SYNOPSIS: The fourth seal releases a rider named “Death” who is followed by “Hades” gathering up the dead in his wake – Revelation 6:7-8.
A word of caution. To this point, the “victims” of the forces unleashed by the first three seal openings have not been identified, although the details of each rider’s assigned task provide a few clues. Therefore, the reader ought to be careful before assuming each rider afflicts “plagues” and judgments on an ungodly human population.
The first part of this vision focused on the Throne at the center of the Cosmos, the Sealed Scroll, and the “slain Lamb,” who was declared “worthy” to open the scroll and rule over all things (Revelation Chapters 4 and 5). Nothing was said about the enemies of the Lamb or rebellious humanity.
The summation of all four riders in Verse 8 does state they are authorized to kill “a fourth of the earth,” however, elsewhere in the book, the human opponents of the Lamb are labeled the “inhabitants of the earth,” and the forces implemented by the four riders are never called “plagues” or “judgments” (regarding the term “plague” or “pestilence” in Verse 8, see further below).
The concern of the fifth seal opening is with the saints who have been martyred for their testimony, although the martyrs “underneath the altar” do call for God to vindicate them against the “inhabitants of the earth” who killed them. They are told they must wait for vindication until the complete number of the saints destined to be killed has been gathered. This implies the things released by the four riders cannot be the promised vengeance against the “inhabitants of the earth,” at least, not according to the literary order of events (Revelation 6:9-11).
Only when the sixth seal is opened is the “wrath” of the Lamb and “He Who sits on the Throne” revealed against the impenitent of the earth. However, this is the “day of the Lord” and there is no escape for anyone from the “wrath.” No man will be able to stand before the Throne or the Lamb on that day (“And who is able to stand?” – Revelation 6:12-17).
In the literary interim between the sixth and seventh seals, the “servants of God” are “sealed” against the coming onslaught by the “four winds of the earth.” The sealing of the saints enables a vast innumerable multitude to “stand” before the Throne and the Lamb after they come out of the “great tribulation,” men and women redeemed from every nation by the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:1-17).
The seventh seal opening produces a period of “silence” during which the prayers of the saints are heard before the Throne. Only then, does an angel hurl fiery coals onto the earth in response to the prayers of the saints, and the Seven Trumpets begin to sound to unleash their “plagues” on the “inhabitants of the earth” (Revelation 8:1-6).
In contrast to the Seven Seals, the series of Seven Trumpets are called, explicitly, “plagues” (plégé), punishments sent against the “inhabitants of the earth” because of their refusal to repent of their evil deeds. To some degree, the Trumpet “plagues” are modeled on the ten plagues of Egypt (Revelation 8:13-9:21)
Later, the “Two Witnesses” are empowered to afflict “plagues” on the earth during their prophetic ministry; nonetheless, they themselves are slain once they complete their prophetic testimony (Revelation 11:3-13).
Likewise, the Seven Bowls of Wrath are labeled “plagues,” which are poured out on the men who have the “mark of the beast,” the “kings of the earth” allied with the Beast, the kingdom of the Beast, and on Babylon, the “great city” (Revelation 15:1, 16:1-21).
(Revelation 6:7) – “And when he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature, saying—Go! And I saw, and lo! a livid horse,—and he that was sitting thereupon had for a name Death, and Hades was following with him.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
In Verse 7, “Livid” or “pale-green” translates the Greek adjective chlōros, a green, pale green, or yellowish-green shade of color. Here, the rider is named “Death,” while “Hades” follows him, presumably, on foot to collect the dead. “Hades” is a term used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible to translate the Hebrew term sheol, the shadowy abode of the dead.
“Death” and “Hades” are cosmic enemies of God that are destined for consignment to the “Lake of Fire.” However, in the interim, they are under the sovereignty of the Lamb and serve his purposes:
(Revelation 1:17-18) – “And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead, and he laid his right hand upon me, saying—Do not fear! I am the First, and the Last, and the Living One,—and I became dead;—and lo! living am I unto the ages of ages, and have the keys of death and of hades.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
Jesus has the “keys” of Death and Hades; full authority over both “realms,” precisely because he “became dead.” However, now he lives forevermore. His complete reign over Death and Hades is based on his past Death and Resurrection. He is the “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead,” and, therefore, “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5-6).
The Risen Christ identified himself to the church at Smyrna as the “first and the last, he who became dead and lived.” He is aware fully of their “tribulation and destitution,” therefore, the believers in Smyrna have no reason to fear anything they might suffer, including death – Jesus cannot be taken by surprise by any trial that befalls his church. Followers of the Lamb are free to be “faithful until death,” for Jesus holds the “keys,” even to Death and Hades. The faithful saint who overcomes “shall in nowise be injured by the second death” (Revelation 2:8-11).
