The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

September 17, 2023

Gracious God, as we come to Your Word, we pray not merely because we think this is how messages start, but because we need You to answer this prayer, that You would give us ears to hear, that these words in these next minutes may not be lost on us. We’re not interested in wasting our time, there’s no point for sitting through another sermon, so give to us just what we need to hear from Your holy, inspired, inerrant Word. In Jesus we pray. Amen.

It was October 18, 1924, so almost 100 years ago. This was the scene as described by Grantland Rice of the New York Herald Tribune, and I don’t know what he sounded like, but I think it sounded sort of old-timey news reporter: “Outlined against a blue/gray October sky,” something like that, “the four horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore, they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction, and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.”

That’s what sports writers sound like today. The story, perhaps some of you have heard, Notre Dame beat Army 13 to 7 in 1924. The four horsemen, famously, were Notre Dame quarterback, two half-backs, and a full-back. If you know anything about football today, not a common alignment anymore. And though they were heralded as the “Four Horsemen,” they were all under 6 feet tall, less than 162 pounds.

The four horsemen have been passed down to us and now they are a part of our cultural language. I did a Google search and found that “four horsemen” can refer to an award-winning restaurant in Brooklyn, a professional wrestling group which once included Ric Flair. It can refer to behavioral predictors of divorce in couples’ therapy, defensiveness, anger, I forget, there’s four horsemen. A film about modern atheism, a documentary about the global economy, a Metallica tribute band, an independent mens’ clothing boutique in British Columbia, and the list goes on.

Many people have heard, though they may not know where the reference comes from, the “four horsemen,” or the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” The answer is that they come from this morning’s text, Revelation chapter 6.

Before we read from Revelation chapter 6, let me remind you where we are, in particular because we’ve skipped over several chapters. In Revelation 1, we saw that Revelation is a letter, an apocalypse, and a prophecy. So it’s an apocalypse, that is, it’s a certain genre of literature. It’s a book that tells us things by showing us things. It’s a book of verbal pictures. Last week at the end of chapter 1 we saw the glorified, exalted Son of Man Jesus Christ, our high priest, who rules over the Church and over the nations, to serve the Church and judge the wicked.

We skipped over chapter 2 and 3, where we read Jesus’ assessment of these seven churches, so this is a letter that went in a circular route among these seven churches in Asia Minor, today western Turkey, and in each one we have some of the strengths, and in some of them some of the weaknesses of the churches. Whether they’re facing temptation to lovelessness or to compromise, the theme in each of them is this word which really can be a banner over the whole book, and it’s a word that all of you have heard, and it’s a word that some of you have a symbol of on your shoe this morning. It’s the word nike. It’s a Greek word meaning victory. Nikao is a verb and the word occurs in the book of Revelation more than in the rest of the New Testament combined. It means victory, to overcome, to him who conquers, to him who overcomes. That’s the word nike.

So each of these seven churches has a struggle. There’s something that they need to overcome, and the answer, at least the first answer to be overcomers, is given in chapters four and five where there is a vision of the One who sits on the throne and then there is the Lamb. Because before the One who sits on the throne is a scroll, a scroll represents here not the names of those written in the Lamb’s book of life, but God’s plans for the world. Written in this scroll is a record of God’s dealings with mankind. It’s a divine plan of judgment and salvation. It includes the purposes of God for the world.

So the question is asked in chapter 5, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” So you imagine a scroll that’s rolled up and it has seven seals. We might think of it as seven ribbons, or maybe it’s a wax kind of embosser. It has seven seals on this scroll and no one was found worthy until the Lamb, the lion-like Lamb who was slain. He is worthy to take the scroll and break its seals.

Which brings us to chapter 6. As the Lamb is going to break the seven seals, one by one, and with each seal that is broken there will be a voice and there will be something revealed to us about God’s Work in the world.

So follow along, the first eight verses, Revelation chapter 6.

“Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. 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.”

Our outline is simple. We’re going to try to understand what’s depicted here with each of these horsemen and then we will conclude with some summary points and try to draw some lessons from what seems to be a very depressing eight verses.

The first horse is a white horse. It makes some scholars think that the rider is Christ. After all, don’t we meet another rider on a white horse, clothed in white, in Revelation chapter 19? So some have argued this first rider is Christ who is going forth to conquer with the Gospel, or maybe He’s riding out to conquer His enemies. The suggestion makes some sense because of the white horse in Revelation 19. There the rider is clearly Christ, His name is the Word of God and on His robe and His thigh it says King of Kings and Lord of Lords, so it’s possible.

However, I think it’s unlikely that this first rider is Christ. For one thing, there are some differences between Revelation 6 and Revelation 19. In Revelation 19 the rider has a sword and many crowns. In Revelation 6 he has a bow and one crown. Not a big deal, perhaps, but it’s something. Second, the fact that both horses are white does not mean this is the same image. White, you can imagine, was simply the color for conquest, just as somebody might come out under a flag of truce or surrender. This is the sign when a general or a king would ride into town and if he would come as a victor, he would ride on a white horse. Think about Gandalf the Gray, Gandalf the White, riding out. He’s come with victory. So it’s much more likely that the horses being white are reflecting the cultural motif more than that we’re supposed to think it’s the same rider, the same horse.

A final reason for thinking this first rider is not Christ is because the four horses should be seen as a unit. The imagery comes from Zechariah chapter 6. Here’s what we read. Zechariah has a vision: “I looked up again and there before me were four chariots coming out from between the two mountains, mountains of bronze. The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth dappled horses—all of them powerful.” Slightly different language, slightly different order, but you can see very obviously that this image that Zechariah has of four chariots with horses in four different colors is where John gets this imagery. They’re a unit in Zechariah, they’re meant to be a unit here in Revelation. They all go together and they’re all doing the same kind of thing.

So it would not make sense if the first horse, well, that’s Jesus conquering with the Gospel, and then the other three horses are a lot of bad news. No, these are four horses who are bringing bad things on the earth. They are coming from God’s authority, as we’ll see, so they’re justified, but they’re not what people want to see, death and destruction. It would be strange to have one horse and rider spreading the Gospel.

So this is not Christ but more generally we could call this first horse “Conquest.” It’s a picture of men, women, trampling on each other, wreaking havoc in the name of greed, ambition. It’s appropriate that this one leads out the four horses because when individuals, when rulers, when nations, are hell-bent on conquest, the other evils follow.

You only have to know something about history, say from World War II for example, Hitler wants to gain and build and have new lands, and as this deliberate plan of conquest unfolds throughout Europe to the West and to the East, these other things follow – scarcity, famine, inflation, economic woe, death, disease. As one author puts it, the expansionist aspirations of rulers precipitate military conflict, scarcity of resources like food and medicine, leading to malnutrition, starvation, epidemics, and death. This has been true throughout history and it’s true now – wherever you see these military aspirations of unworthy conquest, following in their train are these other three horses.

Second. The second horse is red. Why red? Red like blood. So if the first horse you might call “Conquest,” and they go by different names because only the fourth one is given a name with its rider, this one you might call “War.” As a part of God’s judgment, He gives to the second horsemen power to take peace from the earth. God pulls back His restraining hand and allows evil to flourish. He grants that men are able to slay each other. You see verse 4 – permitted to take peace.

This is one of the themes in the book of Romans. God hands them over, or God lifts His restraining hand. We don’t think about it. How much evil in the world does not happen because God in His common grace, through mediating institutions, through decent people even if they’re not Christians, through governments that have checks and balances, through all manner of things, God restrains our worst impulses. When you see war break out, it’s usually because God has lifted that restraining power.

Here in the second horse, as the second seal is broken, we see bloodshed, because no longer does God restrain what is in the human heart. Why are people so mean and cruel to each other? Did society make them that way? Did their parents make them that way? Well, all of those things play a role, but ultimately it’s because we have fallen, wicked, human hearts apart from God’s grace. We often don’t think about it, but the world could be much, much worse.

When God, see, here’s God’s judgment, be careful what you ask for. God, would You just let me do what I want to do? Careful. It would be an act of judgment for God to do that writ large across the nations. He says, “So be it. I will let you act according to your worst impulses,” and He gives people over to the extent of their wicked desires. He allows them to slay each other, sometimes without any seeming purpose.

If you study World War I you know the great loss of life by the millions, and sometimes on a single day by the tens of thousands, not even sure in that moment what they were fighting for except to move forward another few yards and dig a trench just a little bit closer to the enemy’s lines.

God gives in a moment of judgment, lifts His restraining hands, the civilizing influence, the societal pressures, the whole web of cultural forces, the social capital that allows people to trust each other. You think of Lord of the Flies, they read that, many of you have read it, I know there’s various interpretations, but at least of the dominant interpretations is to show this is what even very cultured, civilized people growing up in the lap of luxury, without the restraining influences of culture and civilization, can quickly do to one another. Lord of the Flies, they say sometimes it’s what family camping looks like. Where are the children? I don’t know. They’re among the flies, they’ll return perhaps.

The problem is not that the world has made us bad, it’s that we have bad hearts and God’s judgment is to lift that divine restraining order and allow people to act according to their truest desires, and they behave like animals and slay each other. That’s why we say you’re acting inhumane, you’re not acting as human beings in the image of God should treat one another, but as animals, red in tooth and claw.

The third horse is the horse of scarcity. White, the color for conquest; red, the color for bloodshed; and then this horse is black. It’s the color of deprivation, the color of absence. The situation depicted in this third seal is not famine per se, though sometimes it’s called famine, but more accurately we might call it scarcity.

We have this reference – a quart of wheat for a denarius, verse 6, three quarts of barley for a denarius. It might not be immediately obvious what that means because we don’t deal with a denarius or with quarts of barley and a quart of what, most of us, but this is a picture of rampant inflation. I will say nothing about rampant inflation. But this inflation is even worse. A denarius is a day’s wage, a denarius is what a soldier would receive, perhaps, or a worker would receive, subsistence pay, and a quart of wheat is what you might receive in the army as a daily ration. So just to pay for one ration of food is taking your entire paycheck.

You might say $50 for a gallon of gas, $75 for a gallon of milk. That’s what this voice among the four living creatures is calling out. It’s a situation of great economic calamity, that there’s no way that they have the payment to pay for these very basic things they need for life.

Some semblance of mercy, however, or at least a call for mercy, is the voice that says “do not harm the oil and the wine.” The oil, not our kind of oil but from the olive plant, and the wine from the vine, these would have been more resistant to drought so perhaps they’ve not been subject to the same inflation. They’re necessary for life.

The point of this vision is that the economic conditions are miserable. Food is scarce. Things are not as bad as they could be but they are getting worse as God’s fury and judgment is unleashed upon the nations.

Which brings us to the fourth horse. We read, “the fourth living creature says “come”, and I looked,” verse 8, “and behold a pale horse.” Literally, green. That is, the color of sickness and death. Think of that emoji on your phone with the green face and the full mouth. That’s this horse, it’s sickly, it’s pale, it’s green.

The horses follow a natural progression. First, you have some ruler or some nation bent on conquest and destruction, acquisition, which leads to war, revolution, rebellion. When you have war you have scarcity, economic hardship, ultimately then you have the fourth horse, death. The rider of the fourth horse is the only one named. Its rider, we read, is named Death, and Hades follows close behind. Death and Hades are related but they’re not exactly the same thing. Death is death, you die. Hades is not the Greek word for hell as we think of it, that’s more often the word “Gehenna,” the place of torment. Hades is similar to the Hebrew idea of sheol. It’s the realm of the dead. It’s where you go to face judgment or blessing or reward. So the picture, it is somewhat redundant, but of the rider whose name is “Death,” and though it’s not exactly what John would have seen, we might picture in our culture, the Grim Reaper, black hood and faceless and a sickle in his hand.

So we have this rider named Death and then close behind the other Ringwraith coming by is Hades. It’s a picture of people falling dead and then Hades comes to swallow them up, swallow them up in his grave.

They are given power, we are told, over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, plague, and by wild beasts. It’s important to remember that Revelation as an apocalypse is a book where numbers more often than not almost always have a figurative representation. So a fourth does not mean somehow all the people are divided up into fourths or it’s only a fourth of the geographic land mass, it’s simply to say that the judgment is not complete. This is a partial judgment. This is not a final judgment. A fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, plague, wild beasts, pestilence.

This is the list given in Ezekiel 14:21. Quote: For this is what the sovereign Lord says: How much worse will it be when I send against Jerusalem my four dreadful judgments, sword and famine and wild beasts and plague.”

Those were the ways that your city could be destroyed. Those where the ways. That was calamity in the ancient world and it’s not too far off from calamity in our day. Perhaps we don’t fear wild beasts as much, but we all know about the snakes here. Sword, maybe for us it’s guns, bombs, tanks. Sword. Famine. Wild beasts, plague, or pestilence. These four classic means of death in the ancient world.

So they’re mentioned by the prophet Ezekiel. They’re here in John’s vision and they first come from Leviticus chapter 26: “The Lord says to His people, if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to listen to Me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over. I will send wild animals against you. I will bring the sword upon you. I will send a plague upon you. You will eat and not be satisfied.” The exact same four things – sword, famine, pestilence, death, death by wild animals.

Now just connect the dots here. We know that Christians are God’s new covenant people, those who belong to the seed of Abraham that is Jesus Christ. We’ve got lots of covenant language around here. So in one sense God’s covenant people are not any one nation. God’s covenant people are international. God does not have a covenant with America like He did with ancient Israel. It’s not Americans who are God’s covenant people. That’s the Church.

Yet it is true in a much more general sense that God does judge the nations of the earth and He does bring upon them some covenant judgments, that though they are not in a covenant of supernatural, special grace, all of us are under, every nation under the Noahic general covenant of common grace, so that God still does care what the nations of the world do before Him. He will judge the nations of the earth for their wickedness.

So we see here riding out among the people are the covenant judgments from Leviticus but here they are descending, or marching out, riding out, upon the nations of the world. God still visits the nations of the world with these kinds of covenantal curses, even if they are not explicitly His covenantal people: Conquest, war, hunger, and death.

So what does all of this mean? You say, “Pastor, you should have taken more verses, to end right there.” Well, there are a lot of doom and gloom verses in the rest of Revelation. What lessons should we draw from these four horsemen? Let me conclude with three thoughts, reflections, application.

First concluding reflection. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are riding forth, have been riding forth, and will continue to ride forth. That is to say, and here you’re, I’m trying to bring you along with what I think is the right way of interpreting Revelation, because some people would say, “All right, we need to look out. When is the end of human history? Well, you need to find when these four horsemen are riding out in the world.”

Let me ask you, honestly, when have these four horsemen not been riding out in the world? A few of you are in a Sunday school class that I’m doing on the Middle Ages and today we looked at Gregory the Great who was a pope, he actually was a very good pope, and he reigned from 590 to 604, and the very end of the Roman Empire in the West. It seemed as he faced the city of Rome, which used to have a million people, was down to 30,000, swelled some as people came in, but it was a shadow of its former glory. As they endured first drought then flooding then plague and then this Germanic people called the Lombards who were marching down, it really did seem to them as if it was the end of the world. So Gregory said in a sermon, “Everywhere we see tribulation, everywhere we hear lamentation. The cities are destroyed. The castles are torn down. The fields laid waste. The land made desolate. Villages are empty. Few inhabitants remain in the cities and even those poor remnants of humanity are daily cut down.”

No matter how bad you think it is, it is not one fraction of a percent as bad as they faced in Rome at the end of the 6th century, and may we pray that none of us would see a situation as bleak as that.

Clearly, riding out throughout the Italian peninsula at the end of the 6th century were these four horsemen. The reason that every generation of Christians thinks that they are in the very last days is because these things have always been true. We can always see these things. Jesus said you will have wars and rumors of wars. When have we not had wars and rumors of wars? When have there not been earthquakes in some part of the world? Or famines? Or persecutions? We will see these things.

Sinful, human actions. God’s judgment not here yet through divine, direct intervention, but by lifting His hand that the sinful impulses of humanity would run and wreak havoc on the earth.

So these four horsemen have been, will always be, galloping in some part or another in our world.

Second thought. Recognize and rest in the fact that all of these things are under God’s sovereign control. Now I know some people shudder at that thought and they want to rescue God from His sovereignty. It’s true. When we have a sovereign God, it raises all sorts of questions. Why would God do this? There’s lots of metaphysical, existential questions we have when God is sovereign. This isn’t the sermon to answer all of them and no human can answer every one of them, but the Bible never shies away, never tries to rescue God from His sovereignty. Run to Him with those questions, not away from Him.

Here we have a very deliberate picture. You notice what happens. What unleashes, what lifts the bar and opens the stable gate for each horse to run free? One of the four living creatures, worshiping around the throne, says, “Come.” It’s at the voice of the four living creatures, some sort of angelic beings around the throne, who are all worshiping the throne. So don’t think the four living creatures are sovereign; they’re there worshiping underneath the greater sovereignty and rule of almighty God. The picture is meant to be clear to us – this is not God somehow having His plan curtailed or circumvented, but this is the very plan of God.

Remember, the scrolls, these are the things written in the scroll. God’s plans, His purposes. The living creature says “come.” They only ride forth as a voice from the throne room beckons them. Did you notice how often it says, “He was given,” like verse 2, “a crown was given to him.”

No military conquest, even though they may do so with evil in their hearts, can yet gallop across the earth unless lifts His hands and grants that they are able to do what their sinful heart’s desire.

Or did you see how they were given power to take peace? Or they were given power over a fourth of the earth in verse 8? This is a picture of God’s total sovereignty. It’s not a picture of God vacating the throne, but ruling from His throne. It’s not a picture of God having to scramble to get out His divine binoculars and say, “What’s happening? Can one of the angels come back and tell me what’s going on in the world? I hear there’s bad things.”

Remember, chapter 6 answers the question raised by chapter 5: Who’s worthy? Who can reveal to us God’s plan? It is the Lamb who was slain.

Where is God in all of this? The answer is He is on the throne, reigning. The scene in chapter 4 and 5 has not been overthrown. He is there reigning in unmatched splendor and authority. He is receiving unending praise and glory. As a judgment upon sinful people, He sends the horses to gallop across the earth.

Brothers and sisters, surely this means we, though we may see apparent chaos, brokenness, destruction, some of you, us, may be old enough to feel like this is not the world I grew up in, but we of all people should not be given to panic. Nothing happens by chance or without divine purpose. Remember, the Old Testament passages like Zechariah or Ezekiel or Leviticus, they stand behind this scene in Revelation chapter 6.

Christians of all people should not be Chicken Littles. The sky is falling, the sky is falling. You do understand that most media outlets exist in part to make you afraid of a lot of things, because that’s when you tune in, sort of perversely. Lot of bad stuff out there – I can’t turn away. They know you don’t tune in to say, “More good news coming today. Nothing to worry about here but please don’t turn the channel.” No, they want you to feel afraid.

Well, yes, there are bad things in the world. As Christians we can see societies crumble, collapse, but our response must never be terrified alarm, because we know our security is not bound up in any nation. It’s not even bound up in the fragile network of law and order as much as we long for those things, but rather it’s with anticipation and confidence that the Lamb who was slain and the God on the throne, that nothing happens apart from their sovereign control.

Remember that great verse we take rightly as a good verse on evangelism, 1 Peter 3:15 – Always be ready to give people a reason for the hope that you have. Anyone think to stop you, to stop us, and say, “Wow, there’s a lot of scary things out there. There’s a lot of things I don’t like the way they’re going. Why do you have so much hope?”

A lot of us think that people are going to stop and say, “Hey, please. I want to talk to you. Can you tell me why you’re so afraid? Can we talk about, I’m panicking. You’re panicking?”

No, it envisions a scene that with lots of bad things, they would say, “There’s something about you Christians. Can you tell me the reason for the hope that you have in the midst of so much that seems grim?” Because we know that as dire and as gloomy as these four horsemen may be, they only come at God’s beck and call.

A final thought. Let every scene of conquest, war, scarcity, and death be a warning to us. Remember I said they were given power over a fourth of the earth? This isn’t the end. One of the most difficult questions in this passage is who receives the judgments. Is this for the wayward Church? Perhaps. We saw there were many wayward churches among the seven letters and Christ can come to discipline the unfaithful.

Is this judgment upon the wicked world? Certainly. Those who stand as enemies of the cross of Christ do not go unnoticed by God.

Is this a judgment for the Church that overcome? Well, yes. We, too, live in the world and we do not escape when the world around us suffers.

We’ll see next week the firth seal and there we will meet the martyrs under the throne, so some Christians, an appointed number of Christians, are given to die for their faith. Christians will not be exempt from suffering. And for us, then, these horsemen are not ultimately a judgment but a trial, to sanctify, to purify, and for all peoples on the earth, they are a way that God might call us to repent.

I mentioned Gregory. One of the sermons he first preached when he was Pope and he looked out upon the city of Rome, beset by so many problems, he said this about the plague: “Their death is preceded by no lingering illness, for as you know they die before they even feel ill. Our fellow citizens are not taken one by one, they are being bustled off in droves. Homes are left empty. Parents are forced to attend the funerals of their children. Their heirs march before them into the grave.” Then he says this: “Every one of us, I say, must bewail his sins and repent while there is still time for lamentation.”

This is so strange to us, and yet throughout almost all of human history when there would be one of these horsemen in their sites, whether they felt personally responsible, the response of God’s people was always to bow before God and say, “Have mercy, and if we have sins against You, would You show us, God, and would You lead us to repent.”

I know there’s lots of ways that you may think about cultural renewal, societal renewal, in America, and certainly we need people paying attention to institutions and politics and all the rest, but true, lasting renewal will only come with true, lasting repentance. Every time we see these horses galloping, it is actually a measure of God’s grace that the end has not yet come.

You remember in the Gospels when the tower of Siloam fell and the people are saying, “Jesus, would You explain what happened? What were they guilty of? Whose fault was this? Because surely a tower fell on them, were they bad people?” Remember what Jesus says? “Unless you repent, you, too, will all perish.”

Every act of divine judgment in the world is also an offer of mercy. The end is not yet here. Every horseman that rides forth in terrible but restrained judgment is actually at the same time a messenger of clemency from the king to say it’s not too late, you can repent. Overcome or you will be judged. Worship the Lamb or you will face His wrath.

Because surely we are meant to connect the dots. As Christians, how could we not? To think of these four horsemen and to think of Christ, who was, it seemed to all the world, conquered, overcome by those who betrayed Him, conquered by the Romans who crucified Him, defeated. Christ was conquered. Chris shed His own blood. Christ knew what it was to hunger and to thirst. Christ ultimately knew what it was to die. He experienced the eternal Son of God come to earth, assuming a human nature, the God-man Jesus Christ, experienced all of these things. These four horses, as it were, galloped across Christ Himself.

Because of all that He suffered, we know that there is yet mercy for us if we would turn, repent, and fall at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we ask for mercy, we pray any here who are far from You, You would lead us to repent and know Your mercy, now and certainly at the end of the age. For those who belong to You and perhaps discouraged, even at times despairing, mourning, our own sins and the suffering of so many around the world, perhaps we’ve come from a country war-torn and suffering from a conqueror who seeks to do evil, we pray, Lord, that we might not lose hope for we know that our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. In His name we pray. Amen.