The Third SealTaxation and oppression
The Black Horse
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. 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.
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.”
The Third Seal introduces another factor in the decline of the Roman Empire, related to the civil warfare of the Second Seal. The incessant civil wars exhausted the finances of the Empire and brought heavy taxation and oppression. The Third and Fourth Seals follow logically from the effects of the Civil Wars of the Second Seal.
This Seal requires perhaps a little more care in its interpretation, though the general impression is clear enough. The black colour of the horse (or Empire) represents a dark time for Rome, in opposition to the glorious time of the white horse. The balances or scales, together with an ear of corn, are a symbol used by the tax-collecting provincial governors (procurators or questors) of Rome.
A voice of authority and justice (speaking from the midst of the Cherubim – “the powers that be are ordained of God”) declares a measure and rate, and warns against “hurting” the oil and wine. The word translated “hurt not” is also translated in Revelation “unjust”, and the meaning may be that the entire saying is a stipulation of a just or official price for wheat and barley, and not to be unjust in the case of oil and wine (see E.B. Elliott's discussion in the book below).
This (as shown in a subsequent slide) is almost identical to the laws sometimes passed in Rome to alleviate corruption by the provincial tax-collectors. Without an official rate, and the enforcing of it, the rate of produce paid in taxes was open to great corruption by these men.
The vision may then be an indication of heavy and corrupt tax collection and oppression, but with some official attempt (represented by the voice) during the period to curb excesses.
The price for wheat and barley here (according to Elliott) may indicate scarcity, but certainly not the famine often associated with this vision (a famine clearly appears within the next seal and is more the result of the ongoing oppression represented in this one ). The oil and wine symbols do not seem to fit a picture of famine either.
The edict of Caracalla gave all provincial inhabitants of the empire the title of Roman citizens, previously restricted to the inhabitants of Italy. This made them subject to the heavy taxes associated with the rank, but did not deliver any of the compensation connected with the title. They were not absolved of their previous provincial taxes but rather now subjected to the extra tax that went with being a citizen of Italy.
The historian, Gibbon, recognised this edict of Caracalla, and its ongoing effects, as being an important cause in the decline and fall of Rome. Though the oppression was at times mitigated by other emperors during this period of civil war, it reappeared during the period (and beyond it) again and again.
The blackness of the horse, representing the Empire and its oppressed state at the time, reflects the blackness associated with the pained state of people in other times in scripture:
Before their face the people shall be much pained: all faces shall gather blackness.
She is empty, and void, and waste: and the heart melteth, and the knees smite together, and much pain is in all loins, and the faces of them all gather blackness.