5 And when he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come!” And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and the one sitting upon it having balance scales in his hand. 6 And I heard as 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, but do not spoil the olive oil and the wine.”
After a brief recap of the previous two seals, we turned to the third seal, and the third of the Four Horsemen. The Lamb opens the seal and once again one of the creatures says, “Come!” I think we can assume the same type of thundering voice coming from the throne addressing the third rider, indicating that this is the Lord summoning and commissioning him.
There are two distinctive points about this horseman that John notes: his horse is black, and he’s holding a pair of scales. We normally associate black with death, and indeed in popular culture, it’s Death that rides a big black horse. But, as we’ll see in a moment, this rider represents famine. This isn’t inappropriate for a rider on a black horse since we tend to associate the color black with foreboding and evil. In John’s Gospel, he uses “night” to indicate more than the passage of time, but also a time when bad things happen (e.g., John 13:30, when Judas leaves to betray Jesus, “It was night”). So black certainly indicates bad things happening. But we mustn’t forget the Zechariah 6 background to this passage. The strongest reason for the horse colors in Revelation 6 is their correspondence to the horses pulling the chariots in Zechariah 6. Remember what we’re seeing in Revelation is at least clarification if not fulfillment of what we see in the Old Testament prophets, so we should expect to see these kinds of parallels.
Someone asked whether these four horsemen should be seen as following one another in some kind of chronological sequence. For example, often times of famine will follow a period of warfare. While one could certainly read the horsemen in that way, I think a couple of points speak against that view. First, if you look at all the seals, the first four are presented as a group, then with the fifth seal there’s a pause while the martyred saints cry out “how long?” Then with the sixth seal we have what I believe is the Final Judgment. So these first four appear to happen in close proximity, or even simultaneously. Then if you consider the Zechariah parallel, those charioteers are sent out at the same time to bring the Lord’s judgment. That further strengthens the idea that these seals represent the range of calamities that the Lord pours out upon the world between the Resurrection and the End Times.
John says this rider carries a pair of scales, or “balance scales” as I translate the Greek term. These generally consisted of a beam suspended on a rod in the middle, with two bowl hanging from it at each end. This was the common means of measuring dry goods for purchase, even in Old Testament times. Proverbs 11:1 and 16:11 refers to unjust and just balances, Isaiah 40:12 speaks of God weighing the mountains and hills, and Hosea 12:7 also uses “scales” in the context of wicked merchants oppressing people through unjust balances. Then, of course, there’s the famous scene in Daniel 5:27 when the Lord makes his presence known during the idolatry of Belshazzar’s feast by inscribing the words MENE MENE TEKEL PARSIN. The Lord gives Daniel the interpretation, an indictment of Belshazzar saying that God has numbered his days (the Aramaic menê’ means to count or number), weighed him in scales and found him wanting (teqêl = shekel, a dry weight measure), and his kingdom will be divided and given to the Medes and Persians (parsîn is a play on the word for a half-shekel and also the Aramaic word for the Persians). All this shows us not only were these kinds of balance scales in popular use, but they are used in Scripture both literally and metaphorically, both in the context of trade, and in the context of judgment. Perhaps this reminds us that these calamities serve as a means of God’s judgment on the godless, and also upon the church and those within the church who have sold out to the culture.
Perhaps more relevant to Revelation 6 is the use of scales and measurements to indicate famine. We see this particularly in Leviticus 26:23-26 where the rationing of bread is an indication of God’s punishment on the people for walking contrary to His ways. Also mentioned in this passage are the sending of pestilence and deliverance into the hands of enemies, which correspond to the first and fourth riders in Revelation 6. Ezekiel 4:10-16 also speaks of a famine as a result of the siege of Jerusalem. Food is so scarce that people have to weigh food to ration it out.
The words from the midst of the creatures, presumably the Lord or the Lamb, seem to indicate a similar kind of situation. A quart (Greek choinix) of wheat was enough for one person for one day, and three quarts of barley would feed a horse for a day, a typical family for a day, or a person for three days. The denarius was a laborer’s daily wage. Given that wheat and barley covered only the most basic food needs of the people, this is not a good situation. When your day’s wage can only feed yourself, and you have a family to care for, you’re in a desperate situation. You certainly wouldn’t be able to afford anything other than your wheat or barley supply, and you’d be having to make that stretch. We’ve already discussed the financial pressures felt by believers in John’s day, something alluded to in Jesus’ words to the church in Smyrna when he described them as rich even though they are poor (2:19). Clearly, those with more money were able to better feed their families. One of the restrictions on believers earning money would have been their unwillingness to participate in the guilds, given they would have had to worship idols as part of this. The kind of black-listing that went on as a result would have ensured that Christian tradesman and craftsmen remained poor, which would affect not only them but their families. This is why Christ reminds the churches that their home is not here, and they shouldn’t be looking to succeed materially. The true rewards, the things that really count, are the heavenly blessings promised to those who overcome.
Are we talking about a man-made famine due to the greed of the rulers, or a natural famine? It could be either, or even both, where a natural famine is perpetuated by lack of foresight, or hording on the part of the ruling authorities. We noted the example of Joseph in Egypt where his response to a seven year famine was to stock up and be prepared. Often we are too greedy, and live too much for the pleasures of the moment to be ready for tough times, even when we are forewarned that tough times are coming. And while Joseph did have Pharaoh’s dreams to tip him off about the famine to come, famines were not uncommon in John’s part of the world at that time, so it’s not as if this would be a surprise to the people.
But this famine situation is not restricted to John’s time. Famines happen today in many parts of the world, and the poorest of the land are the ones who suffer the worst. These are not always Christians, but in lands where Christians are persecuted, which might include being taxed and denied work on account of their faith, you can be sure they are not among the affluent, and hence liable to suffer for lack of adequate food.
The voice also says not to harm or ruin the oil and wine. This would suggest that oil and wine are in abundant supply, but the poor still wouldn’t be able to afford it. Some suggest this references an edict issued by the Emperor Domitian in AD 92 ordering half the vineyards in Asia Minor to be destroyed. No-one’s entirely sure why Domitian did this, but probably the best theory is that he was concerned about the imbalance of produce in the land–the people were making too much wine and not growing enough grain, so he did this to encourage more grain production. Whatever the reason, the edict was hugely unpopular and he later rescinded it. While it’s possible this is what Revelation 6:6 refers to, the problem is that Domitian’s edict said nothing about oil. Perhaps the main point to take from this is the fact that the price of necessities (wheat and barley) were so high that the poor couldn’t even afford produce that was unaffected by the famine, and, presumably relatively inexpensive. In Joel 1:10 a lack of grain, oil, and wine is associated with a severe famine, so oil and wine were probably not luxury items, though not as important as wheat and barley.
Most of us in the West have not known poverty and famine like this, where you can’t afford enough food to adequately feed your family. Imagine the struggle these Christians would have had knowing that a trip to the guild temple to worship the guild deity might have satisfied this need. No wonder Revelation is full of encouragement for believers to stay the course and overcome, and reminders that this world is fleeting, and our home is in heaven. There are places in the world today where this kind of poverty is real, and Christians face those kinds of tough decisions every day. Revelation warns us not to expect the situation to get any better before the Lord’s return. Until then, may we continue to pray for one another, and for the strength to set our hope on Christ’s promises, and not on earthly rewards.
Next time: The Fourth Horseman…