Saturday, March 29, 2014



            Chapter 6 is a direct continuation of the content of chapters 4 and 5.  Those chapters gave us the following that leads us up to the material in chapter 6:

·         John entered heaven “in the Spirit” (4:2).

·         There he saw the throne and the “one seated on” it (4:2).  He also observed heavenly creatures, including four “living beings” (4:6) and 24 elders (4:4).

·         The One on the throne held a scroll that had seven seals (5:1).  No one was found who was worthy to open the seals (5:3).

·         Then, John saw the Lamb who had been slain (5:6), and He was worthy to take the scroll and open the seals (5:5 and 5:9).

So, chapter 6 tells us what happened when the Lamb broke the seals.


ABREVIATIONS:  ESVSB = English Standard Version Study Bible; NIVSB = New International Version Study Bible; ESV = English Standard Version; NIV = New International Version

Scripture quotations are from ESV except when noted otherwise.

IB = Interpreter’s Bible


            As I progress through these seals, I hope anyone reading this recognizes that I am very limited in my capacity to interpret this material.  I say that for more than one reason.  First, I am a neophyte in eschatology, so I recognize my personal limitations.  Second, I believe no one really is going to have much more leverage for interpretation than I do.  The goal of interpretation is generally “exegesis.”  This is interpretation that “leads out.”  It draws the meaning out of a text.  The tendency of all of us is “eisogesis.”  This is interpretation that “leads in.”  It reads into a text one’s presuppositions and interpretative scheme.  The latter is not totally a wrong process.  If one has developed, through broad study of many texts, an interpretative scheme, then I believe one is warranted to use a text as supportive material for that scheme.  It is important, however, to allow a text first to “stand on its own” and to speak to us within its context.  In that context we need to have regard for the grammar and historical background.  We also need to consider how certain terms are used by the text (for example, “grace” often has a theological meaning in Scripture that it might not have in other settings). 

            One of the difficulties in interpretation is when the text gives us very little information to help us understand its meaning.  I believe some of the material in chapter 6 falls in that category.  One small clue to help us is in verse 4:1b.  A voice from heaven commands John:  “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”  I have argued that the material of chapters 4 and 5 should be understood as taking place in “real time” for John.  That is, the events he observed in heaven were taking place in his time of the first century.  However, as the seals were broken, then the promise of 4:1b began to be fulfilled:  John began to observe events that would take place “after this.” 

            The next question is, “How soon ‘after this’?”  The Dispensationalists maintain that all of the events, beginning at 4:2 and on into chapter 6, are events that will occur in the Tribulation period, shortly before the Second Coming of Christ.  I believe that they have little or no warrant for that assumption.  Some have argued that John’s entrance into heaven symbolized the (Pre-tribulation) Rapture of the church, and therefore all that is described from that time on is during the Tribulation.  Others have admitted there is little basis for this.  This is partly because John described himself as “in the Spirit,” which is not the same as being bodily transported into heaven.

            A similar interpretative debate arises in the discussion of Matthew 24.  Dispensationalists again maintain that almost all of Jesus’ extended answer is a description of the Tribulation period.  I have argued against that thesis in my discussions of that material.  Dispensationalists have also argued that the seven seals and some of the material in Matthew 24 are parallel. The following is a table that represents the Dispensationalist harmonizing of Revelation 6 with Matthew 24.  This scheme is described in Pentecost, who referenced English as his source. 

5. Many will come claiming to be Christ
1-2. First Seal: rider on white horse, conqueror (English: a false Christ)
6-7a.  Wars…nations against nations*
3-4. Second Seal: rider on red horse, power to take away peace
7b.  famines
5-6. Third Seal:  Rider on black horse, famine
7c.  Earthquakes (English “and pestilences” in ms)
7-8. Fourth Seal:  Rider on pale horse, named Death
9.  then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death
9-11.  Fifth Seal:  Those slain for the Word


I tend to agree with some of these parallels.  The Dispensationalists try to use this scheme as support for relating both passages entirely to the Tribulation period.  I disagree and believe that it is reasonable to consider that both passages describe the sweep of time from the first century to the Second Coming.  I also disagree with the first parallel (of false Christs and the rider on the white horse).  I believe the white horse is more of a parallel with Matthew 24:14, which tells of the spread of the gospel (see below in the discussion of the first seal).

I believe that it is a reasonable hypothesis that both the early part of Matthew 24 and the first four seals describe developments throughout the church age.  The promise of Revelation 4:1 is to show what was destined to take place “after this.”  Obviously, “after this” covers a lot of territory.  It seems reasonable to me that one would start from the only time reference point available.  For John, the reference point would be his own present, sometime in the first century (probably late first century).  As the seals were broken, the developments that would take place in the years to come were revealed. 

            Those developments were, by and large, somewhat vague and open-ended.  I do not think we necessarily need to understand that the developments would be completely sequential.  It is possible that considerable overlap could take place. 


The first seal (6:1-2):  The great praise of heaven died down, and the Lamb began to open the seals.  When He opened the first seal, a voice shouted “Come.”  The voice is assigned to one of the four living creatures (see 4:6bff).  Each one will repeat this process with the subsequent seals.  We infer that the events and developments initiated by the seals will take place on earth.  This is specifically stated in verse 6:4 and 6:8.  Yet, these earth-bound events will be initiated in heaven. 

            In response to the command (“Come” is in the imperative mood), a horse and rider appeared.  The horse is white.  I recognize that inference from colors is risky, but the colors of the horses seem to correlate with other aspects of the riders.  In this case, a white horse would imply purity.  Although the other three riders are “bad guys,” this rider may not be evil.  If we also understand that the first horse to be the vanguard of all that follows, we have a seeming contradiction.  However, we need to keep in mind that the purpose of Revelation is to reveal history to come.  In Matthew 24, Jesus talked about the end (24:6, 24:13, 24:14).  It seems apparent that the climax of His narrative is 24:30, in which He predicted that “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”  If we consider that this is the direction of history, we conclude that the direction is good and not evil.  As Jesus described the approach to that good event, He predicted wars (24:6), famines (24:7), the Abomination of Desolation (24:15), and the Great Tribulation (24:21).  Yet the final outcome will be the triumphant return of Jesus Christ (24:30).  Moreover, throughout the years approaching that triumphant, He predicted the spread of the gospel (24:14).  So, as the white horse and its rider came forth, it is possible that this was a representation of the work of Christ in history that will culminate in His return.  Ladd (96-100) draws a similar conclusion.  He believes that this rider is not Christ, but rather a personification of the spread of the gospel.

            Certainly, many would not agree with me.  ESVSB considers this horse and rider to represent political and military leaders seeking more power and bringing about the subsequent developments of the next three horses.  ESVSB also relates the bow to the Parthians, who harassed the Roman Empire from the east.  (See Metzger, 58, and IB, 412.)  I believe that the other three horse-and-rider teams are treated differently than this first one.  For example, the expression “was permitted” (ESV) or “given power” (NIV) is used of two of these teams, whereas the first conqueror is not given power, but simply exercises power.  This would be true of Christ but not of Satan and his subordinates.  So, I believe one is warranted to treat the first team differently from the other three.    

            Two other interpretations should be mentioned.  First, there is the Dispensationalist view, which I shall represent by Pentecost (342-343).  He considers that the rider on the white horse represents the false Christ (Antichrist) who will conquer Israel by making a seven-year covenant (which he later will break).  Second, there is the Preterist view, which I shall represent by Russell (389).  He believes that the rider is the Roman invasion of Israel under Vespasian in AD 66.  Initially, the invasion was at a distance from Jerusalem.  The bow is used at a distance, and it is used in this picture to represent the Roman army still at a distance from Jerusalem.  I shall not attempt a detailed discussion of these views in this article.  Each of these authors views this Scripture through the lens of his own overall interpretative scheme.  It will be necessary to consider those schemes in other articles.

            The rider of the horse had a bow and He was given a crown.  It was a victor’s stephanos-type crown.  And he “came out conquering, and to conquer.” (6:2) NIV says:  “he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.”  I recognize that one can “overdrive” on wording, but it seems that the wording here is communicating something.  This person is a conqueror.  He has already conquered.  In 5:5 the Lion of Judah and Root of Jesse is described as one who has conquered.  He is also described in 5:6 as a Lamb who was slain.  The victory that the Lion won was through His death on the cross.  He was a conqueror.  In verse 6:2, the conqueror goes on a conquest.  If we think of the project of the gospel, we recognize that the evangelization of the world, the building of the church, and the work of the Holy Spirit in individual lives are the conquest by Jesus in the present age.  Thus, I believe that the rider on the white horse was—and is—Jesus Christ in His conquest of this world through the work of the gospel.

The second seal (6:3-4):  The action that is described in the breaking of the seal and the voice of one of the living creatures is very similar to that of verse 6:1.  This time, when the voice said “Come,” a red horse and its rider came out.  The only other time that this “red” is used is to describe the “great red dragon” in Revelation 12:3.  ESV uses “bright red” in 6:3, and NIV uses “fiery red” in the same verse.  We might make a link to the red dragon.  It is also possible that the red of blood is suggested. 

The rider “was permitted to take peace from the earth” (ESV).  NIV uses “was given power to take...”  Literally, it simply says he “was given to take…”  Scripture often uses the passive voice with verbs such as “given” to express the idea that a person is given permission or allowed by God to do something.  (See Revelation 9:1-6 and 13:7.) So, this person did not have authority within himself, but was allowed to exercise a certain amount of power.  The same expression is used in verse 6:8.  In both cases, evil is allowed a certain amount of prerogative under the ultimate authority of God.  Note, in contrast, that the rider of the white horse was not under this sort of limitation.  This seems a striking contrast. 

Jesus characterized the future as being a time when there would be “wars and rumors of wars.” (Matthew 24:6)  This seems to parallel the developments described by the opening of the second seal.

All other interpreters agree with the obvious conclusion that this horse-and-rider team represents war.  Some include civil war.  See Ladd (100), Metzger (58), and IB (412).  Pentecost (360) contrasts the peaceful negotiations of the first seal with the removal of peace in the breaking of the second seal.  Russell (389) understands that the bow, which represented war at a distance from Jerusalem, was exchanged for the sword, which represented war in Jerusalem. 

The third seal (6:5-6):  When the third seal was opened and the third living creature called out, a black horse and its rider came forth.  The blackness suggests one of two things, either the robbery of the horse of color or whiteness because of the loss of light or the blackness of depression.  Whatever the case, the rider carries a set of scales, such as might be used in a marketplace.  A voice from among the creatures calls out the prices of grain.  The scales represent the economic aspect of the world.  The grain prices that are quoted are 8-10 times normal (NIVSB and ESVSB).  Such inflation generally reflects famine from crop failure or disruption due to war.  The voice also sets a limit on this famine:  it was not to affect the oil and wine.  Three explanations are offered for this. 

·         A limited drought would not affect the olive trees and grape vines with their deep root structures. (NIVSB)

·         An empire-wide grain crisis might not affect local crops of olives and grapes.  (ESVSB)

·         There is an echo of an event during Domitian’s reign when he at first ordered vineyards cut down to make way for wheat but then took back his order. (ESVSB) (IB, 413)

Probably the first explanation is the best, since it reflects a limitation on the crop failure, which seems to be the gist of the command.  See also Ladd, 100-101, and Metzger, 58).

            Russell (391-392), who is a Preterist, interprets the reference to oil and wine to an incident that Josephus relates.  One of the Jerusalem partisans authorized the confiscation of and distribution of Temple oil and wine to his followers. 

            Jesus predicted that there would be “famines and earthquakes in various places.” (Matthew 24:7b)  His comment then was:  “All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” 

The fourth seal (6:7-8):  The fourth horse was “pale.”  The word can mean “green”; so “chlorophyll” is derived from it.  However, it is also used in non-Biblical literature as “the color of a person in sickness” or to refer to the paleness brought on by fear (Arndt and Gingrich).  This is an appropriate color for a horse ridden by Death.  Coming along with Death was Hades.  If we think of Death as physical death and of Hades as the abode of the unrighteous dead in the intermediate state, then these two would come hand and hand.  Again, as in the case of the second rider, Death and Hades “were given authority” to kill.  The passive voice implies that this grant of authority came from God.  Notice that they had authority, but it was limited to a fourth of the earth.  Whether that meant that they are going to kill one-fourth of the earth’s population, or that they are going to harass that many people with their visitation is not clear.

             Their means of killing was “with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”  The word “pestilence” is a translation of the word usually translated “death.”  It would be redundant to say that Death kills by means of death.  So, it is obvious that some manner of death is intended, but what that may be is not clear.  NIV uses “plague.”  One could say it is anyone’s guess.  In this context, it seems we should say that this death is due to severe causes.  One can think of cancer, heart attack, and other natural causes that may be considered shocking, along with AIDS and other infectious diseases.  So, “pestilence” is probably as good a word as any.

            One can understand this fourth seal as an addition to the other seals or as a summary.  It seems to be a separate circumstance.  In this case a “fourth” of the world is involved, and the misery that comes about is generalized as violence, crop failure or economic turmoil, disease, and marauding animals.  Some relate this to the problems that come about from war (Metzger, 58, Pentecost, 360, and IB, 413-414).

            Russell (392f) astutely recognizes a reference to Ezekiel 14:21—the four “sore judgments” upon the people, which refer to the Babylonian invasion.  It could certainly also refer to the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem, to which Russell believes Revelation refers.  He also considers the “fourth of the earth” to refer to a fourth of the land of Israel and not to the entire world. 


