Then, when He opened the third seal, I heard the voice of the third living creature saying, “Go, you!”
Then I saw, and behold a pale green horse, and the one sitting upon it, name of Death, and Hades was following with him, and authority was given to them over the fourth [or four parts] of the earth to kill in sword and in famine and in [pestilence] and by the wild beasts of the earth.Revelation 6:7-8
Before trying to decipher the meaning of what John beheld, we need to make sense of exactly what John saw.
Pale green horse
Already, we know this is an unusual steed because there is no such thing in ordinary life as a horse with a green coat. And this was no ordinary green! The Greek word is χλωρός | chlōros, where “chloro” comes from. This word only shows up in the Book of Revelation and in Mark’s gospel, all in reference to the fresh green of new spring grass … except here.
It seems evident John did not mean the color of fresh young life. And in fact other Greek writers used χλωρός | chlōros to describe other pale colors in nature (sand, honey, bark), as well as the ashen faces of frightened men. In medical writing, this word meant “yellow, bilious-looking,” and to Thucydides, who wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE) it was the sickly color of those suffering from the plague.
Thanatos means “Death,” either by natural or unnatural means. No other rider was given a name, making this horseman unique. He not only was given a mission and authority to carry it out, death was his very nature.
Hades—in Greek mythology the domain of the dead, and now properly understood as the grave—was and still is Death’s close companion.
The actual Greek is again θάνατος | thanatos, but most translations render this word “pestilence,” here, based upon the Septuagint use of θάνατος | thanatos to translate the Hebrew word דֶּבֶר | deber, meaning “a destroying pestilence” or “plague” in a number of passages.
Before John’s surely horrified eyes, a ghastly figure appeared as the fourth living creature called forth the specter of Death. The horse was pallid with the sickly hue of plague, and the ominous dark shadows of Hades settled around Death’s form, resting above its steed. As John watched Death heed the Seraph’s command, the gloom of the grave followed close behind.
The other three horsemen were not limited in their assignment, but it seems Death might have been given defined parameters—only a fourth of earth could be put to death. Others translate this differently, however, and see Death being given the specific command to cover all four parts of the earth (east, west, north, south).
Now, how are we to understand the meaning of what John beheld?
Scholars searching for historical corroboration find it in the twenty-year period spanning 248-268 CE, during the reigns of Decius, Gallus, Aemilianus, Valerian, and Gallienus. Evidently, it was an even more turbulent time than had come before, for records show five thousand people died each day in Rome, alone.
Eusebius confirmed all four aspects of death in his Ecclesiastical History
… death waged a desolating war with these two weapons, famine and pestilence, destroying whole families in a short time
… Some, indeed, wasted away to mere skeletons, stumbled hither and thither like dead shadows, trembling and tottering, from excessive weakness and inability to stand ; they fell down in the midst of the streets, where they lay stretched out.
… So that now in the midst of the streets and lanes, the dead and naked bodies, cast out and lying for many days, presented a most painful spectacle to the beholders, Some, indeed, were already the food of dogs.Eusebius Pamphilus, Bishop of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, pp 390 (Book III, Chapter VI)
In fact, some estimate that half of all people in the known world died, therefore reading “fourth” as “four parts,” in reference to compass points indicating the entire earth.
In continuing reference to Ezekiel’s prophetic warning of God’s judgment, preterists refer to the well-documented disaster taking place in Jerusalem from 68-70.
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)
As Josephus documented,
Then did the famine widen its progress, and devoured the people by whole houses and families; the upper rooms were full of women and children that were dying by famine, and the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged; the children also and the young men wandered about the market-places like shadows, all swelled with the famine, and fell down dead, wheresoever their misery seized them.
… Now the seditious at first gave orders that the dead should be buried out of the public treasury, as not enduring the stench of their dead bodies. But afterwards, when they could not do that, they had them cast down from the walls into the valleys beneath.
… However, when Titus, in going his rounds along those valleys, saw them full of dead bodies, and the thick putrefaction running about them, he gave a groan; and, spreading out his hands to heaven, called God to witness that this was not his doing; and such was the sad case of the city itself.Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews,, 5:12:3-4)
The near-term fulfillment of Ezekiel’s oracle came in 586 BCE, when Babylon looted and destroyed Jerusalem, ravaged the temple, and completely decimated Zion. Now the Roman siege and savaging of Jerusalem and its daughter towns in Judea would be the ultimate fulfillment.
These theologians see a literal destruction sweeping across one quarter of the inhabited globe, stirring up chaos, confusion, and catastrophe. One commentator likens this wholesale loss of human life to the total extermination of the entire populations of Europe and South America. Because so many more people are alive today than were in Noah’s day, such widespread death will fulfill Jesus’s warning of “great suffering,’ or “great tribulation.”
For those who see Revelation as future prophecy, the time period of the seven seals encompasses what is termed the Tribulation, a seven-year span of increasing disaster towards the end of which the Antichrist will appear. Some believe this time of trouble will begin immediately after all Christians have been taken up to be with Jesus. Others believe Christians will experience the first three-and-a-half years, but will be spared the worst. And still others see Christians experiencing the whole of the Tribulation, just as first and second century Christians endured the worst horrors of persecution in their own time.
At least a few scholars believe this third seal marks the onset of the Great Tribulation. Others believe that time is not described until Revelation 11.
Spiritual readers see the pale horse and its rider representing the death that is brought about by all four horsemen. John poetically depicts Hades close at hand, for this portrays the grave receiving its dead. Every age experiences waves of disaster, painful events that stir up longing for the day Jesus will return. This recurring pattern, of empires rising and falling through violence, of natural disasters, and also of famine and pandemic brought about by human wrongdoing, is, in a way, reassuring. Rome would become its own worst enemy, and would endure every punishment it served out. So will it be with every government and ruling body that becomes corrupt.
In a particular way, the fourth horseman also represents all the ways believers suffer along with everyone else living on earth.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg