Summary: The four horsemen - war, slaughter, famine, death and pestilence - have accompanied humanity since the dawn of time; they remind us of our sin, and God's judgment, and his ultimate control over all of history.
When I mapped out this year’s preaching schedule I did not - repeat NOT - know that war with Iraq would begin the week the seals on the scroll detailing the fate of the world would be opened and the four horsemen let loose. And I’m not egotistical enough to think that God arranged the timing of the war to give me the world’s most topical sermon illustration. But it does makes you wonder.
The four horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s a phrase that heralds doom and destruction, doesn’t it. These figures are the first of the many terrifying images that John sees in his vision and is told to describe to the church, to warn and prepare them for the days to come.
Apocalypse is just another word for revelation. It means that something hidden is now being disclosed. That’s simple enough. But what do these four horsemen signify?
Pretty nearly everybody agrees that they are all aspects of God’s judgment. They do echo the horsemen in Zechariah, which were apparently sent out by God to survey the earth and report back on its condition. But these horsemen aren’t just reporters. They’re actors in the drama that is about to unfold.
The first horseman represents war, in the classic sense, with one nation-state armed against another. “There was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.” [v. 2] This is a war of conquest, an invasion by an outside agency, determined to gain power over another country by force. Why a white horse? No one seems to know. . . Some people see an allusion to Christ, since he comes on a white horse in chapter 19. But most think only that a pure white horse, being rare, is valuable, and the kind of figure with the power to embark on a war of conquest would naturally have a really impressive steed. I think, myself, that this kind of conflict has traditionally included some elements of nobility in it - courage, and patriotism, sacrifice and brotherhood and heroism. And so the white horse is an allusion to that potential for nobility, even if perverted to wrong ends.
But the second horseman represents a far different kind of violence. “And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.” [v. 4] That red horse proclaims violence unredeemed, brutal and vicious bloodletting. Many people think it means civil war - one faction within a society deliberately entering into armed conflict with another - maybe over a matter of principle, as in our own civil war, or maybe out of generations of ethnic hatred like that between Serbia and Kosovo. Although both the Kosovars and the Serbians claimed that theirs was also a matter of principle. . . . Yes, it could be civil war. But it could also be anarchy - a total breakdown of law and order within a society, with the strong preying on the weak, warlords or gang leaders carving out pieces of territory from the chaos. Or it could be terrorists. . .
The third horseman is famine. “I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's pay, and three quarts of barley for a day's pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!" [v. 5-6] Now, I know you’re all dying to know exactly what the different prices of wheat and barley mean, and what part oil and wine played in the first century Mediterranean diet, but you’ll have to ask me some other time. Some scholars think the point is that prices are so high that the poor can barely feed themselves, let alone their families, but that the rich somehow still manage to put luxuries on the table. And isn’t that the way it always does seem to work? I’m sure that Mugabe and his henchmen are managing to eat high on the hog in Zimbabwe, even while their people are eating next year’s seed corn and then sitting down to die. Others think that the point is that even if you destroy the crops, olive trees and grapevines will bear again the following year if they’re not cut down. Whichever way you take it, though, people are going to be hungry this year. No one tries to explain why the horse is black. Perhaps the black horse symbolizes the despair a mother feels as she holds her starving child; it may portray bleak lifelessness in contrast to the blood red of destruction.