In Revelation 6, Christ the Lamb begins to open the seals from the scroll in chapter 5. Six of the seven seals will be opened in this chapter, and then in chapter 7 God’s people will be sealed, and then in chapter 8, we will have the opening of the seventh and final seal of the scroll. When the first four seals are opened, one of the four living creatures says, “Come and see.” Then John sees corresponding to each seal: 1) a white horse (Rev. 6:1-2), 2) a red horse (Rev. 6:3-4), 3) a black horse (Rev. 6:5-6), and 4) a pale/green horse (Rev. 6:7-8), and upon each horse a rider. These are the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” that have become famous in pop culture. The identity of these horsemen is a notoriously difficult question, with some commentators identifying them as demonic emperors or the Antichrist, while others identify them as Christ and the church. With such seemingly antithetical interpretations, we should proceed cautiously through this text.
After the four horsemen go forth at the breaking of the first four seals, the fifth seal is opened and John sees the souls of the martyrs crying out from beneath the altar saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” In response to this cry, each martyr is given a white robe and told to “rest a little while longer until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed” (Rev. 6:11). The chapter ends with the opening of the sixth seal which brings about many of the things that Jesus prophesied would come upon the land in his Olivet discourse (compare with Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21): “Behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:12-17).
De-Creation In Seven Days
We can see in the opening of these seven seals a pattern of de-creation that corresponds to the seven days of creation in Genesis 1. Peter Leithart draws attention to these parallels saying:
- “The first horse is dazzling white (λευκός), like the light of Day 1.
- The red horse divides and separates, like the firmament of Day 2.
- Grain and fruit trees sprang from the earth on Day 3, and the rider on the black horse depletes grains, though fruit trees and vines are protected.
- The rider on the green horse is Death, and Hades comes with him. Like the sun and moon, Death and Hades have authority over the earth.
- When the Lamb breaks the fifth seal, a swarm of martyrs appears under the altar, their prayers ascending like smoke. They are given robes. Swarming things, incense, and clothing are all linked with Day 5.
- The sixth seal reveals humanity—humanity doomed, the firstfruits of a new humanity protected, the eschatological humanity doing what humanity was created to do, worshiping before the one who spreads his tabernacle over them. Like the account of the sixth day in Genesis 1, the sixth seal is considerably longer than the other seals.
- The silence of the seventh seal, as well as the prayers of the golden altar, link it with the Sabbath of Day 7, the Sabbath that closes the week of the seals and simultaneously begins the week of trumpets.”
The opening of the Seven Seals is the first shock of what will become more progressively intense judgments. We are told for example that Death and Hades (fourth seal) are given power “over a fourth of the land” (Rev. 6:8). Later, when the Trumpets begin to blow in chapter 8, judgment falls on a third of the created order. And then when we get to the Bowls in Revelation 16, they are poured out on the entirety of creation. When we get to these future chapters, we will explain how these were fulfilled in the 1st century, but for now let’s look at the historical fulfillment of the first six seals.
Contrary to some commentators who believe these seals take place simultaneously or are merely themes of what will take place leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction, I believe the historical effects of these seven seals do take place in chronological order and are prior in history to the Trumpets and Bowls of later chapters. However, in order to time these seven seals, we will need to come to a decision on the identity of the four horsemen. Who are they, and what do they represent? To this difficult question we now turn.
Q1. Who are the four horsemen?
Option A. – Jesus as First Horseman
|Fiery Red (πυρρος)||War|
Option B. – Horsemen Are Demons That Influence Roman Emperors
|White (λευκος)||Tiberius (reigned from AD 14-37)|
|Fiery Red (πυρρος)||Caligula (reigned from AD 37-41)|
|Black (μελας)||Claudius (reigned from AD 41-54)|
|Pale/Green (χλωρος)||Nero (reigned from AD 54-68)|
The most common answer to this question when we survey church history is that the first horseman is Jesus, and then the following three horsemen signify War, Famine, and Death. The other most common answer is that these are satanic/demonic powers who possess or influence a Roman emperor, and then there is a difference of opinion over which emperor each horseman refers to. Let me lay out what I believe are the strongest arguments in favor of each view and then tell you which interpretation I take.
