In grad school, I took a course called “Women and Sacred Language.” We visited various houses of worship. I remember being in a mosque with someone who went on to become one of my closest friends. We were washing our feet, and I was being a tad obnoxious. A broken engagement has followed too quickly on the heels of a divorce and an ill-advised, reckless relationship. I was at peak bipolar but was a good five years and fifty gallons of whiskey away from diagnosis. I was dreadfully insecure. I couldn’t hack it at a premiere New Testament Ph.D. program, and after earning my second master’s degree I would also fail at another, not-so-prestigious doctoral program. I was trying to define myself as a scholar, and it sometimes made me a bit unbearable.
So there we were, washing our feet, and I made some quip about the seven horsemen of the apocalypse. My friend, who has a rapier wit and sarcasm like a cobra’s bite, said, “Did they add three? I thought this was your area, dude?” Everyone in the room began to laugh, even those who were not in our class. Peak bipolar means peak paranoia. I’ve got paranoid schizophrenia on both sides of the family, each one ending in suicide. I stammered out that I was a Markan scholar–which was and is true–and buried my shame. As I said, he and I are very good friends and I know that he did not mean anything by it. But ever since then, thinking about the four horsemen has elicited feelings of embarrassment.
A Horse of White
Last week we established that Revelation 4 and 5 are a diptych, meaning that they cannot be understood one outside the other. Today’s passage from Revelation 6 and 7 pick up where they left off, with the slaughtered Lamb standing upright, about to take the throne and open the seals of the scroll with writing on both sides. One of the four creatures that both comprise the throne and stand in guard of it speaks amidst thunder, a common accompaniment to God’s workings. “Come!” the voice bellows with the breaking of the first seal. A white horse appears.
Some interpreters have argued that the rider of the first horse is Christ. The description is intriguing. White is a color of purity and is associated with Christ in both the Transfiguration (Mark 9) and his resurrection appearances in Matthew, Luke, and John. He is not so much wearing a crown as he is a wreath–in Greek, στέφανος, or Stephanos, from which we get the name Stephen–and in his hands is a bow.
These are potent symbols, and I will once again recommend in the highest possible terms the commentary written by Dr. Ian Boxall. The bow seems designed to elicit memories within the original audience. At the time scholars believe Revelation was written, late 1st/early 2nd centuries, the Romans were being challenged by the Parthians, who were known for their power and prowess with the bow. Further, Nero, who had died, was rumored by some to still be alive and collaborating with the Parthians to reclaim his empire. Perhaps even more potent is the similarity between this image and the god Apollo, who carried a bow and was known to be a seer of futures.
This image, Boxall argues, is a reference to Jesus’ words in Mark 13, known as the Little Apocalypse. The words are not Jesus’ and the apocalypse is not really an apocalypse. You know what to do.
So what is being referenced here are the false prophets and messiahs that will come in Jesus’ name. The first horseman looks like Jesus and can be mistaken for God’s agent, but such is the nature of evil: it appears enticing even as it destroys everything around it.
A Horse of Red
The second horse is a fiery red, symbolizing the blood that soon will spill. There’s a curious line in 6:4, that the rider is permitted by the Lamb to remove peace from the earth. We must ask, can the possibility of God’s peace be absent, even for a moment, and God still be God? Paul especially links divine peace to human hope, so what seems to be at play here is the false peace that humans manufacture through agreements they know full well they do not plan to honor. Much like how the current occupier of the Oval Office is threatening to back out of myriad agreements. Human peace is disingenuous when it is brokered by charlatans and fools. Violence breaks out in the most unlikely of places, like schools or a Wal-Mart.
A Horse of Black
We often associate scales in iconography as representing justice, such as Lady Justice outside of the U.S. Supreme Court. Here they represent the opposite, the lack of justice will manifest itself in myriad ways, including outlandish prices for necessary goods. Kind of like charging $15 for a gallon of gas in the midst of devastating calamity.
What’s especially interesting, though, is the reminder that the Lamb is still in control. Notice that it is not the third living creature that calls out; nay, it comes from the throne itself. Olive oil and wine will not be touched, which can mean a variety of things. For now, let it suffice to say that both wine and olive oil take a great deal of time and patience to fashion and were vital to first-century life.
A Horse of Puke Green
The fourth rider is upon a steed of pale green; the Greek word for pale is χλωpός, chōros, from which we get our word chloroform. The rider provides the popular imagination the Grim Reaper. Death–in Greek, θάνατος–is accompanied by Hades, who we will remember is a deity before becoming a location name. Hades, or the underworld, was akin to the Jewish concept of Sheol.
This rider is given even more territory; as he rides, those not killed are made sickly, turning green from illness, malnutrition, and lack of compassionate responses.
A Horse of a Different Color
Revelation 7:9-17 envisions something different. A great multitude has gathered before the Lam’s throne, and they are waving palm branches. This was a practice during Sukkoth, the last harvest festival of the year. What was harvested, you may ask? Grapes and olives. The wine and olive oil the Lamb decreed be untouched are now symbolized by a great multitude that has within it authentic diversity.
For too long the Book of Revelation has been used to frighten people into compliance with religious decrees and requirements that have nothing to do with the love of Christ. What Revelation actually offers us is a heavenly, unsettling glimpse of the relationship between God’s realm and our own. We are assured that the Lamb–slaughtered, yet standing–remains in control. Human beings will continue to slaughter and kill as long as selfishness and avarice are tolerated. When we revision our notions of love and power–again, the Lamb slaughtered, yet standing, who is animated by love, not the cravings of Caesar–we understand why our hearts should be directed toward God is we ever want to achieve peace.