The first four seal openings occurred under the watchful eye of the “Lamb” and the “four living creatures” around the “throne” – Revelation 6:8.
Collectively, the four “riders” were authorized to kill “a fourth of the earth.” Each seal was “opened” by the “Lamb,” and each respective “rider” was commanded to ride by one of the “four living creatures” that surrounded the “throne.” The forces released by the first four seals resulted from the “Lamb” breaking open the seven “seals” of the scroll.
The first four seals are distinct from the other three. For example, the involvement of the “four living creatures.” While the “Lamb” opened each seal, the “four living creatures” were only involved with the first four. On some level, there is a connection between the first four seals and the “four living creatures.”
The “Lamb” began to open the “seven seals” upon his arrival at the “throne,” where he immediately took the scroll from the “right hand of the One Who was sitting” on it. As he did so, the “four living creatures” and the “twenty-four elders” declared him “worthy” to open the scroll, for by his shed blood, he had “redeemed for God men from every “tribe, tongue, people, and nation.” By his sacrifice, they were made a “kingdom, priests for our God, and they are reigning on the earth,” presumably, in conjunction with the reign of the “Lamb” from the “throne” – (Revelation 5:5-14).
Thus, redemption was at the heart of what the “Lamb” did. Next, all creation declared him “worthy” to receive all power and sovereignty, again, because of his sacrificial act. To this, the “four living creatures” gave their assent, shouting “Amen!” It was at this point that the “Lamb” began to act in concert with the “four living creatures” as he opened the first seal.
Previously, the “four living creatures” were seen “in the midst of the throne, and around the throne.” They were integral parts of the “throne,” and therefore, were intimately aligned with the “One sitting” on it. Without ceasing, they gave glory and praise to the “One on the throne,” and in their worship, they were virtually inseparable from the “twenty-four elders” – (Revelation 4:6-11, 7:11, 14:3, 19:4).
On some level, the “twenty-four elders” represent victorious Christians. When John first saw them, they were wearing “white garments,” the same clothing granted to “overcoming” saints in Sardis, as well as sphephanoi, “victory wreaths.” The closeness of the “four living creatures” to the throne and their connection with the “twenty-four elders” explains the note of intimate concern when one of the four cried out from the very center of the “throne” – “A measure of wheat for a shilling, and three measures of barley for a shilling; and the oil and the wine do not harm!”
The image of the “four living creatures” is derived from Ezekiel’s vision of four living beings that moved in concert with the glorious throne of Yahweh. They were identified as “Cherubim,” and were closely connected to the prophet’s mission to the “sons of Israel…in captivity” in Babylon – (Ezekiel 1:5-28, 10:1-14, 11:22-25).
The background activity of the “four living creatures,” and their close relationship to the “throne,” must be kept in view when determining the “victims” of the four riders.
- (Revelation 6: 8) – “And there was given to them authority over the fourth of the earth to slay with sword, and with famine, and with death, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
The plural pronoun “them” refers to all four “riders,” not just to the last one. The entire group was “granted” the license to kill a “fourth of the earth,” whether by sword, famine, death, or “wild beasts.” The same verb was applied previously to each of the four “riders”; each was “granted” authority to carry out its task.
The four causes of death, sword, famine, death, “wild beasts,” correspond to the four colored horses, but in reverse order – “wild beasts” (white horse), “sword” (red horse), hunger (black horse), and “plague” (“livid” horse).
“To kill with sword.” The second rider caused men to “slay one another,” using the Greek verb applied elsewhere to the “slaying” of the “Lamb” and his followers (sphazô). But here, the generic Greek verb for “kill” or apokteinô is found, and it refers to any death caused by the four “riders.”
Likewise, in verse 8, a different noun is used for “sword” than in the second seal opening. The “rider” on the red horse was given a “great sword” or machaira, the term for the Roman short sword. Here, “sword” translates the noun rhomphaia, a more general term for “sword” or “javelin.”
The final clause borrows imagery from Ezekiel. The Greek Septuagint version uses the same Greek words found here for three of the four forms of death listed in Ezekiel, hunger (limos), “wild beasts” (thérion), and “death” (thanatos):
“For thus says Yahweh: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four sore acts of judgment, sword, hunger (limos), wild beasts (thérion) and death (thanatos), to cut off from it man and beast.” – (Ezekiel 14:13-21).
The Greek noun often translated as “plague” is thanatos, a noun that means “death” – (Strong’s – #G2288). It does NOT mean “plague” or “pestilence.” Elsewhere, Revelation uses an entirely different word for “plague,” plégé – (#G4127). The Greek noun rendered “famine” more correctly means “hunger,” and does not necessarily indicate starvation – (#G3042). Already, several of the seven churches of Asia were experiencing economic difficulties and impoverishment.
The introduction of “wild beasts” at this point appears out of place. However, the same Greek term is applied later to the two earthly agents of the “Dragon” – The “wild beast” from the sea and the “wild beast” from the earth. Both “beasts” attacked the “saints” with deception and persecution. The “rider” on the white horse represented deceivers and false prophets, most likely, forerunners of the “false prophet” also called the “wild beast of the earth” – (Revelation 13:11-18).
In Ezekiel, the “acts of judgment, sword, hunger, wild beasts, and death,” were sent against Jerusalem, not against the cities of the nations, or against Babylon.
The “four riders” were only authorized to destroy a “fourth of the earth,” for the “Lamb” set boundaries beyond which no force could go. Numbers in Revelation are figurative. The point is not the number of the dead, but the limits placed on the riders to cause harm. The term “fourth” is a link to the “four living creatures” that summoned the four “riders,” and to the “four winds of the earth” that were held back until the “servants of God were sealed.” These events are related – (Revelation 7:1).
Verse 8 also transitions the narrative to the “fifth seal” where John saw the martyrs “underneath the altar.” No explanation was given regarding how or when they were slain. The literary context answers that question. They were among the victims of the first four seal openings – (Revelation 6:9-11).
The martyrs pleaded with God to vindicate them against the “inhabitants of the earth” who had killed them. However, they were to wait until the full number of martyrs was assembled. According to the literary order of the “seven seals,” this means the forces released by the four “riders” were not part of the vengeance sought by the “souls underneath the altar.”
In the narrative, the effects of the first four seals are not called “wrath,” and their victims are not explicitly identified, other than by the ambiguous “fourth of the earth.” Elsewhere, when the “wrath of God” is unleashed, its targets are identified. For example, the “three woes” pronounced against the “inhabitants of the earth,” and the “seven bowls of wrath” that “completed” God’s fury against the “inhabitants of the earth,” the “kingdom of the beast,” and the “great city, Babylon.”
In the series of seven seals, the “wrath” of God is not unleashed until the “sixth seal” is opened, which introduces the “wrath of the Lamb and of He who sits on the throne.” The targets of the “wrath” are men from every walk of life, essentially, all humanity. But the purpose at this point is not the actual destruction of mankind, but to raise the question, “Who is able to stand” before the “wrath of the Lamb?”
The question is answered in the next chapter by the “sealing of God’s servants” before the “four winds of the earth” were unleashed, which refers to the first four seals and their respective riders. At the end of chapter 7, the vast “innumerable multitude” redeemed by the “blood of the Lamb” is seen exiting the “great tribulation,” after which they are found standing before the “Lamb” and the “throne.” That “multitude” is identical with the “servants” sealed with the “seal of God.”
The harm done by the four “riders” was against the people of God, and the imagery and descriptive language – Deception, economic deprivation, persecution, violent death – were all experienced by the “seven churches of Asia.” The martyrs “underneath the altar” in the fifth seal were from the “fourth part of the earth” that was “slain” by “wild beasts, sword, hunger, and plague.”
None of this is to say that Jesus delights in inflicting his “brethren.” But in the book’s prologue, John introduced himself to the “churches” as their “fellow participant in the tribulation and the kingdom and the endurance,” all for the sake of his “testimony.” In Revelation, perseverance through tribulation, including economic deprivation, imprisonment, and even martyrdom, is what it means to be an “overcoming saint,” it is how Christians “overcome” the “Dragon” and qualify to reign with Jesus on “his Father’s throne” (Revelation 1:8-9, 3:21, 12:11).