The first four seals (6:1-8):  Rapidly, four seals on the scroll were broken.  As each seal was broken, a horse-and-rider was bidden to “Come.”  The response was simply an appearance.  The characterization of each team largely accounted for its significance, and they engaged in very little action except what is described in broad strokes.  The following table gives a summary of these Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:


SEAL 1 (6:1-2)
SEAL 2 (6:3-4)
SEAL 3 (6:5-6)
SEAL 4 6:7-8)
White Horse
Red Horse
Black Horse
Pale Horse
Rider with a bow
Rider with a pair of
Rider’s name
Was Death
A crown was
given Him
He was given
A great sword
Hades followed
Came conquering
to conquer
Permitted to take
peace from the
A voice calling prices
Of wheat and barley
(8-10 X normal)
Given authority
Over a fourth of
The earth
So that people should
slay one another
Ordered not to harm
the oil and wine
To kill with sword,
famine, pestilence,
and wild beasts
Christ’s work in
history to spread the
gospel and bring
about the end. (myself)
“Wars and rumors of
war” of Matthew 24 (myself)
Economic turmoil (myself)
General misery
from violence,
crop failure, disease,
and marauding
animals (myself)
ESVSB: military
leaders’ quest
to expand
ESVSB:  conquest
brings bloodshed
ESVSB:  conquest
disrupts trade and
brings scarcity
ESVSB:  sums up the
other three seals
NIVSB:  the spirit
of conquest
NIVSB:  may be
internal revolution
NIVSB:  a limited
NIVSB:  no specific

Ladd:  proclamation
of the gospel in all
the world (96-100)
Ladd:  warfare and
bloodshed (100)
Ladd:  scarcity (100-
Ladd:  death by the
means that are listed
Metzger:  Parthian
invasion (58)
Metzger:  war and
bloodshed (58)
Metzger:  “inflation
and famine” (58)
Metzger:  “all the
appalling aftermath
of war” (58)
Pentecost:  Revived
Roman Empire
will make a 7-year
covenant with
Israel (rider
 is antichrist
“…to whom
sovereignty is given
by peaceful
negotiations.” (342-
Pentecost:  “removal
of peace from
the earth…” (360)
Pentecost:  “famine
that results from
the desolation of
war.” (360)
Pentecost:  “the
death that follows
in the wake of the
failure of men to
establish peace.”
Russell: (overall
view of seals):  “WAR,
and the concomi-
tants of war”
“the Roman in-
vader, advancing in
combat” (in AD 66,
Vespasian under
Nero) (389); the
bow indicates the
distance from
“all is strife and
bloodshed”; the
sword indicates the
war has reached
Jerusalem (389)
“Famine follows on
the heels of war and
slaughter.” (390)
Reference to oil and
wine is an incident
in which Temple oil
and wine was
stolen and used by
partisans in the city.
Reference to Ezekiel
“sore judgments”;
these referred to
Babylonian defeat
of Jerusalem, but
certainly applied to
AD 70; “fourth part
of its [land of Israel]
Is doomed to perish.”
IB:  “a conquering
invader, possibly the
Parthians…” (412)
IB:  “warfare, possibly
civil war…” (412)
IB:  “famine prices…a
natural but
regrettable result of
war.” (412)  The
oil and wine reference
might be to
Domitian’s order to
uproot vineyards to
help Italian grape
growers.  This
strengthens date of
90’s for Revelation.
IB:  “Death and Hades
signify the sickness,
pestilence, and
death which are the
inevitable results of
wars and famine.”

            Briefly, the following interpretative schemes are used to understand the four horsemen:

1.      The horsemen represent the general concomitants of conquest and war (in part, ESVSB and NIVSB), without any specific events in mind.

2.      The horsemen represent some specific historical events (such as Domitian’s order to destroy the grape vines) and a fear of other historical events that did not materialize (such as a Parthian invasion) (Metzger and IB).

3.      The horsemen represent events during the Tribulation period.  These events include a peaceful negotiation of a covenant between the Antichrist/Beast and Israel and the subsequent breakdown of peace.  (Pentecost)

4.      The horsemen represent the Roman invasion of AD 70.  This invasion first is at some distance from Jerusalem and then arrives in full, bloody force at Jerusalem.  (Russell)

5.      The horsemen represent developments throughout the church age as the Second Coming approaches.  These developments include the preaching of the gospel throughout the world, frequent wars, famines, and other sorts of horrific misery.  (Ladd and myself)


Arndt, William F. and F. Wilbur Gingrich.  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testamen and Other Early Christian Literature.  (Translated from Walter Bauer’s work) Chicago:  The University

of Chicago Press, 1957.

Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Ladd, George Eldon.  A Commentary on the Revelation of John.  Grand Rapids:  William B.

            Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.

Metzger, Bruce M.  Breaking the Code.  Understanding the Book of Revelation.  Nashville: 

            Abingdon Press, 1993.

Rist, Martin.  “The Revelation of St. John the Divine” Exegesis.  The Interpreter’s Bible.  Vol. XII.

            Nolan B. Harmon, Ed.  New York:  Abingdon Press, 1957.   

Russell, J. S.  The Parousia, A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our

            Lord’s Second Coming.  (Google Internet Book)  London:  Daldy, Isbister

            & Co., 1878.

Zondervan NIV Study Bible.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publ., 2002