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)