The vision and tone of Revelation changes at chapter six as the seals are opened and the scroll is unrolled. There are three cycles of seven judgments beginning with the seals and then moving to the trumpets and concluding with the bowls. The first two judgment cycles – seals and trumpets – follow a 4-2-1 pattern. They both begin with a group of four judgments forming one unit. Then there is a set of two. There is then a break between the sixth and seventh seal and trumpet. And then the final seal and the last trumpet are revealed alone.
I think it is difficult for modern readers – especially those of us in an American context – to read, interpret and hear these chapters in Revelation on judgment well. Obviously the primary challenge for interpretation is that we are forced to try and jump back in time and read the text through the lens of the first century. This not only means that we have to try and recreate the ancient world in our minds by piecing together what we have from historians, but it also means that we will have to choose interpretations we feel fit best knowing that there are multiple possible other meanings.
But I think the primary problems that twenty-first century western readers have as we try to interpret texts like Revelation chapter six are much more subtle. Let me suggest three:
The text was primarily written to people on the margins of power but we are reading it from a place of power. The primary purpose of Revelation was not to tell Rome what was going to happen to it, but to encourage those who were suffering on the underside of its rule.
Let me give an illustration. Imagine you are at the local park one day and you see a late-blooming Jr. Higher getting picked on by the neighborhood bully. You intervene and pull the one getting misused aside – knowing full well that you have only created a temporary stay in the on-going cycle of bullying that the student is facing. But you want to be encouraging, so you say to the one being picked on, “Don’t worry. I’ll watch out for you. But the good news is that someday you are going to grow up and the bully won’t be able to boss you around anymore. Someday that bully is going to be old, their body is going to wear out, and they are going to need help from others. But on that day, no one is going to help them because they have alienated all the people who might be their friend in a time of need. And someday soon it is likely that that bully is going to run into a bigger bully and the things that they have reaped they will sow.
Now the bully may hear you say those things, but it is unlikely that the bully will care or change their ways, because the bully believes his own “bully mythology.” To believe your words would mean giving up his position of power on the playground. Therefore, it would take a significant turn for any kind of change of heart to take place in the bully. Thus your message is not so much for the bully but for the one being picked on. The one who feels powerless needs to know that their suffering is short-lived, that the tables will be turned, and most importantly they need to be encouraged not to become a bully themselves because they have seen the coolness or powerfulness of the bully unmasked. The goal of your encouragement is to help the one being misused to see the bully’s actions for what they are – signs of his insecurity and weakness, not signs of true strength.
The point of the illustration is not to say that Americans – or people in Western cultures – are bullies (although at times we may be). The point is simply to try and illustrate that the message of Revelation is directed toward those who are being left out and excluded from power. That encouragement is easier to hear than the call to repent.
At some level the whole book of Revelation is about what we might call “the politics of empire v. the politics of the Lamb.” Revelation continually critiques the way all human principalities and powers operate. Our problem is that the partisan politics of our own day have so deeply divided us that I fear we will automatically read and hear Revelation through those lenses. That means that people on the right will hear Revelation as a critique of the left, and visa versa.
But the truth is that Revelation is inviting us to transcend the politics of right and left and learn to embody the politics of the Lamb. That is very difficult to do, however, because our imaginations are so shaped by right/left politics. Which leads to the primary problem…
3. We Confusion
I love to talk about “we confusion.” It is when we say “we” when we really mean “you.” Like when I might say to Diana, “We really need to make dinner.” And she thinks, “Oh really? WE need to make dinner? I’m finally going to get some help?” When I said, “we,” I unfortunately meant “her.”
The “we confusion” we face reading Revelation is the divide between being an American citizen and being part of the Church. John isn’t interested in making Rome a better place to live or telling Caesar how to be a more just ruler. He’s trying to encourage believers to live as reflections of the Lamb in the midst of Rome. So we can’t listen to the judgments and think about what this means for us as Americans, but we have to think about what this text calls us to be as people of the Lamb.
