The First Seals

Introduction – The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
Revelation 6:1
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – not a literal band of supernatural demons flying through the skies in the time of the end, but symbols of the Roman Empire and the ruling influences upon it from John's time.

The opening of the first four seals brings the four visions of the four horsemen. The first horse is white, the second red, the third black, and the fourth is pale or livid—the greenish colour of death.

In the symbolic prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, animals are used to represent empires and peoples. Sometimes they are represented by wild beasts or fantastic creatures with the appearance of one animal but including aspects of others (such as the lion with eagle’s wings which represented Babylon). Sometimes the animals are of the more domesticated variety, such as the ram and goat. Persia was represented both by a bear and a ram, and Greece by a leopard and goat in Daniel. The animals were not chosen at random but had local or historical significance.

The horse and symbol of a horseman had great significance for the Romans. The horse was one of the sacred animals of Mars, the supposed father-god of Rome (being purportedly the father of its founders Romulus and Remus). One of the Roman coins below, and many others like it, bears the head of the god Mars on one side and a horse’s head on the other, with the name “Roma” underneath it.

Another coin, again with the head of Mars on one side, displays the familiar Roman symbol of a conquering horseman on the reverse.

The coins of the emperors Domitian, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius, in the era of the apostle John, and shortly after, show the military image of the warhorse and rider was familiar among the armies and rulers of Rome. It is a common symbol of the Empire and its power.

The horse symbols in the first four visions fitly represent the Roman Empire, and the horsemen riding them symbolise the ruling influence upon the empire at the time of the particularly coloured horse. The colours of the horses reflect the condition of the empire at the time.


The Roman Horse and Rider

The statue above, altered in colour to give an impression of the white horse and rider of the vision, is actually a Roman bronze statue of the emperor Marcus Aurellius. He was one of the Five Good Emperors in the era just after John received the Revelation, the very era of the First Seal.

The First Four Seals


White horse

And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.

Revelation 6:2


The Golden Age of Rome

In the first four visions the empire of Rome is represented by the symbol of a horse. The colour of the horse represents its condition, and the rider the dominating influence which brought about that condition. Almost immediately after the apostle John received the Revelation, a new era began in the empire—the era of the Five Good Emperors. These were the glory days of Rome, and its conquests expanded the empire to its greatest majesty and extent. The historian, Gibbon, began his work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with this period to contrast the peak of the Roman Empire before its decline and fall.
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Red horse

And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.

Revelation 6:4


Civil war

The white horse and its conquering rider gives way to the red horse of civil war. The internal peace and prosperity of the era of the Five Good Emperors came to an abrupt end in the reign of the emperor Commodus. His brutal misrule and subsequent assasination plunged the empire into incessant civil war. During this time the power of the army was greatly enhanced. Rival armies and factions placed and replaced emperors on the throne.
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Black horse

And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.

Revelation 6:5-6


Taxation and oppression

The ongoing civil war brought with it a time of severe oppression and depression for the people and industry of the empire. The horse turns black. The historian, Gibbon, highlights the decreee of the emperor Caracalla which brought greatly increased taxation, as an important contributing factor in the decline of Rome. Though effort was made by later emperors such as Alexander Severus to keep the taxation from becoming overly oppressive, this “noxious weed” as Gibbon put it, continued to spring up in the suceeding age and flourish, and “darkened the Roman world with its deadly shade.”
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Pale horse

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

Revelation 6:8


War, famine, and plague

The ongoing internal wars and oppression resulted in a period of famine. As well as this, a great plague killed between a quarter and a half of the people of the Roman Empire. In this period, the empire was also attacked from outside, and there were complaints from the same time about the rise of wild beasts which increased in the desolated countryside. The Empire by this time was described by historians as approaching complete dissolution, and similar to Europe after the time of plague called the Black Death.
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    Revelation 5–7

    The Seven Seals

    1 And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.
    2 And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?
    3 And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.
    4 And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon.
    5 And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.
    6 And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.
    7 And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne.
    8 And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.
    9 And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;
    10 And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
    11 And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands;
    12 Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
    13 And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.
    14 And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever.


    Mark Wattchow

    Mark Wattchow is the pastor of the Christchurch Revival Fellowship in New Zealand. The thoughts and understandings expressed here are solely his own.

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