War, Famine and Death.

When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.

When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had 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 denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. Revelation 6:3-8 ESV


As noted with the opening of the first seal, each horse and rider that John sees is summoned by one of the four creatures standing before the throne of God. They call, “Come!” and the horse and riders appear. This strongly suggests that all of the events that these images portend are under the control of God. They are not isolated and arbitrary, but preordained by God Himself. And they are happening in just the way He planned at the exact time of His choosing.

While the first horse was white, symbolizing victory and what would appear to be righteousness, its rider was most likely symbolic of the Antichrist. John indicates the he came conquering and to conquer, but his success will not be based on military might, because he was carrying a bow, but no arrows. So, his ability to conquer will be of a more political nature. He will be a strategist who uses the world political stage to his advantage, climbing the ladder to power and prominence and setting himself up as a major player on the world political scene.

But the second horse is red in color, symbolizing war and the bloodshed that comes as a result. Notice what the text says: “Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth” (Revelation 6:4 ESV). This is yet another reminder that all of what is being revealed is under the divine prerogative of God. This rider, whoever he is, can do nothing without God’s approval and permission. But God is allowing this rider to bring warfare and death to the world because of the sins of mankind and in keeping with His promise to bring judgment on the world’s rebellion against His authority. But who is this rider? As usual, there has been a great deal of speculation over the centuries as to the identity of this rider. But the immediate text does not provide us with any real clue as to who this rider may be. There are some who speculate that we are once again looking at a manifestation of the Antichrist. Because these seals and the content they reveal are progressive in nature, it would appear that they are exposing the various iterations of the Antichrist, as his true nature and intent becomes more apparent over time. He begins as a world leader who appears to be nothing more than a successful political candidate who makes a name for himself by brokering a period of peace on the earth. In fact, Daniel 9:27 seems to indicate that the Antichrist will make a seven-year treaty with the nation of Israel, which at the midway point, he will break. This seven year period is considered to be the tribulation, the second half of which will be a time of great unrest and destruction. So, the Antichrist will begin as a man of peace and diplomacy, somehow brokering an agreement between the Jews and Muslims to allow for the rebuilding of the temple on the temple mount in Jerusalem. But as Daniel’s account describes, at the midway point of the tribulation, Antichrist will turn his back on the people of Israel and desecrate the temple, setting himself up as the only god to be worshiped.

But it could be that this rider is nothing more than a symbol for war. In His Olivet Discourse, Jesus warned His disciples:

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. – Matthew 24:6-8 ESV

This rider signals a time of great civil unrest in the world. The text makes clear that people will slay one another. This may refer to actual wars between nations or riots in the streets. But whatever it means, it is clear that any peace that might have been enjoyed will be gone. This foreshadows a time of unprecedented conflict on the earth. And, as is always the case with war, there will be consequences. As the third seal is opened by Christ, the third creature calls out, “Come!” and yet another horse and rider appears. This time, the horse is black and its rider carries a pair of scales in his hands. Black is the traditional symbol for death and it foreshadows a period of tremendous death and devastation caused by famine. The period of warfare will have an impact of the world’s economy, creating hyper-inflation and a shortage of food. The scales indicate that Antichrist, the political leader who has established himself as the dominant force on the world scene, will have control over the buying and selling of goods. In a world wracked by war, where the necessities of life become scarce, he will dictate the price of goods and manage their availability. John hears a voice crying out, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” (Revelation 6:6 ESV). In the first-Century world in which John lived, a denarius represented a day’s wages for a common laborer. So, according to the voice John hears, it is going to take a full-day’s wage to buy enough wheat for one meal. If the cheaper and lower-cost barley is purchased, you could stretch the value of your denarius a bit further. But the bottom line will be that inflation is going to be huge problem and hunger will become commonplace.

With the opening of the fourth seal, the fourth beast calls out, “Come!” and the final horse and rider appear. This horse is described as being pale in color. A more accurate description of the horse’s color would be pale green. The actual Greek word is chlōros, from which we get our word chlorophyll. It would appear that this horse is the color of a decomposing corpse, and riding on this horse is someone who John describes as having the name, Death. And following close behind this horse and rider is Hades. This anthropomorphic description of the abode of the dead is intended to add a sense of complete and utter destruction to the scene. Death is what brings to an end the life of the material body. Hades is the traditional Hebrew word for the abode of the immaterial part of a person. It was believed to be where the soul goes after death. King David spoke about this very place in one of his psalms.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
    my flesh also dwells secure.
10 For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
    or let your holy one see corruption. – Psalm 16:9-10 ESV

This horse and rider are described as the harbingers of death, who “were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:8 ESV). As a result of the wars and conflicts taking place on the earth and the resulting famine, death and Hades will be satiated with the sheer number of the deceased. It will be an unprecedented time of global disaster marked by the deaths of a fourth of the world’s population. Hades following death is simply a way of saying that the souls of all those who die as a result of the judgments of God will end up in the afterlife, where they will one day face the final judgment of God. This is what is referred to later in the book of Revelation as the Great White Throne Judgment.

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. – Revelation 20:11-15 ESV

 The fourth horse and rider represent the fourth phase of God’s judgment on the world. The first four seals reveal the rise to power of the Antichrist and his subsequent impact on the world. The period of time covered by these four signs is the seven years known as the tribulation. It will be a time marked by war, financial instability, famine, disease, and unprecedented loss of human life. It will be like no other time in human history, when some of the most devastating tragedies ever experienced by mankind will be jam-packed into what is a relatively short period of time. Most of what John has described takes place in the second half of the tribulation, a period known as the Great Tribulation. And, as we will see, one of the groups that will suffer the most during this time is the Jewish people. Because of their association with God and the promises made by God to restore them to a right relationship with Himself, Satan will continue to do everything in his power to destroy the people of God. Because of the rapture, the church will no longer be a factor, freeing up Satan to focus all his attention and energies on the Jews. The prophet Jeremiah predicted what would happen, but he provides a wonderful reminder that God has a purpose behind all the devastation and destruction. He is bringing His judgments against His people for the generations of apostasy and rebellion against Him. But in spite of their disobedience and unfaithfulness, God was going to restore them.

“Thus says the Lord:
We have heard a cry of panic,
    of terror, and no peace.
Ask now, and see,
    can a man bear a child?
Why then do I see every man
    with his hands on his stomach like a woman in labor?
    Why has every face turned pale?
Alas! That day is so great
    there is none like it;
it is a time of distress for Jacob;
    yet he shall be saved out of it. – Jeremiah 30:5-7 ESV

Jesus also spoke of these coming days and assured that the outcome would be a positive one for God’s people.

21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. – Matthew 24:21-22 ESV

As we make our way through the rest of this book, it is essential that we recognize and constantly remind ourselves that God has all of this in His hands. These events are written on the scroll that has been in His possession from before the foundation of the world. The seals are being broken by His Son. And the events unfolding before our eyes are the result of the divine will of God Himself.


English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson