The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, May 12, 2002
 

Zechariah 6:1-7 Four chariots and their horses

I looked up and I saw four chariots coming out from between two mountains--mountains of bronze. The first chariot had red horses, the second chariot black horses, the third chariot white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled gray horses. Then I said to the angel who talked with me, "What are these, my Lord?"

The angel answered me, "These are the four winds of heaven going out, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth. The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.

When the steeds came out, they were impatient to get off and patrol the earth. And he said, "Go, patrol the earth." So they patrolled the earth.


Revelation 6:1-7 The four horsemen

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a penny, and three quarts of barley for a penny, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. 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 White Horse #7 Understanding the Word of God

Only people who are enlightened understand the Bible. Our human rational ability cannot comprehend divine, nor even spiritual things, unless we are enlightened by the Lord. Because of this, we understand the Bible only when we are enlightened. When we are enlightened, the Lord gives us the ability to understand truth, and to comprehend the things that seem to contradict each other. The Bible in its literal sense does appear inconsistent, and in some places seems to contradict itself. Because of this, people who are not enlightened may explain and apply it in such a way as to confirm any opinion or heresy, and to defend any worldly and physical desire. When we read the Bible from the love of truth and goodness, we are enlightened from it, but not when we read it from a love of fame, profit, or reputation--meaning from selfish love. We are enlightened when we are actively engaged in a good life, and through this in a love for truth. We are enlightened when our inner self is open, so that our inner person can be lifted into the light of heaven. Enlightenment involves an actual opening of deeper parts of our mind, and being lifted into the light of heaven.


I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest. (Revelation 6:1, 2)

For thirty years now, there has been a highly popular job hunting guide in print, updated yearly by its author, Richard Nelson Bolles. The author's formula for finding a fulfilling career is built around two fundamental questions: What do you want to do? Where do you want to do it? Having sold upwards of four million copies, it has certainly helped at least hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of people find fulfilling careers. The book's title: What Color Is Your Parachute?

I don't expect this sermon to have anywhere near the reach or impact of that book. However, there is a book that has had a far deeper impact on not just millions, but billions of people. That book, of course, is the Bible--which we regard as the Word of God. The Bible has outsold all other books since it was first printed in Germany around 1455 by a man named Johannes Gutenberg with his brand new high tech printing press that used movable metal type. Ever since the Bible completed the journey from hand-copied scrolls to printed books, it has been kept in print not merely three decades, but nearly five and a half centuries. And though my question for you today, based on the book of Revelation, is not nearly as catchy as the title of the popular career guide, your answer will affect not only your career here on earth, but your eternal career.

The question is: What color is your horse?

Our reading from Revelation gives four choices: you can have a white horse, a red horse, a black horse, or a pale horse.

To understand the symbolism of these horses, and what they mean for us, let's look at the context. First, these horses appear one by one as the first four of seven seals are opened up. Those seals are on a scroll held in the hands of the Lord God, who sits on a great throne in heaven.

Though we are used to books with pages and bindings, in the ancient world scrolls were a much more common form for books. The sacred scriptures of the ancient Jews were written on scrolls. In their synagogues from that time right up to the present there is kept, with great veneration, a scroll containing the Torah, or Law, which consists of the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

It's fairly obvious, then, that the scroll held in the hand of God is none other than the Word of God. And as the seals on this scroll are opened, out come four horses of four different colors. So we can figure that these horses have something to do with God's Word, which we commonly call the Bible.

However, we don't have to guess at this connection. It is made explicit later on in the book of Revelation:

I saw heaven standing open, and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of kings and Lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11-16. Emphasis mine.)

Here we are told plainly that the rider on the horse is the Word of God. A literal translation of a verse from the Psalms suggests that the horse itself is also related to the Word of God:

Gird your sword upon your thigh, O mighty one, in your glory and majesty. In your majesty ride on victoriously upon the word of truth and the meekness of righteousness. (Psalm 45:3, 4)

Here the mighty one, namely, the Lord, is riding "upon the word of truth." And how could we picture this other than as riding on a great and powerful horse?

To be more specific, Swedenborg interprets the image of the horse in the Bible as symbolizing our understanding of the Word of God. It helps us to grasp this symbolism if we remember that motorized vehicles did not exist in Biblical time. Horses, and horse-drawn chariots and wagons, were the fastest and most sophisticated means of travel. And how do we travel in our minds and spirits? We travel in our thoughts to various destinations. Even while you are sitting right here in church, I suspect some of your minds are traveling to your mother's day dinners, and beyond!

We ride upon our horse of spiritual understanding when we guide our thoughts to various destinations based on our views of what God is teaching us in the Bible. And wherever our thoughts go, sooner or later that is where our lives will go as well. So it is fairly easy to see that a horse, in the Bible, represents how we view the Bible--how we understand the Word of God.

