid paying taxes. This practice became so widespread throughout the Roman Empire that the government forbade the destruction of olive trees and grapevines; thus the phrase “do not harm the olive oil and the wine” takes on special meaning.
Futurists – who interpret nearly all of Revelation as yet unfulfilled – contend that the events described at the opening of the third seal refer to worldwide famine during the seven-year Tribulation. Warren Wiersbe comments: “[D]uring the Tribulation, a man will have to work all day just to secure food for himself! There will be nothing for his family! At the same time, the rich will be enjoying plenty of oil and wine. No wonder Antichrist will eventually be able to control the economy (Rev. 13:17) as he promises to feed the hungry masses” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 6:1).
Finally, spiritualists, or idealists – who see Revelation as setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – understand famine to be one form of God’s judgment upon sinners. It is one of the four severe judgments God uses to take vengeance on corrupt societies (see Ezek. 14:21). The phrase, “do not hurt the olive oil and the wine” may be taken as a timeless truth that the rich are better equipped than the poor to endure economic hardships, or it could be a message to John’s initial readers throughout Asia that Domitian’s efforts to interfere with the cultivation of grapes in the provinces would be abandoned.
Some spiritualists understand the second and third seals to be consequences that follow the first seal, which they read as the advancement of the gospel. Therefore, Christians are persecuted by the sword and discriminated against in the marketplace. The first readers of John’s apocalypse can relate to these symbols, as can Christians throughout the church age. How often have Christ’s children been harassed, beaten, humiliated, impoverished, deprived, imprisoned, scorned, and killed because they stood firmly in their faith?
Next: The fourth seal (Rev. 6:7-8)