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Bible verses about Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
(From Forerunner Commentary)

Matthew 24:3-5  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

It is no coincidence that the first warning Jesus gives about "the sign of [His] coming and the end of the age" is, "Take heed that no one deceives you" (Matthew 24:3-4). In fact, warnings about deception are frequent throughout His Olivet Prophecy (verses 4-5, 11, 23-26, 48). The time of the end, it seems, will be one of falsehood and deceit.

In the book of Revelation, this same warning appears as the first seal, also known as the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

Now I [John] saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals; and I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a voice like thunder, "Come and see." And I looked, and behold, a white horse. And he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. (Revelation 6:1-2)

Comparing Jesus' comments in Matthew 24 with these verses in Revelation 6, it becomes apparent that this horseman is not Christ proclaiming the true gospel but a counterfeit spreading the news of a false Messiah. For instance, this horseman carries a bow, but in every case, Christ is pictured with a sword (see Revelation 1:16; 19:15). Jesus interprets this horseman for us in Matthew 24:5: "For many will come in My name, saying, I am the Christ, and will deceive many."

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Let No One Deceive You


 

Matthew 24:3  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

In Jesus' response, He concentrates almost entirely on the second question—the signs of His coming and of the end—and the question of when is answered mostly in their aggregate. The closest He comes to answering when appears in verse 14: The end will come when the gospel has been preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations. Only He knows when this goal will be reached.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Four Horsemen (Part One): In the Saddle?


 

Matthew 24:8  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

This short sentence separates Jesus' commentary on the Four Horsemen, which are the four seals of Revelation 6:1-8, and His comments on the fifth seal, the tribulation and martyrdom of the saints (Matthew 24:9-10). The implication is that the Four Horsemen will ride roughshod on the earth to commence the time of "sorrows," and it may also indicate a length of time between the fulfillment of the fourth seal and the opening of the fifth. The first four seals, then, might be broken in quick succession and allowed to inflict mayhem for a long period before the fifth seal is opened.

And Jesus' choice of words in verses 4-7 suggests that the Horsemen were let loose long ago!

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Four Horsemen (Part One): In the Saddle?


 

Revelation 6:1-8  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

It is clear that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—the first four seals—parallel Jesus' prophecy in Matthew 24:4-8, which ends with the words, "All these are the beginning of sorrows." Our Savior is letting us know that deception, violence, scarcity, and disease are only preludes to the catastrophic events of the last days. We could paraphrase His remark as, "These calamities are par for the course under man's civilization—far worse is yet to come."

The progression of disasters—of false ideas leading to war, war to famine, famine to pestilence, pestilence to wild beasts—is vital to understanding the spiritual teaching underlying the Four Horsemen. Through a kind of parable, Jesus is instructing us in the principle of cause and effect. If people believe the message of the father of murder (John 8:44) rather than the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), they will eventually turn to murder and war to resolve their differences. Like the law of gravity, war causes shortages of food, producing malnutrition and opening the door to disease.

God is showing us that these sorrows trace their roots back to disobedience and rejection of Him. Mankind has built his civilization on a foundation of sand (Matthew 7:24-27), and it is no wonder that disasters ensue upon mankind with terrifying regularity. Because God is just, it cannot be otherwise. He has said, "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), and "The soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4). In addition, He has given us two sets of blessings and cursings (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28) to provide us frightening and vivid depictions of what happens when we disobey Him. The Four Horsemen are similar warnings or reminders that He is still on His throne, judging mankind for his sins.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Four Horsemen (Part Five): The Pale Horse


 

Revelation 6:3-4  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

The second horseman is perhaps the most easily identifiable of the famed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, since both of its symbols, the fiery red color and the great sword, are well known to represent war. However, underlying this facile identification of the symbols are a few interesting details that add depth to them.

The Greek word John uses for "red" is purros or pyrros, meaning "the color of fire" (compare our words "pyre," "pyromania," "pyrosis"). This is not the normal Greek word for red (eruthros), but a more specialized term that suggests fieriness or flickering reds, oranges, and yellows like a flame. It is the same word that John uses to describe the redness of the Dragon (Satan) in Revelation 12:3 (the third and only other occurrence is in a proper name, Sopatros Purrou, which is strangely not fully translated in Acts 20:4). This particular color intimates heat and ferocity like an out-of-control wildfire.

