Almost 2,000 years ago, a prisoner on the island of Patmos fell into a deep trance and had a series of visions. He gives his name as John (one of the few times the writer of a New Testament work gives his name). Because of the tenuous nature of any link between Revelation and the fourth gospel, John of Patmos remains an unknown Christian prophet rather than the author of the Gospel or Letters of John and probably itinerant and Palestinian by birth.
On the day of his visions John saw an open door in heaven and heard a loud voice inviting him to come up and see all that was to happen (Rev 4:1). There he saw God seated on a throne with a scroll in hand with its seven seals. The mystery is, What did the seven scrolls contain? How could they be opened? One by one he sees them opened and their secrets revealed.
Four horse riders
What did this Christian prisoner see? John related his visions using mysterious images and symbols that belong to the apocalyptic genre (possibly the least understood form of New Testament writing). The opening of the first four seals is our topic for reflection, the famous four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev 6:1-8). They represent horrendous misfortune, but of what kind and when? Who would suffer? There is no consensus on these issues and throughout history claims have been made for them as being the present moment.
An example of such a claim in our times would see the first horse rider holding a bow in hand, as announcing the tragedy of the First World War, and the other three as the plague, hunger and death which resulted from that war. Others hold that this vision refers to a third world war, about to come, which would bring about famine and disease. Some would claim the four symbolise the cataclysms of the end times.
Is there any truth in all of this? Before we answer this, we need to realise that Revelation may not be interpreted just as anyone likes. While the author hid his message in figures and symbols, he also left us the key to discovering his message. We turn to him for the explanation.
The first horse rider
It is Jesus Christ who opens the four seals (Rev 6:1-2). The first strange horse rider is the same Jesus and we know this through the characteristics given by the author. It is said that the rider appeared with the loud cry, ‘Come’, the very prayer we still utter at each Mass, for the prompt coming of Jesus Christ: ‘The Spirit and the bride say, “Come” (Rev 22:17-20). The one who is called by the summons ‘come’ cannot be any other than Jesus Christ. He is given the title, ‘the one who comes’ and it is repeatedly said that he ‘comes soon’ (Rev 1:4, 7, 8 etc).
The first rider comes mounted on a white horse, a colour used only for things that relate to God – the 24 elders wore white (4:4); the armies of heaven were dressed in white (19:14); the saved were given a white tunic (6:11); the hair of Jesus is white as wool (1:14) and he is seated on a white cloud (14:14); the one who perseveres to the end will be given a white garment (3:4-5) and a white stone with a new name written on it (2:17). With God seated on a great white throne (20:11) then white always symbolises salvation, victory, the final triumph and not any destructive or evil tendencies.
The other horse riders
The second horse is bright red – its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another and the rider was given a great sword (6:3-4), an obvious reference to war and its terrible effects. In Revelation, red signifies the pouring of blood. The third seal produces a black horse, with the rider holding a balance in his hand and a voice speaking of food and high prices for it. Opinion seems united that this black horse (symbol of death) represents famine and food shortage and the high prices exacted from any supply. The fourth seal opens a pale horse (chloros, green) and we are given Death and Hades.
What is the message behind John’s vision, obvious to readers of his time but strange and difficult for us today? In Jewish belief, when the Messiah comes at the end of time, he will be accompanied by strange phenomena and catastrophes. Jesus himself uses the traditional catalogue in his warnings about the last days. He lived at the height of apocalyptic writing (200 BCE to 200 CE). Revelation, the book, tells us the Messiah has come, and all creation (the four living creatures (Rev 4:6-8) cry out ‘Come!’
With the death and victory of Jesus we have entered the final days. In opening the seals, John saw the symbolic coming of war, famine and death that had to accompany Christ’s coming. So where did John get his vision? The four horsemen ride out of the Book of Zechariah (1:8-15) where they represent the cataclysms of the end days. But with Jesus as the first rider, there are only three horses as symbols of the five cataclysms, so two more seals are added (persecution in 6:9-11 and cosmic convulsions in 6:12-14).
Through the Lord’s death and resurrection, Jesus Christ, the authentic and true Messiah has come, is with us, and all the four horsemen do is confirm such a claim. Of course painful realities are part of our world, with its many expressions of violence. Hate and hurt (the second rider) are part of all our lives. Famine and injustice (the third rider) dominate the political scene.
The world is burdened with disease, plagues, lies and other offences (the big and small deaths of the fourth seal). Even in the depths of such misery we should never forget the important detail that a white horse came first and it can and will conquer and eliminate all ills. His is the victory and the world will always be in his hands.
Reference Valdes, A A (2005) The Bible: Questions People Ask. Claretian Publications.