I 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.
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. (Rev 6.1–4)
I first read the Book of Revelation as a teenager in a Baptist Church Bible study group. We were fascinated by the vision of Jesus in chapter 1, challenged by the messages to the Christians in the seven cities in 2 and 3, and awed by the vision of the worship of God in 4 and 5. But when it came to chapter 6, we suddenly felt God was leading us to study something else! Most Christians feel the same anxiety, though a smaller group read with relish what they see as God’s plan to get his own back by unleashing retributive violence in the End Times. Fear and glee are both mistaken reading strategies.
John’s image of the four horseman comes from the prophet Zechariah, where these are sent by God. But in Revelation, God’s sovereignty is permissive, rather than directive; one of God’s living creatures from the throne calls forth the horses, not God himself. God no more creates and inflicts chaos, violence and death than lighting a candle creates the darkness of its shadows. Yet John is clear that even these terrible things are not beyond God’s sovereignty; the discordant notes of war, famine and death are held within the steady rhythm of Jesus opening the seven seals to disclose God’s will for the world.
These vivid images of chaos and destruction have gripped the imagination of readers down all the generations, and have continued to shape contemporary culture. In seeking to understand this text, we need to look not for things to which the images refer, as if this was a coded version of future history, but the things which (as metaphors) the images evoke, both from the canon of Scripture and the context of John’s world.
For John’s first readers, these verses describe a world they know and live in—a world marked by periodic famine and shortage, one of chronic disease and early death (especially in the often overcrowded cities of the empire), a world in which earthquakes bring sudden destruction and devastation. John is not yet disclosing to them an unknown future, but revealing the reality about the present. The imperial myth of peace and prosperity is exposed as just that—a myth—and this is true for all human empires in every age. There is only one who is sovereign—the one by whose permission the horsemen are released to allow humanity to reap what it has sown—and this one is not the emperor. And it is he alone, not the emperor, who can offer answers to the crisis that faces humanity—he alone who can usher in the true age of peace and prosperity.
(This a slightly longer version of the ‘Word for the Week’ published last Monday by LICC, the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity. If you want to receive the next two installments of this series straight into your inbox, you can sign up to LICC’s mailing list here)
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