But that is really hard to do! Our citizenship as Americans is so deeply woven into our identity (and our ecclesiology or understanding of what it means to be the Church is so low) that it is hard to read Revelation and narrate America as Babylon (or at least as one of the Babylons) and to narrate our life as constituting this other people called “Church” in the midst of the empire. My guess is that as we read the judgment texts of Revelation we will want to keep trying to figure out how to change the empire rather than try to imagine how to live as reflections of the Lamb. But that is because we are reading Revelation from our places of power… Which brings us back to problem #1.
I know that is confusing… And I’m sorry that took so long… But I think those three problems will make more sense as we go along. Back to the seals…
The first four seals form a coherent unit often referred to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Their fame has been aided by Albrecht Durer’s famous woodcut of the four horsemen arising in judgment (seen above). The opening of the scroll begins the process of God’s judgment upon the empire and upon those caught up in its life.
The Background of the Four Horsemen
The first biblical connection for the four horsemen is Zechariah 6:1-5. I looked up again and saw four chariots coming out from between two mountains… The first chariot had red horses, and the second chariot had black horses. The third chariot had white horses, and the fourth chariot had horses that were heavily spotted… He said, “Go! Patrol the earth!” so they patrolled the earth.
The other biblical connection is the Exodus event between Moses and Pharaoh. The plagues from God’s hand upon Egypt were a deconstruction of the Pharaoh’s myth of power and control. Pharaoh gained loyalty and service by promising peace and prosperity to the people. The plagues served to expose Pharaoh’s claims to divine power as empty. Here too, the pronouncements of judgment, coming through the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls, serve as the deconstruction of the claims of Caesar to divine authority. The empire may promise peace but the sources of hope for the principalities and powers are not only insecure, but more often than not, they bring destructive consequences to those who live under its authority.
The principal purpose of the visions in Revelation chapter six is to awaken a sense of uneasiness in the reader by vividly identifying threats to their continued wellbeing. The four horsemen are designed to shatter the illusion that people can find true security in the borders of a nation or empire, in a flourishing economy, or in their own health.
6:1-2 Then I looked on as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow and was given a crown. And he went forth from victory to victor
The white horse and its rider have often been associated with Christ – the one called Faithful and True – who will appear later in Revelation riding on a white horse. But the color of the horse is the only similarity. There are several significant differences between the two images, but the most significant difference is the weapons that they carry. Whereas the horseman in chapter 6 holds a bow in his hand (6:2), Christ has a sharp sword protruding from his mouth (19:15). The first white horseman conquers in the usual way, while Christ conquers with the words and testimony of the cross.
It is most likely that this white horse is connected to the most famous mounted bowmen of John’s time. The Parthians lived on the eastern border of Rome and were famous mounted archers whose signature was that they rode on white horses. On three separate occasions – 53 BC, 36 BC, and 62AD – the Parthian army defeated the Romans and kept the empire from expanding eastward.
The Parthians – and the image of the white horse – are a reminder of the “enemies at the gate.” They serve as a nagging reminder of the limits to Roman authority and security. Caesar may try to promise peace and security, but there are always threats from the outside that never go away.
6:3-4 When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Out came another horse, fiery red. Its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth so that people would kill each other. He was given a large sword.
There was an important Latin phrase that became a kind of national slogan for Rome – the Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome). The phrase was a kind of national pledge that said, “In a strong Rome we find our prosperity, peace, and flourishing.” But that “peace” always came at a high cost. It is a false peace based on the domination and suppression of others.
The famous South African theologian Alan Boesak writes, “There is no peace but the Pax Romana, a ‘peace’ maintained by violence and threat of violence, by the greed of the privileged and the oppression of the weak and lowly… The people of God knew… that this was no true peace. The peace and prosperity of the Roman Empire depended on the continued oppression and enslavement of almost 95 percent of the population of the known world. The ‘peace’ was meant for the privileged, the top 5 percent who dwelt in the palaces and courts of Rome.”
The reader in John’s day would be well acquainted with rebellion and civil disorder. In a single year, AD 68-69, Rome had been ruled by four different emperors. It is reported that in the thirty-year period prior to the reign of Herod the Great (67-37 BC), more than one hundred thousand insurgents died in revolutions and rebellions in Palestine alone.
There are always threats to “peace” from the borders, but there are always threats to peace from within as well.
6:5-6 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, “A quart of wheat for a denarion, and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don’t damage the olive oil and the wine.”
The Black Horse is a symbol of famine. Famine and economic turmoil are always the natural result of war and a lack of peace. It represents the tender balance of nature and the tenuous dependence humans have upon its production. When famine hits, so does inflation. A denarion would have been a typical wage for a full day of work. So the prices that are announced would have been fifteen or sixteen times the normal cost for wheat and barley.
This text is most likely also a reference to the practice of “Latifundia” – taking land from poor harvesters used for growing food staples like wheat and barley and using that land for the production of olive oil and wine (which were then marketed to the rich). The subtle dig of this word is that when economic crisis hits, the poor face overwhelming inflation, while the rich find ways to make sure their life is not affected. (Which is part of the reason rebellions keep taking place and the red horse keeps appearing).
The point of the black horse is that the economic control of Caesar is also a power myth.
6:7-8 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” So I looked and there was a pale green horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and the Grave was following right behind. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by the sword, famine, disease, and the wild animals of the earth.
Hades (the Greek word for death) comes with the horse whose color is the green color of decaying flesh. Representing the constant possibility of plague, the green horse is a reminder of Caesar’s inability to control sickness, suffering and death. Like Pharaoh who was powerless before the angel of death, the principalities and powers are ultimately powerless before the threat of the green horse.
These judgments – like the plagues of Egypt – break down the myth of invincibility that the empire or the powers tries to proclaim. Revealing the insecurity of all that is not connected to the One seated on the throne and the Lamb is not just an act of judgment but an act of grace. It invites the reader to find their true security in the kingdom of God.
I would love for you to wrestle with what those horsemen might look like today. But I can’t help but think about what a modern culture or empire might look like that would have to take the four horsemen seriously…
An “empire” today that was worried about the white horse might have to be constantly vigilant about its own security. It might have to think about building walls, fences, and border patrols that would keep people out. It might have to spend a huge portion of its productivity on national defense. It might have to find ways to constantly monitor all of the creative ways the white horse could find to create chaos and violence. I would also imagine that the fear of the white horse would be strong enough that the empire would at times be willing to make sacrifices of freedom and even sacrifices of its own values for the sake of security.
The fear of the red horse today would likely mean that an empire would have to rightly fear its own people. The irony would be that it would focus on the white horse but many of its most terrifying and destructive acts – bombings, shootings, riots, etc. – would actually come from discontented or marginalized insiders rather than from outsiders. That kind of empire would have to have lots and lots of police. I would imagine it would also have to increase surveillance. My guess is that many people living in that empire would want to arm themselves not because they were worried about foreign enemies, but because they would be scared of their neighbor or even fearful of their own leaders. The fear of the red horse would mean people living in that kind of empire were frequently scared of one another.
Modern, less agrarian societies don’t have to worry as much about the famines represented by the black horse. Droughts, changes in climate, and depleted resources would certainly still be a modern concern, but contemporary empires would likely see the black horse as unstable economies, economic downturns, and the bursting of financial bubbles. Like the wealthy in ancient societies, the modern day rich will certainly find ways to not only survive but perhaps even thrive during economic challenges. But I can imagine that major periods of economic flux would serve as a reminder that even huge, complex, international corporate structures and markets carry with them myths of permanent economic security.
And a modern empire faced with the green horse would be obsessed with disease. Massive work would be done to constantly guard against new strains of viruses, incurable epidemics, and massive global catastrophes. People living in that culture would have their sense of security tweaked by earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornados, and other reminders that there are some forces that are bigger than any culture’s attempts at security.
Those horsemen could be seen as a threat or they could be seen as the gracious opportunity for security to be found in the life of the Lamb rather than in the myth of the empire.
So get ready. The four horsemen are always on their way… (But don’t worry. The Lamb is still Lord of all).