Wednesday, July 13, 2022
Assignment: In your own words, retell the account of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Revelation 6:1-8, and then explain the symbolic meaning of one of the four horseman.
Alright, no small undertaking, but assignment accepted. In this essay I choose to explain the symbolic meaning of the third horseman. Now, how do I go about this? How should I retell The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? What is the best approach? I guess I should strive to be as succinct as possible, and yet provide enough information for a reader who might be unfamiliar with the Book of Revelation.
Narratively, each one of the four horsemen follows a predictable pattern. The horseman appears only after some sort of documentary seal has been broken open and a majestic summons has been issued to come forth. And then the observer is given just a brief bit of information about the particular horseman in view. Somewhat surprisingly, observers are only given the briefest of glances at each of the four-and-a-half horsemen before the narration moves ahead and the next horseman is revealed. The whole scenario unfolds in a quick, clipped, dream-like manner. The vision “feels” somewhat random; and yet there is obvious organization to it. It leaves a first-time observer a bit bewildered, wondering what possible meaning is intended. And yet, given its cryptic character, the observer knows that the vision is meant to be deciphered.
The backstory to the Four Horsemen involves a sacrificial lamb who alone has the authority to break open the seven seals to a document — a scroll, to be precise. Among all creatures everywhere throughout all of history, the sacrificial lamb alone is worthy to break open the seals of this scroll and reveal its contents. The observer should realize that the sacrificial lamb symbolizes Jesus Christ.
In the first verse of the chapter, the Sacrificial Lamb breaks open the first seal of some sort of historically significant scroll. Upon being summoned thunderously by one of four heavenly cherubim (that is, one of the Living Creatures) to “Come!” the first of four horseman appears, mounted upon a white horse. He, the unidentified first horseman, holds an archer’s bow, and somehow a crown is given to him. And the verse abruptly concludes with, “He went forth conquering and to conquer.”
And that’s it. That is all the information we are given about the first horseman.
When the Sacrificial Lamb breaks open the second seal of the significant scroll, another cherub summons the second horseman to “Come!” Then the second horseman appears, riding a red or scarlet horse. The second horseman is permitted to take peace from the earth, “so that they should kill each other.” He, the second horseman on the scarlet horse, is also armed, but with another sort of weapon: a great sword.
And that is the extent of the information we are given about the second horseman.
When the Sacrificial Lamb breaks open the third seal of the unidentified scroll, a third cherub summons a third horseman to “Come!” On cue, the third horseman appears, mounted upon a black horse. However, this rider does not carry a weapon, per se. Instead, the rider on the black horse holds a balance, or a pair of scales, in his hand.
The next sentence of the passage has a closing quotation that appears to be directly related to the rider on the black horse. But for a moment, we will skip that closing quotation. Yes, we will just skip it for now. Perhaps it’s not important. Perhaps it’s just incidental, extraneous info. Maybe. Who knows?
As per the three-peat pattern thus far, the Sacrificial Lamb will go on to break open a fourth seal on the mysterious scroll, after which the fourth and final cherub will summon a fourth and final horseman (actually, twin ghastly riders in tandem) to “Come!” Tellingly, the fourth horse is colored pale green or ashen, that is, the color of a dying person or a corpse. But here I hit the pause button. Rather than continue recounting the rest of the passage about the ghastly twin horsemen, in the remainder of this article I want to take one step backwards and focus intently upon the third horseman, the rider on the black horse.
For reasons that I shall soon divulge, this third rider might otherwise be called the merchant on the black horse. Now, let’s plunge into greater depth about what this brief passage potentially symbolizes.
Oh yeah… were you annoyed when I casually skipped over the closing quotation in the third horseman passage? Yeah, that was my intent. I wanted to annoy you so as to pique your curiosity. And here’s what I skipped over: The passage ends with “what seemed to be a voice” — a voice in the midst of the four cherubim, proclaiming, “A measure of wheat for a denarius, and three measures of barley for a denarius; but do not harm the oil nor the wine.”
What “seemed to be a voice” in the midst of the cherubim should be considered God’s own voice, because the cherubim orbit or circle around the throne of God in heaven.
Tangentially, someone may wonder why I keep referring to the cherubim as the cherubim, considering that they are never actually called “the cherubim” in Revelation 6:1-7. Good question; I’m glad you noticed and asked. My answer is this: I refer to them as the cherubim (plural) or the cherub (singular) because a careful reading of the Book of Ezekiel leads to that conclusion. In Ezekiel 10:20 the living creatures in Ezekiel’s visions are specifically identified as cherubim. Since the Living Creatures in the Book of Revelation ever-so closely resemble the Living Creatures in Ezekiel, they must be cherubim throughout. I suppose there is a remote possibility I could be wrong with this one-for-one equivalence; but all the available textual evidence points thusly. Please go check it out for yourself.
Moving along, then… on the assumption that it is God’s own voice proclaiming, “A measure of wheat for a denarius, and three measures of barley for a denarius; but do not harm the oil nor the wine,” a bunch of questions ensue. The first, most general question being: Huh?
Huh? What does that quotation even mean?
In an effort to make sense of the voice’s proclamation, let’s make some initial observations: Inequity seems to be meant here. For some reason, wheat is inordinately expensive, since a denarius is Roman currency amounting to a full day’s wage. Barley is less expensive, but still expensive. Oil and wine are being prioritized by someone or some group, over basic foodstuffs. That probably means that the rich are somehow swindling the poor. This notion of economic inequity connects directly to the rider (or merchant) on the black horse via the scales in his hand. Together, the quotation and the rider/merchant’s scales depict economic inequity, and probably, rampant oppression.
But why? Why are we presented with this image of economic inequity? And what is the intended connection with the previous two horsemen?
There are two likely explanations for why we are presented with these images of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first explanation is that the Book of Revelation here shows us, its readers, a generalized overview of how human history invariably and repeatedly plays out. These Four Horsemen are thought to be figurative personifications of the universal destructive forces of human history. Commonly, it is suggested that these four destructive forces are 1) conquest of some sort, whether of a political or ideological nature, 2) bloodshed, violence, and especially, open war, 3) famine or economic inequity, and 4) prolonged, dreadful death, especially by epidemic or some variety of pestilence. This understanding of the Four Horsemen may depend upon passages like Jeremiah 15:2-3 and Ezekiel 14:21, which contain comparable tetrads of “disastrous acts of judgment.” The overall theological point of Revelation 6:1-8, then, would be that however horrifying these historical occurrences may be, they are nonetheless under the full control and delegated authority of the meek Sacrificial Lamb, Jesus Christ.
To which I say, Amen. It is reassuring to know that the Lamb has authority over the outworking of history. And this chapter of Revelation definitely affirms that truth. Yet there is even more to this chapter to be explained. Although I find this first broad-brush explanation compelling and satisfying to a degree, it does not adequately explain everything happening in the sixth chapter of the Book of Revelation. There are quite a few more “incidental” details that need to be explained. And I never have heard those “incidental” details explained particularly well.
The second, more detailed explanation is that Book of Revelation here symbolically portrays some very specific — and even datable — historical events. Those specific historical events are four of Israel’s “reckonings,” each of which can be plotted with precision on an Old Testament timeline. In this article, I will advocate this second precise “reckoning” explanation, and focus in particular on how this explanation pertains to the rider on the black horse.
Here is my assertion, in the tersest terminology possible: The third horseman, the merchant on a black horse, symbolizes God’s climatic judgment on the nation of Ephraim, otherwise known as the northern Kingdom of Israel. This “reckoning” can be dated with precision to 722BC/E, which is when Israel’s capital city of Samaria fell to the Assyrians.
Does this sound like a zany, crazy claim? You might wonder on what possible basis I would venture to make a claim with such historical specificity. After all, the language in Revelation 6:5-6 is rather vague.
Actually, no it isn’t. It’s not rather vague. Here the language of Revelation is very exact. And the exactness of the wording is very telling. Revelation 6:5 contains a nearly word-for-word quotation of the opening portion of Hosea 12:7, except for the omitted first word (which, when revealed, is also illuminating). But all of this requires some digging. You have to be willing to do some homework to discover the textual overlap of Revelation and Hosea in these two verses.
If you look up the two verses in English you may recognize a vague resemblance, but definitely not a nearly perfect overlap. That is because in your English language Bible the translation of Hosea was made from Hebrew, and not from Greek. But the original recipients and readers of Revelation would have read Hosea in a Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. And the Septuagint rendering of the opening to Hosea 12:7 is very, very close to the relevant portion of Revelation 6:5. It’s so close that it cannot be a coincidence. That should be repeated for emphasis: The textual overlap cannot be a coincidence. Revelation 6:5 contains a quotation of Hosea 12:7. And that makes my Assyrian claim a lot less crazy. In fact, it makes my claim quite plausible, because in context this portion of Hosea is all about how God was about to judge Ephraim by means of Assyria. If you wonder if I have this right, please just read through Hosea 11:1-13:14. But I assure you that this portion of Hosea is all about how God was about to judge Ephraim by means of Assyria. And a key portion of Revelation 6:5 quotes Hosea 12:7.
If that is not enough to convince you, then I encourage you to do a biblical word study of just one word. That word is scales. Sometimes it is translated as balances. You will discover that in the Old Testament the word balances/scales appears in three of the minor prophets when they are condemning an act of grave Torah disobedience — the disobedience of economic exploitation (cf. Hosea 12:7; Amos 8:5; and Micah 6:11). These three minor prophets condemn the covenant people of Israel and Judah for their exploitive use of dishonest scales. These strong prophetic denunciations are aimed directly at the northern kingdom of Ephraim/Israel, which fell to Assyria in 722 BC/E. Therefore, scales serve as an excellent symbol for why God brought a final reckoning upon Ephraim/Israel. This is not an inflated argument. The use of the word scales is relatively rare in the Old Testament. It is significant that the use of word scales “happens” to congregate in prophetic literature around the time that Ephraim/Israel fell to Assyria.
Finally, if the third rider represents the divine reckoning wrought by Assyria, it all fits neatly in the broader context of Revelation 6. Each of the Four Horsemen represents a divine reckoning in Old Testament history. Each follows in the expected and accurate chronological order: the LORD himself as the rider on the white horse in the Exodus; Edom, as the rider on the red horse, whenever Israel and Judah would backslide into idolatry; Assyria, as the rider on the black horse, symbolizing God’s final means of judging Israel; and Babylon, as the rider on the ashen or pale green horse, symbolizing God’s final means of judging Judah and Jerusalem.
In my next post, I intend to cover the fourth rider, which, as I said, should be interpreted as the reckoning wrought by Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon.