The four horsemen of the Apocalypse have been used time and again in popular as well as religious culture. From the X-men to horror movies to End-Time dramas, we’ve seen them enough that most people know this image. But few know what it was about at the time of John’s writing. And while they are prophecy and represent what will happen as Christ returns, they were also a very specific message to the people of John’s day; specifically, the Romans.
We often read about all that happens in Revelation and fear it happening to us. But we have to remember the context of Revelation: Domitian and the Imperial Cult. Domitian was the ruler of the day and horribly persecuting Christians. Seeking to be worshiped as a god, Domitian continued the Imperial Cult, a religion of the people with himself as supreme deity. So as we read about these four horsemen, we need to remember that all that they do, they do to the Romans, the dominant and dominating power over God’s chosen people.
The first horse is white and on it rides a conqueror. This image would have struck terror into the heart of any Roman reading it. Why? Romes primary adversary in that day was the Parthians, known for their unique white horses, which they worshiped. The idea of a conquering white horse rider would have presaged the conquest of Rome by the Parthians, something they feared without prophecy to tell them it was coming.
The second horse is red with a sword-wielding rider. This is warfare to the extent that even the horses are splattered with gore and so red. The lack of mention of any other enemy leads some to think this is the promise of a Civil war, the worst kind of war there is according to Roman philosophers.
The third horse is black and carries famine with it. Of course, famine is the natural outcome of conquest and civil war and so shouldn’t be a surprise. As farmers had to take up arms to head off to war, there was no one left to grow crops and so the country starved, even if the war was won. Prices skyrocketed, so wheat and barley cost so much they couldn’t feed themselves. However, the wealthy with a choice of what to grow would choose olives and grapes since these would bring the most wealth (“do not touch the wine or oil”) and so there would be even less land to grow food. The financial disparity was obvious and deadly.
The last, fourth horse is pale and carries death. This is the final outcome of the other three. It is a promise of death for the Romans who enslaved the Jewish people.
So do we need to fear the horsemen? Only if we are the oppressors! If we are the oppressed, then this is good news indeed – our oppressors will not oppress forever, or even for long.
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