Galloping out of the pages of Revelation

By | September 3, 2013

Who are the four horsemen of the Bible’s last book?

Horseback riding is often a highlight of summer, whether on vacation or as part of summer camp. Growing up in Wisconsin, what child hasn’t met a horse or two? For me, when summer vacation hit, I hit the library for every book about horses I could find: “Black Beauty,” “My Friend Flicka,” “The Black Stallion” and the lesser-knowns, such as “Thunderhead, Son of Flicka” and “The Red Stallion.”

While horses are not as common in the Bible, there are a couple of books that mention them. There are Pharaoh’s chariots in Exodus and, in both 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, we hear about King Solomon having 4,000 stalls for his horses.

But the most famous biblical horses must be those of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (what Catholic Bibles call “Revelation”). The horses appear in its sixth chapter as part of the breaking open of seven seals.

There is probably no more confusing book in the Bible than Revelation. Attributed to St. John the Evangelist, it overflows with strange visions regarding the end of this age and the second coming of Christ. The book has fueled countless theories about the end of the world — many of them as strange as any vision in Revelation.

Generally, the Catholic Church does not try to interpret specific parts of Revelation. While some passages are used in Sunday and weekday readings, especially during the 50 days of Easter and on some feasts of Mary, they are used to remind us that there will indeed be a second coming of Christ and a final judgment of God. Knowledge of how and when this will come about is left to God.

However, Bible commentators have generally taken three approaches to interpreting this book:

  • Historical: This views the book as poetically describing persecutions and battles that had either taken place earlier — such as the Egyptians and ancient Israel — or were taking place at the time the book was written, such as the persecutions of the early church.
  • Futurist: Here, things in Revelation are seen as promises of future events, though we do not understand how or when.
  • Idealistic: This approach can be seen especially in the use of Revelation for readings on the feast of the Immaculate Conception with its story of a woman giving birth and a dragon waiting to devour her child (chapter 12) and used in the liturgy to remind us of both the Virgin Mary and the church.

These forms of interpretations have been applied to the four horsemen as well: as descriptions of past events, heralds of the future, or colorful explanations of matters of faith.

Each of the four horsemen appears with the opening of one of the first four of seven seals:

  • First comes the white horse. Its rider has a bow as a weapon and receives a crown to ride out to victory. He is often known as “conquest.”
  • The second horse is red and its rider is most often called “war” because he is given a sword and “power to take peace away from the earth.”
  • Next comes a black horse, often called “famine” because its rider carries a scale and a voice is heard speaking about how a ration of wheat costs a day’s pay.
  • Finally, the last horse appears. It is described as “pale” or “sallow.” However, the actual Greek word is khloros, which also gives us basis for the words “chlorine” and “chlorophyll.” So this last horse could also be a pale, sickly green. His rider does have a name: “Death.”

He carries no sword or crown or scales, but he has a companion: Hades, the pagan Greek’s ruler of the underworld. The two receive power to destroy “a quarter of the earth.”

Pretty scary images. It turns out that they could be linked to four other horsemen in the Bible, those seen by the prophet Zechariah (1:7-11) and (6: 1-8). (Here’s a link to the past.) However, both Zechariah’s images of colored horses — red, black, white and dappled — clearly show their riders as observers of the earth, who then report back to God’s throne. They do not destroy anything and carry no weapons.

What about the present of John’s time and Revelation’s four horsemen? For early Christians — and anyone else in the Middle East of that day — the white horse and its rider would remind them of the Parthians. These traditional enemies of Rome rode white horses and fought expertly with bows.

Other interpretations link each of the four riders to specific symbols of wars throughout history with their attendant miseries: conquerors, famine, plagues and death.

And what about the idealistic interpretation? Well, some have speculated that the first horseman — the crowned rider on his white horse — is Jesus. However, since the Lamb who is breaking open each of the seals is clearly Jesus, this isn’t all that likely.

In fact, there is another rider on a white horse who appears later in Revelation and he more clearly represents Christ, since he is crowned with many crowns and bears the title “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16). The multitudes of heaven ride with him and clearly do so in triumph. We don’t know for certain who he is, but this could be an image of Christ’s second coming and the triumphant saints riding with him.

So while the four horsemen are clearly scary — even this triumphant Christ on a horse is scary, with eyes of fire and a sword coming from his mouth — the message at the end of Revelation (after the four horsemen and a few other scary events) is joyous: Christ and his chosen ones — like the white-hat heroes of the Old West — will “ride into the sunset” of God’s final victory.

Sources: Catholic Q & A at; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Horses in Scripture” at Acts.; and Catholic Education Resource Center at

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