Revelation 6 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The First Seal

The opening of the first four seals is the work of the Lamb and the four living creatures together. As the Lamb opens each of the seals, one of the living creatures gives the command, "Come!" A horse and rider go forth, apparently on earth. Actions in heaven are determining events on earth. The series recalls similar groups of four horsemen or chariots sent throughout the earth according to Zechariah 1:8-11 and 6:1-7. The first horse is white, with a rider carrying a bow and wearing a crown riding out as a conqueror bent on conquest (v. 2). Herman Melville, in the chapter entitled "The Whiteness of the Whale" in his novel Moby Dick, wrote that

In the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood. This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the farthest bounds. (Melville 1931:873)

The biblical perspective on the color white, in connection with the opening of the first seal, is more ambiguous than Melville assumed. If we recall the white stone promised to the angel at Pergamum (2:17) or the white garments mentioned in the letters to Sardis (3:4-5) and Laodicea (3:18), we might agree that the white horse was (in Melville's words) something "sweet, and honorable, and sublime." Reading the book for a second time, we would have this impression confirmed by recalling the figure on a white horse in 19:11-16, who bears such names as "Faithful and True" (19:11) and "the Word of God" (19:13). It is no surprise, therefore, that many have identified the rider on the white horse in chapter 6 either as Jesus himself or as the Christian message being proclaimed throughout the world (see Ladd 1972:99).

But the second, third and fourth riders are bearers of judgment, not salvation, and it is natural to wonder if the same is not true of the first. Because an antichrist figure is by definition a counterfeit of Jesus Christ, any characteristic that identifies this first rider as the one serves equally well to identify him as the other. The phrase as a conqueror bent on conquest (v. 2) could point to Christ (3:20; 5:5), but it could just as easily point to the antichrist (Rissi 1966:73), who also "overpowers" or "conquers" (11:7; 13:7). Although the term antichrist (1 Jn 2:18; 4:3; 2 Jn 7) never occurs in the book of Revelation, the idea is conspicuous in chapters 13-20. More broadly, the rider on the white horse could represent false prophets or false messiahs (for example, Vos 1965:181-92) or even the god Apollo, who in Hellenistic mythology was linked to prophecy and was often depicted as carrying a bow (Kerkeslager 1993:116-21). Other interpretations are that he represents military conquest as a kind of abstraction (Wall 1991:110) or the dreaded Parthian empire beyond the eastern borders of Rome's dominion (for example, Boring 1989:122, "the only mounted archers in the first century; white horses were their trademark").

Although there will never be total agreement in regard to the first rider's identity, the concern over false prophets in chapters 2-3 suggests false prophecy as the most likely interpretation. This would parallel Jesus' last discourse in Mark, where false prophets are one of the signs, indeed the first sign, of the end of the age (Mk 13:5, 22). And to the degree that the antichrist figure in the book of Revelation is associated with false prophecy (see 13:11-17, as well as the pairing of "the beast and the false prophet" in 16:13; 19:20; 20:10), the first rider is "antichrist" as well.

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The Opening of the First Four Seals

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The Second, Third and Fourth Seals

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