Notes (NET Translation)
6:1 I looked on when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a thunderous voice, “Come!” 2 So I looked, and here came a white horse! The one who rode it had a bow, and he was given a crown, and as a conqueror he rode out to conquer.
Recall from chapters 4-5 that the Lamb is Jesus Christ. He is the only one worthy to open the seven seals. The living creatures are in the throne room with Christ. They call forth the horsemen with the command, “Come!”
Some mss. add the imperative “behold” (ιδε) after the imperative “come” (e.g., א 2329 2344 Mk and a few versions) so that the command is not addressed to the horseman but to John himself as an invitation to be attentive to the next vision (so Douay and NKJV: “come and see”; accordingly 2329 and Mk omit εἶδον [“I saw”] in v 2, having substituted ιδε [“behold”] in its place). Nowhere else in the book is John addressed with a form of ἔρχομαι (“come”). The added imperative is an intentional alteration arising from the theological difficulty of such devilish characters as the four horsemen being directly commanded by God to induce such terrible sufferings on humankind — especially the last three horsemen — and the same textual problem arises in each case. Therefore, the single imperative is the more difficult and consequently the better reading, and it is also supported by both a significant number of mss. and the best mss. (e.g., MA A C etc., followed by the majority of modern English translations).
Furthermore, while it is possible that ΚΑΙΕΙΔΟΝ (“and I saw”) in v 2a could have been accidentally omitted because of a scribe’s eye skipping to the similar ΚΑΙΙΔΟΥ (“and behold”), it is highly improbable that ΚΑΙΕΙΔΟΝ (“and I saw”) could unintentionally have been misread as the imperatival phrase ΚΑΙΙΔΕ (“and behold”). The addition of the same second imperative in vv 3, 5, and 7 is to be explained in the same way, as a secondary insertion systematically read into the text for consistency. Modern commentators have also tried to avoid relating the divine command “come” to the evil riders by seeing the imperative as parallel to the same imperative in 22:17, where the church urges Christ to return. But this would be very intrusive in the present context, although some of these commentators attempt to view 6:9–11 and 6:12–17 as continuing the theme of the call for Christ to come and consummate history. (Beale 374–375)
Based on the white horse and rider in 19:11-16 it may be tempting to see this horseman as Christ but this is an unlikely identification.
A comparison of chapters 6 and 19 shows that the two riders have little in common beyond the fact that they are both mounted on white horses. In 6:2 the rider wears a victor’s wreath and carries a bow; in 19:11ff. he is crowned with “many crowns” and armed with a sharp sword coming out of his mouth. The context of 6:2 is one of conquest, while that of 19:11ff. is righteous retribution.
Another difficulty is that the identification brackets the proclamation of the gospel with a series of devastating calamities following one another as the inevitable results of human sinfulness (war, scarcity, death). There is also the confusion involved in the Lamb’s opening the seals while at the same time being the one who rides forth when the first seal is broken. A final and fatal objection is the repeated use of “there was given,” which normally in Revelation refers to “the divine permission granted to evil powers to carry out their nefarious work.” (Mounce loc. 2866-2873)
It is better to identify the first horseman as a symbol of conquest and militarism. The bow was a symbol of military power (cf. Hos 1:5; Jer 51:56). The crown was a symbol of military victory. Perhaps this horseman, dressed in white, is a demonic parody of Christ himself, a false Messiah (cf. Rev 12-13). “Revelation unveils the shocking truth that the dividing line between good and evil, truth and falsehood is at times almost imperceptible: what so often passes as morally neutral, even positively good, may well be a satanic deception” (Boxall 107).
The description of the rider closely resembles the Parthians, the only military force in the ancient world feared by the Romans (so Swete, R. Charles, Lohse, Boring, Mounce, Harrington, Aune) since they had defeated a Roman army twice, in 55 B.C. and A.D. 62. They were a warlike federation of tribes east of the Euphrates (the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire) who were especially famous for their cavalry, as they had perfected the ability to shoot arrows accurately from a charging horse. Since the rider was given a “bow” and “rode out” to conquer, the Parthians provided natural background. They had made several incursions into Roman lands in the 60s and 70s. Moreover, the “crown” would refer to their independence from Rome. Nonetheless, it must be stressed that the Parthians provide only background to the imagery. It is a reference not just to them but to the general propensity of sinful humans to lust for conquest. (Osborne 277)
3 Then when the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come!” 4 And another horse, fiery red, came out, and the one who rode it was granted permission to take peace from the earth, so that people would butcher one another, and he was given a huge sword.
The red color of the second horse symbolizes the bloodshed he would bring about. This horseman symbolizes war. The word for “butcher” is used throughout Revelation to speak of the death of Christ or his followers (5:6, 9, 12; 6:9; 13:8; 18:24). Hence this verse may also symbolize the persecution of Christians.
5 Then when the Lamb opened the third seal I heard the third living creature saying, “Come!” So I looked, and here came a black horse! The one who rode it had a balance scale in his hand. 6 Then I heard something like a voice from among the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat will cost a day’s pay and three quarts of barley will cost a day’s pay. But do not damage the olive oil and the wine!”
The third horseman symbolizes a time of scarcity or famine, perhaps as a result of warring armies. Black was the color of mourning. The balance scale indicates that basic commodities need to be weighed and rationed carefully (cf. Lev 26:26; 2 Kgs 7:1; Ezek 4:10, 16). A quart would feed one person for one day. The Greek text literally refers to a denarius, which was about a day’s pay for a laborer. The price of wheat and barley are about ten to twelve times above normal. Thus, a laborer could buy wheat for himself or buy the less nutritious barley for himself and two others. “Given that the staple diet in the Roman world was grain-based, this would have had a devastating effect” (Boxall 110). The voice from among the four living creatures is probably that of the Lamb (5:6).
Yet at the same time as announcing the eschatological famine, the Lamb’s voice ameliorates its effects: But do not harm the olive oil and the wine. Shortage of grain was devastating enough; the loss of vines and olive trees would have had the effect of extending the famine for years to come. Some commentators, viewing olive oil and wine as luxury items, suggest that this preservation of grapes and olives would have widened the gap between rich and poor. But this is not so obviously the case: olive oil was a basic commodity in cooking; wine was widely drunk as a safer alternative to water. Some have detected an allusion to an edict issued by Domitian between 90 and 92 which called for the cutting down of provincial vineyards (e.g. Suet. Dom. 7.2; 14.2), probably to encourage the production of grain. But the imperial edict had nothing to say about olive groves, nor is the Lamb’s saying necessarily evidence for the Domitianic dating of the Apocalypse. More important than any specific historical reference is the general point: even in the midst of the eschatological woes, the restraining hand of God and his Messiah is at work, ameliorating their excesses. (Boxall 110–111)
7 Then when the Lamb opened the fourth seal I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come!” 8 So I looked and here came a pale green horse! The name of the one who rode it was Death, and Hades followed right behind. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill its population with the sword, famine, and disease, and by the wild animals of the earth.
Pale green is the color of a corpse. Clearly this horseman symbolizes death.
John adds an interesting clause, ὁ ᾅδης ἠκολούθει μετʼ αὐτοῦ (ho hadēs ēkolouthei met’ autou, Hades is following after it). Hades here is the evil companion of Death, and they are personified as malignant cosmic forces in this book (1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14), with “Hades” referring to the grave and possibly to the Greek god of the underworld (especially to those readers with a pagan background). In the LXX θάνατος (thanatos, death) often translates the Hebrew word for “pestilence,” which fits the emphasis on “plague” in this fourth seal. Thus there is a double meaning in the term, death by plague. The imagery of “following behind” pictures Hades on foot gathering up the corpses left by Pestilence and Death as they struck victim after victim (see Beasley-Murray 1978: 133–34). (Osborne 282)
The modes of killing employed by this horseman are drawn from Ezekiel 14:21. Death by wild animals seems somewhat out of place but we may have the notion that in a famine wild animals would be forced to eat humans. The summary statement in verse 8 may indicate that the four horsemen are released simultaneously or that the fourth horseman summarizes the previous three. Conquest naturally leads to war, war to famine, and all three to death. The four horseman are limited to a fourth of the earth. “In apocalyptic literature such a numerical figure is not intended to be precise; rather it represents a large, but not complete, devastation that would be created by God’s ultimate enemy, Satan” (Fee 95).
The basic imagery of four horsemen comes from Zechariah 1:8-17 and 6:1-8 in which four chariots are drawn by four horses. “In Zechariah the chariots go throughout the earth, finding ‘peace and rest’ predominating. There is a deliberate contrast with the horsemen here that go out to bring war and pestilence to humankind” (Osborne 274). Conquest, war, famine, and death have been known throughout human history. It is not so much that God is pouring down judgment than that he is allowing human sin to take its self-destructive course. For this reason we can see these judgments as occurring at any time in human history and not just immediately before the Second Coming.
Some see a theological problem in Christ calling forth the four horseman. How can Christ be righteous and holy and yet call forth the agents of destruction and give them permission to inflict woe? The answer is found in the purpose of the woes: to punish unbelievers and to refine the faith of believers. Just as Christ achieved victory through his death (1:18) so too must the believer.
Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.
Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.
Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.