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.
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 people slay each other. To him was given a large sword.
I first read Revelation as a teenager in a Baptist Church Bible study group. We were fascinated by chapter one, challenged by two and three, and awed by four and five. But when it came to chapter six, we suddenly ‘felt led’ to study something else! Many Christians feel the same anxiety—though others read with relish what they see as God’s plan to get his own back by unleashing retributive violence in the End Times. But neither fear nor glee offer us the right reading strategy.
In Zechariah, these four horsemen are sent by God – but Revelation is more circumspect. God’s sovereignty is permissive, rather than directive; one of God’s living creatures from the throne calls forth the horses, not God himself. God no more creates and inflicts chaos, violence, and death than lighting a candle creates the darkness of its shadows. Yet John is clear that even these terrible things are not beyond God’s sovereignty; the discordant notes of war, famine, disease, and death are held within the steady rhythm of Jesus opening the seven seals to disclose God’s will for the world.
These vivid images of chaos and destruction have gripped the imagination of readers down all the generations, and continue to shape contemporary culture. In seeking to understand these images, we need to look not for things to which the images refer, as if this was a coded version of future history, but the things which (as metaphors) the images evoke, both from the canon of Scripture and the context of John’s world.
For John’s first readers, these verses describe a world they know and inhabit – a world marked by periodic famine and shortage, by chronic disease and early death (especially in the often overcrowded cities of the empire), a world in which earthquakes bring sudden destruction and devastation. John is not yet disclosing to them an unknown future, but revealing the reality about the present. The imperial myth of peace and prosperity is exposed as just that—a myth. There is only one who is sovereign—the one by whose permission the horsemen are released to allow humanity to reap what it has sown—and this one is not the emperor.
When we see the chaos in our world—as violent bloodshed, environmental destruction, or the breakdown of communal life—God’s sovereignty is not exhausted. He (and he alone) is able to usher in the true age of peace and prosperity.
Ian is a biblical scholar and theologian. He is Associate Minister at St Nic’s, Nottingham, and writes the widely-read blog psephizo.com. His commentary on Revelation will be published by IVP in April 2018.