The "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" is a term used to describe a concept from the New Testament of the Christian Bible, in chapter six of the Book of Revelation. Although scholars disagree as to what exactly each horseman represents, the four horsemen are often referred to as Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. They are part of an apocalyptic vision in which God summons and empowers them to wreak divine havoc on the world. Each is revealed, individually, when the first four of seven seals are broken (opened) in Revelation.
- I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
The white horse of the apocalyptic four has been argued to represent either evil or righteousness:
The other three horsemen represent evil, destructive forces, and given the unified way in which all four are introduced and described, it may be most likely that the first horseman is correspondingly evil. The German Stuttgarter Erklärungsbibel casts him as civil war and internal strife. One interpretation—which was held by evangelist Billy Graham—casts the rider of the white horse as the Antichrist, or a representation of false prophets, citing differences between the white horse in Revelation 6 and Jesus on the white Horse in Revelation 19. Revelation 19 Jesus has many crowns, but in Revelation 6 the rider has one.
Irenaeus, an influential Christian theologian of the second century, was among the first to interpret this horseman as Christ himself, his white horse representing the successful spread of the gospel. Various scholars have since supported this theory, citing the later appearance, in Revelation 19, of Christ mounted on a white horse, appearing as The Word of God. Furthermore, earlier in the New Testament, the Book of Mark indicates that the advance of the gospel may indeed precede and foretell the apocalypse. The color white also tends to represent righteousness in the Bible, and Christ is in other instances portrayed as a conqueror. However, opposing interpretations argue that the first of the four horsemen is probably not the horseman of Revelation 19. They are described in significantly different ways, and Christ's role as the Lamb who opens the seven seals makes it unlikely that he would also be one of the forces released by the seals.
Besides Christ, the horseman could represent the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was understood to have come upon the Apostles at Pentecost after Jesus' departure from earth. The appearance of the Lamb in Revelation 5 shows the triumphant arrival of Jesus in heaven, and the white horseman could represent the sending of the Holy Spirit by Jesus and the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a huge sword.
The rider of the second horse is often taken to represent War. His horse's color is red. In some translations, the colour is specifically a "fiery" red. This color, as well as the rider's possession of a large sword, suggests blood that is to be spilled on the battlefield. The second horseman may represent civil war as opposed to the war of conquest that the first horseman brings.
- When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"
The third horseman rides a black horse and is generally understood as Famine. The black colour of the horse could be a symbol of the dead. The horseman carries a pair of balances or weighing scales, indicating the way that bread would have been weighed during a famine.
Of the four horsemen, the black horse and its rider are the only ones whose appearance is accompanied by a vocal pronunciation. John hears a voice, unidentified but coming from among the four living creatures, that speaks of the prices of wheat and barley, also saying "and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine." This suggests that the black horse's famine is to drive up the price of grain but leave oil and wine supplies unaffected. One explanation for this is that grain crops would have been more naturally susceptible to famine years than olive trees and grapevines, which root more deeply; the statement might also suggest a continuing abundance of luxuries for the wealthy while staples such as bread are scarce, though not totally depleted. Alternatively, the preservation of oil and wine could symbolize the preservation of the Christian faithful, who used oil and wine in their sacraments.
- When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
The fourth and final horseman is named Death. Of all the riders, he is the only one to whom the text itself explicitly gives a name. Still others apply the names "Pestilence" or "Plague" to this horseman, based on alternative translations of the Bible (such as the Jerusalem Bible). Unlike the other three, he is not described carrying a weapon/object, instead he is followed by Hades. However, illustrations—like those above—commonly depict him carrying a scythe (like the Grim Reaper) or a sword.
The color of Death's horse is written as khlôros (χλωρóς) in the original Koine Greek, which is often translated as "pale", though "ashen", "pale green", and "yellowish green" are other possible interpretations. The color suggests the sickly pallor of a corpse. The natural colors of horse coats that could be indicated include dun, palomino, buckskin, or one of several color variants with dilution genes.
The verse beginning "they were given power over the fourth of the earth" may refer solely to Death and Hades, or it may summarize the roles of all four horsemen; scholars disagree on this point.
Many modern scholars interpret Revelation from a preterist point of view, arguing that its prophecy and imagery apply only to the events of the first century of Christian history. In this school of thought, Conquest, the white horse's rider, is sometimes identified as a symbol of Parthian forces: Conquest carries a bow, and the Parthian Empire was at that time known for its mounted warriors and their skill with bow and arrow. Parthians were also particularly associated with white horses. Some scholars specifically point to Vologases I, a Parthian shah who clashed with the Roman Empire and won one significant battle in 62 CE.
Revelation's historical context may also influence the depiction of the black horse and its rider, Famine. In 92 CE, the Roman emperor Domitian attempted to curb excessive growth of grapevines and encourage grain cultivation instead, but there was major popular backlash against this effort, and it was abandoned. Famine's mission to make wheat and barley scarce but "hurt not the oil and the wine" could be an allusion to this episode. The red horse and its rider, who take peace from the earth, might represent the prevalence of civil strife at the time Revelation was written; internecine conflict ran rampant in the Roman Empire during and just prior to the first century CE.
According to Latter Day Saints (Mormon) theology, each of the seven seals opened in Revelation represents a specific thousand-year period in history. Since the first horseman, Conquest, appears after the opening of the first seal, he is associated with the years 4000-3000 BCE. He is taken to represent the prophet Enoch, whom Mormons believe founded the righteous city of Zion during that millennium. In this interpretation, therefore, the first horseman is viewed as good, and his "conquering" represents a moral victory, not a literal war of conquest. The second horseman is associated with the era of Noah (3000-2000 BC); the third horseman, the era of Abraham (2000-1000 BCE); and the fourth horseman, 1000 BC to the birth of Jesus. As in many other interpretations, these horsemen are believed to represent War, Famine, and Death; Mormon theologians claim that each of these destructive forces was rampant in the millennium to which it is assigned.
Each new century, Christian interpreters see ways in which the horsemen, and Revelation in general, speaks to contemporary events. Some who believe Revelation applies to modern times can interpret the horses based on various ways their colours are used. Red, for example, often represents Communism, Black has been used as a symbol of Capitalism, while Green represents the rise of Islam. Pastor Irvin Baxter Jr. of Endtime Ministries espouses such a belief.
Another interpretation is that the rider on the white horse is the Holy Spirit being sent forth into the world after the death of Jesus. That the Fiery Red horse represents the blood shed and the slaying of the Christian martyrs (starting with the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7:54-8:1). The Black horse represents the scattering of the Jewish nation during the time of the Roman Empire, in 70 AD. the Pale horse represents the Islamic nation (with direct correlation between the rider's name being Death and Hell followed with him [Revelation 6:8]).
Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death
This interpretation replaces Conquest with Pestilence, which is portrayed as a distinct entity (separate from Death). The first horseman to appear is Pestilence, who rides upon a white horse. In the wake of Pestilence comes War, riding a large, wild red horse and wielding a tremendous sword. In the wake of War, due to immense destruction because of War and Pestilence, is Famine. Famine is portly, and rides upon a black, sickly horse; this represents gluttony and hunger, respectively. And in the wake of Famine comes Death. His horse is stark pale. He is followed by Hades and carries the remaining souls to their final destinations.
It is this interpretation which is most commonly used as the basis for pop culture's uses of the Four Horsemen concept.
Other Biblical references
Zechariah also sees four horses ( , 6:1-8˄). During this, first comes the Red, then Black, then White, and finally the "Grisled and Bay" (the Pale Horses by implication). They are referred to as "the four spirits of the heavens, which go forth from standing before the Lord of all the earth." Zechariah's horses differ from Revelation's in that their colors do not seem to indicate or symbolize anything about their characters; also, the horses in Zechariah act as sentries, not as agents of destruction or judgment.
Zechariah's imagery probably influenced John, the author of Revelation, in the way he depicted the four horsemen. Also, flying or heavenly horsemen featured in other mythology, both Jewish and Gentile, of the first century.
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- Moses 7:19 SELECTIONS FROM THE BOOK OF MOSES CHAPTER 7 (December 1830)
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- Baxter, Irvin. "Arafat and Jerusalem: The Palestinian Perspective". Endtime Ministries. http://www.endtime.com/magarchive.asp?ID=20. Retrieved 2006-12-05.
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- "The Approaching Apocalypse". http://theapproachingapocalypse.com/archives/68.
- For examples, see Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in popular culture article
- The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse