1 And I looked when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying [with] a voice as of thunder, “Come!” 2 And I saw and behold, a white horse, and the one sitting upon it having a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.
We began this week with an overview of the next major section of Revelation: the opening of the seven seals:
- Chapter 6: Six of the Seven Seals opened
- Chapter 7: The sealing of the servants of God; the 144,000; a cry of salvation from the multitude
- Chapter 8: The opening of the seventh seal; silence in heaven for half an hour; the start of the Seven Trumpets
There’s a lot there to get through–especially in chapter 7 with the 144,000 and the “sealing” of God’s servants. We’ll get there eventually (Lord willing), but for now we’re concentrating on chapter 6 and the first six seals. Here’s how chapter 6 breaks down:
- 6:1-8: The Four Horsemen, one for each seal:
- 6:1-2: The First Seal–the rider on a white horse who goes to conquer
- 6:3-4: The Second Seal–the rider on a red horse who removes peace from the earth
- 6:5-6: The Third Seal–the rider on the black horse who carries scales, bringing famine.
- 6:7-8: The Fourth Seal–the rider on a pale horse, named Death, with Hades following, bringing the sword, pestilence, famine, and wild beasts.
- 6:9-11: The Fifth Seal–the cries of the martyrs awaiting the Lord’s justice.
- 6:12-16: The Sixth Seal–Earthquakes, a blackened sun, the moon like blood, the stars falling… this is it: the Apocalypse! This certainly appears to be the wrath of God poured out on the earth, i.e., the promised End Time judgment.
There appear to be two principal Old Testament passages behind the Four Horsemen: Zechariah 6:1-8, and Ezekiel 14:6-23. In Zecharaiah’s vision there are four chariots pulled by horses of various colors, white, red, black, and dappled. These chariots are sent to “patrol the earth”–the Lord is angry with the nations so he sends them out as retribution for their harsh treatment of His people. This seems to correspond to one of the main purposes of the Four Horsemen: to bring judgment. The fact that the horse colors are almost exactly the same as in Revelation (with the exception of “dappled” instead of “pale”) gives us reason to suspect this passage is some kind of foreshadowing of what John sees. If we add the fact that Zechariah mentions other important things in common with Revelation (the horsemen in chapters 1 and 6, a lamp stand and bowls in chapter 4, and a scroll in chapter 5), we can be fairly certain of the connection.
In the Ezekiel passage, the threat of judgment, not just upon the nations, but also upon God’s people if they turn away from Him, is cast in language that is very similar to what we see in Revelation 6:1-8. This shows us that the forms of punishment inflicted by the Four Horsemen are not new, but are, perhaps, a common formula that would have been known to John. More about that when we discuss the fourth seal.
Even in the Gospels we find hints at what’s to come in Revelation. In Matthew 24:3-14 Jesus mentions wars, famine, and earthquakes as the beginning of the birth pains of the end. Luke 21:5-28 also mentions these along with pestilence and signs in heaven. These appear to correspond to the fourth Horseman, and also the sixth seal.
Do these Horsemen represent contemporary events or future events? Are these upcoming wars, famines, and pestilences that we are to expect? And will these disasters be visited upon all people, or will the church be exempt? We’ll address these questions as we go along, but from the background information we have, I think it’s fair to say that the calamities brought by the Four Horsemen represent calamities that have fallen upon the world and the church in the past, and will continue to plague us all until Christ returns. If we see the entrance of the Lamb into the throne room in Revelation 5 as symbolic of our risen Savior, then the events in chapter 6 (at least) would refer to post-resurrection events. That would include everything from the persecution of the church in Acts through the wars, disease, and persecution we see today, and all that will come upon us until the End. Indeed, we’ve already seen some of these in the letters to the seven churches (lack of peace, poverty, famine, etc.). And there doesn’t seem to be any indication that the church is spared these sufferings. Indeed, if the cry of the martyrs in the fifth seal is anything to go by, it looks as if the saints can expect to go through some very difficult times.
With that background in mind, we began with the first seal. Evidently there is no particular order to the seals since John says that the Lamb opened “one of the seven seals”–not specifically “the first.” When he opens the seal, one of the four creatures cries out in a voice like thunder, “Come!” The thunderous voice is significant, as is the fact that it comes from one of the creatures, and not the Lamb, or one of the elders. In 4:5, John associates lightning and thunder with the throne. Also, in Exodus 19, when Moses goes up Mount Sinai to meet with God, the Lord speaks to him “in thunder” (v. 19). In Revelation 4:6, John tells us that the four living creatures are around the throne on each side, like the four creatures in Ezekiel 1 that seem to be carrying the throne. It would appear, therefore, that the creatures are, perhaps by virtue of proximity, the spokesmen for the One sitting on the throne, and speak with the voice of God himself.
