The Horsemen of the Apocalypse
FEW books of the Bible have intrigued its students as much as the last one, Revelation or the Apocalypse. The book is a revelation not “of Saint John,” as is often stated, but “a revelation by Jesus Christ, which God gave him,” who, in turn, by means of an angel, presented it by means of signs “to his slave John.” (Rev. 1:1) What John? The testimony of the early Christian overseers, such as Justin Martyr, is that it was the apostle John. This is consistent with what we know about John, about his other writings and the contents of Revelation itself. For example, in the Christian Greek Scriptures, only in the writings of the apostle John is “Word” used as a proper noun and made to apply to Jesus Christ the Son of God.—John 1:1, 14; Rev. 19:13.
The book of Revelation itself tells us that it is prophecy; it therefore was meant to be understood at some time. The clue to its fulfillment appears to be the words of John himself, explaining how he came to write this book: “By inspiration I came to be in the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a strong voice like that of a trumpet, saying: ‘What you see write in a scroll.’” In other words, by inspiration John saw things that were to occur in the Lord’s day. Since, as has been shown time and again in the pages of this journal, the “Lord’s day” began in 1914, it is reasonable to conclude that the things that John saw referred to events taking place since that time.—Rev. 1:10, 11.
Among the things that are of interest to us who are living in the “Lord’s day” is the particular prophecy found at Revelation 6:1-8, regarding the horsemen:
“I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice as of thunder: ‘Come!’ And I saw, and, look! a white horse; and the one seated upon it had a bow; and a crown was given him, and he went forth conquering and to complete his conquest.
“And when he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say: ‘Come!’ And another came forth, a fiery-colored horse; and to the one seated upon it there was granted to take peace away from the earth so that they should slaughter one another; and a great sword was given him.
“And when he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say: ‘Come!’ And I saw, and, look! a black horse; and the one seated upon it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice as if in the midst of the four living creatures say: ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the olive oil and the wine.’
“And when he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say: ‘Come!’ And I saw, and, look! a pale horse; and the one seated upon it had the name Death. And Haʹdes was closely following him. And authority was given them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with a long sword and with food shortage and with deadly plague and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
First called to our attention is the Lamb, who is clearly identified in the context as Jesus Christ, for this Lamb is said to have been slaughtered and with his “blood . . . bought persons for God out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” His opening of the seals means his making known things that had previously been concealed, such as the things John was privileged to see, the fulfillment of which we now behold.—Rev. 5:6, 9; Isa. 29:11.
We also see in this vision four living creatures, each in his turn commanding John to come and see what is to take place. These also are brought to our attention in the context: “And in the midst of the throne and around the throne there are four living creatures that are full of eyes in front and behind. And the first living creature is like a lion, and the second living creature is like a young bull, and the third living creature has a face like a man’s, and the fourth living creature is like a flying eagle.” These four living creatures fittingly picture God’s organization of living creatures that manifest the four cardinal attributes of Jehovah God, namely, justice (the lion), power (the young bull), love (man), and wisdom (the eagle).a Each of these four living creatures is shown in his turn taking part in this drama by calling to John to come and witness what follows.—Rev. 4:6, 7.
HORSE IN SCRIPTURAL SYMBOLISM
Having identified the Lamb, the seals and the four living creatures, we now come to the five horses and their riders. “Five?” someone may well ask. “Do we not always hear of just the ‘four horsemen of the Apocalypse’?” Yes, that is the common conception, but actually there are five horsemen. How so? In that, after describing the fourth horse and its rider Death, the account says that “Haʹdes was closely following him.” But could not Death and Haʹdes be the same? No, Hades is gravedom, the abode of the dead, whereas Death is a death-dealing agency such as a plague or something else widespread. They are not the same. So there were five horsemen? Even if Death and Hades were riding the same horse, that would still make five horsemen, but only four horses. Yet if Death and Hades were seated on the same horse, we should expect that fact to be explicitly stated, since the rest of the horses each had but one rider. However, the fact that Hades is said to be “closely following” Death clearly indicates that he was on a separate steed though not described. (Compare Revelation 19:11, 14.) So we do have five horsemen riding five mounts in the Apocalyptic vision.
What is represented or pictured by these horses? Throughout the Scriptures horses are associated with war and therefore are fitting symbols of war. “The horse is something prepared for the day of battle, but salvation belongs to Jehovah.” In harmony with this, Jehovah warned the Israelites that when they had set a king over themselves “he should not increase horses for himself.” They were not to trust in war equipment, but in their God.—Prov. 21:31; Deut. 17:15, 16.
Making the same point are the following scriptures: “Some concerning chariots and others concerning horses, but, as for us, concerning the name of Jehovah our God we shall make mention.” “The horse is a deception for salvation, and by the abundance of its vital energy it does not afford escape.” “Woe to those going down to Egypt for assistance, those who rely on mere horses, and who put their trust in war chariots, because they are numerous, and in steeds, because they are very mighty, but who have not looked to the Holy One of Israel and have not searched for Jehovah himself. The Egyptians, though, are earthling men, and not God; and their horses are flesh, and not spirit.”—Ps. 20:7; 33:17; Isa. 31:1, 3.
