The four horsemen of the apocalypse are some of the more well known characters from the book of Revelation, found in Revelation 6:1-8.
The scene begins in the previous chapter where we see God on His throne holding a seven-sealed scroll in His right hand. All seven seals must be broken in order to see what is written on the scroll. But the overwhelming question “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” It is determined the only one who is worthy to open the scroll and reveal its contents is “the Lamb who was slain”!
It is in the opening of the first four seals that we see the four horsemen. John sees each rider as they are told to “come,” and he hears their commission. One is on a white horse, and he goes out conquering and to conquer. One is on a red horse, and he is to take peace from the earth. One is on a black horse, and he has a pair of scales in his hand. And the one an ashen horse is given authority over ¼ of the earth to kill.
So, what is the purpose of these riders? Who are they? We hope to correctly understand the assignment of the riders, their identity, and when they carry out their mission.
What is the Purpose of the Four Horsemen?
A couple of visions in Zechariah with similar imagery help us understand the purpose of these four horsemen.
In Zechariah 1:7-11, Zechariah saw angel riders on different colored horses. The Lord sent out these horsemen to patrol the earth. They report back to the angel of the Lord that “all the earth is still and quiet.”
In another vision in Zechariah 6:1-8, Zechariah sees four chariots/horses (with riders). Each of these ministering spirits are angels that perfectly obey a mission given by God. They go patrol the earth, but also carry out judgments: “See, those who are going to the land of the north have appeased My wrath in the land of the north.” Zechariah 6:8b NASB
These two visions convey at least three ideas:
- God carries out His will through agents. He is in charge and they report to Him.
- These particular agents are angels that ride chariots or horses of various colors.
- The angels are commissioned to patrol and carry out judgments throughout the earth.
We surmise that the four horsemen in Revelation are similar to these horsemen in Zechariah. It is probably safe to say that each of these instances is a glimpse in time. God was and is continuously using angels to carry out His sovereign purposes.
What Does Each Horseman Represent?
It does not say exactly who the first three riders are. The fourth rider is the only one given a name. However, based on the description of each horse and rider, we can gather what each represents.
First Horseman (White Horse) – Revelation 6:1-2
Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ I looked, and behold, a white horse, and the one who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. Revelation 6:1-2 NASB
The identity of the first horseman is the most disputed of all the riders. This is because there are no details given as to what he conquers. Later in this article we will address the white horse and rider in length.
Second Horseman (Red Horse) – Revelation 6:3-4
When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, ‘Come !’ And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that people would kill one another; and a large sword was given to him. Revelation 6:3-4
The second horseman is given a large sword as a weapon to remove tranquility from the relationships of people and nations. As a result, they kill one another. So people are murdering or having others murdered and going to war. The red horse/horseman represents lawlessness/bloodshed/war.
Third Horseman (Black Horse) – Revelation 6:5-6
When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, ‘Come!’ I looked, and behold, a black horse, and the one who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine. Revelation 6:5-6
The black horse/horseman represents scarcity/famine. This is shown by the items on the scales weighed in relation to each other. Simple things have gotten quite expensive and even critical for survival.
Fourth Horseman (Ashen Horse) – Revelation 6:7-8
When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, ‘Come!’ I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and the one who sat on it had the name Death, and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, and famine, and plague, and by the wild animals of the earth. Revelation 6:7-8
This rider is named Death and Hades. He rides an ashen (pale-green) horse which is the color of a corpse. His judgments are death by various means such as plagues and being killed by wild beasts, etc.
What about the Rider on the White Horse?
The rider on the white horse is the most difficult to understand. We know he is conquering something, but we don’t know what because it doesn’t say. He has a bow, a symbol of battle. But there is no mention of any arrows. And he is given a victors’ crown (in Greek crown is stephanos which was used to describe the victor of a race/competition) before he ever goes out conquering and to conquer. So who could this rider be?
Many Christians think this rider is Jesus Christ since he is on a white horse. There is an instance when Jesus is on a white horse – at His Second Coming (Revelation 19:11). But if this rider is Christ, then He would have had to open the seal and immediately be seated on the horse. This is probably not the case.
Other Christians think the rider is the Antichrist. There is a problem with this synopsis. When Jesus teaches about the end of the age, what is the first thing He says?
And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will mislead many people.” Matthew 24:4-5 NASB
And many false prophets will rise up and mislead many people.” Matthew 24:11 NASB
The problem with thinking the rider is the Antichrist is because it says many false prophets will come and mislead many. Yes, the Antichrist takes over in great deception. But he is only one man, and he is able to deceive so well because of the many deceptions that have already occurred. before him. Further, if all four horsemen are unleashed after the beginning of the tribulation, there would be wars. But during the first half of the tribulation, as the Antichrist is rising in power, there is a sense (false as it is) of world peace (Revelation 13:2b-4, Revelation 13:7b-8). Worldly turmoil doesn’t fit well with what will actually be taking place when the Antichrist first takes the reigns of his rule.
So, the main point is that Jesus says to the disciples is to make sure they are not being misled. There you have it: spiritual deception.
The rider of the white horse is a deceiver, mimicking the Lord Himself. He represents not just one man, but all spiritual deception. Many will be misled by many false prophets. The deception comes in stealth (no arrows), clothed as something it is not. It conquers without its victims ever realizing it. People think they are receiving the truth, but they are really receiving poison! This rider is given a wreath as a victorious hero, all the while the victims unaware they have been duped! Thus, the world is prepared for the Antichrist – due to all of the spiritual deception throughout the years. (See What does it mean that there will be false christs in the end times?” by GotQuestions)
Still others have suggested that the white horse represents the gospel and the victorious saints during the ages. This is a wonderful truth of course, and we clearly see in the book of Revelation that there indeed is a wonderful endurance and victory for the saints. And we have seen that in the history of the church as well. But that would make one of the horsemen different in their intent. That is, the second, third, and fourth horsemen – being lawlessness/bloodshed/war, scarcity/famine, and death – are God’s sovereign judgments of the sin and rebellion of mankind. The white horseman is no exception. He represents spiritual delusion as God’s judgments upon people who refuse to acknowledge God.
God is orchestrating the length, magnitude and timing of these works through His agents – the four horsemen. They bring about his ultimate design and purpose upon fallen mankind over the course of the centuries.
When Do The Four Horsemen Carry Out Their Mission?
In order to answer this question, we will look at the other instance we have in the New Testament of Jesus reviewing the unfolding of the end of the age. These teachings are found in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:1-31, Mark 13:1-27 & Luke 21:5-28).
When Jesus’ disciples asked, “when will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age,” how did Jesus reply?
And Jesus answered and said to them: ‘Take heed that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.” Matthew 24:4-8 NASB
The disciples, more than likely, were expecting a fairly soon “coming again” of Christ. But Jesus basically teaches: events/delay, events/delay. He says there will be great deception, wars and rumors of wars. All must take place. But the end is not yet. Then there will be wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes (all plural) in various places. But still, all these are the beginning of sorrows. There will be a delay. The delay has already been almost 2,000 years.
So, what is similar between these teachings of Jesus and the four horsemen?
- Nation will rise up against nation, kingdom against kingdom; famines; earthquakes; plagues (Mark 13:8; Matthew 24:7; Luke 21:10-11)
- Death (Mark 13:12; Luke 21:16-17)
- Wars and revolts (Luke 21:9)
Sound familiar? These events are a part of the “delay” which has been nearly 2,000 years. So, we can say the horsemen have been carrying out their mission from the time the seals were opened until the time of the end. If you were to do a study of the history of the timing of these four horsemen you would find many of the early pastors and theologians from the post-apostolic church through to the Reformation and beyond believed that these four horsemen were already riding! The popular version of them not being unleashed until after the rapture at the beginning of the tribulation is a more recent prevailing perspective.
- The four horsemen of Revelation are similar to the Zechariah riders in that they have an ongoing mission of patrolling the earth and bringing specific judgments by God.
- The mission the four horsemen carry out is referenced in Jesus’ teachings regarding the delay of the end of the age. They occur immediately, and are not pushed into the distant future.
- Although the identity of the white horse is not clearly seen in Revelation 6, there is textual evidence (the first warning from Jesus in His Olivet Discourse) that it corresponds with Jesus’ teachings of spiritual deception.
For More on the Book of Revelation & End Times
Five Reasons Why Revelation is Hard to Understand
When was the Book of Revelation Written?
The Beast from the Sea Part 1 – Seven Heads
The Beast from the Sea Part 2 – Ten Horns
End Time Events: A Brief Overview
War on Israel – Ezekiel 38
The Church’s New Agenda
Will Christians Know Who the Antichrist Will Be?