Revelation 6:5-6 – The Black Horseman
During the months of October and November we are particularly engaged in reflection on the seasonal blessings of God, blessings that are at least in part of an economic nature. It may be beneficial to look at what the Word of God tells us about the economy of the world in the latter days.
Much of our conversation, also during this thanksgiving season, centres on the state of the economy. We talk about our work or the lack of it, the rising cost of living, about money and prices. Words like unemployment, recession, and inflation have become part of our daily discussions.
We all agree that the Canadian economy is currently in a sorry state. The situation in Canada is, of course, inseparably connected with a general economic downturn throughout the world. In fact, in comparison with the inhabitants of many other nations, Canadians still have great prosperity. While millions face the threat or reality of slow starvation, most people in the West still have an economy that is basically intact. We do not have to stand in food-lines, as do so many people in Eastern Europe, or go hungry altogether, as do so many people in Africa and Asia.
Still, our economy has taken quite a beating in the past few years. We are faced with real poverty at home. Statistics Canada estimates that 3.2 million Canadians (about one in every eight) live in difficult financial circumstances. Many of them are single mothers and their children. The government welfare roll has increased dramatically, and local food banks have warned of shortages as demand continues to rise.
And many of us also have experienced the recession in our personal budgets, and been forced to cut back on expenditures in order to make ends meet. Times are especially tough for those who are unemployed. They can also be difficult for those whose work is to be done in one season, or who, like so many of our farmers, see their income reduced because of disastrously low world prices. One bad year can easily wipe out four good ones! I suppose that we can always "give thanks," especially on Thanksgiving Day, but does not the sad state of the economy take away some of the joy of thanksgiving? Do not many people today feel underpaid and overtaxed? Does this not play a role also in the current labour unrest?
Let us return to the question as to what the Lord tells us about the economy of the last days. We should know ahead of time that it does not look very promising. The vision of the black horse and its rider, as described in Revelation 6, shows us a devastated economy. We also learn that this is not just the result of poor financial or fiscal or economic policies, nationally and globally, but that it is foremost a judgment of God. Do you ever look at it in this way? You should, for temporal judgments are never without hope and comfort for believers. They are very instructive, if only we are willing to learn from them.
The Four Horsemen
The vision of the black horseman is part of a larger vision known as that of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. It is a much-discussed and much-disputed vision. There is considerable disagreement especially as to the meaning of the first rider – the one on the white horse. Traditionally, explainers have seen in this rider the victorious advance of the Gospel of Christ. Nowadays it is perhaps more fashionable to see in him the rise of human empires. It is beyond my capabilities to offer a definitive solution to the question, but I do feel that we find in these horsemen a progression of evil: it gets worse every time a new horse appears.
The white horseman may therefore indeed be symbolic of human conquest, of empire building. For that striving always results in war and bloodshed: the second horseman. And one of the results of warfare is that entire economies are wiped out. The end-result is massive death, through famine (the black horseman), epidemics, and a general weakening of the population, which becomes disorganized and defenceless, even against wild beasts (v. 8). Behold, a pale horse!
We must clearly understand that these four horsemen do not come up by themselves. They are summoned by Christ, and their campaign also is determined by Christ, who in this way executes God's judgments over the earth. The chastisements are warnings to the world and a reminder to the church that the day of Christ is dawning! We also learn from this vision that we should never expect progress from below, but always from above. Like the rest of Revelation, this vision directs us beyond the strivings of this world to the rule of Christ above, and to His glorious return!
The Black Horseman
Coming to the vision itself, we see a black horseman appearing. Black is the colour that symbolizes death by hunger. In Lamentations 4 we can find a graphic description of how a face becomes darkened and a body shrivels through hunger, and it is exclaimed there, "Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger…" To die of hunger is a most painful and shameful death. You have seen pictures of starving people: big hollow eyes, deep black shadows, dried-out bodies.
This black rider has a balance in his hand. A balance is a scale by which rations are measured out – as happened, for example, in countries occupied by the Nazis in the second World War. It symbolizes hunger. More people die by the balance than by the sword!
The appearance of the black rider with the balance also means that a time of economic recession has come, for is recession not the first sign of economic failure? In verse 6 we read of this process. John hears a voice saying,
A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; but do not harm oil and wine.
A quart of wheat is the amount that one person needs per day in order to live. Let's say: the minimum. Of lesser quality than wheat is barley, which is therefore also cheaper: three quarts of barley for a denarius. The Lord is speaking here of the minimum amount of food required in order to live. And that costs one denarius, the average daily wage of a labourer. I will not bother to convert this to present-day currency, but you will realize that these are indeed very high prices for very small amounts of food. A whole day's salary goes to feeding just one person! There is not enough for two persons, let alone a family! And no mention at all is made of other necessities: shelter, clothing, education.
We should notice that it doesn't say that there is no wheat, only that it is too expensive. There is food, but it is out of reach for most people. We have here a breakdown of the economy which affects the production, distribution, and consumption of goods. The rationing leads to hoarding; we get black market prices. Prices keep rising while purchasing power declines.
What is the meaning of the next words: "Do not harm oil and wine"? Some say that oil and wine are part of the normal daily staple. Then it would mean that the famine is restricted to grain. Others see oil and wine as luxury items which were generally available only to the rich. What happens then? As so often in times of economic hardship the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The recession always seems to hit the lower classes.
Prices rise, supplies diminish, but those who have "means" protect their interests. The class struggle does not disappear; it intensifies. Today we may think that communism is finished and free enterprise victorious, but will there not always be this battle of uneven distribution between rich and poor? Both at home and in the world at large?
In any event, the economy is devastated. Rationing, recession, depression, protectionism – and the common people begin to suffer extreme poverty. It is one of the greatest chastisements of mankind! What is more dehumanizing, hopeless, devastating, than poverty?
The Black Horseman Today
We must understand that time and again we see the black horseman appear on the horizon, now here, then there. He often follows the red horseman of war. One commentator writes about growing up in the Ukraine in the twenties and thirties: first the population was reduced by the horrors of World War I and the Russian civil war: the red horse, and then millions died of starvation: the black horse.
Today we in the West are experiencing a recession, only a shadow of the black horseman. But in other parts of the world there is outright famine and extreme poverty. Think of Cambodia, Bangladesh, the Sahel region and various other parts of Africa. Think of the inflation in Brazil (now again at 15 per cent per month) and similar countries where the rich live lavishly while the poor can hardly survive.
We do not control the black horseman. Christ does. But this certainly does not mean that we should just let the poor starve. To the contrary, we have a great and pressing duty and responsibility toward the poor and homeless – not in the last place toward those in our own community, our own city. Do we realize that sufficiently? We regularly contribute toward the relief of people in third-world countries, and that is right, but do we not often forget those closer to home? Of course, we are against the so-called "social gospel", and rightly so, for the gospel is not a socio-political programme. Nevertheless, Christians do have a social task! And that task remains until the great day comes when the black horseman will finally disappear from the earth and people will hunger no more.
The Preservation of the Economy
The black horseman has a devastating effect, yet he does not have the ability to destroy the entire economy. There is still wheat and barley, even though expensive. There is still oil and wine, even if it is not accessible to all. There are also times of relief which God grants! Have not the West, and also Japan, experienced these times of relief after the devastations of the Second World War?
Another thing should be quite clear. The fact that there are shortages and famines is not the fault of the Lord God. It is not that the earth cannot produce enough to feed all mankind. On the contrary. What we read in Psalm 136 is true: Food to all He does supply. God's storehouses never run empty. The lack of food, the effect of the black horseman, is God's righteous judgment, and at the same time the result of the wicked schemes of people.
But through it all God does preserve the economy. He controls the black horseman, for He wants to use the economy of this world for the gathering of His church and the coming of His kingdom.
The New Economy
And when His church has been gathered the end will come: the vision of Revelation 6 concludes with the great day of judgment. Then the four horsemen are seen no more: they served only to bring that day closer, and to remind us of the fact that the whole economy of this world will pass away.
And therefore everything boils down to this question: on what have we set our hope: on the economy of our country or on that of the world to come? Is our treasure here on earth, or is it in heaven, where there are no shortages and no recessions?
Be very sure about it: one day this economy will pass away. Think of it. All stock exchanges closed. All shares invalid. All savings accounts empty. All deeds vaporized. All companies bankrupt. All plants shut down. All unions disbanded. All currency worthless. All real estate crumbling to dust. The whole economy as we know it dissolved, in order to make room for a new economy – the one that will last, and that provides the water of life and the tree of life with its abundant fruit! (Revelation 22)
When we look back over the past season, we have to say that there is a black horseman on the horizon. His influence was not as severe in our country as elsewhere. It may get worse; it may also get better. God only knows. But this horseman will not destroy the life of the church or halt the progress of the kingdom. There is a promise in the book of Revelation that the earth will feed the seed of the woman until the time is fulfilled.
This makes us secure in a world filled with poverty and suffering. We can look at the many blessings we received and say: is it not amazing that we can still do so much? The LORD enables us to serve Him and even to have much left over. No one of us really has had to cut out all the oil and wine.
We may pray that the economy improves. It is also possible that it gets worse: there is, after all, a black horseman galloping over the earth. He may come to our country as well. What shall then be our attitude? Let us listen to one of the Old Testament believers. The prophet Habakkuk was told by the LORD that Israel's economy would be smashed by the enemy. Habakkuk shuddered at the thought, and he wept. But he also prayed and sang (Hymn 10, Book of Praise):
Though fig trees may not blossom
And vines no fruit may yield,
Though olives be a failure.
And barren be the field,
Though in the fold and stables
There be no flock or herd,
Yet I will sing and worship,
Rejoicing in the LORD.
He lets me walk on mountains
Beyond the reach of woes.
Christ will resolve the problems of the economy and restore abundance to the earth, an abundance that will last eternally. There lies the deepest reason for our thanksgiving.