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The Four Horsemen of Revelation 6

By Written: c. 2003–2004



As I was preparing for my evangelistic meetings in Zimbabwe, I was going ‎through all the sermons that were provided to me by Global Evangelism, making sure ‎the notes went with the slides, checking Bible versions, and so forth. When I came to ‎the sermon on the remnant church, I noticed that the sermon was built around Revela‎tion 6:1-8. It interpreted the horses as representing various stages of the Christian ‎church, but it gave no support for its interpretation.‎

Not having time to conduct a full study of the issue, I looked in several books ‎and Bible study pamphlets for support for this interpretation. Nothing. I called my ‎brother, who knows a lot more about prophecy than I do, and asked him. He didn’t ‎know, and his books turned up nothing. I ended up preaching the sermon as it was with ‎a disclaimer, but it bothered me to give an interpretation of the Bible without solid ‎support—even if the interpretation is correct.‎


Revelation 6:1-8 is part of a larger context. First, it is part of the seven seals. ‎This means that the four horsemen cannot be taken completely independently of the ‎seals. Second, it immediately follows the throne room scene of Revelation 4, 5. Chapter ‎‎5 begins by describing a scroll sealed with seven seals and the search for someone worthy to break the seals and the scroll. The second half of chapter five describes Jesus as ‎worthy to break the seals and open the scroll.‎

When chapter 6 begins, the setting is the same as the previous chapter. Jesus is ‎breaking the seals one by one, and John is describing what he sees in connection with ‎each seal. It is plain that what he sees is symbolic. Most of the imagery in Revelation is ‎symbolic and there is no indication that this passage is different. Furthermore, a literal ‎interpretation does not make sense, especially when all seven seals are considered.‎

Bible prophecy frequently deals with sequences of events.1 This makes it quite ‎possible to understand the seals as a sequence of events. Ranko Stefanovic notes that

Revelation 4-5 describes the enthronement of the resurrected Christ on the heavenly ‎throne and the inauguration into his royal office, the event that took place at Pente‎cost. Thus, the opening of the seven seals begins with the inauguration and enthrone‎ment of Christ. Yet the opening of the sixth seal describes the Second Coming and the ‎events that accompany it (6:15-17). This suggests that the scene of the opening of the ‎seven seals covers the historical era from the ascension of Christ . . . to the Second ‎Coming.2

This gives a historical sequence to work with.3

The Horsemen

Revelation 6:2 describes the first horse and rider: “I looked, and there was a ‎white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquer‎ing and to conquer.”4 Both Stefanovic and Maxwell identify this rider with Jesus. Given ‎the sequence of time, it most likely concerns the first century church, although Jesus’ ‎victories will continue until the end of time, as Stefanovic observes.5

The situation is somewhat more muddled in the following verses. Verse 4 says ‎that when Jesus opened the second seal, “out came another horse, bright red; its rider ‎was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.” That this horse produces great violence is obvious. If we understand the seals as a sequence, it is easy to relate this seal to the time of ‎persecution after the first century, when Christianity was outlawed by Rome. Although ‎he does not connect this seal to a specific time period, Stefanovic notes that persecution is the result of following Christ.6

Maxwell apparently sees this seal as referring to persecution of any kind that ‎Christians face throughout history.7 While it is true that persecution can and does hap‎pen at any time, this does not seem to be the natural understanding.‎

The third seal is described in verses 5, 6:

When he opened the third seal, I ‎heard the third living creature call out, “Come!” I looked, and there was a black horse! ‎Its rider held 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 day’s pay, and three ‎quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!”

This ‎passage describes scarcity. According to Stefanovic, a pair of scales symbolized famine ‎in the Old Testament; the idea was eating bread by weight—rationing it.8 However, all is ‎not lost; olive oil and wine are untouched.‎

Amos 8:11 refers to spiritual famine—a shortage of God’s words. Indeed, this has ‎happened. The Bible was outlawed and people were expected to rely on religious leaders to know God’s will. But as the oil and wine were not harmed, the Holy Spirit worked ‎through the shortage; all was not lost.9

The final horse and rider is described in Revelation 6:7, 8. John describes “a ‎horse whose color was pale green like a corpse. And Death was the name of its rider, ‎who was followed around by the Grave. They were given authority over one-fourth of ‎the earth, to kill with the sword and famine and disease [Greek: death] and wild animals” (verse 8, NLT). The result of spiritual famine is death. This is exactly what happened to the pre-reformation church. Corruption was rampant and churchmen were ‎more interested in secular matters than sacred.‎


This paper has examined the historical sequence of the first four seals. However, ‎the seals carry a practical application—a secondary meaning. Stefanovic notes that the ‎first horse depicts the spread of the gospel; the remaining three show the consequences ‎of rejecting the gospel. “All these scenes,” he says, “are drawn from the Old Testament, ‎and they contain the permanent truth of what happens when people reject the gospel ‎and choose to live in sin.”10


Maxwell, C. Mervyn. God Cares. Vol. 2. Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1985.‎

Stefanovic, Ranko. Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Berrien ‎Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2002.‎


  1. See, for example, Daniel 2, 7, 8, etc. Revelation contains several sequences as ‎well, though they are not all the same as in Daniel: the seven churches, seven seals, and ‎seven trumpets are examples.‎ 

  2. Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation ‎‎(Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2002), p. 213.‎ 

  3. C. Mervyn Maxwell, in God Cares, volume 2 (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1985) pp. ‎‎179ff seems to believe that the first horseman begins at Pentecost and continues ‎throughout the remainder of earth’s history; the second through fourth horsemen occur simultaneously beginning after the first. Then the remaining seals follow a sequential order. This interpretation seems to be strained. There does not seem to be any internal evidence to support this interpretation nor precedent from other scripture.‎ 

  4. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New Revised ‎Standard Version.‎ 

  5. Stefanovic, p. 228.‎ 

  6. Ibid., p. 230. Stefanovic cites Matthew 24:9, 10; 10:34-36; Luke 12:51-53 as evidence of this.‎ 

  7. Maxwell, pp. 183-186.‎ 

  8. Stefanovic, p. 231.‎ 

  9. Ibid., p. 233.‎ 

  10. Ibid., p. 235.‎