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)