With chapter 6 the great 7-part vision cycles, which form the core of the remainder of the book, begin—the next cycle unfolding out of the seventh vision of the one prior. This triadic (3 x 7) visionary (and literary) structure, is tied back to the seven seals on the scroll at the right-hand of God’s throne (cf. the previous notes on the throne-vision of chaps. 4-5). From a rhetorical, epistolary standpoint, I had mentioned earlier that chapters 4-5 could be regarded as the propositio—the central proposition which is argued or expounded in the body of the letter. The proposition, if you will, might be stated as follows: even though Rome may seem to rule on earth at the present, in its socio-political and economic power, accompanied by corruption and wickedness, it is God and Jesus Christ (the Lamb) who truly rule over the peoples and nations. This “proposition” is implied in the words written on the scroll; the breaking of the seals, making these words known, is the exposition (probatio)—the “proof” of the proposition lies in the fact that the coming events, establishing God’s ultimate rule over humankind, have already been “written” and are destined to take place.
Verse 1 shows the connection with the previous vision:
“And I saw (that) when the Lamb opened up one out of the seven seals…”
Interestingly, the visions which follow in chapter 6 do not necessarily correspond with anything written on the scroll as such; rather, they are preliminary, being revealed when each of the seals is broken (“opened up”). Only after the seven seals have been broken, can the scroll, properly speaking, be read. The opening of each seal is accompanied by the voice of one of the four Living Beings around the throne. The voice has the heavenly/divine characteristic of sounding like thunder (bronth/); recall that in Hebrew the common word for thunder (loq) literally means “voice” (i.e. thunder as the ‘voice’ of God, drawing upon ancient storm-theophany). Each Living Being announces “(you must) come! [e&rxou]”, creating a most effective visionary dynamic.
The first four seals (and visions) involve horses (and horsemen)—”see, a horse…and the (one) sitting upon it”—resulting in the traditional designation of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, immortalized in artwork such as Dürer’s famous woodcut:
The first horse is white (leuko/$), and this has caused some confusion among readers and commentators. Because Jesus is depicted as the rider on a white horse in Rev 19:11ff, it is often assumed that he is rider here as well. But that is most unlikely, given the character of these four horses/horsemen when taken together as a group. It is true that white is typically the color associated with the divine/heavenly realm, representing holiness and purity, in particular (cf. the earlier use in 1:14; 2:17; 3:4-5, 18; 4:4). However, it can also symbolize victory (i.e., in warfare other contests), and, indeed, it carries this association in chapters 2-3. Moreover, a victorious military leader was frequently depicted (or presented) on a white horse—cf. Herodotus Histories 7.40; 9.63; Virgil Aeneid 3.537, etc; Koester, p. 393. Thus it is probably best to view this horse and rider as symbolizing military conquest, as emphasized by the double use of the verb nika/w in v. 2—”…and he went out being victorious, (so) that he might be victorious”. It is also suggestive of an overwhelming military strength, or as referring to one destined to conquer. The use of the bow (i.e. by mounted archers) does not appear to have been commonly employed by Roman forces at this time, being more typical of people outside the empire, or on its borders, such as the Parthians and Sarmatians. This likely is intended as a contrast to Roman Imperial control and security (cf. the beginning of the next note), but may also indicate the swiftness of the attack which could be carried out by mounted archers and cavalry units.
I believe that all four of the horses/horsemen primarily relate to the image of warfare; it is worth looking at them in summary:
- White (leuko/$, v. 2)—military conquest, indicated by both the color, as well as the weapon (bow, to/con) and wreath (ste/fano$) in honor of victory
- Red (purro/$, v. 4)—violence and death (red connoting blood, etc) as the result of military action (sword); a period of intense warfare is indicated:
“…and it was given to him to take peace out of the earth, even (so) that they will slaughter each other, and (indeed) a great sword was given to him”
- Black (me/la$, vv. 5-6)—which I take as symbolizing the darkness which follows in the wake of war, as when the sun turns dark (v. 12, etc) being obscured by smoke, and so forth. Here it seems to be defined in terms of socio-economic distress and oppression, i.e. the disruption of the balance of social order, indicated by the scale-beam (zugo/$) the rider holds in his hand. Verse 6 describes this two ways:
(a) food shortage, growing in severity—”a choinix of wheat-grain for a denarius, and three choinixes of barley for a denarius”
(b) the increasingly precious nature of olive oil and wine—”do not take away justice (from) [i.e. injure/mistreat] the olive (oil) and the wine”
Koester (p. 397) gives the plausible explanation that these references express the burden placed on the populace as the result of constant warfare. The need to provide food for armies, in addition to the effects of war itself (siege/destruction of cities and villages), would result in shortages of food. Funding the military might also require increased production of oil and wine to meet the costs, making these commodities even more precious.
- Green (xlwro/$, v. 8)—the rider is identified specifically by the name “Death” ([o(] qa/nato$), which, of course, is the most terrifying and traumatic result of war. The association with the color green is not entirely clear; it could be related to death and the dead in ancient tradition, but here more likely it refers to the fear (pale greenish look of the face, etc) with which people respond to death’s approach (cf. Homer, Iliad 7.479; Hippocrates Prognostikon 2, etc; Koester, p. 397). Death is followed by the “unseen realm” (a%|dh$, ‘Hades’) of the Dead, just as death (from warfare, etc) sends countless dead to the grave. In v. 8b, the scope widens from the effects of warfare (“the warfare”) to death from other factors—hunger and disease, and being killed by wild beasts (“under the beasts of the earth”), which could also occur with greater frequency as the result of war. One might also view warring parties symbolically as “beasts of the earth”.
In the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel Tradition, a period of intense warfare is also predicted (Mark 13:7-8 par), at the beginning of the distress and suffering which precedes the coming Judgment—”these are the beginning of (the birth-)pains”. Jesus likewise describes this in terms of constant war involving many different nations and ethnic groups, etc. The visions of the first four seals here in the book of Revelation seem to expand upon this idea, intensifying it further, so that death would come to a fourth of the earth’s territory and population (v. 8b). While this is almost certainly a symbolic number (related to the four Living Beings, seals, and horses/horsemen), it is most striking as an indication of the sheer number of people who would suffer death during this period.
The warfare (and its effects) described in these visions is probably meant as a contrast to the peace and security which was thought to be the beneficial product of Roman Imperial rule. The ideal of Pax Romana, immortalized by the many Imperial shrines (most notably the Ara Pacis Augustae [“Altar of the Augustan Peace”] in Rome), is shattered, even as the rider on the second horse is given the authority to “take peace out of the earth”. The bow held by the rider on the first horse might also allude to warfare/attacks by non-Roman peoples on the surrounding border territories (e.g., the Parthians), which also would threaten the security of the Empire. Ultimately, true peace can be established only through the appearance of Jesus Christ on earth, as the book of Revelation will described in its later chapters.
References marked “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).