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Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, - Conquest, War, Famine & Death, an 1887 painting by Victor Vasnetsov. The Lamb is visible at the top.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are described in the last book of the New Testament of the Bible, called the Book of Revelation of Jesus Christ to Saint John the Evangelist at 6:1-8. The chapter tells of a book or scroll in God's right hand that is sealed with seven seals. The Lamb of God, or Lion of Judah (Jesus Christ), opens the first four of the seven seals, which summons four beings that ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses. Although some interpretations differ, in most accounts, the four riders are seen as symbolizing Conquest,[1] War,[2] Famine,[3] and Death, respectively. The Christian apocalyptic vision is that the four horsemen are to set a divine apocalypse upon the world as harbingers of the Last Judgment.[1][4]


  • White Horse 1
    • As righteous 1.1
    • As infectious disease 1.2
    • As evil 1.3
  • Red Horse 2
  • Black Horse 3
  • Pale Horse 4
  • Interpretations 5
    • Prophetic interpretation 5.1
    • Preterist interpretation 5.2
    • Other interpretations 5.3
  • Other Biblical references 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8

White Horse

The first horseman, Conquest on the White Horse as depicted in the Bamberg Apocalypse (1000-1020). The first "living creature" (with halo) is seen in the upper right.

Based on the above passage, the most common translation into English, the white rider is generally referred to as "Conquest".[1] The name could also be construed as "Victory," per the translation found in the Jerusalem Bible (the Greek words are derived from the verb νικάω, to conquer or vanquish). He carries a bow, and wears a victor's crown.

The rider has also been called "Pestilence", particularly in pop culture (see below).

As righteous

Irenaeus, an influential Christian theologian of the 2nd century, was among the first to interpret this horseman as Christ himself, his white horse representing the successful spread of the gospel.[3] Various scholars have since supported this notion,[5] citing the later appearance, in Revelation 19, of Christ mounted on a white horse, appearing as The Word of God. Furthermore, earlier in the New Testament, the Book of Mark indicates that the advance of the gospel may indeed precede and foretell the apocalypse.[3][6] The color white also tends to represent righteousness in the Bible, and Christ is in other instances portrayed as a conqueror.[3][6] However, opposing interpretations argue that the first of the four horsemen is probably not the horseman of Revelation 19. They are described in significantly different ways, and Christ's role as the Lamb who opens the seven seals makes it unlikely that he would also be one of the forces released by the seals.[3][6]

Besides Christ, the horseman could represent the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was understood to have come upon the Apostles at Pentecost after Jesus' departure from Earth. The appearance of the Lamb in Revelation 5 shows the triumphant arrival of Jesus in Heaven, and the white horseman could represent the sending of the Holy Spirit by Jesus and the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.[7]

Other interpretations relying on comparative religious research ascribe the first horseman as guiding for "the right path" as in Mahabaratha Lord Krishna was a charioteer to Arjuna by riding on white horses, while Arjuna himself was an archer.[8]

As infectious disease

Under this interpretation, the first horseman is called Pestilence, and is associated with infectious disease and plague. It appears at least as early as 1916, when it is mentioned in the Jewish Encyclopedia.[9] The interpretation is common in popular culture references to the Four Horsemen.[10]

The origin of the interpretation is unclear. Some translations of the Bible mention "plague" (e.g. the NIV) or "pestilence" (e.g. the RSV) in connection with the riders in the passage following the introduction of the fourth rider; cf. "They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth." ( NASB). However, it is a matter of debate as to whether this passage refers to the fourth rider, or to the four riders as a whole.[1]

Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, in his 1916 novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (filmed in 1921 and in 1962), provides an early example of this interpretation, writing "The horseman on the white horse was clad in a showy and barbarous attire. [...] While his horse continued galloping, he was bending his bow in order to spread pestilence abroad. At his back swung the brass quiver filled with poisoned arrows, containing the germs of all diseases."[11]

As evil

One interpretation, which was held by evangelist Billy Graham, casts the rider of the white horse as the Antichrist,[12] or a representation of false prophets, citing differences between the white horse in Revelation 6 and Jesus on the white Horse in Revelation 19.[13] In Revelation 19,[14] Jesus has many crowns, but in Revelation 6 the rider has just one.

Red Horse

The second horseman, War on the Red Horse as depicted in a thirteenth-century Apocalypse manuscript

The rider of the second horse is often taken to represent War[2] (he is often pictured holding a sword upwards as though ready for battle [15]) or mass slaughter.[1][4][16] His horse's color is red (πυρρός, from πῦρ, fire), and in some translations the color is specifically a "fiery" red. The color red, as well as the rider's possession of a great sword, suggests blood that is to be spilled.[3] The sword held upward by the second horseman may represent war or a declaration of war, as seen in heraldry. In military symbolism swords held upward, especially crossed swords held upward, signify war and entering into battle.[17] (See for example the historical and modern images, as well as the coat of arms, of Jeanne of Arc.)

The second horseman may represent civil war as opposed to the war of conquest that the first horseman is sometimes said to bring.[3][18] Other commentators have suggested it might also represent persecution of Christians.[6]


Black Horse

The third horseman, Famine on the Black Horse as depicted in the Angers Apocalypse Tapestry (1372-82)

The third horseman rides a black horse and is popularly understood to be Famine as the horseman carries a pair of balances or weighing scales, indicating the way that bread would have been weighed during a famine.[3][18] Other authors interpret the third horseman as the "Lord as a Law-Giver" holding Scales of Justice.[20] In the passage it is read that the indicated price of grain is about ten times normal (thus the famine interpretation popularity), with an entire day's wages (a denarius) buying enough wheat for only one person, or enough of the less nutritious barley for three, so that workers would struggle to feed their families.[3]

Of the four horsemen, the black horse and its rider are the only ones whose appearance is accompanied by a vocal pronunciation. John hears a voice, unidentified but coming from among the four living creatures, that speaks of the prices of wheat and barley, also saying "and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine". This suggests that the black horse's famine is to drive up the price of grain but leave oil and wine supplies unaffected (though out of reach of the ordinary worker). One explanation for this is that grain crops would have been more naturally susceptible to famine years or locust plagues than olive trees and grapevines, which root more deeply.[3][18] The statement might also suggest a continuing abundance of luxuries for the wealthy while staples such as bread are scarce, though not totally depleted;[18] such selective scarcity may result from injustice and the deliberate production of luxury crops for the wealthy over grain, as would have happened during the time Revelation was written.[2][5] Alternatively, the preservation of oil and wine could symbolize the preservation of the Christian faithful, who used oil and wine in their sacraments.[21]

Another possible interpretation of the third horseman is to interpret them as symbolic of the wealthy and the destructive power of a class gap on a society. This can be supported by the color of their horse, black, which was seen as the sign of the wealthy as they were the only ones able to afford black dye. Also, the luxury goods issue supports this perspective as does the grain (symbolic of the staples of the working class) price increase. Such price increases would only be possible if the wealthy landowners and merchants wanted to keep the poor oppressed and starving.

Pale Horse

The fourth and final horseman is named Death. Known as "the pale rider", of all the riders, he is the only one to whom the text itself explicitly gives a name. Unlike the other three, he is not described carrying a weapon or other object, instead he is followed by Hades (the resting place of the dead). However, illustrations commonly depict him carrying a scythe (like the Grim Reaper), sword,[22] or other implement.

Gustave Doré -The fourth horseman, Death on the Pale Horse (1865)

The color of Death's horse is written as khlōros (χλωρός) in the original Koine Greek,[23] which can mean either green/greenish-yellow or pale/pallid.[24] The color is often translated as "pale", though "ashen", "pale green", and "yellowish green"[18] are other possible interpretations (the Greek word is the root of "chlorophyll" and "chlorine"). Based on uses of the word in ancient Greek medical literature, several scholars suggest that the color reflects the sickly pallor of a corpse.[3][25] In some modern artistic depictions, the horse is distinctly green.[26][27][28]

The verse beginning "they were given power over a fourth of the earth" is generally taken as referring to Death and Hades,[18][29] although some commentators see it as applying to all four horsemen.[1]


The Horsemen of the Apocalypse, depicted in a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (ca. 1497–98), ride forth as a group, with an angel heralding them, to bring Death, Famine, War, and Conquest unto man.[30]
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Saint-Sever Beatus, 11th century.

Prophetic interpretation

Some Christians interpret the horsemen as a prophecy of a future Tribulation,[5] in which many will die. The Four Horsemen are the first in a series of "Seal" judgements. This is when God will judge the Earth, and is giving the World a chance to repent before they die.

Preterist interpretation

Some modern scholars interpret Revelation from a preterist point of view, arguing that its prophecy and imagery apply only to the events of the first century of Christian history.[18] In this school of thought, Conquest, the white horse's rider, is sometimes identified as a symbol of Parthian forces: Conquest carries a bow, and the Parthian Empire was at that time known for its mounted warriors and their skill with bow and arrow.[3][18] Parthians were also particularly associated with white horses.[3] Some scholars specifically point to Vologases I, a Parthian shah who clashed with the Roman Empire and won one significant battle in 62 AD.[3][18]

Revelation's historical context may also influence the depiction of the black horse and its rider, Famine. In 92 AD, the Roman emperor Domitian attempted to curb excessive growth of grapevines and encourage grain cultivation instead, but there was major popular backlash against this effort, and it was abandoned. Famine's mission to make wheat and barley scarce but "hurt not the oil and the wine" could be an allusion to this episode.[18][25] The red horse and its rider, who take peace from the earth, might represent the prevalence of civil strife at the time Revelation was written; internecine conflict ran rampant in the Roman Empire during and just prior to the 1st century AD.[3][18]

Other interpretations

Artwork which shows the horsemen as a group, such as the famous woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, suggests an interpretation where all four horsemen represent different aspects of the same tribulation.[31]

American Protestant Evangelical interpreters regularly see ways in which the horsemen, and Revelation in general, speak to contemporary events. Some who believe Revelation applies to modern times can interpret the horses based on various ways their colors are used.[32] Red, for example, often represents Communism, the white horse and rider with a crown representing Catholicism, Black has been used as a symbol of Capitalism, while Green represents the rise of Islam. Pastor Irvin Baxter Jr. of Endtime Ministries espouses such a belief.[33]

Some equate the four horsemen with the angels of the four winds.[34] (See Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel, angels often associated with four cardinal directions)

Other Biblical references

The Book of Zechariah twice mentions colored horses; in the first passage there are three colors (red, dappled, and white),[35] and in the second there are four teams of horses (red, black, white, and finally dappled) pulling chariots.[36] The second set of horses are referred to as "the four spirits of heaven, going out from standing in the presence of the Lord of the whole world."[36] The horses in Zechariah differ from the ones mentioned in Revelation in that their colors do not seem to indicate or symbolize anything about their characters. They are described as patrolling the earth, and keep it peaceful. It may be assumed that when the tribulation begins, the peace is taken away, so their job is to terrify the places in which they patrol.[3]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Flegg, Columba Graham (1999). An introduction to reading the Apocalypse. St Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 0-88141-131-0. p. 90.
  2. ^ a b c Lenski, Richard C. H. (2008). The Interpretation of St. John's Revelation (reprint). Augsburg Fortress. p. 224.  [1]
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation (New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997. 140 [2]
  4. ^ a b "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Apocalypse". 1907-03-01. Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  5. ^ a b c  
  6. ^ a b c d Beale, Gregory K. (1998). The Book of Revelation: A commentary on the Greek text. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. pp. 375–379.   [3]
  7. ^ Rev. Brian Vos. "Outlook Article - The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse". Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  8. ^ "End Of Days - backup". 2012-11-02. Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  9. ^ Singer, Isidore; Adler, Cyrus (1916). The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Volume 10. Funk and Wagnalls. p. 392. ...and sees a white horse appear, with a rider holding a bow (representing, probably, Pestilence) 
  10. ^ Stableford, Brian (2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Scarecrow Press. p. 18.  
  11. ^ Ibáñez, Vicente Blasco (1916). The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (ch V). 
  12. ^  
  13. ^ Graham, Billy. Approaching Hoofbeats
  14. ^ "Rev 19; ESV - Rejoicing in Heaven - After this I". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  15. ^ "Sword - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". 2012-08-31. Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  16. ^ Jeffrey, David L. (1992). A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 363.  
  17. ^ Crossed swords. Upwards.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Morris, Leon (1987). The Book of Revelation (Tyndale New Testament commentaries) (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. pp. 100–105.  
  19. ^ Bible Prophecies fulfilled by 2012- Ch 2- by Alan R Peters
  20. ^ [Jane Campbell Hutchison, Albrecht Durer: A Guide to Research, p.58
  21. ^ Hoeck, Andreas; Manhardt, Laurie Watson (2010). Come and See: Ezekiel, Hebrews, Revelation. Emmaus Road Publishing. p. 139.  
  22. ^ Alexander of Bremen. "Expositio in Apocalypsim". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 27 February 2014. 
  23. ^ "See The Manuscript | Revelation |". Codex Sinaiticus. Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  24. ^ "Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, χλωρός". Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  25. ^ a b Case, Shirley Jackson. The revelation of John: a historical interpretation. University of Chicago Press, 1919. 261-263.
  26. ^ "The Pale Horse Vision~One of 4 Horses of the Apocalypse | Flickr - Photo Sharing!". Flickr. 2010-08-09. Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  27. ^ "Apocalypse | Flickr - Photo Sharing!". Flickr. 2006-11-30. Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  28. ^ "The riders on the chloros and the blood red apocalypse horses". Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  29. ^ Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological dictionary of the New Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1968, p. 996.
  30. ^ Leeming, David (2005). The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford University Press. p. 22.  
  31. ^ O'Hear, Natasha F. H. (2011). Contrasting Images of the Book of Revelation in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art: A Case Study in Visual Exegesis. Oxford University Press. p. 100.  [4]
  32. ^ Humphries, Paul D. (2005). A Dragon This Way Comes. Mustang, Oklahoma:  
  33. ^  
  34. ^ Robert Smith (1998). Apocalypse. Liturgical Press.  
  35. ^ "Zechariah 1:8-17 NIV - During the night I had a vision, and". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  36. ^ a b "Zechariah 6:1-8 NIV - Four Chariots - I looked up again, and". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
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