In the book of Revelation the apostle John is taken up through an open door into the throne room of the whole universe. We watch through his eyes as the Lord Jesus appears before the throne of God and takes a scroll from the right hand of God. This densely-worded scroll contains God’s blueprints for all of history—all his purposes of judgment and blessing for the world. Taking the scroll and opening it is a symbolic way of saying that the Lord Jesus is carrying out God’s plan for human history. He will ensure that everything written in the scroll takes place.
In Revelation 6, the Lord begins to open the scroll. The universe waits with bated breath; what will happen next? World peace? Heaven on earth?
Far from it. As the first four seals are broken, a different coloured horse with its rider is sent to bring punishment and suffering on the earth. These are what are often called ‘the four horsemen of the Apocalypse’ (‘apocalypse’ is just the Greek word for Revelation). Each horse’s colour has a symbolic meaning—they’re not literal horses or demon horses like those ridden by the Ringwraiths in Lord of the Rings. They are pictures representing different aspects of God’s judgment.
What does each horse and its rider represent?
1. The Rider on the White Horse: ‘Military Conquest’
A white horse is a symbol of conquest. Victorious generals and emperors rode through the streets of Rome in triumph on white horses. In case that’s not clear enough, we’re explicitly told that this rider rode out ‘conquering and to conquer’—‘bent on conquest,’ in other words. He’s given a bow—a symbol of warfare (today it might be a tank or an AK-47)—and a crown; not so much a royal crown like you would see the Queen of England wear as a victory wreath given to a triumphant victor on the field of battle.
So this rider is an invincible soldier. He is a picture of the lust for conquest that drives nations to war. We can trace this horse’s tracks all over the warzones of our world. This white horse has been riding out from Russia into Ukraine over the last three weeks. We see him doing his deadly work on a scale not seen in Europe since the Second World War.
2. The Rider on the Red Horse: ‘Violent Bloodshed’
When the second seal is broken, out comes a ‘bright red’ horse—the colour of blood. This horseman is given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. ‘Slay’ is a violent word, but it’s not a word from the battlefield—it’s more personal than that. This is the word for one man murdering another in cold blood. This horseman has the power to stir up violence, hatred and strife, to make people turn on one another and set them at each other’s throats.
This horseman rode up and down the country lanes, towns and villages here in Ulster for three decades during the ‘Troubles’. He can be found wherever there are terrorist atrocities, suicide bombs, racist lynchings, gangster executions and punishment beatings.
3. The Rider on the Black Horse: ‘Famine’
When the third seal is opened a black horse comes out and its rider is holding a pair of scales for measuring out food. They’re the kind of scales used when there is a shortage of food and grain has to be rationed. Famine is the affliction this rider brings on earth.
That’s made clear by the voice that speaks in verse 6, giving instructions to the horseman:
· “A quart of wheat for a denarius…” A quart of wheat was enough to feed one person for a day. It is going to cost one denarius. That was one day’s wages! In other words, an astronomical price! This was ten times the normal price! But in famine conditions food is much more expensive. This is something we often see in times of war because food supplies are disrupted by fighting. It’s something we’re experiencing already in Europe because Ukraine provides 10% of the world’s wheat. The price of wheat has already doubled on world markets.
· “…and three quarts of barley for a denarius…” Three quarts of less nutritious barley will also cost a day’s wages. It’s the equivalent for us of a single loaf of bread costing £75 or $100!
· But horseman is not given a free hand to do as pleases. The exact terms of the famine are set by these very precise measurements. He is also forbidden to damage the olive and grape harvest: “…and do not harm the oil and wine!” His power is limited.
4. The Rider on the Pale Horse: ‘Death’
We don’t have to guess at the name of the fourth rider because it’s supplied for us in verse 8. The colour of this horse is described as ‘pale’—really pale greenor greyish green. It’s the colour of death—the colour we will all turn as our life ebbs away—the colour of a corpse. Behind this rider trails ‘Hades’—the realm of the dead; like a hungry, devouring monster he gobbles up the bodies this rider mows down—an open grave swallowing the dead. This horrible, gruesome image sums up all the others.
What does all this mean for us today? It reminds us of some basic truths in a vivid way that we desperately need to be reminded of and cling to in faith in these troubling times. This vision reminds us that Jesus Christ is King over the universe. He is seated on the throne in heaven. The leaders of our world may have been taken by surprise by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but not the Lord Jesus. He is not wringing his hands in heaven scrambling for a response, calling the heavenly equivalent of a COBRA meeting! He is opening the seals and putting into effect the scroll of history—all that God has decreed.
Revelation 6 makes clear that this scroll includes wars, famines, bloodshed and death. God is sovereign over all these things.
No doubt that raises all kinds of questions in our minds as we watch the horrific images of the war in Ukraine. How can God be sovereign over these evil things? And we have to admit that there is mystery here—we cannot hope to fathom the ways of God with our finite understanding. But just because we can’t understand how God can work all things for good doesn’t mean that he can’t. We might have asked the same question if we had stood at Golgotha and watched the holy Son of God being executed by wicked men. We need the attitude of the Psalmist in Psalm 131.1-2: O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. 2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.
It's worth pointing out too, that whatever difficulties the idea of God’s sovereignty raises in times like this, the idea that God is not sovereign, far from solving them, only makes them worse. If God is not sovereign over everything that is happening in the world, who is? Is the Devil winning? How can we be sure that God will destroy all evil in the end? If God is not sovereign, if Jesus Christ is not unrolling the scroll of history, then we can have absolutely no hope that tyrants and murderers will ever receive the justice they deserve.
And most uncomfortably of all, we need to understand that our world and our race has no right to complain when God sends these four horsemen on earth. Every one of us is guilty before God and deserves his wrath. The remarkable thing is that the whole world is not a warzone.
These horsemen are a picture of God’s judgment on a world in revolt against him. But it is a partial judgment, for now. The horsemen’s judgments affect just a quarter of the earth. But there is a final Day of Judgment still to come, when the Lord Jesus will return to judge the whole world. On that day there will be nowhere to hide, no bunker deep enough to escape the wrath of God against rebels.
Wonderfully however it is possible to survive that fearful day, but only through trusting in the life and death of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Christian has nothing to fear as the Day of Judgment approaches because the Son of God was judged, condemned and punished in his or her place at the cross. These days of geopolitical upheaval are like an air raid siren warning us of approaching danger—but the real danger is not from those who can kill the body but from Him who has the power to throw both body and soul into hell.