The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are described in the last book of the New Testament of the Bible, called the Book of Revelation of Jesus Christ to John of Patmos, at 6:1-8. The chapter tells of a book or scroll in God's right hand that is sealed with seven seals. The Lamb of God opens the first four of the seven seals, which summons four beings that ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses. Though theologians and popular culture differ on the first horseman, the four riders are often seen as symbolizing Conquest or Pestilence (and less frequently, the Christ or the Antichrist), War, Famine, and Death. The Christian apocalyptic vision is that the four horsemen are to set a divine apocalypse upon the world as harbingers of the Last Judgment. One reading ties the four horsemen to the history of the Roman Empire subsequent to the era in which the Book of Revelation was written. That is, they are a symbolic prophecy of the subsequent history of the empire.
- The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Biblical Stories Explained
- White Horse
- As righteous
- As infectious disease
- As evil
- As empire prosperity
- Red Horse
- As empire division
- Black Horse
- As Imperial Oppression
- Pale Horse
- Destroying an Empire
- Prophetic interpretation
- Historicist interpretation
- Preterist interpretation
- Other interpretations
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Biblical Stories Explained)
Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.
Based on the above passage, a common translation into English, the white rider is generally referred to as "Conquest". The name could also be construed as "Victory", as in the translation found in the Jerusalem Bible (the Greek words are derived from the verb νικάω, to conquer or vanquish). He carries a bow, and wears a victor's crown.
The rider has also been called "Pestilence", particularly in popular culture (see below).
Irenaeus, an influential Christian theologian of the 2nd century, was among the first to interpret this horseman as Christ himself, his white horse representing the successful spread of the gospel. Various scholars have since supported this notion, citing the later appearance, in Revelation 19, of Christ mounted on a white horse, appearing as The Word of God. Furthermore, earlier in the New Testament, the Book of Mark indicates that the advance of the gospel may indeed precede and foretell the apocalypse. The color white also tends to represent righteousness in the Bible, and Christ is in other instances portrayed as a conqueror.
However, opposing interpretations argue that the first of the four horsemen is probably not the horseman of Revelation 19. They are described in significantly different ways, and Christ's role as the Lamb who opens the seven seals makes it unlikely that he would also be one of the forces released by the seals.
Besides Christ, the horseman could represent the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was understood to have come upon the Apostles at Pentecost after Jesus' departure from Earth. The appearance of the Lion in Revelation 5 shows the triumphant arrival of Jesus in Heaven, and the white horseman could represent the sending of the Holy Spirit by Jesus and the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Other interpretations relying on comparative religious research ascribe the first horseman as guiding for "the right path"; Mahabharata Lord Krishna was a charioteer to Arjuna by riding on white horses, while Arjuna himself was an archer.
As infectious disease
Under another interpretation, the first horseman is called Pestilence, and is associated with infectious disease and plague. It appears at least as early as 1906, when it is mentioned in the Jewish Encyclopedia. The interpretation is common in popular culture references to the Four Horsemen.
The origin of this interpretation is unclear. Some translations of the Bible mention "plague" (e.g. the NIV) or "pestilence" (e.g. the RSV) in connection with the riders in the passage following the introduction of the fourth rider; cf. "They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, Famine, plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth." (Revelation 6:7-8 NASB). However, it is a matter of debate as to whether this passage refers to the fourth rider, or to the four riders as a whole.
Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, in his 1916 novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (filmed in 1921 and in 1962), provides an early example of this interpretation, writing "The horseman on the white horse was clad in a showy and barbarous attire. [...] While his horse continued galloping, he was bending his bow in order to spread pestilence abroad. At his back swung the brass quiver filled with poisoned arrows, containing the germs of all diseases."
This interpretation exists in Kevin Kauffmann's Forsaken Comedy trilogy. In this depiction, a human named Niccolo contracts leprosy, dies, and falls to Hell, where he rises through the ranks to become the Horseman of Pestilence, under Lucifer's tutelage.
One interpretation held by evangelist Billy Graham, casts the rider of the white horse as the Antichrist, or a representation of false prophets, citing differences between the white horse in Revelation chapter 6 and Jesus on the white Horse in Revelation chapter 19. In Revelation 19, Jesus has many crowns. In Revelation 6, the rider has just one; a crown given, not taken. This indicates a third person giving authority to the rider to accomplish his work.
As empire prosperity
According to Edward Bishop Elliott's interpretation, that the four horsemen represent a prophecy of the subsequent history of the Roman Empire, the white color of this horse signifies triumph, prosperity and health in the political Roman body. For the next 80 or 90 years succeeding the banishment of the Apostle John to Patmos covering the successive reigns of the emperors Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the two Antonines (Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius), a golden age of prosperity, union, civil liberty and good government unstained with civil blood unfolded. The agents of this prosperity personified by the rider of the white horse are these five emperors wearing crowns that reigned with absolute authority and power under the guidance of virtue and wisdom, the armies being restrained by their firm and gentle hands.
This interpretation points out that the bow was preeminently a weapon of the inhabitants of the island of Crete and not of the Roman Empire in general. The Cretans were renowned for their archery skills. The significance of the rider of the white horse holding a bow indicates the place of origin of the line of emperors ruling during this time. This group of emperors can be classed together under one and the same head and family whose origins were from Crete.
According to this interpretation, this period in Roman history, remarkable, both at its commencement and at its close, illustrated the glory of the empire where its limits were extended though not without occasional wars, which were always uniformly triumphant and successful on the frontiers. The triumphs of the Emperor Trajan, the Roman Alexander, added to the empire Dacia, Armenia, Mesopotamia and other provinces during the course of the first 20 years of the period, which deepened the impression on the minds of the barbarians of the invincibility of the Roman Empire. Roman War progressed triumphantly into the invader's own territory, and the Parthian war was successfully ended by the total overthrow of those people. Roman conquest is demonstrated even in the most mighty of these wars, the Marcomannic succession of victories under the second Antonine unleashed on the German barbarians, driven into their forests and reduced to Roman submission.
When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come.” And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.
The rider of the second horse is often taken to represent War (he is often pictured holding a sword upwards as though ready for battle) or mass slaughter. His horse's color is red (πυρρός, from πῦρ, fire); and in some translations, the colour is specifically a "fiery" red. The color red, as well as the rider's possession of a great sword, suggests blood that is to be spilled. The sword held upward by the second horseman may represent war or a declaration of war, as seen in heraldry. In military symbolism, swords held upward, especially crossed swords held upward, signify war and entering into battle. (See for example the historical and modern images, as well as the coat of arms, of Jeanne of Arc.)
The second horseman may represent civil war as opposed to the war of conquest that the first horseman is sometimes said to bring. Other commentators have suggested that it might also represent the persecution of Christians.
As empire division
According to Edward Bishop Elliott's interpretation of the four horsemen as symbolic prophecy of the history of the Roman Empire, the second seal is opened and the Roman nation that experienced joy, prosperity and triumph is made subject to the red horse which depicts war and bloodshed — Civil War. Peace left the Roman earth resulting in the killing of one another as insurrection crept into and permeated the Empire beginning shortly into the reign of the Emperor Commodus.
Elliott points out that Commodus, who had nothing to wish and everything to enjoy, that beloved son of Marcus who ascended the throne with neither competitor to remove nor enemies to punish, became the slave of his attendants who gradually corrupted his mind. His cruelty degenerated into habit and became the ruling passion of his soul.
Elliott further recites that, after the Death of Commodus, a most turbulent period lasting 92 years unfolded during which time 32 emperors and 27 pretenders to the Empire hurled each other from the throne by incessant civil warfare. The sword was a natural, universal badge among the Romans, of the military profession. The apocalyptic figure indicated by the great sword indicated an undue authority and unnatural use of it. Military men in power, whose vocation was war and weapon the sword, rose by it and also fell. The unrestrained military, no longer subject to the Senate, transformed the Empire into a system of pure military despotism.
When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; but do not damage the oil and the wine.”
The third horseman rides a black horse and is popularly understood to be Famine as the horseman carries a pair of balances or weighing scales, indicating the way that bread would have been weighed during a famine. Other authors interpret the third horseman as the "Lord as a Law-Giver" holding Scales of Justice. In the passage, it is read that the indicated price of grain is about ten times normal (thus the famine interpretation popularity), with an entire day's wages (a denarius) buying enough wheat for only one person, or enough of the less nutritious barley for three, so that workers would struggle to feed their families.
Of the four horsemen, the black horse and its rider are the only ones whose appearance is accompanied by a vocal pronunciation. John hears a voice, unidentified but coming from among the four living creatures, that speaks of the prices of wheat and barley, also saying "and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine". This suggests that the black horse's famine is to drive up the price of grain but leave oil and wine supplies unaffected (though out of reach of the ordinary worker). One explanation for this is that grain crops would have been more naturally susceptible to famine years or locust plagues than olive trees and grapevines, which root more deeply. The statement might also suggest a continuing abundance of luxuries for the wealthy while staples, such as bread, are scarce, though not totally depleted; such selective scarcity may result from injustice and the deliberate production of luxury crops for the wealthy over grain, as would have happened during the time Revelation was written. Alternatively, the preservation of oil and wine could symbolize the preservation of the Christian faithful, who used oil and wine in their sacraments.
As Imperial Oppression
According to Edward Bishop Elliott's interpretation, through this third seal, the black horse is unleashed — aggravated distress and mourning. The balance in the rider's hand is not associated with a man's weighing out bits of bread in scanty measure for his family's eating but in association with the buying and selling of corn and other grains. The balance during the time of the apostle John's exile in Patmos was commonly a symbol of justice since it was used to weigh out the grains for a set price. The balance of justice held in the hand of the rider of the black horse signified the aggravation of the other previous evil, the bloodstained red of the Roman aspect into the darker blackness of distress.The black horse rider is instructed not to harm the oil and the wine which signifies that this scarcity should not fall upon the superfluities, such as oil and wine, which men can live without, but upon the necessities of life — bread.
In history, the Roman Empire suffered as a result of excessive taxation of its citizens. During the reign of Emperor Caracalla, whose sentiments were very different from the Antonines being inattentive, or rather averse, to the welfare of the people, he found himself under the necessity of gratifying the greed and excessive lifestyle which he had excited in the Army. During his reign, he crushed every part of the empire under the weight of his iron scepter. Old as well as new taxes were at the same time levied in the provinces. In the course of this history, the land tax, the taxes for services and the heavy contributions of corn, wine, oil and meat were exacted from the provinces for the use of the court, army and capital. This noxious weed not totally eradicated again sprang up with the most luxurious growth and going forward darkened the Roman world with its deadly shade.
In reality, the rise to power of the Emperor Maximin, whose cruelty was derived from a different source being raised as a barbarian from the district of Thrace, expanded the distress on the empire beyond the confines of the illustrious senators or bold adventurers who in the court or army exposed themselves to the whims of fortune. This tyrant, stimulated by the insatiable desires of the soldiers, attacked the public property at length. Every city of the empire was destined to purchase corn for the multitudes as well as supply expenses for the games. By the Emperor's authority, the whole mass of wealth was confiscated for use by the Imperial treasury — temples stripped of their most valuable offerings of gold, silver and statues which were melted down and coined into money.
When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.
The fourth and final horseman is named Death. Known as "Θάνατος/Thanatos",[Rev 6:8] of all the riders, he is the only one to whom the text itself explicitly gives a name. Unlike the other three, he is not described carrying a weapon or other object, instead he is followed by Hades (the resting place of the dead). However, illustrations commonly depict him carrying a scythe (like the Grim Reaper), sword, or other implement.
The color of Death's horse is written as khlōros (χλωρός) in the original Koine Greek, which can mean either green/greenish-yellow or pale/pallid. The color is often translated as "pale", though "ashen", "pale green", and "yellowish green" are other possible interpretations (the Greek word is the root of "chlorophyll" and "chlorine"). Based on uses of the word in ancient Greek medical literature, several scholars suggest that the color reflects the sickly pallor of a corpse. In some modern artistic depictions, the horse is distinctly green.
The verse beginning "they were given power over a fourth of the earth" is generally taken as referring to Death and Hades, although some commentators see it as applying to all four horsemen.
Destroying an Empire
This fourth, pale horse, was the personification of death with Hades following him jaws open receiving the victims slain by death. Its commission was to kill upon the Roman Earth with all of the four judgements of God — with sword, famine, pestilence and wild beasts. The deadly pale and livid appearance displays a hue symptomatic of approaching empire dissolution. According to Edward Bishop Elliott, an era in Roman history commencing within about 15 years after the death of Alexander Severus strongly marks every point of this terrible emblem. Edward Gibbon speaks of a period from the celebration of the great secular games by the Emperor Philip to the death of Gallienus as the 20 years of shame and misfortune, of confusion and calamity, as a time when the ruined empire approached the last and fatal moment of its dissolution. Every instant of time in every province of the Roman world was afflicted by military tyrants and barbarous invaders — the sword from within and without.
According to Elliott, famine, the inevitable consequence of carnage and oppression, which demolished the produce of the present as well as the hope of future harvests, produced the environment for an epidemic of diseases, the effects of scanty and unwholesome food. That furious plague, which raged from the year 250 to the year 265, continued without interruption in every province, city and almost every family in the empire. During a portion of this time, 5000 people died daily in Rome; and many towns that escaped the attacks of barbarians were entirely depopulated.
In reality, the strength of Aurelian had on every side crushed the enemies of Rome, yet after his death they revived with an increase of numbers and fury. During the following year, hosts of the Alani that spread themselves over Pontus, Cappadocia, Cilicia and Galatia etched their course by the flames of cities and villages they pillaged.
As for the wild beasts of the earth, according to Elliott, it is a well-known law of nature that they quickly occupy the scenes of waste and depopulation — where the reign of man fails and the reign of beast begins. After the reign of Gallienus and 20 or 30 years had passed, the multiplication of the animals had risen to such an extent in parts of the empire that they made it a crying evil.
One notable point of apparent difference between the prophecy and history might seem to be expressly limited to the fourth part of the Roman earth, but in the history of the period the devastations of the pale horse extended over at all. The fourth seal prophecy seems to mark the malignant climax of the evils of the two preceding seals to which no such limitation is attached. Turning to that remarkable reading in Jerome's Latin Vulgate which reads "over the four parts of the earth," it requires that the Roman empire should have some kind of quadripartition. Dividing from the central or Italian fourth, three great divisions of the Empire separated into the West, East and Illyricum under Posthumus, Aureolus and Zenobia respectively — divisions that were later legitimized by Diocletian.
Diocletian ended this long period of anarchy, but the succession of civil wars and invasions caused much suffering, disorder and crime which brought the empire into a state of moral lethargy from which it never recovered. After the plague had abated, the empire suffered from general distress, and its condition was very much like that which followed after the black death of the Middle Ages. Talent and art had become extinct in proportion to the desolation of the world.
Some Christians interpret the horsemen as a prophecy of a future Tribulation, during which many on earth will die as a result of multiple catastrophes. The Four Horsemen are the first in a series of "Seal" judgements. This is when God will judge the Earth, and is giving the World a chance to repent before they die.
According to E.B. Elliott, the first seal, as revealed to John by the angel, was to signify what was to happen soon after John seeing the visions in Patmos and that the second, third and fourth seals in like manner were to have commencing dates each in chronological sequence following the preceding seal. Its general subject is the decline and fall, after a previous prosperous era, of the Empire of Heathen Rome. The first four seals of Revelation, represented by four horses and horsemen, are fixed to events, or changes, within the Roman earth.
Some modern scholars interpret Revelation from a preterist point of view, arguing that its prophecy and imagery apply only to the events of the first century of Christian history. In this school of thought, Conquest, the white horse's rider, is sometimes identified as a symbol of Parthian forces: Conquest carries a bow, and the Parthian Empire was at that time known for its mounted warriors and their skill with bow and arrow. Parthians were also particularly associated with white horses. Some scholars specifically point to Vologases I, a Parthian shah who clashed with the Roman Empire and won one significant battle in 62 AD.
Revelation's historical context may also influence the depiction of the black horse and its rider, Famine. In 92 AD, the Roman emperor Domitian attempted to curb excessive growth of grapevines and encourage grain cultivation instead, but there was major popular backlash against this effort, and it was abandoned. Famine's mission to make wheat and barley scarce but "hurt not the oil and the wine" could be an allusion to this episode. The red horse and its rider, who take peace from the earth, might represent the prevalence of civil strife at the time Revelation was written; internecine conflict ran rampant in the Roman Empire during and just prior to the 1st century AD.
Artwork which shows the horsemen as a group, such as the famous woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, suggests an interpretation where all four horsemen represent different aspects of the same tribulation.
American Protestant Evangelical interpreters regularly see ways in which the horsemen, and Revelation in general, speak to contemporary events. Some who believe Revelation applies to modern times can interpret the horses based on various ways their colors are used. Red, for example, often represents Communism, the white horse and rider with a crown representing Catholicism, Black has been used as a symbol of Capitalism, while Green represents the rise of Islam. Pastor Irvin Baxter Jr. of Endtime Ministries espouses such a belief.
Some equate the four horsemen with the angels of the four winds. (See Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel, angels often associated with four cardinal directions)