The Four Horsemen
In Chapter 6, Jesus begins opening the seals. The first four are the so-called “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” that many groups have used to scare their members into obeying their rules and leaders. The images are indeed frightening, and indeed the numbers of people affected seem to be very high. These are images of judgment from God on an evil world that has gone far from God. The point, however, is that Jesus ultimately wins in spite of all the forces of evil, both human and angelic, that are arrayed against Him.
The group from which we came once taught (though no longer!) that the resemblance of the white horse to the one Jesus rides in 18:11 means that the first rider brings a counterfeit Christianity to the world. Naturally a Protestant could understand this to mean that a very large non-Protestant church (that teaches a gospel other than the good news of salvation through grace alone) could attempt to rule the world. Some went so far as to name the Roman Catholic Church as the false religion. Other commentators from our day might see certain New Age teachings infiltrating all churches as this false religion.
Unfortunately, our former belief had missed the point of the white horse. Yes, John deliberately paints the horse as resembling Jesus’ mount. What we miss is that Jesus is not presented as a religious leader in the book, but rather as the Messiah-Deliverer of all of His people!
In ancient times, there was no clear boundary between religion and politics as we believe there is in our time. Separation of church and state is a modern phenomenon. (Judging from the religious right of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, one could easily argue that religion, politics and the military still mix all too readily.) In other words, the counterfeit is not a false religion so much as a false messiah, who militarily attacks his enemies in a bid to provide “peace and security” for his citizens by a preemptive strike at their enemies.
There is nothing new about this in human history. The strategy has been used as long as there have been competing city-states in the world. Consider Hitler’s blitzkrieg strategy in World War II. The churches in Asia Minor probably would have recognized it as a normal part of ancient warfare.
What such a strategy does is set the stage for the next horse: military escalation or counterattack. Unfortunately for the blitzkrieg stragegist, it rarely ever works in the long term. The bigger you get, the more fear you engender in the surrounding nations. The more they fear being swallowed up, the more likely they will ally with other neighbors against you. You have to pretty much take over the entire world at the same time. There are just too many enemies with too many allies to fight everybody at once. Besides, you need to devote a certain portion of your military to the pacification of conquered states, too. Between external and internal enemies, the bloodshed keeps mounting and momentum becomes impossible to maintain. The enemy armies eventually start gobbling up the territory you had won until you are defeated, and you lose everything you once had even before the conflict.
The third horse: During and following major conflict, the economic and agricultural patterns of invaded nations are completely disrupted. The agressor finds it difficult to pay for goods that are increasingly scarce because of disrupted farming and long supply lines to the front. Prices skyrocket out of control for ordinary people, though the luxury trade becomes lucrative for the few merchants able to take advantage of the situation to keep supplying the rich.
Finally, military depradation and hard economic times lead to widespread famine, plague and death. What the figurative sword has not killed has been killed by famine. What has survived famine has been killed by plague (resulting perhaps from unburied bodies, interrupted sanitation measures or immune systems weakened by poverty and famine).
These four “seals” are four plagues that result from human sin. They follow in a natural progression from breaking God’s law, as a kind of judgment or a curse. Way back in Genesis 9, God makes a covenant with all human and animal kind on earth. Part of this covenant is the famous “rainbow covenant” in which God promises never to destroy the earth by flood again. A lesser-known part is the part in which God requires that all human murders (whether by animal or man) be avenged by the death of the one responsible at the hands of a fellow human being. This principle becomes the basis of the “eye for an eye” code of Israel’s “Old Covenant,” as well as the laws of capital punishment in the modern world.
Applied to states, this means that the agressor state (the one that starts the killing) needs to be destroyed as a killing power by other states. The only logical outcome is for all states that kill people to be destroyed. Since all states eventually become guilty of being agressors, all must be put down. The only one “worthy” of doing so is Jesus Christ, who establishes the “Kingdom of God.” Let the nations beware.
What part do Jesus’ followers play in all of this warfare and bloodshed? Stay tuned for part 6….