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Clearly the first rider cannot be understood apart from the three that follow. The rider on the second, fiery red, horse (vv. 3-4) is given authority to take peace from the earth so that people would kill one another. He receives a large sword. The rider on the third, black, horse (vv. 5-6) is holding a pair of scales in his hand, while what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures said, "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!" (vv. 5-6). The rider on the fourth, pale, horse (vv. 7-8) has a name (Death) and a companion (Hades), and John adds that 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.
The question is whether they refers specifically to Death and Hades or to the whole series of four now being concluded. Clearly the sword is an apt characterization of the second rider (see v. 4) as famine is of the third. What then is the new terror brought by the fourth rider? Not killing as such, for that was intimated already in connection with the second (v. 4). Rather, Death is linked to plague (or "pestilence," NRSV), just as in the message to Thyatira (see note above on 2:23). So close is the connection that within one verse (v. 8) the same Greek word (thanatos) is translated both as Death and as plague. The fourth rider adds to the first three the awful prospect of disease, as well as the bearers of disease and desolation, the wild beasts of the earth. In effect, the statement that they were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague summarizes the activities of the second, third and fourth riders, not merely the fourth.
Listing calamities to come was common in Jewish and Christian prophecy, not least in prophecies attributed to Jesus, for example, "wars and rumors of wars" (Mk 13:7), "wars and revolutions" (Lk 21:9), "great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places" (Lk 21:11), "nation . . . against nation, and kingdom against kingdom" with "earthquakes in various places" (Mt 24:7). Jesus said that such disasters were "the beginning of birth pains" (Mk 13:8). They "must happen, but the end is still to come" (Mk 13:7). Similarly in John's vision, the things described under the first four seals are harbingers of more terrible judgments to come.
But if sword, famine and plague at the end of the fourth seal summarize the effects of the second, third and fourth riders, respectively, how do they affect our identification of the first rider as false prophecy, which was also mentioned in the Gospels (Mk 13:5, 21-22; Lk 21:8)? Why, for example, does this rider carry a bow? The background of such imagery is that the God of Israel sends his "arrows" of judgment against the nations (Ps 45:5) and in two notable passages, Deuteronomy 32:23-25 and Ezekiel 5:16-17, even against his own people (see Feuillet 1966):
I will heap calamities upon them and spend my arrows against them. I will send wasting famine against them, consuming pestilence and deadly plague; I will send against them the fangs of wild beasts, the venom of vipers that glide in the dust. In the street the sword will make them childless; in their homes terror will reign. (Deut 32:23-25)
When I shoot at you with my deadly and destructive arrows of famine, I will shoot to destroy you. . . . I will send famine and wild beasts against you, and they will leave you childless. Plague and bloodshed will sweep through you, and I will bring the sword against you. I the LORD have spoken. (Ezek 5:16-17; see also Jer 15:2-3; Ezek 5:12; 14:12-21).
The italicized expressions suggest a causal relation of some kind between the first rider with his bow and the three terrible riders that follow. If the fourth rider summarizes the last three, the first rider anticipates them and speeds them on their way. They are like arrows from his bow. If he represents false prophets and false prophecy, the vision confirms John's view that false prophets like the Nicolaitans at Pergamum and "Jezebel" at Thyatira, urging compromise with the values of the Roman Empire, are responsible for all the other troubles to come.
At the same time, it is clear that these four terrible horsemen all stand under the sovereignty of God and the Lamb, who opens the seals. They all ride out at the bidding of the four living creatures who worship at God's throne. Whatever dreadful things may happen on earth, they are all within God's plan and under God's sovereign control. God in effect is the one who draws the bow and sends out the arrows of misfortune, here no less than in Deuteronomy or Ezekiel. Both the first and the second riders (vv. 2, 4), and then all four (v. 8), are said to have been given (Greek edothe) the authority to do what they do. The first is given a crown, or garland of victory (see Farrer 1964:100), the second a large sword, and all four power over a fourth of the earth. The true giver of such things can only be God or the Lamb. The terms of the famine introduced by the third rider are announced from the very throne of God. Perhaps the whiteness of the white horse is less a counterfeit of the purity of God and the Lamb and more a signal to John and to us that these horsemen are riding out as agents of God, even though the tasks they perform are destructive.
We moderns are reluctant to blame God for the evil in the world. John, however, intends it as encouragement, reminding us that no matter what happens, God and the Lamb are on the throne, setting limits to evil and bringing their own wise purposes to realization. To be sure, there are enemies in the book of Revelation—evil forces arrayed against the power of God. These forces have been hinted at in chapters 2-3, as well as in the allusion to false prophecy here, but they are not formally introduced until the latter half of the book, most notably in chapters 12-13. The dualism of Revelation, in the sense of a great conflict between good and evil, does not truly begin until chapter 11 at the very earliest. For the moment, God's sovereignty is unchallenged.