“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.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Now we get into the meat of John’s revelation of the end of the world. This is the part of the story that tends to start drawing the most varied and often creative interpretations. This is also the part that tends to serve as the most inspirational for various occult and apocalyptic stories today.
A prime recent example would be the Fox supernatural drama, Sleepy Hollow, which ended its four season run a couple of years ago. (I watched the first season and reviewed it here: https://baptistnews.com/article/i-see-what-you-did-there/#.WjUHZWJOmaM ; although, be aware that when I poke fun at the writers for referencing the “Book of Revelation” in the fourth paragraph, my original submission had me poking fun of them for referencing the “Book of Revelations’ which is what was actually said and humorously wrong, but which the editor “fixed” for me without apparently getting the joke.)
In any event, let me offer here a few thoughts on how to make sense of the wild descriptions and images that are coming in the next few chapters. First, there are four main schools of thought on how to interpret Revelation generally. These are: Amillennialism (the view that there will be no literal millennial period when Christ will reign on the earth, but that there will be a smooth transition from a period of tribulation to the new heavens and earth), Dispensational Premillennialism (the view that there will be a literal millennial kingdom when Jesus returns, but that the church will be “raptured” away before the period of tribulation described in chapters 6-19, most graphically portrayed in the Left Behind series), Historic Premillennialism (the view that there will be a literal millennial kingdom when Jesus returns, but that the church will be present for the totality of the tribulation period), and Postmillennialism (the view that there will be a literal millennial kingdom, but that Jesus won’t return until afterwards).
Saving a lengthy discussion here, I’m most convinced by the arguments of historic premillennialism. There are a number of reasons for this and a number of good resources that help explain why and the differences among the various options to which I can point you if you are interested.
Second, one of the key principles of Biblical interpretation that is especially important to keep in mind when reading in Revelation, is that the text cannot mean something it could never have meant to the original audience. While God was composing a message through John that was for every generation, John was writing a specific message to a specific audience. In doing so, he believed he was going to be understood by them.
Postmodern theories of literary interpretation to the side, this is a fundamental assumption for engaging well with any Scripture: The author meant something specific and believed he was going to be understood clearly by his audience. If that wasn’t the case, then we are left with a text that is impossible to understand precisely and can only lean into whatever theory-du-jour is currently striking our fancy. You can perhaps image all the trouble such an approach could cause. I, for one, reject that idea thoroughly and I hope you join me in that. God meant something by His inspiration and wanted for us to be able to understand Him. It may take some work on our part, and some things are beyond our ability to grasp fully without His help, but ours is not a hopeless task.
Third, here is one interpretive approach to understanding the four horsemen. I tend to see them not as literal horsemen who will one day ride from some unknown location bringing war, famine, pestilence, and death in their wake. Rather, consider how God often brought judgment to people throughout the Scriptures. It was not an active affair, but rather a removing of His hands of protection and loosing the restraints He otherwise keeps on sin and its consequences. Here, as we drift near the end of the world and the return of Christ, He does this on a much larger scale than he has before. The horsemen are a symbol of God letting us turn on each other and destroy each other. As easily as we drift toward that when He is keeping things in check, imagine how bad it could get if He didn’t. It would be almost, dare I say, apocalyptic.
Putting a bow on this: Read Revelation (especially chapters 6-19) carefully, keeping firmly in mind that it is heaped in symbolism and figurative language. Do your best to understand the culture into which John was writing and how his original audience would have understood him (there are several good commentaries at a variety of levels that can help with this including several good study Bibles). And remember the big picture throughout: God is totally sovereign over His creation and things will never get out of His control. Ever. Even in the end. No matter what Hollywood says. He is working His good plans to completion and that is absolutely going to happen. Make sure that you are a part of it.