Chapter six takes us to the next stage of John’s vision with the scroll and its seven seals. Let us recall that the book/scroll represents the future destiny of mankind. Unlike the scroll of Ezekiel which emphasized judgment, this scroll speaks to both judgment and reward.
Historic pre-millenialist George Ladd puts it this way:
The book itself contains two things which complement each other; the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the fathering of his saints into His kingdom; and the judgment of God upon the evil demonic powers which have oppressed his people.[i]
He rightly calls it the “book of destiny.” And this book is only able to be opened by the slain Lamb, that is, the Son of God Jesus Christ.
This is why we begin chapter six verse one with the opening of the seals by the Lamb, which Douglass Kelly tells us, “The Lamb is in charge of history” and “He is behind the unleashing of historical forces that bring devastation and munificent changes in our lives and in the history of the world; the Lamb is behind them, for Rev. 6:1 show him opening ‘one of the seals’ that controls the future.”[ii]
There are various interpretations as to what we are about to read about – especially as to when these things are to take place.
But I think that Revelation 4-5 provide the backdrop for Revelation 6-8 and the breaking of the seals. Remember that chapters 4-5 celebrate the victory of Christ’s defeat over death, his victorious resurrection and his ascension to the throne.
With this in mind, also keep in mind that the images and storyline in Revelation is informed by what the prophets already predicted – specifically Zechariah 6, Ezekiel 5 and 14, Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 32, Jeremiah 15&16 and of course Daniel 7. Additionally, in the case of chapter six, there definitely a parallel in the synoptic gospels to the Olivet Discourse (esp. Matthew 24).
Therefore, as James Hamilton says, “I think this presentation of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse is a kind of schematic that represents the flow of history – inspiring rulers that leave wars and devastation in their wake.”[iii]
I’ll get into the summary of this view after we look at the verses specifically.
But before we do that, let’s examine the OT and NT context for this passage…
OT Parallels and Synoptic Parallels
Like the other parts of Revelation, John’s vision is informed by things Jesus has already taught during His time on earth, and the principles embodied in OT imagery.
Hamilton, Beale, Mounce, Ladd and other see a definite parallel between the Olivet Discourse and what is going on here in Revelation 6. Hamilton says, “I think that Revelation 6 in Matthew 24 are complementary presentations of world history between the first and second coming of Christ.”
Some of the key verses in Matthew 24 state:
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”  And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray.  For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.  “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.  And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.  And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.  But the one who endures to the end will be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:3-14)
You can see the parallel here with false Messiah’s (the white rider), with famine, pestilence, war and tribulation. All of these things are described by the four horsemen.
There is also significant OT imagery that forms the backdrop. Beale says:
Most obvious background is Zachariah 6:1–8. There four groups of horses of different color or commission by God to patrol the earth and punish those nations that they see a person God’s people (Zechariah 6:5-8). These nations were raised by God to be a rod of punishment to his people, but they inflicted more tribulation on Israel than they should have. God will punish them for their transgressions as a vindication of his jealous love for Israel (Zechariah 1:8-15). Therefore, the horses in Revelation 6:1–8 signify that the natural and political disaster throughout the world are caused by Christ in order to judge unbelievers who persecute Christians and in order to vindicate his people. This vindication will demonstrate his love for his people and his justice, and already maybe anticipated an answer to the cry for vengeance in 6:9–11.[iv]
That passage goes as follows:
Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze.  The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses,  the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses—all of them strong.  Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?”  And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth.  The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.”  When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth. And he said, “Go, patrol the earth.” So they patrolled the earth.  Then he cried to me, “Behold, those who go toward the north country have set my Spirit at rest in the north country.” (Zechariah 6:1-8)
Beale says, “Ezekiel 14:12–23 is also formative for this section (cf. deut. 32:23-25). Ezekiel 14:21 is explicitly quoted in Revelation 6:8b, where it functions as a general summary of the preceding trials of conquest, sort of, and famine, the first two of which include ‘death.’”
That passage goes like this:
And the word of the LORD came to me:  “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast,  even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord GOD.  “If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they ravage it, and it be made desolate, so that no one may pass through because of the beasts,  even if these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate.  “Or if I bring a sword upon that land and say, Let a sword pass through the land, and I cut off from it man and beast,  though these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they alone would be delivered.  “Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast,  even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness.  “For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast!  But behold, some survivors will be left in it, sons and daughters who will be brought out; behold, when they come out to you, and you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the disaster that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it.  They will console you, when you see their ways and their deeds, and you shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 14:12-23)
Beale explains, “The point of Ezekiel 14:21 is that all Israelites will suffer persecution because of rampant idolatry (14:3-11). The purpose of the trials is to punish the majority of the nation because of rampant idolatry and simultaneously to purify the righteous remnant by testing their faith (cf. 14:14, 16, 18, 20, 20-23). The same dual-purpose is likely in mind in Revelation 6, except now the church community is the focus of the judgments. The faithful will be purified, but those who compromise through idolatry and become disloyal to Christ will be judged by the same tribulations.”[v]
“Therefore, the segments from Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Leviticus provide The compositional paradigm for Revelation 6:1–8…Revelation 6:1–8 deals not only with judgments on the world of unbelief but also with persecution of Christians, since this is a theme shared by all three versions of the synoptic apocalyptic discourse (e.g. Luke 21:12-24).”[vi]
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
6:1 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!”
