The Four Horsemen

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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are mentioned in the Bible in chapter six of the Book of Revelation, which predicts that they will ride during the Apocalypse.

The four horsemen are traditionally named War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death. However, the Bible actually only names one: Death. An alternate interpretation, likely based on differing translations, holds the first Horseman to represent War and/or the Antichrist, the second to represent Pestilence (sometimes called Plague), while the third and fourth riders remain Famine and Death, respectively.

What is described by the seals is similar to the signs of the end of the age as described by Jesus in Matthew 24. There will be wars, famines and earthquakes (Mat 24:6-8), persecution (24:9-14), the heavenly bodies are shaken (Mat 24:29) and 'at that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn' (Mat 24:30).


The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The four horsemen appear when the Lamb (Jesus) opens the first four seals of a scroll with seven seals (which is described in Revelation chapter 6). As each of the first four seals are opened a different coloured horse and its rider is seen by the apostle John as described in Rev 6:1-8.


A white horse

First seal is opened : a white horse appears, its rider held a bow (conquest).

(Rev 6:1-8 NIV) I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" {2} I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

Opinions differ on whether the first horseman, riding the white horse, represents Christ or the False Prophet. The white color of the first horse could mean victory, because generals of that time often rode white horses after they had won a battle or war. The crown that its rider wore was a kind of prize awarded for service in a war. The bow that he carried could be a symbol of an enemy at that time, the Parthians, who were famous for their archery. Some commentators have thought it significant, however, that no arrows are mentioned.


A red horse

Second seal is opened : a red horse appears, its rider holds a sword (war)

{3} When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" {4} Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.

The red color of the second horse could mean bloody war, and the sword held by the rider could symbolize war and violence.


A black horse

Third seal is opened: a black horse appears, its rider holds a pair of scales (famine)

{5} When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. {6} Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"

The black color of the third horse could be a symbol of death and famine. Its rider was holding a scale, which means scarcity of food, higher prices, and famine.


A pale horse

Fourth seal is opened : a pale horse appears, its rider is called Death

{7} When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" {8} I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.

The pale greenish color of the fourth horse means fear, sickness, decay, and death.


Different interpretations about the white horse

Grimsrud argues that the white horse signifies triumphant warfare because the four horsemen represent war and its attendant evils: war, strife, famine and disease, and makes the following observation: ' Conquer is used 11 times in the book to allude to conquest by a faithful witness (once in each of the seven letters, in 5:5 of the Lamb, and in 12:11 and 15:2 of the faithful servants). Three times it refers to conquest by violence (here, in 11:7 where the beast kills the two witnesses, and in 13:7 where the beast wars against and conquers the saints). In all 'conquering' passages, Christ and his followers conquer by dying; Satan and the evil powers by killing'.

Johnson identifies the rider on the white horse with the antichrist and his forces that seek to conquer the followers of Christ. Each of the first four seals, then, represents conflict directed at Christians to test them and sift out false disciples. He goes on to say that this interpretation need not necessarily eliminate the fact that the seals may also refer to judgments on humankind in general. Yet since the fifth seal stresses the cry of the martyred Christians, probably the thought of Christian persecution belongs also in the first four seals. Each of them unleashes events that separate false belief from true. The destruction of Jerusalem is a case in point (Lk 21:20 ff.). The white horse goes forth to conquer, and as he does so, judgment falls on the unbelief of Israel (Lk 21:22-23), while at the same time there is testing of believers to separate the chaff from the wheat (cf. Lk 21:12-19).

  • He is the deceiver; therefore he appears in white (Mat 24:5, 2 Thess 2:11).
  • The crown he wears is different from the crown worn by Christ in Rev 19. It is the crown of the conqueror (stephanos) not the royal crown of a king (diadema), however note that the one 'like a son of man' seated on a cloud wears a crown (stephanos) of gold on his head, 14:14.
  • The bow symbolises conquest. In the OT it is always the symbol of military power (Ps 46:9; Jer 51:51; Hos 1:5). Christ possesses no bow; a weapon of war is not part of his being.
  • To be consistent one must relate this horsemen to the other three who appear destructive.

Hendriksen's argument that the rider is Christ is as follows:

  • In 5:5 Christ is portrayed as one who has triumphed.
  • The horse is white, this colour is associated with the holy and heavenly, e.g. white robe, white cloud, white throne, white stone etc., therefore the rider cannot be the devil or the antichrist.
  • The rider wears a crown which harmonises with 14:14 where Christ wears a crown of gold.
  • The word conquer or overcome refers with two exceptions (11:7, 13:7) to Christ or believers, see 3:21b. Compare John 16:33 with Rev 3:21b, see also Rev 5:5 and 6:2.
  • Compare the rider on the white horse here with the rider on the white horse in 19:11 who is clearly Christ. In 5:5 Christ conquered at the cross, in 6:2 is now conquering through the gospel, and in 19:11 he is going to conquer on the great day of judgement which is why he wears many crowns.
  • The idea of a conquering Christ is in harmony with the purpose of the book, see above (v) and 1:13 ff., 2:26,27, 3:21, 5:5, 6:16, 11:15, 12:11, 14:1 ff., 14:14 ff., 17:14, 19:11 note especially 17:14.(Rev 17:14) They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings--and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers."
  • The rider on the horse in 6:2 is in harmony with Mat 10:34 in which he says that he has not come to bring peace on earth but a sword, referring to persecution. The rider on the white horse is followed by the rider on the red horse who carries a sword, and the fifth seal sees the souls of the martyrs under the altar.


To sum up the first rider and his relationship to the other seals, there are four views:

a. The first rider represents the lust for conquest and as such forms an integral part of the four horsemen who are all evil and are summed up by the fourth horsemen. Conquest brings with it war, famine and death. However the colour white is usually associated with good not evil, but it can indicate victory (Lenski), the rider wears the victory crown.

b. A step further is to say that the rider is the antichrist who brings havoc and misery on the world as indicated by the second, third and fourth horsemen, the fifth seal shows the resultant persecution of Christians by the antichrist followed by the sixth seal representing the end when Christ returns.

c. The first horsemen is Christ conquering by the power of the gospel and the other seals 2 to 5 represent various forms of persecution resulting from the proclamation of the gospel of the first seal. It is perhaps appropriate that Jesus who is the beginning and the end should appear on a white horse at both the beginning and end of the visions about the future.

d. The first rider is the word of God (see Lenski), this again harmonises with the rider on the white horse in chapter 19 whose name is the Word of God and also with Matthew 24:14 and the Matthew 24 model for the interpretation of all the trumpets (see comments after 6:8). The gospel is preached and during the same time there is war, famine and death from various causes. This view makes the best sense in terms of the purpose of Revelation because persecution arises because of the word of God as indicated by the martyrs of the fifth seal who had been slain because of the word of God (5:9). Consider the two witnesses who are slain because they prophesy (11:7) and those beheaded because of the word of God (20:4). In Isa 49:2 the prophet Isaiah compares himself to a polished arrow concealed in the Lords quiver which in the context of the verse, which also refers to his mouth as a sharpened sword, must be the word of God.

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