When we see what the Horsemen will do, the fact that God appears to be summoning them has caused some Christians discomfort. We can see this in the New Testament manuscripts, where some scribes have added “and see” to Revelation 6:1 to make it appear that the voice is telling John to come and see, as opposed to calling the Horseman. Since these riders will be bringing calamities upon the world, and even upon the church, would God do this? Is this something He would actively commission, instead of passively permitting? The fact that adding “and see” resolves an apparent theological dilemma is one reason scholars see this as an alteration, and not what John originally wrote. Also, the fact that John said at the beginning of chapter 6, “I saw” indicates that he’s already watching the scene unfold and would make a second command to “come and see” redundant. This means we need to deal with the fact that the Lord commissions these Horsemen, and the suffering they bring is part of His plan both for the world and for the church. If we have a robust and biblical understanding of the character of God and His sovereignty, then this shouldn’t be a difficult concept. God is good, holy, and righteous, and in all that He does there is no sin. Further, we know that He works all things for His glory and the good of His people (Romans 8:28), so whatever comes to pass by His hand is ultimately what’s best for us, despite how it may seem at the time.
John tells us the first horse is white. So far in Revelation, we’ve seen the color white used to depict righteousness and purity. Could it be that this Horseman is a “good” rider? Maybe even Jesus himself? Some arguments in favor of this view are:
- The color white in Revelation is often associated with righteousness (e.g., “white robes” given to believers)
- In Revelation 19:11-16, Jesus is depicted riding a white horse
- The rider on the white horse goes out “conquering, and to conquer.” This is the same verb used by Jesus in chapters 2 and 3 speaking of the promises to “those who overcome.” Also, the Lamb “overcame” so he could open the scroll (5:5).
- The other three Horsemen are actively causing or instigating harm (war, famine, pestilence, etc.), whereas this rider simply “conquers”–which could be a positive thing.
However, there are some significant counter arguments that must be considered:
- Why have one good rider and three bad ones? They are all called the same way, and they are not differentiated morally in the text. Why should we assume one has to be “good”?
- The significance of the horse colors has more to do with Zechariah 6 than with the use of the colors elsewhere in Revelation. This is one way in which this passage is linked to its Old Testament antecedent, demonstrating that this is the fruition of what the prophets saw dimly.
- Revelation 11:7 and 13:7 speak of the Beast making war on the witnesses and conquering them. So the term “conquer” is not exclusive to Christ in Revelation.
- It’s possible that the rider on the white horse represents false prophets, in which case a white horse, giving the appearance of good, would be appropriate.
- The fact there are FOUR Horsemen is significant. We’ve seen that the number four is important (e.g., the four creatures). It certainly seems to represent the earthly realm as a whole, and we’ll explore how this might apply to the Horsemen and the afflictions they bring later. For now, it’s important to recognize that these Horsemen are presented to us as four, not one and three. To reiterate the first argument, there is no moral distinction made between them in the text, and to make such a distinction would disrupt the unity of the four.
For these reasons, I would say this rider, along with the following three, is not Christ, but quite the opposite. He is a demonic, even Satanic agent operating under the Lord’s sovereign control to conquer. Some might see the Roman Empire in this. Perhaps Islam. Or perhaps some other militaristic power that brings trouble for many, especially the church. Certainly, if this is a foreshadowing of Revelation 11 and 13, then this rider’s primary target is the church.
In verse 2, John says that the rider carries a bow and is given a crown. Along with the rider’s purpose (conquest), these would seem to symbolize a ruling power out to gain control over lands and people. History is littered with examples of such people from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to the Ottomans, to Napoleon, to Hitler, to the “Islamic State” (ISIS) in our day. And there will undoubtedly be others in the days and years from now until the Lord returns. The bow and crown were also associated with the god Apollo, a popular deity in Smyrna and Thiatyra, known for prophecy. If the bow and crown are understood to also reference Apollo, this would support the idea that the rider on the white horse comes as a false prophet, or a demonic being masquerading as an angel of light.
We noted that the crown is given to the rider. He doesn’t take it. This use of the passive voice is an example of what is known as a “divine passive,” where the passive voice is used as a way of saying God did something without mentioning God directly. In other words, the Lord gave the crown to the rider. This only confirms what we said before with regard to God’s active role in the work of these Horsemen. They may be agents of the Enemy, but they are operating according to God’s sovereign will and plan.
Finally, the phrase “conquering, and to conquer” seems a little odd. It’s actually a Hebraism. In the Hebrew language, we often see this kind of construction (e.g., shâmôr tishmerû–keeping, you will keep), using an infinitive absolute with an imperfect verb to intensify a command, or indicate certainty of action. This English rendering is how that construction comes across in Greek. So the intention of “conquering, and to conquer” is “he will surely conquer” or “he will completely conquer.” Perhaps a good way to put it would be “and he went out to conquer completely.”
Next time, we’ll begin with the second seal.