Anyone that has studied Revelation as part of a high school project will probably have heard of the so-called four horses of the apocalypse. The imagery is one that stays in the mind; it is easy to visualize and the loss of a quarter of the Earth's population is clearly emotive. This same student may then be surprised to learn that there is no consensus whatsoever amongst the commentators as to the meaning of these four horses.
I believe that this confusion is caused by the repeated attempts made to fit this imagery to past history. If instead we adopt the policy of examining the symbolism itself I think we will produce a template that will clearly fits a pattern yet to come.
Each horse and rider is introduced upon the opening of a seal. This alone tells us that the events of Revelation 4 and 5 have already happened before the first horse is manifest. In particular this includes the resurrection and rapture of the church .
As each seal is opened a living creature exclaims 'Come and see'. Even this phrase causes the commentators concern. Jamieson Fausset Brown argues against the 'come' applying to John and suggests it is a call to everyone to accept the Gospel or the cry of the redeemer to redeem creation. Barnes sees the call as one to John. If only dissenting voices would read the passage it becomes clear that John certainly thought the call was to him. The call of 'come and see' in verse 7 is answered in verse 8 with John saying "I looked".
However; the phrase 'come and see' is important as it interacts with the text as we must not confuse synchronization with causality. As we see each event unfold we are repeatedly being reminded that heaven and the redeemed are observing events; we are not told of direct intervention. It is true that each rider is given a power or capability; and in the case of the third and fourth horses they are even being given specific limits upon their influence but at no point are we told that these horses are being sent.
This should lead us naturally to the question: why the horses? What picture do we get in a horse that John was trying to give us? The Bible answers this question ably: strength. I suggest that the four riders that we see are fairly standard agents that we see on earth daily. The new feature as the seals begin to undo is that these agents are now enabled. The reference in Psalm 33 which is similar to Am 2:15 throws one extra important detail in: horses are not about safety. Horses are not a good defensive strategy; horses are about going on the offense.
So as we look at the four horses in turn I shall attempt to show how an evil agent attempts to take over the world by force in the aftermath of the rapture.
The first horse is white. Whilst commentators see white as a color of victory I would suggest it is actually an ambiguous color. It is associated with purity but also with leprosy, which is a type of sin. It is this duality that has caused some to associate the rider on this horse with the rider on the white horse in Rev 19, which is Christ. This association is deliberate. The rider of the white horse is going forward with a message of purity and peace by which he aims to take over the world through a bloodless coup. That he is lying is suggested by the fact that his whiteness could come from leprosy typifying sin as easily as from purity.
The choice of weaponry between the first and second horses is also very suggestive. The bow used by the first horse was not a commonly used war weapon at the time of writing. It had very few defensive qualities unless used under clever military tactics; which no one had at the time. The weapon of warfare was the sword: the weapon of the rider of the red horse. The bow was useful for threatening and for attacks where you didn't want to 'get your hands dirty'. Thus we see the rider on the white horse as one who works through peace and diplomacy with only a veiled threat of military action if and when required. I believe that this rider is none other than the beast from the sea of Rev 13.
The rider of the second horse is less ambiguous. He is a warmonger, he may be the king of the North although I am less sure of this. He has a sword; a weapon used in hand-to-hand combat. It can defend or attack, it can be used as part of a large military advance or individually. I think it is important that the text states they shall 'kill one another'. I don't think the picture here is a major battle; it is more that life has become very cheap. Whilst peace has been declared at a global level at a local level violence becomes the order of the day.
The effect of the third horse is given very precisely; but by reading too quickly many commentators miss it. It is generally considered that this horse depicts famine. However the numbers given are not famine conditions. Famine is described in 2Ki 6:25 when an ass' head would sell for 80 shekels of silver and a quarter of a pint of dove dung for 5. In these verses we find that a days pay could buy enough wheat to feed a laborer or enough barley, a lower grade of grain, to feed a small family. This isn't famine; this is extremely clever, manipulated economic oppression.
Clearly provision is being made for the affluent; the wine and oil was not to be harmed. But the poor people will have to work each day, every day. They will not be able to take a break or consider what is going on around them. Survival is going to be a continual battle for the lower classes, which allows the rulers plenty of latitude to do as they will.
Finally comes death followed by hell. Whilst I believe the seals are commenced sequentially I think this result has to be cumulative of all four horses of the apocalypse. To view it otherwise would suggest that no one could die through the early stages of the tribulation, which is unreasonable. That said, this horse and rider may represent a phase during which the 'natural reserves' of the populace are used up and as the world slowly sinks into lawlessness (horse 2) and poverty (horse 3) the attendant depreciation of the infrastructure (sanitation, emergency services, agriculture, nutrition, healthcare) leads to a death toll that rapidly increases. This fact is potentially suggested by the mention of beasts of the earth. For them to have multiplied suggests that significant portions of the land are becoming untamed; this effect would be cumulative.
The final point to note is very sobering and should have prevented most of the speculation as to the historic meaning of these verses. Under the fourth seal one quarter of the earth's population die. Some commentators seek to minimize the force of this by suggesting that death happens over a fourth part of the earth; possibly just the Roman Empire. This suggestion makes the verse meaningless. Is the suggestion that the remaining three quarters of the earth is immune to death?
An event of the magnitude suggested by these four horses would be so horrific that there would be no doubt in anyone's mind as to the precise meaning of it; there is no such event which suggests the fulfillment of these words is still future.
What we should notice is that this is what man will do when given the opportunity. Man is not 'evolving towards a brotherhood' or some friendly kind of 'global village'. He is headed towards deceit, violence, oppression, death and finally hell. Let us be separate from them.