In Revelation 6:1-17, John recorded the opening of the first six seals to prepare God’s people for what is to come. This chapter also reminds us that we as believers need to be prepared for how God is going to bring history to its close. My prayer is that God would prepare our hearts today through this passage for what is to come.
[6:1] 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.
 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.  They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”  Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood,  and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.  The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.  Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains,  calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb,  for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:1-17 ESV)
Before we dive into chapter 6, a word about the overall structure of the book of Revelation would be helpful. After the introductory comments of 1:1-8, John received a glorious vision of Christ in which He dictated seven addresses to seven churches in Asia Minor (1:9-3:22). John then received another glorious vision of God’s throne room where John is going to be shown what is to come (4:1). In this vision, the Lamb who was slain receives a scroll that is sealed with seven seals from One seated on heaven’s throne (4:1-5:14). Chapter 6 is continuation of that vision, but is also the beginning of a new section of material in the book of Revelation, where we encounter three sets of seven with interludes: seven seal, seven trumpets, and seven bowls (6:1-16:21). For reasons we shall see along the way, I take these three series of sevens to be cycles which intensify with each cycle, repeating common themes and each ending with a description of the second coming (6:12-17, 11:15-19, 16:17-21). You should think of this as you would a piece of music, with chord progressions that cycle and have interludes, and where each cycle intensifies the previous one. In Revelation 17-20, this world system, Satan, and death itself all meet their final end as Christ returns, takes His bride and eventually judges the world. Chapters 21-22 then contain descriptions of the new heavens and earth in which the people of God will dwell forever and a concluding exhortation from the Apostle John.
- We Must Never Forget that We Live in a World that is Passing Away (6:1-8)
The first eight verses of chapter 6 introduce us to the famous “four horsemen” of the apocalypse. Much ink has been spilled over these four horsemen. We will want to root our understanding of them in two places: their Old Testament background in Zechariah 1:8-17, 6:1-8 and then the parallels between the events in chapter 6 and Jesus’ Olivet discourse on the way history would end (Matthew 24-25, Mark 13). In Zechariah 1:8-17, 6:1-8, we read about similar horsemen and similar horses, where the horsemen are described as patrolmen of the earth. They are commissioned by God to patrol the earth and to punish nations who had oppressed His people. They have a somewhat similar function here: they are sent to execute God’s judgments upon a fallen world. In Revelation 6, they carry out God’s indirect judgments of allowing human wickedness to run its course. In other words, he four horsemen represent the natural progression of human wickedness bringing our world to an end.
The reason Jesus’ Olivet discourse is important is because many of the “signs” that He gave for “the close of the age” are paralleled by what we see here in Revelation 6. I’m going to argue that what we see taking place in Revelation 6 is military conquest, war & bloodshed, martyrdom of Christians, famine & times of scarcity, pestilence, natural disasters, etc. With that in mind, listen to the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:3-14:  As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”  And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray.  For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.  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.
 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake.  And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.  And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.  But the one who endures to the end will be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
See the parallels? Notice that Jesus said these things were not the end but the beginning of the end, or “the beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24:8). Likewise, here in Revelation 6, what we have is not necessarily events that will happen at the end of history, but events that will transpire throughout history as it comes to its end. As we have already said, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus marked the beginning of the end of history (Revelation 1:1, 5:1). It began the 4th Quarter of salvation history. So these judgments are things that will take place throughout the history of the church age, but like “labor pains” will increase in frequency & intensity in the end. In other words, the seals are indirect, preliminary judgments that take place throughout the history of the church, but that also have an ever increasing intensity and frequency (like a pregnant woman’s contractions do) as we reach the end.
The reason these are called indirect judgments is because even though human wickedness is simply running its course in these events, God remains sovereign over it all. The Lamb is the One opening these seals. The horsemen aren’t rogue agents; they are commanded to come forth (1,3,5,7). The horsemen are only doing what they are being given divine permission to do (2,4,8).
When the Lamb opens the first seal, one of “four living creatures” issues a command: “Come!” In response to this command, the first horseman comes forth riding a “white horse,” carrying “a bow” (a symbol of military power) and is given a victor’s “crown.” John says that this rider goes forth “conquering and to conquer” (1-2). This seems to be communicating that one indirect judgment that God will allow to drive the world to its end is a spirit of conquest (military conquest most probably). It highlights humanity’s lust for conquest. Anyone will some knowledge of history can attest to this truth both in Biblical history and in world history in general.
When the Lamb opens the second seal, the second living creature commands another rider to come forth. This rider comes forth on a “bright red horse.” He was “given” a “great sword” and “was permitted” to “take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another” (3-4). This seems to indicate that another judgment that God will allow to drive the world to its end will be war and bloodshed. This is what happens when people are consumed with a lust for conquest: they go to war with each other. This slaughtering refers to bloodshed in general, from wars and also from violent, criminal acts. One is reminded of the days of Noah, when “the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11-13). It’s possible that in this chapter, given its message as a whole, may also have in mind the blood shed by martyrs at the violent hands of their persecutors. Is this not the world we live in even today?
When the Lamb opens the third seal, the third living creature commands yet another horseman to come forth. This horseman is riding a “black horse” and has “a pair of scales in his hand” (5). A pronouncement is made as he goes forth, declaring that a “quart of wheat” will cost a “denarius” and that “three quarts of barley” will cost a “denarius” as well. The “oil and wine” is also not to be harmed. This pronouncement indicates severe food shortages in which items cost 10-12 times their normal price. It communicates times of famine and scarcity of basic commodities. So a third judgment that God will allow to drive the world to its end will be severe shortages of resources, which are probably the result of a war ravaged world.
When the Lamb opens the fourth seal, the fourth living creature commands the final rider to come forth. This horseman rides a “pale horse” (literally a pale green, corpse-color) and is named “Death” and has a companion named “Hades” who follows his trail, collecting his dead (8). This rider seems to be a culmination of the previous three, because he is “given authority” to kill a fourth of the earth “with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” Sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts are the four dreadful judgments found in Ezekiel 14:21 to describe God’s judgment upon unbelievers who were both outside and inside the covenant community. This is the grim picture for how this present world will pass away: conquest leading to bloodshed, and then that ravaging the world to the point where its resources are nearly exhausted, leaving people to die by sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts.
Its not clear at this point whether or not believers are protected from these indirect, preliminary judgments. It seems that they are protected later from the clear and direct outpouring of God’s wrath. The judgments in this chapter, however, are indirect, so it is difficult to say whether or not believers will be victims of what is envisioned here. If they are, there are two things that need to be kept in mind. First, if these horsemen are meant to remind us of Zechariah’s horsemen, then we need to remember that these are the patrolmen of the earth, who are keeping tabs on the suffering and persecution of God’s people. This means that no bloodshed, oppression, persecution, starvation, or death among God’s people due to sickness or wild beasts will go unnoticed. All oppression will be avenged and all suffering for God’s glory will be rewarded.
The second thing that needs to be kept in mind is that if believers are victims of the natural progression of human wickedness bringing the world to its end, this does not mean that they are being separated from the love of God in Christ. Romans 8:35-39 reads, “ Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39 ESV) Notice that God’s being for a believer (Romans 8:31) and all things working together for their good (Romans 8:28) does not mean that they will not suffer “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword.” It does not mean that I won’t starve to death. It does not mean that I won’t die from nuclear fallout in WWIII. It doesn’t mean that I won’t die of a pandemic disease that sweeps the planet. It doesn’t mean that wild animals won’t eat my family and me as the world goes to hell. What it does mean though, is that in all those things I am more than a conqueror through Christ and that none of those things can separate me from the love of God in Christ!