Previous articles in this series covered the meaning of the first three of the horsemen of Revelation—religious deception, war and famine. What does the fourth, the pale green horse and its rider, signify?
Source: Illustration: Sherwin Schwartzrock & Jonathan Koelsch
Disease travels in tandem with fear. While the first can lead to the death of thousands, the second can unravel the social fabric, disrupting the precarious balance of relationships essential for the stability of nations.
The most recent disease fear was SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed hundreds last year and panicked thousands more. Before that it was AIDS, which has killed tens of millions and even today is still decimating the populations of some countries. Tomorrow it could be another, even greater plague to sweep across the landscape, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
In this series we have been examining each of the first four seals of Revelation 6. These seals, dramatically depicted by four horsemen, show the effect of false religion, war, famine and plague among the earth's population in the days leading to the return of Jesus Christ.
Each of these seals represents powerful forces that devastate human life on the earth. The cumulative effect will lead to such conditions that if Jesus Christ did not intervene and cut short the time of trial, "no flesh would be saved" (Matthew 24:22).
We now come to the fourth seal, the fourth horseman, and his ride of death by plague. How will the ride of this horseman affect the nations of the earth?
The ride of the fourth horseman
Revelation 6:7-8 tells us this about the fourth seal: "When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, 'Come and see.' So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him."
The Expositor's Bible Commentary says this about the color of the fourth horse: "'Pale' ( chloros ) denotes a yellowish green, the light green of a plant, or the paleness of a sick person in contrast to a healthy appearance." Put bluntly, this horse is the color of death .
In Jesus' parallel prophecy in Matthew 24, He explained that in the wake of religious deception, war and famine would come "pestilences" or disease epidemics (Matthew 24:7).
The seals have a cumulative effect. False religion causes instability within relationships leading to war. Famine follows war, and when malnourishment occurs and social systems break down, human beings are more susceptible to disease. These seals depict the ferocity of problems unleashed on the world in the lead-up to "the Day of the Lord."
There would be other calamities as well. Jesus also listed in the same context "earthquakes in various places" (Matthew 24:7). "Plague" in Scripture denotes not only pestilence but also other calamities in nature that God uses to punish a disobedient humanity. Of course, any such calamities make populations that much riper for the spread of disease epidemics.
The latter part of Revelation 6:8, speaking of all four horsemen, states: "And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth to kill with sword, with hunger, with death and by the beasts of the earth."
By the time the fourth horseman completes his ride, a fourth of earth's inhabitants will experience incredible devastation. The death toll will be unlike any from plague and disease in human history.
To understand how bad it can be, let's go back and look at some of the great plagues of history.
The Black Death
Perhaps the most famous plague in history is the Black Death of the 14th century, thought by most to have been bubonic plague. Estimates are that more than 20 million people (a third to half of Europe's population) died in the outbreak.
In 1346, reports reached Europe of a devastating disease from China that was affecting many parts of Asia. The next year a mysterious disease appeared in Italy. Ships from the Black Sea sailed into Messina with sailors infected with black boils in their armpits and groins. It was the bubonic plaque.
The disease was so lethal that people were known to go to bed well and die before waking. There were two types of this plague. The first was internal, causing swelling and internal bleeding. This was spread by contact. The second concentrated in the lungs and spread by coughing airborne germs. There was no known prevention or cure.
Whole towns were depopulated. The social structure completely broke down.
Parents abandoned children; husbands and wives left each other to die. In many cases no one was around to bury the dead, both from fear of contagion and lack of concern. One writer of the time tells of observing 5,000 bodies lying dead in a field.
In that age, the Bible was the primary means to measure any natural calamity. The only way to understand what was happening was to believe the world was coming to an end. There seemed no hope for the future.
The bubonic plague has appeared in more recent times as well. The Great Plague of London in 1664-65 resulted in more than 70,000 deaths in a population estimated at 460,000. An outbreak in Canton and Hong Kong in 1894 left 80,000 to 100,000 dead, and within 20 years the disease spread from the southern Chinese ports throughout the whole world, resulting in more than 10 million deaths.
The plague came to America from Asia in 1899. Today cases are still reported, and an average of 15 people die each year. The disease originates in rodents and is usually transmitted to people by fleas, although animal bites can also be the means of transmission. It is still a virulent disease. As few as 10 bubonic plague cells can cause a person's death.
Perhaps disease transmission from rodents is part of what Revelation 6:8 means by death from "the beasts of the earth." Microbial and viral infection could also be intended.
Throughout its history, plague has been used as an offensive weapon against populations. The Mongols would catapult plague-infested corpses over the walls of besieged cities.
Thousands would die as the disease spread through the walled-in population.
During World War II, Japan dropped plague-infested fleas on China. American research growing out of the war experience led to a decades-long research project at Fort Detrick, Maryland, proving that biological warfare was a feasible method of waging war.
In 1969 U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered the research stopped, and in 1972 the United States signed a treaty with 70 other nations outlawing the production, stockpiling and use of biological weapons as a means of war. Despite this treaty, it is known that many nations, rich and poor alike, have developed biological weapons.
The former Soviet Union conducted a sophisticated effort to manufacture biological weapons during the Cold War years. For years scientists researched ways to genetically alter bubonic plague so as to make it resistant to many forms of modern treatment.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, the tracking and inventory of all this work has been a great concern. The United States and its allies fear that some of it could have fallen into the hands of terrorist groups and could one day be used against them.
After the first Gulf War in 1991, weapons inspectors confirmed that Iraq had developed biological weapons and had even equipped some warheads with germs to use against Saddam Hussein's enemies. The location of these weapons since that time is part of the unsolved mystery of that regime. Could some of them be in the hands of al-Qaeda or some other radical Islamic group, waiting to be used on the West?
Are nations prepared?
Today America and the West brace themselves for further attacks from terrorist groups. What is perhaps feared most is a biological attack with smallpox or some other widely communicable germ. Experts know that the West is woefully underprepared for such an attack.
In June 2001, the Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted a senior-level war game examining the security challenges of a biological attack on the American homeland.
The premise was the appearance of a case of smallpox in Oklahoma City, rapidly spreading throughout the country. Among the lessons learned from the exercise: "An attack on the United States with biological weapons could threaten vital national security interests.
Massive civilian casualties, breakdown in essential institutions, violation of democratic processes, civil disorder, loss of confidence in government and reduced U.S. strategic flexibility abroad are among the ways a biological attack might compromise U.S. security" (www.homelandsecurity.org/darkwinter/index.cfm ).
Other estimates say that within days a million people would be dead and two to three times that many infected. No one knows what lies out there waiting to be used by groups wishing other nations harm. We only know that it could happen.
Naturally caused disease
Beyond the human-engineered biowarfare, another type of pestilence is waiting as well. This one lurks quietly in the background and could erupt at any time, say scientists who study the subject.
"Eighty years ago a sudden mutation in the virus that causes influenza initiated a worldwide epidemic that in only 18 months killed an estimated 25 to 40 million people around the world. Many consider this to be the worst natural disaster in history" (Hillary Johnson, "Killer Flu," Rolling Stone , Jan. 22, 1998). Some historians feel this epidemic hastened the end of World War I.
Scientists studying infectious diseases have sounded warnings that this could occur again.
One expert, W.I.B. Beveridge, says, "There is no known reason why there should not be another catastrophic pandemic like that of 1918 or even worse. The flu always has the capability of becoming a global plague: a spark in a remote corner of the world could start a fire that scorches us all. Should a super flu like that of 1918 make a comeback now that the population has quadrupled and more than a million people cross international boundaries on jets each day, experts say it could kill hundreds of millions" (ibid.).
Influenza is one of the most underrated biomedical hazards in today's world. It's possible that new super strains may already be evolving. Medical science takes eight months or more to create a vaccine once a new strain appears. Researchers know they cannot stop a pandemic. By the time authorities understand what is happening, it would be too late to spare millions.
Last year's outbreak of SARS was rapidly identified and its genetic makeup fully decoded in a matter of weeks. Scientists from around the world worked together using the latest technology and communication tools to make this breakthrough. By contrast, it took several years to do the same with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) when it first surfaced more than 20 years ago.
However, it could take years to develop a viable vaccine to combat SARS. In the meantime other mutant strains are waiting to jump the species barrier from animals to humans. When they do, the results could be catastrophic. A breakdown caused by war in one part of the world, coupled with an outbreak of influenza, as in World War I, would be all it would take to set in motion a disease pandemic on the scale of those described in the book of Revelation.
The seals in context
When we look at the four seals of Revelation 6, we have to understand them in the context of God's agelong message to mankind. False religion, war, famine and disease are the results of man's broken relationship with Him. And when these horsemen make their rides, it will be after repeated warning and pleading from God to turn from sin and live righteously based on His eternal law of love toward God and man.
When God first set ancient Israel in a land of promise, He gave them instruction on how to live and conduct their affairs in a way that would bring peace and harmony. God wanted them to live with blessing and abundance, not suffering and misery. In His basic instruction, our Creator explained how to avoid the problems that will devastate the world with the opening of these seals.
Notice the pattern set in Leviticus 26: "You shall not make idols for yourselves; neither a carved image nor a sacred pillar shall you rear for yourselves; nor shall you set up an engraved stone in your land, to bow down to it; for I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 26:1).
Here is the solution to false religion, represented by the first seal and its horseman. Any form of worship other than that given by God is a false idol having no value or validity. Lacking meaning or sense, it is worse than nothing because it leads to willful ignorance and lack of understanding of the true God and His purpose for human life.
False religion and deception breaks the bond between God and His creation and leads to false systems of religion. When this bond is broken, human relationships suffer, leading to conflict and war, represented by the second of the seals.
Verse 6 says: "I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none will make you afraid." This peace, in contrast to the second horsemen of war, is a gift from God when man obeys Him from the heart and puts His laws and ways first.
"If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments, and perform them, then I will give you rain in its season, the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit" (Leviticus 26:3-4). For obedience, God promises the opposite of the third horseman of famine—plenty of food from abundant harvests.
And the antidote to the fourth horseman of disease? When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He told them: "If you diligently heed the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the LORD who heals you" (Exodus 15:26). However, if they disobeyed and broke the covenant, they could expect disease to afflict them, their families and their nation.
Notice: "But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God ... the Lord will make the pestilence cling to you until He has consumed you from the land into which you go to possess. The Lord will smite you with consumption, with fever and inflammation ... and the tumors, the scurvy and the itch, from which you cannot be healed. The Lord will smite you with madness and blindness and dismay of [mind and] heart" (Deuteronomy 28:15, Deuteronomy 28:21-22, Deuteronomy28:27-28, Amplified Bible).
Bound within the promises of blessings and curses is the larger context for the four seals of Revelation 6. The human race is bound to its Creator in a relationship that will reach a conclusion. God will accomplish His purpose of "bringing many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:10). Mankind eventually will come face to face with God and admit that He is the one and only true God.
The book of Revelation shows God's merciful intervention in human affairs to both correct and save man from destruction. God will bring justice to the earth, but first there will be a time of unparalleled tribulation.
The fifth horseman
Barely a year ago the world experienced something resembling panic with the sudden appearance of the SARS virus. In Hong Kong all places of entertainment were temporarily shut down. Cities such as Toronto were put on a warning list as possible places to avoid due to the spread of SARS cases.
The world media machine contributed to both an awareness of the disease and a fear that, in the end, proved to be out of proportion to the danger posed by the virus. However, the economic impact due to decreased tourist and business travel had a significant effect on many areas.
One can only imagine the worldwide impact to come from the culmination of the ride of the pale horseman. The world has seen relatively mild precursors. What will happen when modern communications and travel allow people to see literally millions of deaths?
Which brings us to the only hope this world has to survive this devastating stampede. People commonly refer to these four seals as "the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." Because the last word here is often synonymous with global destruction, there is typically no hope in this reference. But "Apocalypse" is simply the Greek name of the book of Revelation—meaning "revealing" or "unveiling." And this book reveals more than the gloom and doom that lie at the end of the age.
Indeed, John saw more than four horsemen in his vision. He saw five. Revelation 19:11-16 shows us the ride of the fifth horseman. It is the appearance of Jesus Christ, on a white horse from heaven, intervening in world affairs at its most crucial point. In the next issue, in our final article in this series, we will focus on this "horseman of hope," the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, whose appearance will bring an everlasting Kingdom of truth, peace, plenty and ultimate well-being.