What we see here is that the four living creatures, that is, the Cherubim, repeatedly say, “Come!” and once they say this each successive horse comes forth in action. These angels are before the throne of God and obey His commands. In Ezekiel we read of how like lightening they fire off throughout the earth obeying the commands of the Holy One (cf. Ezekiel 1:14, 19, 20).
What this means is that the judgments brought on by the horses are all directly ordained by God. He has decreed these things for a purpose. In point of fact, this sequence of events shows that as the Lamb is the one breaking the seals, it is the Lamb who is ordaining that all of these things take place.
6:2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.
There seems to be three interpretations of who this white rider is, and two of them are mainstream and shared by most commentators. Either the rider is Jesus coming to conquer (as in chapter 19), part of Satan’s forces of evil – a messianic pretender, of sorts (as in Matthew 24), or a third interpretation is that it is the proclamation of the gospel (as in the sword of the spirit and the conviction of the word – Christ coming to “cast fire on the earth” etc.).
Hendriksen and Ladd make good cases for this being Christ, due to the white garments, the nature of the word “conquer” and the parallel with chapter 19. But Mounce, Beale and Hamilton look even more in-depth at this and rule this interpretation out. Their extensive investigation convinced me that it is best to interpret this rider as part of the whole – all four describing simultaneous events occurring in history between Christ’s first coming and His return.
As Mounce says, “The arguments against Christ as the writer of the Whitehorse, however, are of sufficient strength to make the identification unlikely. A comparison of chapter 6 and 19 shows that the two writers have little in common be on the fact that they are both mounted on white horses.”[vii]
Furthermore, the parallel with Matthew 24 and the false messiah’s Jesus mentioned in that discourse is striking.
Hamilton says, “Let’s think for a moment about messianic pretenders. This first horseman looks like Jesus, the rider on the white horse in chapter 19, but he isn’t Jesus. Remember, those who do not worship the one true and living God who ever exists in three persons, the same in essence, equal in power and glory, will worship false gods. They may not call what they worship “god/s,” but they will worship themselves or money or success or sports team or video game or learning or power or per prestige or some utopian vision of the good life. Humans will worship.”[viii]
Beale cites 2 Corinthians 11 and says:
Therefore, the first rider represents a Satanic force attempting to defeat and oppress believers spiritually through deception, persecution, or both (so 11:7; 13:7). The image of the rider may include reference to (1) the antichrist, (2) governments that persecute Christians, or (3) the devil’s servants in general…”white” elsewhere in the book does not primarily connote victory but the persevering righteousness of Christ in the Saints. Here white male referred to the forces of evil as they try to appear righteous and thus deceive by imitating Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).[ix]
That Corinthians passage goes like this:
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.  And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.  So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)
There are several other great reasons for believing this is part of the whole – not the least of which are literary concerns for the summing up of the four horsemen as all part of one unit (see Beale’s notes on verses 7-8).
6:3-4 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!”  And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.
This is part of the idea of wars that will occur during the time between Christ’s first coming and His return. There likely aren’t specific wars in mind, but rather wars in general.
Beale says, “…the idea of Nations battling one another and the attendant conditions of such warfare are not primarily thought of, although they are included. Uppermost in the mind are the antagonistic actions of Satan’s forces aimed at the communities of both faith and unbelief. Therefore, the fourfold Old Testament formulas concerning the judgment of literal warfare has been expanded by John to include woes of spiritual warfare.”[x]
6:5-6 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand.  And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”
It is commonly accepted that this black horse deals with famine, which is normally the result of wars upon the earth, though it is not necessarily limited to a condition of war.
The economic situation here is one of severe inflation. As Beale explains:
A denarius was a day’s wage (cf. Matthew 20:2), and a quart of wheat was about enough for one person for three days, although three quarts of barley was enough for a typical family for one day. The prices listed here are about 8 to 16 times the average prices in the Roman Empire at the time. Therefore, those suffering from the famine will only be able to buy limited food quantities for their family, and there will be nothing left over to provide for any of the other necessities of life such as “wine and oil.” That the trees and vines producing oil and wine are not affected further emphasizes the limited aspect of the famine.[xi]
Some say that the leaving out of wine and oil as part of the pestilence and famine indicates that there will be inequity between rich and poor. That could be true, and I think that it may be the case. But I like how Mounce reasons that it would be an odd thing for the Lord to declare for this to specifically be the case. As he says:
The warning about the oil and one has been variously interpreted. Some feel it was added to underscore the social inequities existing in a time of scarcity. It is the poor, not the rich, who suffer. Oil and wine, however, were not luxuries, but part of the basic commodities of life. It would also be difficult understand why the lamb – the voice “in the midst of the four living creatures” – would issue an order favoring the rich and aggravating the plight of the poor…It is simpler to take it as a natural limitation to the famine.[xii]
6:7-8 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
These verses serve as a sort of summary of the preceding verses. Death is the natural end to all of the afflictions of the first three horses. False prophets, war, famine all lead to death. Therefore these are a sequence of chronological events, but a description of the multifaceted threats to life that we face – both believers and unbelievers – while living upon the earth.
