As John’s vision continues in chapter 6, the opening of the seals on God’s scroll unleashes great tribulations on the earth. Yet far from being without purpose, they are shown by John’s vision as reflecting the divine will under the lordship of Jesus Christ. While the four horsemen bring woe and death, they do not bring dismay to those who are trusting in Christ.
The visions of God’s throne and of the glorified Lamb in chapters 4 and 5 occupy the very heart of the book of Revelation, depicting God as sovereign over history. In chapter 6, Jesus begins opening the seals of the scroll that He has been found worthy to open. Four riders go forth at His command, showing that Christ reigns not only over the hearts of those who love Him but also over the dangerous forces unleashed in the world. Jesus truly is, as John has said, “the Ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5), and therefore His followers can face tribulation with hope.
Revelation 6 begins with the opening of the seven-sealed scroll, held by the Lamb who was slain (vv.1-2). There has been much disagreement as to who or what this rider on the white horse represents. Some identify him as Jesus, because in Revelation 19 Jesus appears on a white horse, bringing as end to the series of terrible judgments upon the earth. But it is a mistake to identify the rider in Revelation 6 with the rider in Revelation 19. The contexts of the two passages are entirely different, and there are important differences in the way these two riders are described. However, it is significant that there are similarities between these two riders on white horses. Both are crowned and both are bent on conquest. This suggests that the rider of Revelation 6 may be someone who is like Christ in some ways, but is not Christ. I submit that the rider of Revelation 6 is the long-predicted Antichrist, who is spoken of in various places in Scripture, and who is to appear in the last days.
The rider of Revelation 6 is given a bow, but there is no mention of arrows. This suggests that his conquest is a bloodless one. It pictures the conquest of the world by the Antichrist as taking place by the overpowering of the minds and wills of human beings, without the physical destruction of war. It will take place not by force but by deceit, by lying that misleads people and nations without the shedding of blood. Clearly, today we live in an age of runaway deception. But in this passage, the rider on the white horse appears as a sign that the worst deception is yet on the horizon. Paul writes about this in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12.
In verses 3-4, the second seal is opened, revealing a new horse and its rider. This rider is easy to recognize. It is War, but this form of war is not merely war between opposing armies. It’s raw, red slaughter. It’s civil anarchy. It’s the kind of war that takes place when social order breaks down, when mobs of people take to the streets and begin killing with abandon. We have seen faint echoes of such war in our own world today. But these are only a faint foretaste of the massive destruction to come.
In John’s day people had no conception of the weapons of mass destruction that are stored up in the world arsenals – the missiles, nuclear warheads, chemical warheads, and biological weapons that threaten to destroy human civilization. The best words John had to describe the destruction he foresaw was the image of a “large sword,” clearly this “large sword” is a powerful weapon of destruction. If you read Ezekiel 38 and 39, you will find a vivid account of such warfare on a massive scale. There, armies come down out of the north, pour into the Holy Land, and are decimated by what appears to be radiation sickness. As we honestly face the prophecies of Ezekiel and Revelation, we have to admit that it is only in our century, with its efficient, high-tech approach to killing, that the fulfillment of these terrible predictions could even come about.
In verses 5-6, the third seal is opened, revealing another horse and rider. The third seal is related to economic upheaval – inflation, recession, panic. There were stories of economic distress in post-World War 1 Germany, where the Deutsche Mark, the German monetary unit, had declined in value so sharply that people would load thousands of bills into a wheelbarrow and haul them to market just to buy one loaf of bread! That is what runaway inflation does: it renders money worthless. Inflation may well be the justification the Antichrist will use to impose rigid controls over buying and selling, as we shall see in Revelation 13.
In verses 7-8, the fourth seal is opened, revealing another horse and rider. Though this horse is called a “pale horse” in the NIV text, the original Greek text uses the word chloros, from which we get the word “chlorine.” The chloros horse is pale green like the color of chlorine. The rider is named Death. Floating along behind Death is a figure identified as Hades (or Hell). Death takes the body and Hades takes the soul.
There are four forms of death referred to in this seal of judgment. First the sword, which refers here not to war but to murder, the deadly assault of one individual human being upon another. Under this seal of judgment, people will take law and vengeance into their own hands and will kill one another without regard to justice. Second comes famine and widespread starvation. The death that accompanies starvation is one of the most horrible deaths imaginable. Third comes the devastation of plague. A plague is an epidemic, a rapidly spreading disease. In Matthew 24, Jesus predicts that famines, plagues, and earthquakes would come upon the earth in the last days. Fourth, the wild beasts of the earth multiply. Human beings become prey to these predatory creatures.
Verse 8 says that a quarter of the earth is given over to these four kinds of attack and devastation. It is difficult to say whether this means that a quarter of the earth’s physical geography will be devastated, or whether a quarter of the earth’s population will be destroyed. Either way the loss of life would be staggering. Here we have a picture of incomprehensible devastation visited upon the earth as a result of human hatred, barbarity, and sin.
These four seal judgments are references to forces that are already at work in our own society, right now. The only difference between this day and the last days is that these judgments will be carried out to their logical and unprecedented extreme at that time. These four seals confirm God’s method, which He has announced many times in Scripture, of forcing men and women to face the truth about themselves. What is that method? He allows evil – the evil that human beings themselves choose to commit – to operate without restraint till people see for themselves its terrible outcome.
God confronts us with the unpleasant truth about ourselves by giving us what we demand. If men and women choose to believe a lie, then God will send them the “powerful delusion” of the Antichrist. If men and women seek to kill and destroy, then God will give them the anarchy and mob rule they demand. He may even give them over to nuclear destruction. If men and women demand more luxury with which to gratify their lusts, then God will give them the economic upheaval and inflation that is the result of greed and immorality. Ultimately their luxuries and money will be worthless, and even the necessities of life will be beyond their reach. If men and women demand power and control, they will receive the brutal end of unrestrained power: intrigue, murder, disease, and desolation upon the earth. These judgments cannot be halted. They are the inescapable consequences of unrestrained human evil.
Revelation 6:1-8 Study Questions:
What does John see the Lamb begin to do?
When the Lamb opens the first four seals of the scroll, instead of four glorious remedies for the world’s ills, we find the four living creatures summoning four horses and riders, each (so it seems) to make matters worse. How are these horsemen described and what does each seem to represent?
What is the fourth horseman given the authority to do (v. 8)?
What seems to be the ultimate goal of allowing the horsemen to ride into the world inflicting so much damage?
For too long, over the last century at least, mainline Western churches have healed the wounds of the human race lightly, declaring “peace, peace” when there is no peace, except at the superficial level. How might we begin to look below the surface and help each other find deeper healing?