With this in mind, I ask again: What color is your horse? You can have a white one, a red one, a black one, or a pale one.

In our story from Revelation, white is clearly the most desirable color for your horse:

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

In compact language, the white horse symbolizes "people who are engaged in truth from goodness" (Apocalypse Revealed #295, under "The Spiritual Sense"). In other words, we are riding on the white horse when we read the Bible--God's Word--in order to understand spiritual truth so that we can use it in doing good other people according to the Lord's commandment that we should "love one another as he has loved us" (John 13:34).

When we wish to understand God's truth in order to correct our own faults and live good lives of love and service toward others, then we metaphorically have a bow in our hands, and are given a crown, and we ride forth into life as a conqueror bent on conquest. The bow in our hands is a solid rationale for understanding and using the teachings of the Bible. This is important, because as Swedenborg says in our reading from his little book on The White Horse, if we are more interested in our own righteousness and glory than we are in being taught by the Lord, we can draw all kinds of contradictory meanings from the literal meaning of the Bible, and support any false dogma that happens to support our own desires. Only with a true framework for understanding can we gain genuine truth from the Bible. And we develop that true framework for understanding when we go to the Bible not to support our own pet theories and doctrines, but to see what the Lord wants to teach us that will help us be better, more thoughtful, and more loving people.

When we do this, we have a bow in our hands that is a genuine understanding of the Bible's teachings, which we can use to fight off all sorts of false and damaging attitudes and beliefs that would tear us down and reduce us to mental and emotional slavery to various addictive habits and bad ways of living.

And further, we are given a crown, the sign of royalty, symbolizing the victories that we gain over our faulty attitudes and wrong ways of living when we go to God's Word in order to learn and follow what God wants to teach us. Spiritually, we "ride out as a conqueror bent on conquest." Not conquest and domination of others, but conquest over our own inner enemies: the enemies of false thinking and wrong desires. That is the white horse.

Next comes the red horse, which is described this way:

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.

In a good sense, fiery red is the color of love. But the rider of this red horse takes peace from the earth, and makes people kill each other. So instead of representing love, in this context red symbolizes the fires of selfishness and hatred that take away our peace, and cause us to burn with jealousy and anger toward others. We ride a red horse when we go to the Bible, not to learn how to love one another, but to support and justify our own wrong desires so that we can keep on living selfishly and materialistically, pretending that it is the will of God.

We can see this sort of red horse in action when we read news stories of corrupt priests and televangelists who justify their highly destructive behavior by claiming that they are under the cover of God's grace or of the sacraments of the church. And we do it ourselves when we use our religious knowledge, not to correct ourselves, but to justify behavior that we know is contrary to the will of God.

The black horse comes next:

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a penny, and three quarts of barley for a penny, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"

Black is the color of darkness. Though it can be useful in providing contrast so that we see the white of true understanding better, in itself black is the absence of knowledge and understanding. It is the darkness of mind when we are plunged into ignorance and false thinking. We ride the black horse when we have no interest in understanding spiritual truth, but would prefer to argue based on materialistic ideas and a superficial understanding of the Bible. Notice that a voice is heard bargaining about the price of wheat and barley--just as we prefer to debate and argue about the truth when we have no interest in actually following it.

Any parent has this experience when their children do not want to do what they are being asked to do. Speaking for my own children, they are masterful lawyers when it comes to avoiding cleaning up their messes or going to bed! We become masterful religious lawyers, too, when we don't want to hear and follow what God is telling us to do. And then we are riding on the black horse.

The pale horse is the worst of all:

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. 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 red horse symbolizes our understanding of the Bible when we have no good in mind; the black horse when we would rather argue about the truth than follow it. The pale horse is when both of these are together in the worst way: it is when we desire neither to do good nor to understand the truth, but have wholly given ourselves over to our own self-centered and destructive ways. This is spiritual death, and "Hades," or the underworld of darkness, follows in our wake when we are riding the horse of spiritual death. When we are on this horse, we bring upon ourselves the inner death of spiritual famine and plague, letting our destructive cravings run wild like "the wild beasts of the earth."

The Lord sets before us these four choices: the white horse of reading God's Word from a desire for love and goodness; the red horse of reading it to justify wrong behavior; the black horse of reading it in order to debate and argue about the truth; and the pale horse of abandoning ourselves to selfish and materialistic living.

What color is your horse?

Artwork: Like the Wind Inspired Art by Danny Hahlbohm and is
used with permission. All rights reserved by the artist. 

Music: Fragments of My Soul
2001 Bruce DeBoer

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