Tagged: four horsemen of the apocalypse

Authority was given to them (Rev. 6:7-8)

Previously: And Hades was following after him (Rev. 6:7-8)

The scripture

Rev. 6:7 – When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8And I looked, and there was a pale green horse. The horseman on it was named Death, and Hades was following after him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague, and by the wild animals of the earth” (HCSB).

John records that authority is given to “them” – Death and Hades, although some manuscripts read “him,” probably meaning Death – over a fourth of the earth “to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague, and by the wild animals of the earth” (v. 8b). Matthew Henry notes, “He gave them power, that is, those instruments of his anger, or those judgments themselves; he who holds the winds in his hand has all public calamities at his command, and they can only go when he sends them and no further than he permits” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 6:3-8). But why a fourth of the earth? “God’s providence restrains both his own wrath and humanity’s violence,” according to the ESV Study Bible. Other commentators argue that the pale horse, being one of the four, simply has his equal share in the judgments to come.

Sword, famine and plague (literally thanatos, or death, but in this context meaning epidemic diseases like bubonic plague) summarize the work of the riders on the red, black and pale horses. Add to this the predatory nature of wild animals in a depopulated environment, and these four elements echo the covenant curses on Jerusalem during the Babylonian exile (Ezek. 14:21), lending support to the preterist view that the Book of Revelation is largely fulfilled in the first century A.D. at the fall of Jerusalem. However, the death of a fourth of the world’s population would be a “great tribulation” such as the world has not yet seen (Matt. 24:21), bolstering the futurist view that the events of Rev. 6-19 have yet to take place. If the futurists are correct, more than 1.6 billion people will perish, according to current population figures.

Matthew Henry makes a number of poignant observations about these four horsemen:

“(1) There is a natural as well as judicial connection between one judgment and another: war is a wasting calamity, and draws scarcity and famine after it; and famine, not allowing men proper sustenance, and forcing them to take that which is unwholesome, often draws the pestilence after it. (2) God’s quiver is full of arrows; he is never at a loss for ways and means to punish a wicked people. (3) In the book of God’s counsels he has prepared judgments for scorners as well as mercy for returning sinners. (4) In the book of the scriptures God has published threatenings against the wicked as well as promises to the righteous; and it is our duty to observe and believe the threatenings as well as the promises” (Rev. 6:3-8).

While the calamities wrought by the four horsemen appear to be either natural or man-made, we will see in the verses to come that God is orchestrating these judgments. The redeemed in heaven know it, and the wicked on earth realize it. But rather than repent, those who oppose God cry out to the rocks and mountains for death rather than to the Rock for salvation.

Four views of the fourth horseman

So what does this fourth 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 Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The reference to the means of death – sword, hunger, death (pestilence) and beasts of the earth – are echoes of Ezek. 14:21, where God sends His “four devastating judgments against Jerusalem – sword, famine, dangerous animals, and plague – in order to wipe out [both] man and animal from it! Even so, there will be survivors …” In Ezekiel, God uses these judgments on Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. But now His instrument of judgment is the Roman army, which kills more than 1 million, destroys the temple, ransacks Jerusalem and scatters the survivors. Josephus describes the events of 70 A.D. in this way: “So all hope of escaping was now cut off from the Jews, together with their liberty of going out of the city. Then did the famine widen its progress, and devoured the people by whole houses and families; the upper rooms were full of women and children that were dying by famine; and the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged” (Wars, 5:12:3-4).

Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the church age – tend to see the pale horse as representing the years 248 – 268 A.D., covering the reigns of Decius, Gallus, Aemilianus, Valerian, and Gallienus. Edward Gibbon, who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, writes that from 248 – 296 A.D. “five thousand persons died daily in Rome; and many towns that escaped the hands of the barbarians were entirely depopulated” (quoted in Revelation: Four Views, p. 114). Some commentators prefer to translate the phrase “a fourth of the earth” in verse 8 as the Latin Vulgate does: “over the four parts of the earth,” referring to the four sections into which the Roman Empire is divided at the time.

Futurists – who interpret nearly all of Revelation as yet unfulfilled – contend that the events described here are global in scope and occur during the seven-year Tribulation. If fulfilled in our generation, the prophecy of one-fourth of the world’s population being killed would amount to more than 1.6 billion people – a great tribulation indeed, greater than the day of Noah, and matching the unprecedented magnitude described by Jesus in Matt. 24:21.

Finally, spiritualists, or idealists – who see Revelation as setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – understand the pale horse to represent death by various causes throughout the church age. Since one-quarter of the world’s population perishes, it is reasonable to see this played out over centuries rather than as a single catastrophic event. The four severe judgments – the sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts – symbolize all universal woes that believers suffer along with unbelievers during the present evil age.

We come now to the end of the four horsemen – conquest, war, famine and death – and hear their thundering hoof beats as they leave the vanquished behind. What’s next? What could there be in the wake of these breathtaking events?  Bodies have been destroyed, but the fifth seal uncovers the souls of martyrs crying out for God’s vengeance.

Next: The fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11)

And Hades was following after him (Rev. 6:7-8)

Previously:  A horseman named death (Rev. 6:7-8)

The scripture

Rev. 6:7 – When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8And I looked, and there was a pale green horse. The horseman on it was named Death, and Hades was following after him. Authority was iven to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague, and by the wild animals of the earth” (HCSB).

And Hades was following after him

In close pursuit of Death is Hades. The two are, in fact, inseparable. Hades is the Greek term meaning “the place of the unseen.” It corresponds to the Hebrew word Sheol, or the abode of the dead, and is the typical term used by the Jewish translators of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) in the third and second centuries B.C. Put simply, all people die and go to Hades because all pass from the visible world to the invisible one.

Initially, the Greeks envisioned Hades as a place where good and evil people alike exist as shadowy beings after death. (In Greek mythology, Hades also is the god of the underworld.) In time, the Greeks and Romans came to think of Hades as a place of reward and punishment. This matches well with the Jewish concept of the afterlife because the Old Testament term Sheol and the Greek word Hades can signify the physical grave or death. In Gen. 37:35, for example, when Jacob sees that Joseph’s coat is covered in blood and that his young son evidently has died, he tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth and refuses to be comforted. “I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning,” he says. In Prov. 5:5 and 7:27, Solomon warns his son that a seductive woman’s feet go down to death and her steps head straight for Sheol; in addition, her house is the road to Sheol, descending to the chambers of death. In Job 10:21-22,  Job describes his fate as going into the land of darkness and gloom, never to return … a land of blackness like the deepest darkness, gloomy and chaotic, where even the light is like the darkness. Later, the Jews express the belief that Hades is a place of reward and punishment.

Hades in the New Testament

By the beginning of the New Testament era, Hades has three meanings, according to The Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: (1) death, (2) the place of all the dead, and (3) the place of the wicked dead only. “Context determines which meaning an author intends in a given passage” (p. 297). For example:

  • In Matthew 11:23 and Luke 10:15, Jesus speaks of Capernaum descending to Hades because of the people’s unbelief in spite of His convincing miracles. Jesus seems to mean simply that the city will be destroyed, so Hades in this context means death.
  • In Acts 2:27, Hades is the abode of the dead. Peter, preaching on the Day of Pentecost, quotes Ps. 16:10, in which David declares, “You will not leave my soul in Hades, or allow Your Holy One [Jesus] to see decay.”
  • In Rev. 20:13–14, Hades refers to the place of the dead, because it is emptied of all who are in it at the end of the world. Some would argue that this reference to Hades involves unbelievers only because the righteous dead already have been resurrected and judged at the judgment seat of Christ. In any case, there is a fitting end to Death and Hades. Both are thrown into the lake of fire – Gehenna or Hell – as are those whose names are not written in the book of life (Rev. 20:14-15).
  • In Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), He uses the word Hades to refer to the place of the wicked dead. There, the rich man is tormented in flames while poor but righteous Lazarus is comforted at Abraham’s side. Some would contend that both Lazarus and the rich man are in Hades, existing in the intermediate state between death and resurrection. According to this view, Hades is divided into two parts separated by a wide chasm: torment, for unbelievers, and Abraham’s bosom / side for believers who, following Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, are taken to heaven, where the souls of New Testament saints are transported instantly at death.