The Hebrew language does not have a similar, biblical term. However, the color red or scarlet in the Old Testament frequently symbolizes blood, whether the blood of sacrifice (Leviticus 14:4, 6, 49-52; see Hebrews 9:19) or the blood of violence (II Kings 3:22-23; Isaiah 63:2-3; Nahum 2:3; etc.). Scarlet has two other interesting meanings: that of wealth and luxury (II Samuel 1:24; Proverbs 31:21; Lamentations 4:5; etc.; see Matthew 27:28; Revelation 17:4; 18:12, 16) and of sin (Isaiah 1:18; see Revelation 17:3). One could make a case that all these meanings could apply to the second seal.

The horseman's "great sword" is a translation of máchaira megálee. Again, this is not the ordinary sword of war (romfaia) but a short sword or long knife like a dagger. Frequently, máchaira is the knife used to prepare a sacrifice or to slaughter an animal for food. It is also the sword worn by magistrates and executioners. That the red horseman's sword is "great" (megálee) means either that it is larger or longer than usual or that it is highly effective in doing its job. Surprisingly, romfaia appears in Revelation 6:8: "And power was given to [the four horsemen] to kill with sword, with hunger, with death. . . ." A "great sword," then, is the equivalent of a thoroughly effective instrument of death.

The sword is often a symbol of God's judgment. David writes in Psalm 7:12, "If [the wicked] does not turn back, He [God] will sharpen His sword." In Isaiah 34:6, 8, in the context of the Day of the Lord, God combines the sword of judgment with the idea of sacrifice and slaughter:

The sword of the LORD is filled with blood, it is made overflowing with fatness, and with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams. For the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Edom. . . . For it is the day of the LORD'S vengeance, the year of recompense for the cause of Zion.

Even to His own people, if they do not obey Him, God promises, "I will bring a sword against you that will execute the vengeance of My covenant" (Leviticus 26:25). Like this horseman, "the sword of the LORD shall devour from one end of the land to the other end of the land; no flesh shall have peace" (Jeremiah 12:12). Clearly, the purpose of the great sword given to the rider of the red horse is to inflict violent death on masses of people in divine judgment.

As if there never was any intent to obscure the meaning of this figure, John's description of the red horse says matter-of-factly, "And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another" (Revelation 6:4). This second seal plainly represents conflict, war, destruction, and bloody death.

Of course, this parallels the second point in Jesus' Olivet Prophecy in Matthew 24:6-7: "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom." The wording implies an expected increase in conflicts due to the stresses of the time leading up to the end. In other words, amplified contention is a precursor of the end time.

It is interesting to note that the second seal is introduced by "the second living creature saying, 'Come and see'" (Revelation 6:3). Revelation 4:7 gives us the order of the living creatures as lion, calf, man, and eagle, so the living creature that introduces the seal of war is probably the calf. Just as the first seal's introduction by the lion presages the white horseman's prime characteristic of ferocious pursuit of prey, so does the calf foretell the red horseman's main trait.

The calf, young bull, or ox, as translations variously render it, is known for its staying power and strength (Numbers 23:22; Psalm 144:14; Proverbs 14:4; Hosea 4:16). An ox can pull a plow or wagon or turn a mill all day for days on end without complaint. Some have been known to work and work until they die from exhaustion. Rarely will one make its frustration or weariness known. A calf or ox will just keep going—a relentless, untiring worker.

We are to consider the red horse and his rider along the same lines. In this vein, they compose a picture of inevitable, unceasing, untiring, insatiable warfare. Perhaps we are to think of them in terms of a wild ox, as God describes it in the book of Job (Job 39:9-12).

A wild ox cannot be trusted to do its domesticated cousin's chores; he is just as likely to charge and gore anyone who tries to yoke him! Likewise, David cries out, "Deliver Me from the sword, . . . from the horns of the wild oxen!" (Psalm 22:20-21). Isaiah 34:7 uses the same imagery: "The wild oxen shall come down with them, and the young bulls with the mighty bulls; their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust saturated with fatness." Though the ox can be a placid, indefatigable worker, a wild ox can be a gory terror!

The red horseman, with its fiery red horse, great sword, and relentless aggression, is a fearsome symbol of unremitting, intensifying, uncontrolled, horrific conflict. God intends this figure to instill terror in mankind in the hope that he will repent of his enmity and be saved from its destruction and death (II Peter 3:9-13).

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Four Horsemen (Part Three): The Red Horse


 

Revelation 6:5-6  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

A primary means of repression throughout history has been economic in nature. If a person or a group can be kept at the subsistence level—that is, financially able to afford only the bare necessities of life—he or it can be controlled. For instance, a man who must work from sunup to sundown to make enough to feed himself and his family does not have time to further his education, start a business, travel to see how others live, or collude with neighbors to rebel against his rulers. Essentially, such a person is a slave, a serf, a pauper, and those in authority have little trouble holding his nose to the grindstone day after day after day. Either he plods on, or he and his dependents starve.

Westerners usually think of famine in terms of mass starvation in remote, Third World countries. In our mind's eye, we see stick-thin, little children with distended bellies and bones clearly visible under their skin, flies buzzing around their gaunt, staring faces. We imagine interminable lines of such people, bowl or cup in hand, waiting to receive their daily ration of grain or milk. Others we envision lying in the dirt without the strength even to walk.

But there is another kind of famine, not as severe but ultimately just as calamitous. It is the famine of protracted undernourishment, one that weakens the body, making it sickly and short-lived, and crushes the spirit, causing hopelessness and apathy. Jeremiah writes in Lamentations 4:9, "Those slain by the sword are better off than those who die of hunger; for these pine away, stricken for lack of the fruits of the field."

It is such a long-term hunger that appears in Revelation 6:5-6. No matter if it is the result of war, oppression, drought, or flooding, famine is a terrible scourge, and sadly, has claimed millions of lives over the centuries. This is the work of the third horseman, the rider of the black horse.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Four Horsemen (Part Four): The Black Horse


 

Revelation 6:5-6  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

The apostle John's description of this third horse and horseman is once again spare, as he provides us only two pertinent details: the black color of the horse and the rider's pair of scales. Both of these details, though, point to an overall interpretation of famine, which verse 8 verifies by saying this rider has power to kill "with hunger." In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also names this seal as "famine" (Matthew 24:7).

We moderns tend to consider black to be the opposite of white, so to us, black is the color of evil, personified in the almost totally black costume of Darth Vader in Star Wars. The ancients made no such symbolic contrast (but see Matthew 5:36), although they did see symbolic opposites in darkness and light. Biblically, black is not the color of sin but simply an object's true color. Black, blackness, and blacker are found 23 times in the Bible, describing the sky, hair, cloth, marble, skin, night, ravens, cumin, and horses. In each occurrence, blackness appears to be a synonym for "darkness."

This does not mean, however, that the color black holds no symbolic meaning. It certainly has overtones of foreboding. Specifically, the Israelites used black to signify the mournful and unhealthy mien of those enduring scarcity, want, and famine, particularly as a judgment from God. Notice:

» Jeremiah 14:2: Judah mourns, and her gates languish; they mourn [literally, are black] for the land, and the cry of Jerusalem has gone up.

» Lamentations 5:10: Our skin is hot [literally, black] as an oven, because of the fever of famine.

» Joel 2:6: Before them the people writhe in pain; all faces are drained of color [literally, gather blackness].

» Nahum 2:10: She is empty, desolate, and waste! The heart melts, and the knees shake; much pain is in every side, and all their faces are drained of color [literally, gather blackness].

To a Hebrew, the black horse of the third seal would picture the illness and dearth of a famine, specifically the dirt and squalor of those who had nothing.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Four Horsemen (Part Four): The Black Horse


 

Revelation 6:6  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

After describing the black horse and its rider, John hears "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 the wine'" (Revelation 6:6). Among the Four Horseman, this is an unusual departure; nothing else is said to or about them save in this verse. Being so set apart, the words are doubly significant.

Who speaks these words? John simply says "a voice." Literally, the Greek is "like a voice," which can be stated as "what seemed to be a voice." The only clue we have is that it comes from "in the midst of the four living creatures." Revelation 4:6 provides the answer: "And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures. . . ." (see Ezekiel 1:4-28). The language suggests that the creatures were situated around the throne, one creature in the middle of each of the four sides. The voice coming from the midst of these creatures must have come from the one sitting on the throne! God Himself utters these words!

What He says is a common marketplace call of a merchant shouting out the price of his wares. He is setting relative values for both wheat and barley, with wheat being three times as valuable as barley. However, His price is highly inflated! The "quart" here is choinix in Greek, which is roughly equivalent to our quart, the amount of grain that a normal man needs each day to survive. In ancient times, though, a denarius would buy eight to ten quarts of wheat, not one! Obviously, these are disaster prices.

The "denarius" was equal to an ordinary worker's daily wage, as Jesus illustrates in His Parable of the Laborers (Matthew 20:1-16). These prices, then, give a person an unenviable choice. If he is single, he can buy the more expensive, more nutritious wheat, yet have nothing left over, or he can buy the cheaper, less nutritious barley and save the remainder for the next day or so. However, if he is married and has children, he can choose only the barley because he needs more than one quart of grain for his family's subsistence. None of these choices really allows the person either to get ahead or to stay healthy, especially if he has dependents.

God also commands, "Do not harm the oil and the wine," which is a puzzler to scholars. To whom is God speaking—to the horseman or to people in general? It seems to be directed at the horseman, as he is the direct cause of the scarcity. Thus, the staff of life will be in such short supply as to need to be rationed or sold at extortionate prices, but oil and wine will be relatively untouched. Why?

Many commentators consider oil and wine to be luxury items, but this is false. In ancient times, olive oil and wine were staples of the Mediterranean diet along with grain, as Deuteronomy 7:13 and 11:14 indicate (see also II Chronicles 31:5; 32:28; Nehemiah 5:11; Hosea 2:8, 22; Joel 1:10; Haggai 1:11). A person, though, cannot live on oil and wine as he can on grain, yet, as science is just now discovering, they do provide additional and necessary nutrition. These items are available during the third horseman's rampage, but the average man will not have the means to purchase them, since all his money is being spent on flour for bread!

What is God picturing then? The key is to remember that this "famine" is ongoing just as the wars and rumors of wars of the second horseman and the deceptions of the first horseman are. There are occasional lulls of plenty, but the experience of history is that most of the time, the ordinary individual is just getting by. Just as God predicted in Genesis 3:17-19, he labors and toils to eke out a miserable living only to die, worn out and broken in a few, short years. The third horseman's job is to follow his red brother's devastating wars with oppression, corruption, and scarcity so that men stay weak and poor and many die.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Four Horsemen (Part Four): The Black Horse


 

Revelation 6:8  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

Characteristically, the apostle John describes the fourth horse and rider using a paucity of verbiage: The horse is "pale," the rider's name is "Death," and "Hades" follows him. This is the extent of the biblical description, yet even so, these provide us with sufficient clues to deduce a cogent interpretation.

First, the horse's coat is a unique and otherworldly pale. The Greek word is chlooros, which we recognize as the origin of such English words as "chlorine," "chloroform," and "chlorophyll." It technically refers to a greenish-yellow color found in nature in the pale green of just-sprouted grass or new leaves (see Mark 6:39; Revelation 8:7; 9:4; these are chlooros' only other occurrences in the New Testament).

Secular Greek writers, however, did not confine chlooros just to sprouting plants. In The Iliad, Homer describes fearful men's faces with this term, suggesting a pallid, ashen color, and in other instances, it is the pale golden color of honey or the gray bark of an olive tree. Sophocles writes that it is the color of sand, while Thucydides applies it to the skin color of those suffering from plague.

It is this last description that is probably John's intended meaning; the color of the horse reminded him of the pale, greenish-gray color of a corpse or decaying flesh. The Phillips translation renders chlooros as "sickly green in color"; the New English and the Revised English Bibles, as "sickly pale"; the New Jerusalem Bible, as "deathly pale"; and the New Living Translation, as "pale green like a corpse." The fourth horse sports a coat only producers of horror movies would love!

Upon the back of this gruesome beast sits one whose name is "Death." This is another unique feature of this horseman, as none of the others receives a name. The Greek word is the normal word for "death," thánatos, suggesting on the surface a generic application of the term. However, this would be jumping to a conclusion, for the term is probably meant to be understood more specifically as "pestilence" or "disease."

