This post will cover the first two verses of Revelation Chapter 6.
The Historicist approach to interpretation of Revelation, under which my eschatological view falls, tries to faithfully follow the dual instructions of first verse of Revelation, verse 1:1—it tells us that the book concerns “things which must soon take place” and that they were “signified” (KJV, NKJV) to John. The word “signified” in Greek is Strong’s G4591 σημαίνω sēmainō, which generally means “to signify or indicate by means of a sign”, in other words John says ‘Don’t take this literally!’ So we have in the first verse of the book two very important instructions on how to interpret it:
1. It will happen soon, not thousands of years in the future. We’re not waiting for a future, 7 year Great Tribulation. Contrast that with Daniel 12:4, where Daniel was told to “seal up the book until the end of time” and that “many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase”—this seems clearly to indicate the very end of the Age, which many (including me) believe we are approaching quickly.
2. What is to occur will be described in signs or symbols, not literally. So a ‘beast arising from the sea’, for instance, isn’t ‘Godzilla climbing out of Tokyo Bay.’ Most people get that one, but not many of the other symbols in the book—they want ‘stars’ to be literal stars, and so on. So unless there is clear evidence that what is written is meant to be literal, it must be interpreted symbolically.
So keeping John’s instructions in mind, let’s dive into one of the most exciting portions of the book that describes the unrolling of the Seals, the blowing of the Trumpets, and the Bowls being poured forth on the Earth.
1 Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.”
The Lamb broke—remember it is Yeshua who is in complete control. He is called the Lamb, not because he is literally a sheep (Ovis aries), but he was given by God to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29).
Seven seals—the first on an outer scroll, with another one inside, and a third inside of that; see comments on 5:1.
Four living creatures—to be covered in an upcoming commentary on Chapter 4.
2 I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.
I looked—we need to actively take part in what God is revealing to us; don’t wait for God to tap us on the shoulder!
A white horse—the first four seals reveal four horses of different colors. Horses represent strength, and in the Bible are used in the context of battle and martial authority and power, appearing 150 times. Job 39:19-25 includes the following description of a horse: “…he rejoices in his strength…is not frightened…smells the battle from afar.” White—this color is used both positively and negatively in the Bible; while it can represent purity and holiness (Ecc 9:8), it can also be a color associated with leprosy and a land stripped bare by an enemy (Lev 13:3, Joel 1:7). Since the rider “went out conquering” and his equipment includes a bow (a weapon of war), we should deduce a negative meaning here.
He who sat on it had a bow—an allusion to battle; a purely offensive weapon. It is a tool of God’s judgment. Job complains “His archers surround me. He pierces my heart and does not pity…” (Job 16:13) The sword represents the word of God (Heb 4:12) whereas the bow is used mostly in a human context, and battle (2 Sam 22:35). A Roman coin shows Aurelius the Emperor circa 170 AD riding a horse riding to battle.
A crown was given to him—the word “crown” is Strong’s G4735 στέφανος stephanos, meaning a wreath or encircling garland for the head; a crown or reward. They were worn by, among others, Olympic game winners, the Spartans as they went into battle and the Roman Emperor, as seen engraved on coins of that day. This seems further to identify this rider with the political and military scene.
He went out conquering and to conquer—again descriptive of the warring nature of this rider. Since this is the first of the series of revelations given to John, and since they were to “soon take place”, it is reasonable to look at the current events of his day, or shortly thereafter, for a fulfillment of this prophecy. In doing so it has usually gone one of two ways—interpreting this as symbolic of the early victories of the church and its exponential growth around the Empire or as the zenith of the Roman Empire’s success; I believe it is the latter, for several reasons:
- All the other horses (Red, Black and Pale Green), and for that matter the remainder of the Seals, Trumpets and Bowls, represent negative developments; it would be out of place to insert a positive interpretation for this one.
- The other ‘rider on a white horse’ in Revelation is clearly Jesus: “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 wages war.” (Rev 19:11). The first white horse represents a false & temporary worldly victory, in contrast to what the last rider brings.
- The cavalry/crown/bow allusion is to physical battle and political victory, not to spiritual inroads being made. Jesus describes “wars & rumors of wars” in Matt 24:6, early in the chapter that goes on to predict the downfall of Jerusalem and the temple, but it is “not yet the end.”
Some have described the high point of the Roman Empire as the reign of Nerva and his selection of Trajan in the late 90’s, just after the completion of the writing of Revelation by John. In 116 A.D., the Roman Empire was at its greatest territorial extent. From that point on, it began slowly to lose territory and influence. So John very accurately describes the Rider on the White horse in victorious terms.
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What makes Historicism a particularly difficult interpretational framework is that it necessitates some understanding of long-gone battles, politics, peoples, systems, religions—it is not user friendly in our frame-a-second, flashing, visual world. It requires significant research and reading, something that almost no one has time for nor the inclination to do.
Another aspect to the Historicist method that one soon encounters is that the symbols can be interpreted and attributed an almost infinite amount of ways. It’s much simpler to envision a final, 3-1/2 or 7 year future conflagration of literal scorpions and stars falling into the water, making them bitter. There are, however, some major events that many of the prophecies foresee; these common and relatively solid interpretations will be laid out in subsequent posts.