At the “Great White Throne of Judgement,” all the dead stand before the Throne for judgment. The “sea gave up the dead, and death and hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to their works.” Everyone whose name was found written in the Lamb’s “book of life” received life; however, anyone whose name was not found in the “book of life” was cast into the “lake of fire,” which is the “second death.” In the end, “death and hades” are also thrown into the “lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11-15).
Summary Statement (Verse 8)
The final clause in Verse 8 summarizes the effects of the forces unleashed by all four riders. The plural pronoun “them” refers to all four, not just to the last rider. “Death” is the name of the fourth rider, and “Hades” follows in its wake to deal with the dead.
(Revelation 6: 8) – “And there was given unto 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 Emphasized Bible).
“Them” refers to the group that is “given” the license to kill a “fourth of the earth,” whether by sword, famine, death, or “wild beasts.” This is the same verb applied to each of the four riders; each was “given” authority by the Lamb to carry out its task. Furthermore, the four causes of death correspond to the events released by the four riders: Wild beasts (white horse), Sword (red horse), Hunger (black horse), and “Plague” (pale-green or the “livid” horse).
“To kill with sword.” The second rider caused men to “slay one another,” using the Greek verb found elsewhere in the book for the “slaying” of the Lamb and his followers (sphazô). However, the present clause uses the more common and generic Greek verb for “kill,” apokteinô. Here, it refers to any deaths caused by all four riders. It does not, necessarily, refer to the death of martyrs. Likewise, 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. In the present clause, “sword” translates the noun rhomphaia, a more general term for a “sword” or “javelin.”
The final clause borrows imagery from Ezekiel 14:13-21. The Greek Septuagint version of Ezekiel uses the same Greek words used by Revelation for three of the four items listed in Verse 8: 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.”
The Greek noun often translated “plague” or “pestilence” in English versions of the book of Revelation is thanatos, a noun meaning “death” (Strong’s – #G2288). The Greek noun does NOT mean “plague” or “pestilence.” Some Bible translators render it “plague” for two main reasons:
- To avoid a clumsy-sounding tautology (“to kill with death”).
- Because the Hebrew text of Ezekiel 14:21 reads “plague” or deber (Strong’s – #H1698). Based on the original Hebrew, translators often render thanatos as “plague” in Revelation 6:8. However, doing so is interpretation, NOT translation. The book of Revelation follows the Greek text of the Septuagint when alluding to Ezekiel 14:21, which reads thanatos or “death,” NOT “plague” or plégé, the latter, a Greek term not present in the original text.
Elsewhere, the book of Revelation uses an entirely different word for “plague” when it means “plague,” plégé (Strong’s – #G4127). Rather than “correct” John by reverting to the Hebrew text, we should “let John be John” by allowing his words to stand as originally penned.
The Greek noun rendered “famine” more correctly means “hunger” (Strong’s – #G3042). It may refer to “hunger” caused by famine conditions, but the term does not, by itself, mean “famine.” The “hunger” could be due to any number of circumstances, including famine, but, also, difficult economic conditions, the inability to buy food, etc. Already, several of the seven churches of Asia has experienced economic difficulties, even impoverishment.
The introduction of “wild beasts” or thérion 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 (thérion – Strong’s – #G2342).
Both later “beasts” use deception and persecution to overcome and destroy the “saints.” Of special relevance is the description of the “wild beasts of the earth” in Verse 8, the same phrase applied to the False Prophet (“another beast ascending out of the earth”). The rider on the white horse is a forerunner of the ultimate “beast from the earth,” a counterfeit Christ bent on deceiving the saints (Revelation 13:11-18).
The four riders are only authorized to destroy a “fourth of the earth.” This reflects the Lamb’s sovereignty, even over malevolent forces. He sets boundaries that satanic forces cannot cross. Numbers in Revelation are figurative and not to be applied in a strictly literal fashion. The point is not the number of the dead but, rather, the limit placed on malevolent forces regarding how much misery and death they may inflict.
Verse 8 also serves to transition the narrative to the fifth seal opening where John will see a group of martyrs underneath the altar. No explanation is given as to how or when they were slain. The context answers this – The martyrs are among the victims of the malevolent forces unleashed by the first four seal openings. In the end, the saints find themselves “standing” before the Lamb only after they have come through the “great tribulation” (Revelation 7:9-17).