A Fiery Red Horse
Then, when He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Go, you!”
And another horse, flame-colored, went out, and to the one sitting upon it was given to him to violently remove peace out of the world and in order that they would kill one another, then a great sword was given to him.Revelation 6:3-4
Reading about the second seal gives more context to the first seal, the first horse, and the first rider. If they are part of a set, then how does the first rider fit in?
And who is the second rider?
If the first rider represented the five “good” emperors of the Roman Empire to the historicist scholar, ending in 180 CE, then this second rider would represent the next time period.
Most point to the era that began when Commodus came to power in 180 CE and ended with the ascendancy of Diocletian in 284 CE. Civil wars abounded during this time, when no less than thirty-two emperors and twenty-seven usurpers wrested power from each other.
The fiery red of the horse would represent all the civil strife, the chaos, bloodshed, pandemonium, and lawlessness as one regime after another went up in flames, often literally.
But the fiery red horse could also represent God’s judgments on those who resisted or abused the gospel.
Alternatively, this second horseman represents the ripping away of peace from a very specific land—Judea, the seat of Jerusalem.
If the first rider pertained to war – Judea’s prolonged three-year war with Rome – then the second rider pertained to civil war among different Jewish factions. Josephus referred to this civil strife in his book, The Wars of the Jews.
Every city was divided into two armies, encamped one against another, and the preservation of the one party was in the destruction of the other; so the day time was spent in shedding of blood, and the night in fear, which was of the two the more terrible.Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 18, Paragraph 2
By the end of Titus’s siege against Jerusalem, there were at least three or four different Jewish blocs engaged in deadly dispute, leaving a bloodbath and many slain even before the first Roman soldier entered the city.
Preterists see this as direct fulfillment of Jesus’s prophecy.
As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!
“But now they are hidden from your eyes.
“Indeed, the days will come upon you when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”Luke 19:41-44 (NRSV)
Jesus wept because the Sanhedrin was poised to put Him to death, and along with Him any hope they would have had for salvation and redemption. His cross sealed their fate.
Also referenced is Zechariah’s prophetic utterance against those who would reject their Messiah.
I took my staff Favor and broke it, annulling the covenant that I had made with all the peoples.
So it was annulled on that day, and the sheep merchants who were watching me knew that it was the word of the Lord.Zechariah 11:10-11 (NRSV)
When a shepherd broke his staff, he was saying “I am no longer the Shepherd.”
The covenant with the people was annulled because Jesus was ushering in a new and better covenant. But the flock had rejected the grace and favor of God the Son. Therefore, as in times past, God’s hand of restraint against those nations intent on destroying Israel was lifted.
The Christians in Jerusalem, who had their eyes on Christ, knew what was coming. So when, for some inexplicable reason (or the Lord!), Titus lifted the siege for a couple of days, all the Christians ran out of Jerusalem and escaped its awful end.
I then said to them, “If it seems right to you, give me my wages, but if not, keep them.” So they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver.
Then the Lord said to me, “Throw it into the treasury”—this lordly price at which I was valued by them. So I took the thirty shekels of silver and threw them into the treasury in the house of the Lord.Zechariah 11:12-13 (NRSV)
The signature rejection of the Good Shepherd came in considering Him worth no more than a captive on the open slave market. Those who were enslaved by their captors were devalued as living tools, a little higher than a creature, but without the basic human rights of a person.
In fulfillment of prophecy, this is the exact sum Judas received to betray Jesus. And he did throw it back into the House of the Lord―at the Pharisees, who then used it to buy a potter’s field to bury people who had no relatives or money.
Then I broke my second staff Unity, annulling the family ties between Judah and Israel.Zechariah 11:14
When the second staff of unity was broken, the Lord took away God’s Spirit of peace between brothers and sisters, and all those submerged hostilities erupted, creating the warring cabals that quickened the downfall of Jerusalem.
Commentators who view this as yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecy see the fiery red horse representing the bloodshed still to come when all earth is plunged into war. A series of conflicts will commence at the appearance of the second rider, and will culminate in a third world war immediately preceding Christ’s Second Coming.
One writer associates the horse’s distinctive red color with Russia and its Arab allies attacking Israel, and places this event midway during the time of great tribulation. To modern futurists, the great sword given to the second rider represents nuclear warheads, rendering Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning Gog of Magog comprehensible.
With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him, and I will pour down torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur upon him and his troops and the many peoples who are with him.Ezekiel 38:22 (NRSV)
And Daniel’s end-time prophecy more understandable.
Reports from the east and the north shall alarm him, and he shall go out with great fury to bring ruin and complete destruction to many.Daniel 11:44 (NRSV)
If the white horse represents conquest in general, then the fiery red horse represents war in general. Both provide a picture of human affairs, where victorious conquest is bound to devolve, eventually, into civil wars, other would-be conquerors and heroes, and renewed warfare.
The releasing of the horsemen portrays God’s sovereignty over these affairs of earth, judging the sinfulness of godless societies. Theologians turn to Amos for this basic truth of life.
Is a trumpet blown in a city,Amos 3:6 (NRSV)
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster befall a city
unless the Lord has done it?
It is God’s judgment to allow humankind to rule itself in its own way, proving the truth Jesus pronounced to Peter, all who take the sword will die by the sword.
Another possibility is to see the white horse as the spread of the Gospel and the fiery red horse as persecution of those who embrace the Gospel. Jesus warned His followers that faith in Him would invite conflict and opposition, saying,
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.Matthew 10:34 (NRSV)
The word for the great sword given to the second rider is μάχαιρα | machaira, the same word for “sword” in the above quote from Jesus. The machaira, used to kill sacrificial animals and including the blade Abraham raised over his son Isaac, points to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, and the martyrdom of believers.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg