The Black Horse
Then, when he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Go, you!”
And I saw, and behold a black horse, and the one sitting upon it holding a balancing scale in his right hand.
And I heard as it were a voice from among the four living creatures saying, “A measure of grain a denarius, and three measures of barley a denarius—and the oil and the wine do not defraud.Revelation 6:5-6
As I write this, inflation has the globe in its grip—war in Ukraine the breadbasket of Europe, continuing COVID shutdowns in China, shortages across the world in such staples as cans, baby formula, water, and yes, grain.
Food is literally getting harder to come by.
And that is what John beheld with dread. The world of antiquity was no stranger to famine.
In fact, not long after the Gospel had broken through the barrier of race and religion, the subject of a severe famine comes up in the Book of Acts.
The Prophet Agabus
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews.
But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.
When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”
At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world, and this took place during the reign of Claudius.
The disciples determined that, according to their ability, each would send relief to the brothers and sisters living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.Acts 11:19-30 (NRSV)
In this perspective, the black horse represents the oppressive taxes levied in the third century. The rich were getting richer, and the poor poorer. Many had to pay their taxes in terms of bushels, kegs, and stock.
Emperor Caracalla (218-222) immediately widened his tax base by recategorizing all free(d) men as citizens. It only makes sense, of course, after a century of near-anarchy. Armies and government coffers needed replenishing. But the economic situation across the Roman empire suffered, as most people labored under the crushing load of poverty paired with high taxation.
Another possible source could have been emperor Galerius who raised land taxation precipitously high. Because taxes were linked to productivity, many farmers deliberately reduced their crops. This practice became so widespread, Rome had to enact stiff edicts forbidding the destruction of fields, vineyards, and orchards.
When viewed as specific judgment against Jerusalem, the scales in the rider’s hand would represent having to carefully weigh out food, as the Lord had forewarned would happen if God’s people rejected God’s word.
When I cut off your supply of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven, and they shall dole out your bread by weight, and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied.Leviticus 26:26 (NRSV)
The horse’s black color represents famine.
Our skin is black as an ovenLamentations 5:10 (NRSV)
from the scorching heat of famine.
The Roman blockade of Jerusalem from 67-70 CE created critical food shortages. There might actually have been enough food stored in the city, but warring Jewish confederacies would destroy each other’s food caches to starve each other into submission.
A denarius was the typical first-century wage for a day’s labor, and a measure—or quart—of grain represented about a day’s portion for only one person. So, how could someone earn enough to feed a whole family? Josephus described many in Jerusalem who sold what they had just for a quart of wheat (The Wars of the Jews, 5:10:2).
Hunger became so acute, the people reverted to cannibalism. A specter rose up from Israel’s dark past (see below), forewarned by God, in Josephus’s chilling account of a mother eating her own child (The Wars of the Jews, 6:3:4).
In the desperate straits to which the enemy siege reduces you, you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your own sons and daughters whom the Lord your God has given you.
The king asked her, “What is your complaint?” She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son; we will eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son, and we will eat him.’ But she has hidden her son.”God’s prophecy, Deuteronomy 28:53 (NRSV) and the fulfillment, 2 Kings 6:28-29 (NRSV)
Preterists also point to Jesus’s prophetic statements,
“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it, for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written.
Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people.Luke 21:20-23 (NRSV)
Many also overran the temple and pillaged its sacred oil and wine. (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 5:13:6)
This view sees the continuing travails of a future time of tribulation. The third horseman will bring famine as a result of future worldwide wars. The scales represent economic upheaval, when the rich and powerful gain control of all commodities and markets, prompting inflation alongside increasingly invasive government controls. Ordinary people will suffer greatly, but the top one percent will luxuriate in every extravagance.
Perhaps the voice’s command concerning oil and wine, here, pertains to the lack of necessities, for these were considered staples in ancient times. One day’s wages could procure only just enough grain, but not anything else, thus insuring slow and inevitable starvation. So it will be in the future, when most people will not be able to get even the basic necessities of life.
Scholars from this perspective refer to Ezekiel’s description of God’s judgment on corrupt societies.
Therefore thus says the Lord God: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four deadly acts of judgment,
- wild animals,
- and pestilence,
to cut off humans and animals from it!Ezekiel 14:21 (NRSV)
Famine is a natural consequence of war, and honestly, vulnerability to wild animals and sickness result from famine.
In modern times, economic upheaval brings about the same arresting halt to life, as we all recently labored through during our two years’ of COVID isolation.
Because oil and wine were not to be affected by the third horseman, the famine points to a drought that kills crops but leaves orchards and vineyards intact. Perhaps this is a warning to return to the right way, as the wrong way reveals itself as a path leading to the drying up of what is life-giving.
Another reading sees the progression of Christ on the white horse spreading the gospel, followed by a red horse of physical persecution and martyrdom of Christians, and now a black horse of economic persecution of believers coming in its wake.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg