The Outlook, June 2006, Volume 56, No. 4, pp. 16-20

Looking Above
A Series on the Revelation of Jesus Christ

Revelation 6:1-8

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The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse

 Brian D. Vos

We have spent considerable time in Revelation 4 and 5. We have stood, as it were, in the very throne room of God, and there we have witnessed glory such as eye has not seen, nor ear has heard, nor has entered into the imagination of man. We have stood in the very throne room of God, and there we have set our eyes upon the Lamb in the midst of the throne. We have joined our voices with the heavenly chorus in singing a new song: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!" Indeed, we have basked in the effulgence of God's glory!

We come to Revelation 6, and we are confronted with horrific and very disturbing images. Here we read of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. We read of the souls under the altar, who have been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. We hear them crying out with a loud voice: "How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" We read of a great earthquake, of the sun becoming black as sackcloth, of the moon becoming like blood, of the stars of heaven falling to the earth, of the sky receding as a scroll, and every mountain and island being moved out of its place. We read of the inhabitants of the earth running to and fro and crying out to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" 

The Setting

Before we delve into these images, we do well to remember the time frame in view. Revelation 4-7, like the other sections of Revelation, spans the entire time period between Christ's first coming and His return on the clouds of glory. This section, like the others, is describing for us the history of the church in the world as she lives between the first coming of Christ and His return. That history is under the control of the Lamb, for the Lamb that was slain holds the scroll in His hand.

By virtue of His death, resurrection, and ascension, He is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals. The Lamb opens the first four seals in verses 1-8; the Lamb opens the fifth seal in verse 9; the Lamb opens the sixth seal in verse 12; the Lamb opens the seventh seal in 8:1. That means that whatever proceeds from the opening of the seven seals proceeds from the throne of the Lamb! It is Christ Himself who opens the seals. It is Christ Himself who sends forth the judgments that proceed from the opening of those seals. Judgment originates from the throne of the Lamb that was slain! The opening of the scroll is under the control of the Lamb, and that scroll is in the process of being opened even now.

This means that what is going on in Revelation 6 is our history. We are not spectators in the stands watching the events unfold before our eyes; we are participants in the arena. This history is our history. The seals are being loosed and the scroll is being opened even now.

Furthermore, the four living creatures are intimately involved in the opening of the first four seals. The Lamb opens the first seal, one of the four living creatures says "Come!" and the first horseman of the apocalypse rides forth. The Lamb opens the second seal, the second living creature says "Come!" and the second horseman of the apocalypse rides forth. The Lamb opens the third seal, the third living creature says "Come!" and the third horseman of the apocalypse rides forth. The Lamb opens the fourth seal, and the fourth living creature says "Come!", and the fourth horseman of the apocalypse rides forth. The four living creature are intimately involved in the opening of the first four seals. The horsemen ride only at their command.

Finally, notice that it is horses that are being ridden. The background of these horses is found in Psalm 68 and in Zechariah 6.

In Psalm 68, we read of the God of Sinai who went forth from His holy habitation: "O God, when You went out before Your people, when You marched through the wilderness, the earth shook; the heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God; Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel" (Psalm 68:7,8). God is further pictured as One who goes forth from His holy mountain riding upon the clouds in verse 4: "Sing to God, sing praises to His name; extol Him who rides on the clouds, by His name Yah, and rejoice before Him." He is pictured as One who rides upon the clouds amid thousands of chariots in verse 17: "The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of thousands. The Lord is among them as in Sinai, in the Holy Palace."

This God, who goes forth from His holy habitation, riding upon the clouds amidst thousands of chariots, has revealed Himself as a God who destroys His enemies: "Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those also who hate Him flee before him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God" (Psalm 68:1,2). This same God has also revealed Himself as the Savior of His people in verses 19-20: "Blessed be the Lord, who daily loads us with benefits, the God of our salvation! Our God is the God of salvation; and to God the Lord belong escapes from death!"

We find similar imagery in Zechariah 6:1-8. Again we find the Lord coming from His holy habitation, riding upon the chariots, bringing judgment upon the wicked, and at the same time salvation for His people. This is the background of the four horsemen of the apocalypse as they appear in Revelation 6. 

The First Horseman

We read of the first horseman in verses 1-2: "Now I 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. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer."

What we have in the first horseman of the apocalypse is the sending forth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That gospel is the aroma of life unto life for those who believe, even as it is the aroma of death unto death for those who do not believe. The sending forth of that gospel is unstoppable, for the Word of God cannot be bound (2 Timothy 2:9). God's Word does not return to Him void; it accomplishes the purpose for which He sends it forth (Isaiah 55:11). The Word of God goes forth conquering and to conquer; it is victorious in its aim.

In view here is the proclamation of the gospel, from the time of Christ's ascension to the time of His return, from the first sermon preached on Pentecost to the sermons being preached even in this day. The Word goes forth to believer and unbeliever alike. It brings salvation to the believer, even as it brings judgment to the unbeliever. Such is the riding forth of the first horseman of the apocalypse: it is the proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth.

The Second Horseman

We read of the second horseman in verses 3-4: "When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, 'Come and see.' Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword."

Clearly, the second horseman has in view warfare: nation rising up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. It has in view wars and rumors of wars. Peace is taken from the earth; people kill one another.

In view here is warfare and bloodshed--all the warfare and bloodshed from the time of Christ's ascension to the time of His return. From the fall of the Roman Empire to America's war on terrorism. Peace is taken from the earth. Who can forget the unsettling image of planes slamming into the World Trade Center? Who can forget the bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Who can forget the pictures of those freed from concentration camps: men so emaciated, they scarcely looked like men? Who can forget the staggering statistics of those brutally murdered in Hitler's extermination camps, in Stalin's gulag, in Pol Pot's killing fields? How often the earth has tasted the blood of those slain in battle and warfare!

War claims the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike. There is some evidence, however, that this horseman has especially in view the slaughter of Christians. The verb that is translated "kill" is used eight times in the book of Revelation, all of which, with the exception of one, refer to the slaughter of the Lamb and His followers. Peace is taken from the earth, warfare and bloodshed consume the world, especially Christians, and yet God's people have peace, for they belong to the Lamb that was slain, the Prince of peace. Such is the riding forth of the second horseman of the apocalypse: it has in view warfare and bloodshed. 

The Third Horseman

We read of the third horseman in verses 5-6: "When He opened the third seal, i heard the third living creature say, 'Come and see.' So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard 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."

The Third horseman has in view the devastation of famine. The rider holds scales in his hand. Food is distributed by ration; the prices listed are about eight to sixteen times the average prices in the Roman Empire at the time. Though the famine is severe, it is limited, the oil and the wine are not affected. But this only increases the torment, for the victims of the famine will not be able to afford these products, even though they are available.

Such famines have devastated the earth from the time of Christ's ascension, and they shall continue to devastate the earth until the time of His return. Famines have claimed thousands of lives in Ethiopia, Sudan, Rwanda, and other places. Think of the disturbing pictures of malnourished children: their ribs easily numbered; their bellies bloated from lack of food; their mouths and eyes covered with flies; you've seen the images. How can you forget?

Famine is no respecter of persons. It claims the Christian as well as the non-Christian. And yet God's people have comfort, for they know that they live not on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Such is the riding forth of the third horseman of the apocalypse: it has in view the devastation of famine.

The Fourth Horseman

We read of the fourth horseman of the apocalypse in verses 7-8: "When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, 'Come and see.' So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. 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."

Notice that the fourth horseman has been given a name: Death. And Hades follows with him. The horse is a gruesome color--it is a pale yellowish-green, depicting death and decomposition--set before us in all its abhorrence. Death rides forth, and Hades claims the slain. Death and Hades claim their slain by the sword, by hunger, by death, and even by the wild beasts.

In view here is the death of all those who have lived from the time of Christ's ascension to the time of His return. From the death of Stephen to the recent death of your loved one. Death is gruesome in spite of the mortician's best efforts. There is no death with dignity, whether it comes by gunshot, knife, noose, stoning, or by the failure of the body's organs. Death is no respecter of persons; it comes to believer and unbeliever alike. Yet for the believer, there is comfort in knowing that we belong to the One who holds the keys to Hades and Death. Such is the riding forth of the fourth horseman of the apocalypse: it has in view death in all its horror.

The Message of the Horsemen

What are we to make of all this? To begin with, it is significant that there are four horsemen; the number four represents the four ends of the earth. The four horsemen correspond to the four corners of the earth; the number four stands for that which is universal. These four horsemen ride forth to the ends of the earth; no part of the earth is left untouched.

These horsemen ride forth to the ends of the earth. As these horsemen ride forth, there is peace and comfort for the believer: he hears the Word and believes; he has peace with God even as peace is taken from the earth; he lives by the Word of God even as famine ravages the earth; he is comforted in death even as death claims its slain.

These horsemen ride forth to the ends of the earth. As these horsemen ride forth, there is horror and terror for the unrepentant: he hears the Word of God and he does not believe; peace is taken from him, his blood is shed; he is ravaged by famine; he is slain by death and gathered into Hades.

The horsemen of the apocalypse proclaim to us the activity of God! They proclaim to us that God has roused Himself from His holy habitation. They proclaim to us the fact that God is active: He is active in the salvation of His people and in the judgments He pours forth upon the unrepentant.

In that connection recall what we have already observed: namely, the connection between the Lamb opening the seals and the four living creatures commanding the horsemen to ride.

We have already established the fact the four living creatures are symbolic of the office of the preaching of the Word. The preaching of the Word is connected with the opening of the seven seals; it is connected with the progressive history of redemption. The preaching of the Word, while bringing about--in God's grace and by His Spirit--the salvation of the elect, at the same time ushers in God's judgments upon the wicked and unrepentant.

The horsemen of the apocalypse are connected with the preaching of the Word. To be sure, it is the Lamb who opens the seals. But it is the preaching of the Word that summons the horsemen of the apocalypse to ride forth! It is the four living creatures who proclaim with a loud voice like thunder "Come!" and only then do the horsemen ride!

Do you see the point? Ministers of the gospel must proclaim the judgments of God upon the unrepentant and unbelieving world! They must proclaim that as long as one is outside of Christ, he remains under judgment and the wrath of God hangs upon him! A minister who fails to do that is not worthy of the name! A minister who fails to do that has no correspondence to the four living creatures! A minister who fails to proclaim God's judgment upon the wicked has not understood the holiness of God so vividly pictured in Revelation 4-5! Such a minister has no place in the pulpit!

It is in the preaching of the Word that God Himself is at work! The Word sounds forth and the earth is visited with judgment. The Word sounds forth, and God accomplishes the purpose for which He sends it. The Word sounds forth, and we know that God is active. The Word sounds forth and we know that God has roused Himself from His holy habitation. The Word sounds forth and the horsemen of the apocalypse ride. The Word sounds forth and God's people are saved. The Word sounds forth and the unrepentant are judged.

This means that as you sit under the preaching of the Word, hearing the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified, one of two things happens: either you are brought to salvation, or you are judged! There is no middle ground! That preached Word works either to your salvation or it works to your condemnation!

We see it illustrated at Calvary, where Christ hung between two thieves; the one was saved, the other damned! The same Christ hung between them--the same cross stood between them--to the one He was the aroma of life unto life; to the other the aroma of death unto death.

Christ and Him crucified is set before you in the preaching of the Word. Is He to you an aroma of life unto life, or an aroma of death unto death? The Word is preached; the rider of the white horse goes forth conquering and to conquer--do you know that you are more than a conqueror in Christ? The Word is preached; the rider of the red horse goes forth to take peace from the earth. Do you know that you have peace in belonging to the Prince of peace? The Word is preached; the rider of the black horse goes forth ravaging the earth with famine--do you know that you live not on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God? The Word is preached; the rider of the pale horse goes forth bringing death. Do you know that you belong to Him who holds the keys of Hades and Death?

These four horsemen of the apocalypse are intended to point us to another Horseman. These four horsemen are only harbingers of the Horseman to come. We read of Him in Revelation 19:11-16.

Are you ready for the final Horseman? It's a question you ought to ask yourself each Lord's Day for as the Word of God is preached, the horsemen of the apocalypse ride forth bringing you salvation or judgment, blessing or cursing, life or death. God's Word is preached, and the horsemen ride! Let them warn you! Let the judgment they bring awaken you to the judgment that is yet to come!

"Wake! Awake! For Night is Flying" the watchmen on the heights are crying!

 God has roused Himself from His holy habitation. Now the horsemen of the apocalypse ride; now the Word of God is preached, summoning you to repentance. The day will come when God will rouse Himself one last time. Then the horsemen of the apocalypse will ride no more; then the Word of God will be preached no more; then there will be no more time for repentance. Then the great Rider of the White Horse will come. He Himself will tread the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.

Are you ready for Him to ride?

Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan.

 

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