Arguments in favor Jesus as the first horseman riding upon the church:
- In Revelation 19, Jesus is riding on a white horse, so perhaps this image in Revelation 6 is the same horse and rider.
- The rider is wearing a crown and goes out conquering. This is the same Greek word that was used in the letters to the seven churches for overcoming or conquering.
- White is used without exception elsewhere in Revelation (14 times) as a sign of purity or holiness.
- Zechariah suggests that God is the rider and the horse is His people.
- In Zechariah 1:8-10 it says, “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?”…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.”
- In Zechariah 6 there is a similar scene of chariots and horses, and there the four chariots are identified as “the four spirits of heaven who go out from their station before the Lord of all the earth” (Zech. 6:5).
- And then in Zechariah 10:3 it says, “For the Lord of hosts will visit His flock, The house of Judah, And will make them as His royal horse in the battle.” So here is one example of a horse being likened to the people of God, and God as the rider upon them. The question then becomes, does this apply to the four chariots/spirits of heaven? Or is that a different symbolic package?
So taking all these arguments together, many commentators identify Jesus as the white rider, and identify the horse as the church or the apostles. James Jordan and Peter Leithart further apply this to the other three horses, saying that Jesus is also the one riding the red horse, the black horse, and the pale horse, and the plagues they bring are the effects of the gospel going forth as described in the book of Acts.
Arguments in favor of the horsemen being demonic powers:
- In agreement with the view above that takes Zechariah as background to this text, this position would point out that the horses in Zechariah are identified together as being the same in nature, so it is more likely that the riders are either all holy or all evil (which Jordan/Leithart agree with). If the fourth horseman is called Death and Hades and we take those to be forces of darkness, it would suggest that the other three horsemen are demonic as well.
- Additionally, a Targum of Zechariah 6:1-8 identifies the horsemen as the evil angels of the four pagan kingdoms of Daniel 2 and 7. Since we have already seen that Daniel’s visions are part of the context of Revelation 5, it would not be surprising for these horsemen to have the same association as we find in Zechariah. Ultimately it comes down to how you interpret Zechariah 6, and whether or not the angels there are holy or demonic.
- The language of these horses “walking to and fro upon the earth” is found elsewhere in the book of Job to describe Satan: “And the Lord said to Satan, ‘From where do you come?’ So Satan answered the Lord and said, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.’” I think this is a strong argument in favor of seeing these horseman as evil forces (like Satan) that answer to God and do his bidding.
- Although the language of conquering is used in the letters to the seven churches, it is also used later in the book to describe the beast oppressing the saints (Rev. 11:7, Rev. 13:7). So conquering can be both a positive and negative image in Revelation.
- Revelation 12-13 portray Satan and his minions as using deception, especially through imitation of Christ’s appearance, so it would not be surprising to find a counterfeit white rider before the revelation of the true White Rider in chapter 19.
- Moreover, in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) the first warning that Jesus gives is to “Take heed that no one deceives you, For many will come in My name…” (Mark 13:5-6). It was common for Roman Emperors to exalt themselves as gods, and many Christians were martyred for refusing to confess the “Caesar is Lord.” Perhaps this white rider is an example of what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:14, that “Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.” Jesus says, do not be deceived.
- Finally, the language of power/authority being given to the riders seems to contradict what Jesus says in Matthew 28:18-20 and the scene in Revelation 5 where the Lamb is said to already possess all authority and power. It would seem strange then if the horsemen are Jesus, for Jesus to give himself what he already possesses. Furthermore, this language of “it was given to them” is used later in Revelation 8 and Revelation 13 to refer to authority granted to a lesser demonic power (and in Rev. 16:8 to a lesser angelic power).
So I believe this latter interpretation makes the most sense of the passage. Jesus is the Lamb who opens the seven seals, and He is the one who sends these demonic four horsemen to execute his judgments. These demonic spirits then possess four successive Roman emperors, which we can identify using external sources on Jewish and Roman history. This is similar to what we find in 1 Kings 22, where God says to his heavenly host:
“Who will persuade Ahab to go up, that he may fall at Ramoth Gilead?’ So one spoke in this manner, and another spoke in that manner. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, and said, ‘I will persuade him.’ The Lord said to him, ‘In what way?’ So he said, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And the Lord said, ‘You shall persuade him, and also prevail. Go out and do so.’ Therefore look! The Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has declared disaster against you.”
(1 Kings 22:20-23)
So God uses evil and lying spirits to inhabit false prophets and tear down kingdoms. We see also in the book of Job that God uses Satan to afflict his most beloved and righteous servants. God also sent the Apostle Paul “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan,” so that His power would be made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:7-9). All demonic and evil powers are subject to Jesus Christ, and I believe we are seeing this same theme play out with these four horsemen.
The Timing of the Seven Seals
If we are correct in seeing these four horseman as demonic powers, we can then look for clues as to the timing and identity of the rulers they possess or influence. Since this whole scene begins in the aftermath of the ascension of Christ in AD 30 (Rev. 5), I believe the first horseman possessed the Roman emperor Tiberius who was reigning at that time (AD 14-37), and then the other three horsemen possessed the three emperors who followed: Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. We know from external sources the dates in which these Caesars reigned, but we can also harmonize this chronology with the book of Acts. For example, we have a clear connection in Acts 11:28 that says, “Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar.” Remember that the third seal is the black horse and rider which brings famine and so this would support our identification of Claudius as being possessed by the third rider. There are many other details we could look at from external sources in Roman history that readily connect with what John sees in each seal (if you want to explore this more, I recommend reading Phillip Kayser’s sermons on this chapter).
Dr. Kayser has noted the remarkable similarities between the description of these four horsemen and coins from antiquity that bear each emperor’s image. If these similarities are more than a coincidence, a 1st century audience would know immediately who was signified by the description of each horseman.
First Horseman: Tiberius
Pictured below wearing a laurel crown and riding in a quadriga (chariot with four horses).
“And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.”
Second Horseman: Caligula
Pictured below with the flying horse Pegasus (who is usually portrayed as white or black, but is colored red in various artifacts).
“Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword.”
Third Horseman: Claudius
Pictured below with his hand holding a pair of scales.
“So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine.'”
Fourth Horseman: Nero
Pictured at bottom with the god Hades riding in a quadriga carrying Persephone (who he abducts and rapes). In Roman religion, Persephone was the goddess of death/underworld. There are also coins with Nero riding upon a horse with another horseman right behind him.
“So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.”
Following Kayser, my view is that the four horsemen are demons that possess four successive Roman Emperors (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero). Some of the historical effects of these four seals can be seen in the book of Acts (which runs from Christ’s Ascension in AD 30 to Paul’s house arrest in Rome in AD 59). Furthermore, by comparing this time period with what we find in extra-biblical sources like Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, etc., we can fill out more of these details. We should note that according to Acts 25:11, Paul appealed to Caesar (who was Nero at the time) to adjudicate the charges against him. Paul knew that Jesus was in control, He is the Lamb who sits upon the throne, and even these demonic emperors must do the Lamb’s bidding. Altogether, the seven seals span the historical time period from AD 30 to AD 66 (see below).
AD 66 is a crucial year in the chronology because that is when seals five, six, and seven are opened. I believe this was also the year that the book of Revelation was written. At the opening of the fifth seal, the martyrs cry out for vengeance but are told to rest a little while longer. This marks the beginning of the Great Tribulation. The sixth seal then brings about cosmic destruction, events that draw on Old Testament symbolism for the fall of an empire, and which I believe also really took place in history (a great earthquake, comets/stars falling from the sky, mountains and islands moved by tsunamis, see Kayser’s sermon here for sources). In the next episode we will look at Revelation 7 which is a continuation of this 6th seal.
|First Seal||AD 30 – AD 37||White Horse||Tiberius||Acts 1-9 take place in AD 30|
|Second Seal||AD 37 – AD 41||Fiery Red Horse||Caligula|
|Third Seal||AD 41 – AD 54||Black Horse||Claudius||Acts 13-18 take place in AD 46-51. Famine prophesied in Acts 11:28|
|Fourth Seal||AD 54 – AD 61||Pale/Green Horse||Nero||Acts ends in AD 59 with Paul under house arrest awaiting trial in Rome.|
|Fifth Seal||AD 62 – AD 66||Souls Under Altar||Nero|
|Sixth Seal||AD 66||Earthquake, etc.||Nero|
|Seventh Seal||AD 66||Silence…Trumpets||Nero|