The Interpretive Key to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

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Modern readers of the Book of Revelation usually assume that the key to understanding the book lies in discovering a one-to-one correspondence between the figures it presents, and real-life figures. But the correct interpretation of the four horsemen appears only when we consider the four together as a unified symbol of widespread calamity.

In Revelation 6:1-8, upon the Lamb’s opening of the first seal, four horsemen appear: the first rode a white horse, and “had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer”; the second rode a red horse, and was given power “to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword”; the third rode a black horse, and “held a pair of scales in his hand,” signifying a great famine; and the fourth rode a pale horse: “Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him.” These four horsemen, we are told, “were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.”

Modern readers of the Book of Revelation usually assume that the key to understanding the book lies in discovering a one-to-one correspondence between the figures it presents, and real-life figures. Most readers, however, recognize that the second, third, and fourth horsemen are not real figures, but personifications of calamities. But what about the first horseman (the conqueror on the white horse)? Why do most readers think that the first horseman answers to a different interpretive device—that a real historical figure is portrayed there? The assumption, I believe, is wrong. The correct interpretation of the four horsemen appears only when we consider the four together as a unified symbol of widespread calamity.

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Four Horsemen of Apocalypse painted by Viktor Vasnetsov (1887). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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  • Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier is the chair of biblical studies at the newly forming Kingswell Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio (scheduled to open in Fall 2008). Jack earned his doctorate in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he wrote a dissertation…
    [Read more about author]

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