Text: Rev 6:1-11
OT Text: Zech 6:1-8
Featured Verse: Rev 6:10 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?”
Main Idea: The four horsemen show God's sovereign guidance over human history. In particular, the forces of oppression, war, famine and plague - while in themselves evil - are still constrained by God's power and used for God's purposes.
Today we meet four of the most iconic figures in the book of Revelation. The four horsemen are sent to the four corners of the earth to shake the nations and bring preliminary judgment on the earth. Perhaps as much as any figures in the book, they have captivated the imagination of people and have filled pop-culture with endless references, including 4 great running backs on the Notre Dame football team in the 1920's, a modern horror movie "Knock at the Cabin", and songs by punk rockers The Clash, and metal band Metallica.
For our purposes, the horseman provide one of the first really significant interpretative challenges...
Who are the horsemen?
The horsemen represent evil powers that are used by God to bring a first measure of judgment on the earth. They represent oppression, war, famine and plague/death. This is confusing because they respond to the authority of Jesus opening the scroll so some people think that they must be godly figures. But the final horseman is associated with death and hades, which are later in Revelation called enemies of God which are thrown into the lake of fire. (20:14) We understand that God can use all things for his purposes and so we can affirm that these four forces are negative things God uses them to shake the nations and establish a measure of punishment on rebellious humanity. In the OT God used wicked Baylon to chastise his people, though he later brought judgment on the Babylonians for their wicked actions. (See Hab 1-2)
When do they ride?
Because of the apocalyptic nature of this event, it is tempting to see the breaking of the first four seals and the release of the four horseman as something that still remains in the future. But a careful look at the context of the book shows otherwise. First, the breaking of the seals on the scroll is conditioned on the death and resurrection of Christ. ("Worthy are you... to open its seals for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed people for God." 5:9) So, the context of the book shows that the seals begin to be opened after the risen Lord Jesus is seated in power in heaven. In fact, the presence of oppression, war, famine and plague are said by Jesus to be characteristic of the entire period of the church - which lasts until his return at the final judgment. (See Matt 24:6-8) Also, notice that the scope of these judgments are limited to one fourth. They are partial judgments of God which happen throughout the church age. The fifth seal shows us that while these horsemen are riding, the martyrs of God are asking for the final judgment and a complete salvation. They ask, "how long before you will judge?" (6:10.) The answer is "until the number of their fellow [martyrs] is complete." (6:11.) We will see tomorrow, that the sixth seal looks forward to a period of time at the end of church history when God will finally bring a complete judgment. But that does not happen until God has completed his work of redemption. In summary, the work of the four horsemen covers the entirety of church history from the resurrection of Jesus until his return.
I recognize that this may represent a significant departure from how some people have approached the book in the past. We will continue to unpack this approach throughout the coming chapters. For now, try to hang with us and consider how this approach illuminates the message of Revelation and allows it to be applied to people from every age of the church.
Why is this good news?
In the introduction John offered "grace and peace" to his churches. It may seem hard to connect the vision of the four horsemen (and indeed with many of the judgments that follow) with "grace and peace." Understanding the OT background of this imagery can help us to see why the work of the horseman could be beneficial. The OT prophet Zechariah shared two images of spiritual horseman riding across the earth as bookends of an eight-vision cycle given to the post-exilic community. In the first of the two visions, the horseman reports that the earth is "at rest." That may seem like a positive, but for the post-exile Jewish community it was not good news because they were in a position of weakness experiencing oppression from the surrounding people. No one wants their situation to be at rest if a 600-pound gorilla is sitting on top of them. If you are underneath a resting gorilla, disruption is a good thing. Toward that end it is a relief to the people of God to learn from a second vision of four chariots that the shaking of the heavens will extend to the far corners of the earth. This OT prophecy matches exactly the situation described in the fifth seal. The spirits of those believers who had suffered on earth, at the hands of the enemies of God, are crying out for justice. They will not be satisfied until God shakes things up. They long for the return of Christ and the final judgment to remove oppression and suffering. Until then, they cry "how long?" We see the work of the horseman bring preliminary and limited judgments (one fourth), so we know that God is active even now - shaking the kingdoms of this world, bringing down dictators and provoking complacent people into repentance. But only the completion of God's redemptive purposes for the "full number" of his people will allow the curtain to close on history and the final judgment to come.
Until then, we know that even the seemingly chaotic forces which shake our present world (oppression, war, famine, plague) are constrained and limited by God.
We also know that God has a purpose in the midst of human suffering. We know that the shaking of the earth is used to bring the eternal and unshakeable kingdom of God. (Heb 12:26-29)
Finally, we look forward to a day in which justice is perfectly established by God. Until then, we know that God is working out his plan of redemption even as his people share in the suffering of Christ.