The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or simply the Four Horsemen, are described in Revelation chapter 6, verses 1–8. The Four Horsemen are symbolic depictions of different events that will take place in the end times. As an example of the Bible’s influence on culture at large, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been referenced many times in literature, paintings, movies, and other media, often as portents of an imminent cataclysm or the means by which a disaster comes to pass.
The Four Horsemen correspond with the first four seals opened by the Lamb as He opens the scroll of judgment in heaven (see Revelation 5). When the Lamb opens the first seal, one of the living creatures before the heavenly throne says to John, in a voice like thunder, “Come!” (Revelation 6:1). John then records what he sees: “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 6:2).
The first Horseman likely refers to the Antichrist. He is the false imitator of the true Christ, who is also associated with a white horse (Revelation 19:11–16). At the beginning of the tribulation, the Antichrist will be given authority (“a crown”), and he will wage war (“a bow”), conquering all who oppose him. This description agrees with Daniel’s vision of the “little horn” that rises to power and is bent on conquest: “This horn was waging war against the holy people and defeating them” (Daniel 7:21; cf. Revelation 13:7).
When the Lamb opens the second seal, the second living creature says, “Come!” (Revelation 6:3). John looks and dutifully records what he sees: “Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword” (Revelation 6:4). The second Horseman refers to terrible warfare that will break out in the end times. Those wars will include the Antichrist’s rise to power, which requires the downfall of three other kings (Daniel 7:8), and the Battle of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 38—39).
The Lamb then opens the third seal, and the third living creature invites John to “Come!” (Revelation 6:5). The third Horseman then appears: “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 day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!’” (Revelation 6:5–6). The third Horseman of the Apocalypse portrays a great famine that will take place. Food is scarce, and prices are inflated beyond reason. The command to spare the oil and the wine seems to signify that the luxuries (oil and wine) will still be available during the famine, but the staples will not.
When the Lamb breaks open the fourth seal, the fourth living creature says, “Come!” (Revelation 6:7). John says, “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” (Revelation 6:8). The fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse is symbolic of death and devastation. The horse’s pale color (in the original language, it’s literally “pale green” or “yellowish green”) denotes sickliness and biliousness. The fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse will bring further warfare and terrible famines along with awful plagues, diseases, and attacks by wild animals. A fourth of the world’s population will die.
What is most amazing, or perhaps terrifying, is that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are just precursors of even worse judgments that come later in the tribulation (Revelation chapters 8—9 and 16). For all the horror brought by the Four Horsemen, there is much more to come.