THE FIRST HORSEMAN
The first rider is shown as wearing a crown, having a bow in his hand and riding a white mount. Who is he? Jesus Christ. He is the one that has been given a crown by his Father and is commanded to go forth in a righteous war, pictured by the white horse. This picture calls to mind the words of the psalmist: “Gird your sword upon your thigh, O mighty one, with your dignity and your splendor. And in your splendor go on to success; ride in the cause of truth and humility and righteousness, and your right hand will instruct you in fear-inspiring things. Your arrows are sharp—under you peoples keep falling.”—Ps. 45:3-5.
Even more explicitly identifying the first horseman are John’s own words recorded at Revelation 19:11, 13, 14: “Look! a white horse. And the one seated upon it is called Faithful and True, and he judges and carries on war in righteousness . . . and the name he is called is The Word of God. Also, the armies that were in heaven were following him on white horses, and they were clothed in white, clean, fine linen.”
When did this rider go forth to conquer? According to fulfilled Bible prophecy, in the year 1914. Then it was that Jehovah said to his Son, “Go subduing in the midst of your enemies.” (Ps. 110:2) That marked the time when the dragon and his demons warred against Michael and his angels, right after the birth of God’s kingdom, pictured by the birth of a male child; all of which began to take place in heaven when “the nations became wrathful” on earth in 1914.—Rev. 11:18; 12:1-9.
THE OTHER HORSEMEN
The second horseman rode a fiery-colored or red mount. The horseman had a large sword and it was granted to him to take peace from the earth, resulting in a large slaughter among men. Red is associated with war because war means bloodshed and blood is red. Thus the ancients made the planet Mars a symbol of war because of its reddish hue. This horseman’s work finds mention in Jesus’ great prophecy: “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.” Certainly World War I, beginning in 1914, took peace from the earth and resulted in much slaughter.—Mark 13:8.
The third horse was black and its rider carried a pair of scales. He was accompanied by an announcement of high prices: a quart of wheat and three quarts of barley, each for a denarius, a day’s wages. (Barley was held to be so far inferior to wheat that Roman soldiers at times were punished by being given barley instead of wheat rations.) This horseman pictures famine due to war. Fittingly the horse itself was black, for blackness is a symbol of famine: “Their aspect has become darker than blackness itself. They have not been recognized in the streets. Their skin has shriveled upon their bones.” Jesus, in his great prophecy, likewise associated world war with famine: “Nation will rise against nation and . . . there will be food shortages.”—Lam. 4:8; Mark 13:8.
The rider’s having a pair of scales in his hand is also indicative of famine conditions. Thus Ezekiel was told: “Son of man, . . . they will have to eat bread by weight and in anxious care, and it will be by measure and in horror that they will drink water itself, to the intent that they may be lacking bread and water.”—Ezek. 4:16, 17.
As to the meaning of the peculiar instruction given to this third horseman, “Do not harm the olive oil and the wine,” God’s Word itself gives a clue, for at Proverbs 21:17 we are told that “he that is loving wine and oil will not gain riches.” Wine and oil are symbols of luxuries and their not being harmed would indicate that, in spite of famine conditions that affected the common people, the rich still had their luxuries, and so it proved to be.
The fourth horseman that John saw, sitting upon a pale or pallid-looking horse, is a fitting symbol of pestilence, and so we again find the prophecy of Revelation paralleling Jesus’ great prophecy: “And there will be . . . in one place after another pestilences.” (Luke 21:11) This fourth horseman and his mount did indeed picture pestilences or plagues and other far-reaching means of destruction of life, particularly in the postwar period. “And authority was given them [Death and Hades] over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with a long sword and with food shortage and with deadly plague and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
What about the “wild beasts” mentioned in this Re 6 verse (8)? In the days of Israel wild beasts represented another threat to life. In modern times, however, such is the case mainly in places left desolate. The wild beasts in modern times would therefore refer to beastly ways in which life was taken by governments or organizations due to the conditions brought about by World War I. As for the expression “the fourth part of the earth,” this may well be a symbolic way of saying that the effects would reach the four corners of the earth, but not necessarily cover the entire earth.
The fifth horseman is shown to be Hades, fittingly the last rider. The three that immediately preceded him represented the various means by which death was caused—war, famine and pestilence and wild beasts. This last rider, Hades, aptly represents the destiny of all those victims of the previous three riders, namely, Hades or gravedom.
Jesus Christ himself gave both the great prophecy concerning his second presence as recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke in their Gospels and the one concerning the horsemen as recorded by John at Revelation, chapter six. And even as in the Gospel accounts Jesus associates his return with war, famine and pestilence, so in the Revelation prophecy, Christ’s presence, as indicated by the first horseman going forth, is associated with the following horsemen, picturing war, famine and pestilence, to fill the common grave of mankind. As we note how beautifully these prophecies harmonize and have been fulfilled our faith is strengthened, and more than ever we say, “Let God be found true”!—Rom. 3:4.
a For details see the book “Your Will Be Done on Earth,” pages 20-23.