The evidence for this meaning here derives primarily from the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. In several places, the Septuagint translators rendered the Hebrew word deber, meaning "pestilence" or "disease," as thánatos. For instance, in Exodus 5:3, Moses and Aaron tell Pharaoh, "Please let us go three days' journey into the desert and sacrifice to the LORD our God, lest He fall upon us with pestilence [Hebrew deber; Greek thánatos] or with the sword." This combination of translations also occurs in the fifth plague, that of the murrain or cattle disease: God tells Moses to inform Pharaoh, "There will be a very severe pestilence" (Exodus 9:3; see also verse 15). In a later instance, God warns Judah through Jeremiah, "I will send . . . pestilence among them, till they are consumed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers" (Jeremiah 24:10).

The most convincing piece of evidence for thánatos meaning "pestilence" in this passage comes from the mouth of our Savior in the Olivet Prophecy, as He describes the events leading up to His return. He prophesies to His disciples, "And there will be famines [third seal or horseman], pestilences [fourth seal or horseman], and earthquakes in various places" (Matthew 24:7). He does not use thánatos but loimós, which literally means "pestilence" or "disease." Once Jesus Himself weighs in, there is no argument. The pale rider brings death by disease.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Four Horsemen (Part Five): The Pale Horse


 

Revelation 6:8  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

A minor controversy exists concerning the last half of verse 8: "And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth." The argument deals with whether this sentence applies to the fourth horseman alone or summarizes the depredations of all four. The latter seems preferable.

Jesus appears to treat the first four seals as a subgroup in His Olivet prophecy, saying of them, "All these are the beginning of sorrows" (Matthew 24:8). His intent is clear: These four judgments are a distinct set of calamities that acts as a kind of warm-up for the exceedingly more terrible judgments of the time of the end. As He warns, "See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet" (verse 6). It is entirely logical to believe that the same Revelator would likewise separate the Four Horsemen from the last three seals with a short summary of their work as well as the limits of their authority.

Another proof involves the fact that the sentence restates the missions of the red ("to kill with sword"), black ("with hunger"), and pale ("with death [thánatos, meaning disease]") horsemen. Applying these means of destruction to the fourth horseman alone would make the other two redundant and significantly diminish their roles. In addition, lumping pestilence in with hunger, war, and beasts as activities of the fourth horseman would obscure the role of disease as a judgment of God.

Commentators argue that the plural pronoun "them" in Revelation 6:8 has "Death" and "Hades" as its antecedents. They are certainly the closest antecedents, but the Greek does not demand them to be the pronoun's true antecedents. Besides, the real subject of the previous sentence is not really "Death" and "Hades" but the singular "name" of the fourth horseman. If God intended it to be a summary statement of the whole passage, we can easily recognize "them" to refer to the entire passage's active characters—the Four Horsemen—the ones to whom the Lamb gave authority to execute His judgment.

A final, curious factor is the inclusion of "by the beasts of the earth" in the powers of the horsemen; it seems to come out of the blue. However, it follows naturally in the progression of catastrophes. In times of severe war, famine, and disease, depopulation occurs, which upsets the precarious balance between human civilization and wildlife. Suddenly, with hunting and developing of wilderness areas reduced or eliminated, the population of predatory creatures expands, increasing the chances of animal attacks on humans.

The Bible provides an example of this in Genesis 10:8-9. It is thought that Nimrod's rise to power over the post-Flood world began with his skills in hunting and killing predators, which had the upper hand over the miniscule human population at the time. Another example appears in Exodus 23:29, in which God promises Israel, "I will not drive [the Canaanites] out from before you in one year, lest the land become too desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you" (see also Deuteronomy 7:22; Ezekiel 34:25, 28). Incursions of lions actually killed some Samaritans after Assyria took the bulk of the Israelites into captivity (II Kings 17:25).

Wild beasts are included in the curses for disobedience of Leviticus 26: "I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, destroy your livestock, and make you few in number; and your highways shall be desolate" (verse 22; see Deuteronomy 32:24; Jeremiah 15:3; Ezekiel 14:15). Through Ezekiel, God prophesies that disasters such as the Four Horsemen bring happen together with the scourge of wild beasts: "So I will send against you famine and wild beasts, and they will bereave you. Pestilence and blood shall pass through you, and I will bring the sword against you. I, the LORD, have spoken" (Ezekiel 5:17; see 14:21; 33:27). Though death by wild beasts is included in the text of Revelation 6:8 without warning, it fits nonetheless.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Four Horsemen (Part Five): The Pale Horse


 

 




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