6 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!” 2 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.
3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 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.
5 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. 6 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!”
7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 And I looked, and behold, a palehorse! 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. 
How can you believe in God in the face of one more tragic mass shooting? What kind of god would allow so much suffering in his or her world? Where was this God of yours when I watched my child die slowly and miserably from cancer? If there really is a God who created this world then couldn’t he, at the very least, keep earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes from happening? Why does your God let children die in horrible disasters? Why does he allow terrorism? I cannot believe in any god when there are so many horrible things going on in this world.
If you haven’t asked some of those questions yourself, you have heard them from people because they are valid questions for any point in human history. Whether it’s true or not, it seems to us who personally experience this point in human history with its 24-hour news cycle that things just seem to keep getting worse. Perhaps we need more laws, stronger leaders, a better economic and political system to impose order and peace and ensure nobody goes hungry. If God isn’t going to do it for us, then we better get busy dialoguing about these things.
Revelation is a letter from Messiah Jesus to all his people from the end of the 1st century A.D. through to the consummation of all things. And it’s sent by Jesus particularly to address believers living in very troubled times. At the beginning, Jesus introduces himself as the ruler of the kings on earth (1:5). Then in chapters 4 and 5, we see Messiah as the great Lion-Lamb whose sacrificial death breaks the power of reigning sin so that he is declared worthy to rule absolutely everything and absolutely everyone. Chapter 6 shows Christ reigning by breaking the seals of God’s covenant plan for life, the universe and everything.
Remember, John has been called through the open door into heaven. He is standing in eternity receiving revelation relating to God’s plan of redemption from eternity past into eternity future. Jesus is the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world (13:8). So, these four horsemen of the first four seals ride out in response to Adam’s sin way back in the garden. These horsemen have been riding since sin entered the world and they will continue until Jesus returns. They are the symbol of troubled times. What makes any time in world history troubled? Sin.
John isn’t relating future history about 21st-century Russia, China, Iran, Israel, or the United States. He is showing God’s ongoing judgment upon man’s rebellion that has real-time consequences for all people – believers and unbelievers – in every age. And Christ wants his people to know that he knows what’s going on because he decreed all of it for their good and his glory. The judgments unfolding as the seals are broken show his Church that apparent chaos and seemingly random sufferings and deep public tragedies depicted as four horsemen are NOT random acts of chance. They are part of God’s plan to rejoin heaven and earth written out on the scroll Christ holds and opens.
Coach Knute Rockne’s 1924 all-star backfield at Notre Dame was nicknamed The Four Horsemen. Everybody loves a good sports metaphor. But the four horses and riders in our text tell a much darker tale since they show the consequences of human sin. That’s why our sermon title is from a bleak Cormack McCarthy novel rather than a football legend of the last century. John’s vision of four horsemen comes from the OT prophet Zechariah’s night visions in Zech. 1 and 6 where riders execute God’s blessings and judgments. God’s people would be restored and purified through trials; God’s enemies would be punished in judgment (see also: Ezek. 14:12-23). Both things happen at once through the same events.
Like in Zechariah’s night visions, God’s people endure the same events as the pagans in rebellion against God. The red horse rider removes peace and brings a sword so that humans slay one another (6:4). The word “slay” or “slaughter” is used of the Lion-Lamb (5:6, 12) and of his martyrs (5:6, 9, 12; 6:9; 13:8; 18:24). So, the death dealt falls on unbelievers and believers alike. Persecution of the Church is bound up with the effects of the curse that form the judgments of God.
“Believers need to understand the dual role of these calamities so that they can accept them in a positive manner as tools of sanctification, yet also realizing that these same trials are punishments upon unbelievers.” The four horsemen represent all the human tragedies and afflictions – famines, sickness, disease, oppression, poverty, murders. They serve to purge the Church of make believers, sanctify true believers, and call the world to repentance and trust into Messiah Jesus.
The riders are painted into John’s vision with the colors of Zechariah. The judgments they execute follow the pattern laid out in Ezekiel 14:12-23 of sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague. And the whole sequence loosely follows Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mk. 13: Lk. 21). These are all woes pointed out in the OT occurring throughout the ages of this present world under the sovereign rule of the Lord Jesus Christ. In Revelation, following his death, resurrection, and ascension Jesus cranks his amplifier volume up to “11” because now the world is truly in the last days (Acts 2:17).
He doesn’t cause the evil. But he turns the world over to its own evil as judgment. How can Jesus not cause what he uses for judgment? We read the answer in our reading of the Law today:
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness…. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts….
These four horsemen are nothing more than images of what God allows rebellious mankind to do to itself under his sovereign working of all things for his glory. Jesus doesn’t make people murder each other. Humans perform evil willingly because that is what our old Adam does by nature. God’s judgment upon the world is that he lets sinners do whatever they feel like doing: flying jets into skyscrapers, blowing up federal buildings with fertilizer bombs, driving trucks into crowds of pedestrians, slaughtering school children, wars, famine, plagues, hatred, perversion. On and on goes the evil of humans against themselves and others. That is judgment: evil people getting exactly what they want, as they frantically fight against God’ inbreaking Kingdom of true peace and real love (1 Jn. 4:10).
If revelation 6 and Romans 1 are true, the REAL question is why God doesn’t let mankind destroy itself once and for all. We see in this text that God clearly limits the judgment he allows men to inflict on themselves. Even IF we believe God’s teaching about sin, we really don’t see it as the horrible offense it truly is to God.
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!” 2 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.  Some scholars see the white rider as Christ who is pictured on a white horse in 19:12. Others say the rider is the message of the gospel bringing blessing and judgment to the world. Others see the white rider as the Antichrist being unleashed. However, both in Zechariah and here in our text all four of our technicolor riders are identified as being the same in their nature and purpose. Revelation 12 and 13 depict Satan and his agents as imitating Messiah. Christ warned of false messiahs and false prophets (Mk. 13:5-6; Matt. 24:4-5; Lk. 21:8).
The most likely interpretation of the white rider with his conqueror’s crown and war bow called out by the first living creature is the political/military ruler in whom people place their trust as their non-heavenly messiah. He is the general who can conquer your nation’s enemies and deliver peace and safety. She is the politician you vote for to set things right and make your country great again. His might makes right.
The white horse was a symbol of military conquest. The bow is the symbol of violent warfare. The crown is the symbol of earthly domination. His is the promise of peace and prosperity coming at the cost of violent bloodshed, persecution, and war-torn famine. This is the king or queen in whom sinners trust because they reject the perfect, holy rule of Christ. “We have no king but Caesar!” (Jn. 19:15). Sinners accept tyranny because they hate the freedom Messiah offers.
RED, BLACK, AND SICKLY GREEN RIDERS
The second, third, and fourth horses and riders depict further ravages of human sin in human history. In response to the second seal and an angelic command, the blood red horse and rider are unleashed. “Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.”  The first rider brings tyrannical political and military conquest. The second brings homicide: knifings, bombings, murders, mass shootings. Murder in the hearts of Adam’s children works its way outward to the hands and Messiah does not restrain the hatred to which sinners give themselves over. James warned:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
Unbelievers are vexed and disturbed when they are forced to consider sinful slaughter in their communities. Murder is so commonplace only mass murder catches people’s attention these days and, even then, the focus is on the weapon as the cause. Original sin is an outdated concept. Surely the answer is more legislation, not repentance before a holy God who judges sinners by giving them completely over to their sins. And so, the judgment continues, and the world plugs its ears as Jesus’ amplifier shakes the world’s walls.
The third broken seal brings the black horse and rider in verse 5 and 6. “And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. 6 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!’” 
When Adam rebelled, God promised:
Cursed is the ground because of you; /through painful toil you will eat of it /all the days of your life. /18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, /and you will eat the plants of the field. /19 By the sweat of your brow /you will eat your food /until you return to the ground….
War, violence, and greed from the first two riders bring famine and economic hardship riding on a black horse with scales to ration the scarcity of daily resources. One quart of wheat was enough to bake a one-person loaf for one day and, at the listed price, cost one day’s wage. Three quarts of barley would sustain an average family for one day. “The prices listed here are about eight to sixteen times the average prices in the Roman Empire at the time.”  This is not starvation; it’s deprivation. It means that everything people can earn is going toward simple sustenance. The order to spare the oil and wine indicates staples are available, but man must earn them by even more sweat from his brow. God’s common goodness reflected in his rainbow covenant with Noah means he will not destroy the land completely as he judges people for their sin.
The forth broken seal brings the angel’s call for the final horse and rider. Most English translations read, “a pale horse” for some reason. The Greek says the horse is χλωρός (chloros), pale green or “sickly green.” “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.” 
Unlike the previous riders, this final one is given a name: Death. Hades is the realm of the dead and is listed in combination with death often in the OT (Pss. 6:6; 48:14–15; Prov. 2:18; 5:5; Cant. 8:6; Job 17:13–16; 33:22). It’s a poetic way of saying death and the grave – dead and buried. This final rider is the summation of the previous three. Wild beasts roaming the land is a symbol of the complete breakdown of human society under God’s covenant curse. The list of deadly woes comes from Ezekiel 14:12-13 as God’s specific punishments for idolatry and unbelief.
The same angels who were screaming praises to God’s holiness in chapter 4 are the very ones who send out all the death and disaster and grief the world knows. Why? Because absolute holiness not only demands all creation’s praise, it demands perfect eternal obedience. And the penalty for even the slightest disobedience – even an unspoken thought deep in the heart of the world’s nicest person – is death. Why does God allow disaster? Because he commands it in judgment for sin. “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4, 20).
So, again, the real question is: Why does God restrain the vast majority of humanity from committing mass murder? Why does he not turn humanity over completely to their sins without restraint? Why doesn’t every human die horribly?
Notice in verse 8 death can only have authority over a quarter of the earth. Jesus told his people at the beginning of his letter, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” The judgment Messiah sends upon the earth he restricts to bring only those woes that spoil opposition to his gospel reign.
Revelation pulls no punches in proclaim Christ’s absolute sovereignty as Holy God over the presence of tragic and terrible human suffering. Tragic and terrible human suffering is the price all humanity pays for their arrogant and willful rejection of God’s free offer of salvation in Christ. For unbelievers, it is God’s call to repent and flee to Christ. For believers, it is God’s destruction of our illusion that we have the strength and competence to rule our own lives.
Human tragedies, horrible for us to see, are foretastes of the great judgment yet promised in Revelation. Every mass shooting is a promise from God that greater and more horrible death awaits. For now, he restrains human evil until that day when he will turn all the unrepentant over to themselves without restraint and for all eternity. Scorning the death of the Perfect Son while agonizing over the tragic death of humans misses God’s call for man’s attention and repentance. Peter warns:
9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. 
May you have ears to hear God’s free offer of salvation from that horrible judgment through trusting into the perfectly righteous life and sacrificial death of the resurrected and ascended Messiah Jesus. His Spirit calls. His bride the Church calls.
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. 
 Beal, 370; Phillips, 208.
 Beale, 373.
 Beale, 381.
 Phillips, 218.