Summary: This passage wasn't written to scare us, it was written to comfort us.
REVELATION IN PICTURES:
A PICTURE OF HISTORY
This is one of those passages in the book of Revelation that scare most people; I can’t really blame them because there are some frightening things here:
Four horsemen bringing war, famine, disease, depression and death;
Images of souls under an altar and the wrath of God.
It’s enough to frighten any reasonable person. But this passage wasn't written to scare us, it was written to comfort us.
In the previous two chapters, we learned that John was given a vision in which he was carried up into heaven. He saw a throne, living creatures and elders. He also saw a book with seven seals. John cried when he learned that the seals might not be opened because he realized that these seals brought comfort to believers.
As we study this passage together, we need to remember that these are things sent by God. They’re like the cavalry coming to our rescue; they’re a sign to all believers that God’s redemption is at hand.
Here we see that as the seals are broken John, the living creatures and the elders all gather around to see what God has revealed. But this weren't any ordinary seals. They were living, breathing images that practically jumped from the scroll right before their very eyes. I’ve heard a lot of suggestions about what these four horsemen represented. What most people seem to forget is that, much like everything else in Revelation, this isn’t the first time the Bible has described them. The OT prophet Zechariah had a similar vision:
I saw by night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse, and it stood among the myrtle trees in the hollow; and behind him were horses: red, sorrel, and white. Then I said, “My lord, what are these?” So the angel who talked with me said to me, “I will show you what they are.” And the man who stood among the myrtle trees answered and said, “These are the ones whom the Lord has sent to walk to and fro throughout the earth.” So they answered the Angel of the Lord, who stood among the myrtle trees, and said, “We have walked to and fro throughout the earth, and behold, all the earth is resting quietly.” (Zech. 1:8-11)
Zechariah describes four horsemen that have been sent by God. They’re servants of God that have been sent to the earth. Their mission is “to walk to and fro throughout the earth.” So apparently, they’re some kind of divine patrolmen working to keep God’s order on earth. Also it says at the end of verse 11 that “the earth is resting quietly.” But the four horsemen that John sees bring anything but peace and quiet. Later on in Zechariah we see them again, but this time there’s a difference in their description:
Then I turned and raised my eyes and looked, and behold, four chariots were coming from between two mountains, and the mountains were mountains of bronze. With the first chariot were red horses, with the second chariot black horses, with the third chariot white horses, and with the fourth chariot dappled horses—strong steeds. Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” And the angel answered and said to me, “These are four spirits of heaven, who go out from their station before the Lord of all the earth. (Zech. 6:1-5)