Beale rightly says, “These final four plagues have a partial effect, since the last horseman summarizes the previous three and the disaster he brings is limited to “a fourth of the earth.” The four woes do not harm every person without exception.”[xiii]
As you see the different trials and tribulations that are poured out upon the earth you start to see how Jesus is showing John the familiar imagery of the OT, while more specifically using the Olivet Discourse (what He had already said during His time on earth) as the template for his teaching. Therefore, we see a consistency between the teaching of Jesus during His time on earth, and what John sees in this vision.
These judgments describe what Daniel described in chapter 7 of his prophecy when he spoke of the four kingdoms of the earth. They describe all the evil that will come upon the earth in the time between the two advents of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus has been resurrected, His ascension and reign are described in chapters four and five, and He controls all of world history. In the time before His second coming Jesus ordains all manner of evil, wars, plagues and tribulation showing that He alone is in control of all things as the potter is with the clay, and He is moving human history along toward a definite goal.
Why would the Lord do these things? Why would He ordain that evil should come upon the earth? Hamilton explains:
Why would God allow these things? I think that God wants a clear contrast between what results from embracing his rule and what results from rejecting it. God wants people to see what happens when humans reject the true God and embrace false gods. God wants people to see what happens when humans reject the rightful king, The Lords Messiah, Jesus, and replace them with some chump who looks good and speaks well. So God let’s these fools have their day in the sun, and he lets all the mayhem and ruin that results from their pride and folly to defile this world. God let’s all this happen so that his wisdom, his power, his righteousness will be seen clearly. God wants people to know that only he can bring peace, justice, security, and happiness. God wants to be worshiped as God, and he wants people to embrace the rule of king Jesus, the Messiah.
In summary, through his death and resurrection, Christ has made the world forces of evil his agents to execute his purposes of sanctification and judgment for the furtherance of his kingdom. This is most clearly seen in the reference to Jesus is sovereignty over “death and Hades” in 6:8, which is a further development of chapter 1: Through his death and resurrection Christ has power over, “death and Hades” (1:18) and now he uses them as his agents to carry out his will. God intended that the suffering of the cross should have both the redemptive and a judicial purpose (i.e., with respect to the latter, the cross becomes a basis of judgment for those rejecting it’s saving significance).[xv]
[i] Ladd, Pg. 95.
[ii] Kelly, Pg. 111.
[iii] Ladd says, “As the lamb breaks each of the first four seals, for horses right forth on the earth as instruments of the divine purpose: the first is white, the second read, the third black, and the fourth pale. The background for the symbolism is found in Zachariah 6:1 where the prophet is given a vision of four chariot strong by horse of different colors: red, black, white, and dappled gray. These four chariots right out to the four winds to patrol the earth as instruments of God’s wrath upon the enemies of his people.” Page 96
[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 372
[v] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 372-373
[vi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 373. I am deeply indebted to the way in which both G.K. Beale and Jim Hamilton exposited this chapter. Their in-depth work has been so very helpful that I couldn’t have fully come to my own conclusions without their wisdom. Ladd, Mounce, and others were, of course useful, but Hamilton and Beale really logically think through every option to the point where one is able to judge better what to make of the passage.
[vii] Mounce, Pg.153
[viii] Hamilton, Pg. 178
[ix] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 377
[x] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 383
[xi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 381
[xii] Mounce, Pg. 156
[xiii] Beale, Longer commentary, Pg. 385
[xiv] On page 388 of the longer commentary, Beale goes on to address some of the concern of God being the “author of evil” as some say this passage must indicate or somehow avoid etc. Here is what he says: Some commentators do not think there is a theological problem, since they do not view Christ as the immediate cause of the judgments. The problem is sometimes avoided by adopting secondary textual variants that view John as the recipient of the address “come,” while on the other hand, Christ is sometimes conjectured as the recipient of the address (see on 6:1). Those rejecting these two alternatives offer theological presuppositions about God’s holiness in love in order to deny the direct link, and there is the consequent assertion that Christ only “permits” or “tolerates” the four Horsemen to execute their woes. But not only do the commands issued to the horseman by the chairman argue against such an idea, but the major Old Testament passages behind 6:2–8 without exception have God is the ultimate cause of the judgments (so Zachariah 6:1–8; Ezekiel 14:21; Leviticus 26:18-28).
[xv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 385