One other note should be made. It’s unfortunate that the King James Version often translates three different Greek words as “hell,” thus creating confusion. The three words are:

  • Hades – the abode of the dead, or the abode of the wicked dead.
  • Gehenna – best translated Hell or the lake of fire. This word is derived from the Hebrew place-name gehinnom meaning Valley of Hinnom just south of Jerusalem. It is a place of child sacrifice in Old Testament times (2 Chron. 33:6; Jer. 32:35) and the Jews later use it as a place to dump refuse, dead animals and executed criminals. Fires burn there continuously to deal with the stench and disease. The Jews transfer this imagery to their concept of a place of eternal punishment. Jesus uses gehenna numerous times to describe the eternal state of the unbeliever (for example Matt. 5:22, 29; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15).
  • Tartarus – a Greek name for a place of divine punishment lower than Hades. Peter uses the term in 2 Peter 2:4 to describe a place where some angels (demons) are “kept in chains of darkness until judgment.”

Death and Hades riding together

Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind here is that Death and Hades ride closely together. Both are consequences of the Fall. All people die physically and spiritually as a result of sin – “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) – and Hades waits with his gaping mouth to receive the souls of the departed until they are finally resurrected and judged. The writer of Hebrews puts it well: “[I]t is appointed for people to die once – and after this, judgment” (Heb. 9:27). It is equally important to know that Death and Hades ultimately are cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). Christ’s finished work on the cross defeats sin and death, and the wrath He bore in our place removes the curse of eternal separation from God. Yes, death breathes down our necks and finally overtakes us, and Hades remains for now as the abode of unbelievers. But these are temporary beasts already defeated by the blood of the slaughtered Lamb. Christ holds the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:18), and one day both will be cast into hell (Rev. 20:14).

Next: Authority was given to them (Rev. 6:7-8)

A horseman named death (Rev. 6:7-8)

Previously: The fourth seal (Rev. 6:7-8)

The scripture

Rev. 6:7 – When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8And I looked, and there was a pale green horse. The horseman on it was named Death, and Hades was following after him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague, and by the wild animals of the earth” (HCSB).

A horseman named Death

Death is personified in this passage as a rider on a pale horse. This should not surprise us, as the inevitable end to life is depicted in many ways in scripture and folklore. In English, he is given the name Grim Reaper and, from the 15th century onward, is seen as a skeletal figure clothed in a black robe and hood, carrying a large scythe. In ancient Greece, death is sometimes depicted as a bearded, winged man, and sometimes as a young boy. His name is Thanatos, and his job is to escort departed souls to Hades. The Hindu scriptures speak of Yajarah, the lord of death, who rides a black buffalo and carries a lasso with which to bring souls to the underworld. The Lithuanians long ago named death Giltine, an old, ugly woman with a long blue nose and a poisonous tongue; they later adopted the image of the Grim Reaper.

In the Bible, we see death personified in a number of ways. In the Exodus, for example, the Lord Himself kills the first-born males not covered by the blood of the Passover lamb, while promising His faithful people He will not permit the “destroyer” to enter their homes (Ex. 12:23). In 2 Kings 19:35, “the Angel of the Lord” strikes dead 185,000 Assyrians who are encamped around Jerusalem. King David, whose people suffer the consequences of his sin of taking a military census, sees this same angel standing between earth and heaven, with his sword drawn (1 Chron. 21:16). Death, of course, also is described as a horseman, as in Rev. 6:7; as a ruler and enslaver (Rom. 7:24, 8:2); as just payment for sin (Rom. 6:23); and as an enemy to be defeated (1 Cor. 15:26).

The word “death” is used about 400 times in scripture. New Bible Dictionary makes the following observation, “From one point of view death is the most natural of things: ‘man is destined to die once’ (Heb. 9:27). It may be accepted without rebellion: ‘Let me die the death of the righteous’ (Nu. 23:10). From another, it is most unnatural. It is the penalty for sin (Rom. 6:23), and is to be feared as such. Both points of view are found in the Bible; neither should be overlooked” (p. 265).

