The term “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” comes from the Bible’s book of Revelation, specifically chapter 6 of that book. “Apocalypse” is another word for “Revelation”, and means “the unveiling” in the Greek language. The Apostle John was given a vision by God about things that would occur in the last days immediately prior to the second coming of Christ, so in a sense God “unveiled” to John what will occur in the future.
One of the things God disclosed to John was that a triune series of judgments will occur at some point that will bring great destruction upon the world. These are described in chapters 6-18 in Revelation and consist of what are called the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments. These collective judgments are also described by Jesus in Matthew 24 (cf. also Luke 21 and Mark 13) and are often called the “great tribulation,” a term used by Jesus: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matthew 24:21).
The first series of judgments that are revealed are the seal judgments. In chapter 5 of Revelation, John sees God the Father holding a scroll that is sealed with seven seals. The scroll itself represents the title deed to the earth and is Christ’s inheritance, which belongs to Him alone. Chapter 5 clearly states that only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll, and with each seal that is broken, a corresponding judgment occurs as Christ reclaims what has been stolen from Him by Satan and an unbelieving world.
The first four seals are portrayed as four different horses and riders. Each is commanded to come forward from four beings that are likely special angels called cherubim. The first horseman is described in this manner: “Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer” (Revelation 6:1–2).
Horses in Scripture are typically associated with triumph, majesty, power, and conquest. The first horse is white, which is what a conquering king would use to ride into a nation/city that he had just successfully defeated. The horse’s rider wears a special crown, which in the first century was made of foliage and signified extremely high status. The rider carries a bow, but no arrows are mentioned, which communicates that the rider is a warrior, but that he will initially conquer not through force, but by peace.
Most theologians agree that the rider represents the Antichrist, who will be “given” his crown by a world that elects him to bring about the peace and safety they desperately crave. The Antichrist will promise peace and make a peace treaty with Israel (cf. Daniel 9:27), but in the end it proves to be a false peace that he uses to entrap an unsuspecting world. This fact is described by the prophet Daniel: “And through his policy also he shall cause craft to prosper in his hand; and he shall magnify himself in his heart, and by peace shall destroy many” (Daniel 8:25 KJV, emphasis added).
It will not be long before that peace is shattered, but by then it will be too late – a truth described by the Apostle Paul: “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). War is unleashed upon the earth with the coming of the second horseman: “When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword” (Revelation 6:3–4).
The second rider specifically takes the false peace from the world that the Antichrist established. No doubt the Antichrist himself will be involved in war and bloodshed, which the red horseman depicts, although other wars will break out apart from the Antichrist.
The adjective “great” that describes the sword given to the rider of the red horse illustrates the exceedingly great carnage that will result from this judgment, while the term used for the sword itself refers to a short, dagger-like sword used by assassins and those involved in close fighting. Jesus described this period of time in His Olivet discourse: “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:6–7).
The third horseman represents horrible famines that will come upon the earth: “When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!'” (Revelation 6:5–6).
A denarius represented a day’s wage back in the first century, and a quart of wheat was about the portion for one person’s meal. Barley was normally used to feed animals, but was sometimes eaten by the very poor. Oil and wine were typically used for cooking. The scales carried by the black horse’s rider represent a measuring system that will give a person barely enough to eat for a full day’s labor. This shows food costing 8–10 times its normal price in the first century. Clearly, famine conditions are showcased by the third horseman of the apocalypse.
The fourth horse and rider are the natural culmination of the first three: “When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:7–8).
The word “pale” or “ashen” as in some translations in the Greek is chloros from which the word “chlorophyll” is derived. The yellowish-green horse is the color of a corpse. Death is the natural result of war and famine, with Hades, said to follow the rider, representing the grave.
A full one quarter of the earth’s population will perish from the four horsemen, which showcases why Jesus says in Matthew 24:21 that the time of tribulation will be something that the world has not seen up to that point. And what’s worse, it is only the beginning of God’s judgments that will come upon the earth.
However, the wrath of God described in the book of Revelation can be escaped by putting one’s trust in Jesus Christ. It is only through His death and resurrection that deliverance can be found. But for those who reject Christ, there is no deliverance, only certain judgment, which is a truth the writer of Hebrews may have had in mind when he wrote, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3).