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Revelation 6:1-11

 The Seals

     1I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

     3 When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people slay each other. To him was given a large sword.

     5 When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”

     7 When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.

     When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.

As we’ve been looking at readings from the Revelation of John this week, we mentioned that our part of the church focuses less on the meaning of the individual symbols in John’s vision, and more on the overall theme of the book. That theme is that the people of God will sometimes find ourselves threatened and abused by the forces of worldly power, but that God will ultimately triumph over those forces and bring his kingdom to fulfillment.

And by the way, some New Testament scholars suggest that it is those powerful worldly forces that are represented by “the beast” in the Revelation. Christians have tended to identify the beast with some specific power, often the Roman Empire, but these scholars say John might have had in mind any worldly power that victimizes the vulnerable and oppresses God’s people when he wrote about the beast.

You might also remember that we said that quite a few of the symbols in the Revelation represent things that were going on in John’s time, rather than details about what will happen at the second coming. And today’s reading about the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is a good example.

According to the scholars who seem to me to make the most sense in their interpretations of the Revelation, the four horsemen represent four great causes of suffering and destruction that people were afraid of in the ancient world. And for that matter, I suppose, people are still afraid of those things today.

The first horseman is given a weapon and a crown, and goes out “bent on conquest.” Its weapon is a bow, which strikes from a distance. This horseman represents foreign invaders who cause great destruction and loss of life.

The second horseman is also given a weapon, but this weapon is a sword, which can only strike someone nearby. This horseman represents violence and destruction that’s inflicted on a country from within. That could be civil war, or gang violence and crime – all of those are ways that the people of a country “slay each other.”

The third horseman comes carrying scales. We tend to associate scales with the justice system. But the scholars say that the scales in this passage represent commerce – they’re meant to be the scales that merchants used to weigh out products they were selling. This horseman represents the suffering that comes from economic upheaval.

And this passage includes a specific example of this kind of economic upheaval – one of the connections with current events in John’s time. A voice shouts something that seems strange at first blush. The voice complains about the cost of grain and about protecting “the oil and the wine.” Here’s why the voice says that: When the Romans conquered the Holy Land, they threw thousands of farmers off their land and planted olive groves and grape vineyards. Olive oil and wine were critical to the economy of the Roman Empire. But the result of these policies was that the price of food went through the roof, and thousands of people starved. So as the third horseman rides, a voice cries out against economic policies that were causing hardship and starvation.

The fourth horseman comes riding a pale horse. This horseman represents death in general, from all sorts of disastrous causes, including the sword, plague and wild beasts.

So when you look closely at these Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it’s not that hard to see how they correspond to the things that people were most afraid of in John’s time. They were meant to be symbols of the kinds of suffering that too often plague human life. So God’s people in a difficult world, the Four Horsemen represented a powerful reassurance that God would be with them in all of the hardships they might go through.

The suffering symbolized by the Four Horsemen falls on believers and unbelievers alike. But this passage closes with an acknowledgement of one kind of suffering that was particular to the followers of Jesus – persecution for their faith. The voices of martyrs cry out for vengeance against the powers of the world who have persecuted them, but they are told to be patient until the time of persecution is done. The first readers of the Revelation would probably have been surprised to learn that almost twenty centuries later, their fellow believers are still being persecuted and martyred by the bestial forces of this world.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you that you spoke through your servant John to promise your embattled people that you will be victorious in the end, and that those who suffer in this world will share in your victory. Give your people the strength and faith to cling to that hope as we live in the trouble of this world. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 26 and 116; Nehemiah 1:1-11; and Matthew 13:18-23.)