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)
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)