While death comes to every living thing, from house plants to people, is affects humans in a unique way. God has created us with souls and spirits that live beyond the grave. Only human beings are described as spiritually dead and in need of redemption. And only human beings are in danger of the second death, which is the lake of fire, or hell (Rev. 20:14). That’s why the apostle Paul could embrace death, for to him to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord. That’s also why scripture warns the unbeliever to be afraid of death, for it leads inevitably to hell. In Adam’s sin, he brought two deaths upon mankind: physical and spiritual. All things die physically because of the curse of sin. But only human beings die spiritually and are separated from God. When Christ tasted death for every person (Heb. 2:9), He died twice. While on the cross, as He became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), Jesus was separated from God the Father, prompting Him to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). But having satisfied the Father’s wrath, and before dying physically, Jesus could declare, “Father, into Your hands I entrust My spirit” (Luke 23:46); His relationship with the Father was restored, but that did not prevent His physical death.

Unbelievers are, in a sense, only two-thirds alive. They are alive, of course, in body. And their souls – minds, emotions, wills – are alive as well. But because of their sins, they are spiritually dead, cut off from the life of God and denied an intimate and everlasting relationship with Him. It is only when the Holy Spirit convicts unbelievers of their sin and draws them to Christ that they are made spiritually alive (regenerated, or born again) and justified, or acquitted of their sins. This is all the work of God, even acting upon the human heart and enabling the one who once hated God to receive Him by faith.

Death rides hard upon a pale horse, and the abode of the dead (Hades) follows closely behind. He tramples the wicked beneath him, while Hades picks up the pieces. By the end of Revelation 6, the wicked are calling on the rocks to hide them from the wrath of God. It is curious that they do not call upon the wrathful God to forgive them. But it’s too late. They are beyond repentance, beyond grace, beyond mercy. Death comes. Hades follows. Judgment pursues. And the second death, the lake of fire, awaits.

For believers, however, death is perhaps best personified as an enemy who will be destroyed. The apostle Paul writes, quoting from Isaiah and Hosea, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54b-57).

W.A. Criswell writes, “Though I face death tomorrow, yet, if I face Him today, my home, my refuge is not in the grave. The glory of God is not under the ground. The glory of God is in the pavilions of the heavens. God’s people have their house and their home and their destiny beyond the skies. For God’s people there is glory and light and victory and heaven. That is the call the Lord extends in this day of grace to your heart” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 100).

Next: And Hades was following after him (Rev. 6:7-8)

A balance scale in the rider’s hand (Rev. 6:5-6)

Previously: A black horse (Rev. 6:5-6)

The scripture

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)

A black horse (Rev. 6:5-6)

Previously: The third seal (Rev. 6:5-6)

The scripture

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).

A black horse

This horse is black, the color of sadness and want, according to some commentators. It is the color of a starless sky, the absence of light, a terror especially in ancient times when the lack of a torch or lamp would paralyze a person seeking to find his way. It symbolizes sin and death. For the unbeliever, we are told that hell is “outer darkness” away from the presence of God, Who is light (1 John 1:5); it is the “blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 13). It also is the color of earthly judgment, for in Rev. 6:12 we see that the sun turns black like sackcloth made of goat’s hair.

Black often is used to denote the color of physical objects, according to the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary: hair (Lev. 13:31, 37; Song 5:11); skin (Job 30:30; Song 1:5–6; Lam. 4:8); the sky as a sign of rain (1 Kings 18:45); and animals (Gen. 30:32–43; Zech. 6:2, 6; Rev. 6:5). “Black” also is used figuratively to describe mourning (Job 30:28; Jer. 4:28; 8:21; 14:2); a visionless day (Mic. 3:6); the abode of the dead (Job 3:5; Jude 13); and the treachery of Job’s friends (Job 6:16)

In Rev. 6:5, the horse’s black color no doubt signifies famine, for the description of the rider and his scales tells us that food is a scarce and expensive commodity.

Next: A balance scale in the rider’s hand (Rev. 6:5-6)