The Third Seal—the Rider on the Black Horse
In the first two verses of Chapter 6, the first seal was broken by the Lamb, Yeshua, revealing the rider on the white horse—this represents the Roman Empire’s present-day (for John) high water mark, which crested in the 2nd Century with Emperors such as Hadrian, Pius and Commodus. The second seal unveiled the red horse, representing war and bloodshed—beginning in 193 AD there was almost incessant civil war, with 32 different Emperors in a 90 year span. The Empire was falling apart and losing territory. By 222 AD, rampant inflation and its terrifying companion famine were becoming common. This is the era of the black horse…
5 When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand.
When He broke—each time Yeshua initiates the process; John is again invited by the living creature to see the result.
Third living creature—third of four, stationed around the throne of the Father. These are described earlier in Revelation; check back for an upcoming commentary on Chapter 4.
A black horse—Black, the absence of life, joy, light; the “color” of hopelessness. Job bemoans the day of his birth in Job 3:5: Let darkness and black gloom claim it; Let a cloud settle on it; Let the blackness of the day terrify it. Black speaks of terror, the unknown.
And he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand—The ancient form of measurement that compared objects of known mass with items to be weighed, by means of balancing them. Balances were shown on Roman coins; this was a statement of fairness & equality.
6 And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine.”
Something like a voice—John finds it difficult to exactly describe God’s voice.
In the center of the four living creatures—the Being at the center was identified in Revelation Chapter 4 as “Creator God” (v11).
A quart of wheat for a denarius—The denarius, a small silver coin, was the main coin of the Roman Empire until about 250-275 AD, around the first years of Diocletian. A quart of wheat is about the amount needed to sustain one person for a day; likewise “three quarts of barley” could also sustain a single person, but it is inferior in taste and nutrition. This equation then begs the question “In what year was a quart of wheat worth one denarius?” We know when that wasn’t—the 1st Century cost (time of Jesus/John) of one quart of wheat was 1/8 of a denarius, and a typical day’s wage was about a denarius. So John is saying, at some point in the future, after 800% inflation, food will cost 8 times what it costs you now. Basically it will take your entire day’s wage just to eat!
This “1 denarius” price of 1 quart of wheat or 3 quarts of barley occurred during Severus Alexander’s reign from 222-235, identifying this era as the time this Seal predicts. The denarius, though historically still in use, has almost no value by the end of the Third Century. People were suffering economically on a widespread basis; Pax Romana was long gone. Taxes were levied on the food items mentioned—wheat, barley, oil and wine, the prices climbed higher and higher. Agriculture was failing in various districts. The Roman armies were feeding and preying on people. Injustice and bribery was common.
Do not damage the oil and the wine—basically, don’t touch the good stuff, or probably more accurately, the economic bottom is going to drop out and very few are going to be able to enjoy the good life; it will be out of reach, “undamageable”.
While there was famine in the mid-3rd Century, the overall sense being communicated in these verses is one of decline in the standard of living and loss of buying power (inflation); these verses picture a waning empire that lacked the confidence of the “white horse” years. Three of the four horseman have ridden out; only one remains.