The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are described in Revelation chapter 6, verses 1-8. The four horsemen are symbolic descriptions of different events that will take place in the end times. The first horseman of the Apocalypse is mentioned in Revelation 6:2: “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.” This first horseman likely refers to the Antichrist, who will be given authority and will conquer all who oppose him. The antichrist is the false imitator of the true Christ, who will also return on a white horse (Revelation 19:11-16).
The second horseman of the Apocalypse appears in Revelation 6:4, “Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given the power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.” The second horseman refers to terrible warfare that will break out in the end times. The third horseman is described in Revelation 6:5-6, “…and 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!’” The third horseman of the Apocalypse refers to a great famine that will take place, likely as a result of the wars from the second horseman.
The fourth horseman is mentioned in Revelation 6:8, “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.” The fourth horseman of the Apocalypse is symbolic of death and devastation. It seems to be a combination of the previous horsemen. The fourth horseman of the Apocalypse will bring further warfare and terrible famines along with awful plagues and diseases. 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).
The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word apocalupsis which means “revealing, disclosure, to take off the cover.” The book of Revelation is sometimes referred to as the “Apocalypse of John” because it is God’s revealing of the end times to the apostle John. Further, the Greek word for “apocalypse” is the very first word in the Greek text of the book of Revelation. The phrase “apocalyptic literature” is used to describe the use of symbols, images, and numbers to depict future events. Outside of Revelation, examples of apocalyptic literature in the Bible are Daniel chapters 7–12, Isaiah chapters 24–27, Ezekiel chapters 37–41, and Zechariah chapters 9–12.
Why was apocalyptic literature written with such symbolism and imagery? The apocalyptic books were written when it was more prudent to disguise the message in images and symbolism than to give the message in plain language. Further, the symbolism created an element of mystery about details of time and place. The purpose of such symbolism, however, was not to cause confusion, but rather to instruct and encourage followers of God in difficult times.
Beyond the specifically biblical meaning, the term “apocalypse” is often used to refer to the end times in general, or to the last end times events specifically. End-times events such as the second coming of Christ and the battle of Armageddon are sometimes referred to as the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse will be the ultimate revealing of God, His wrath, His justice, and, ultimately, His love. Jesus Christ is the supreme “apocalypse” of God, as He revealed God to us (John 14:9; Hebrews 1:2).
Woe means “grief, anguish, affliction”; the three woes of Revelation are the final judgment God pronounces on the evil inhabitants of the earth in order to spur them to repentance (Revelation 9:20). The three woes are, indeed, a time of great anguish and affliction for those who have pledged their allegiance to the Antichrist during the end times.
The number 7 is significant in Revelation, and the three woes will come toward the end of the seven-year tribulation period right before the second coming of Christ. God’s judgments during the tribulation are pictured as seven seals, opened one at a time. The seventh seal reveals the seven trumpet judgments. The fifth, sixth, and seventh trumpets are called the three woes (Revelation 8:13).
The first woe is revealed after the fifth trumpet judgment. This woe is involves something like locusts that have the ability to sting like a scorpion (Revelation 9:3). Generally, these are not accepted as literal locusts because of their description and because they come from the Abyss and have a demonic overlord (Revelation 9:3, 7-8, 11). These creatures are permitted to harm only those people who do not have the “seal of God on their forehead” (Revelation 9:4). Those bearing God’s seal are the 144,000 (Revelation 7:3-4) or, possibly, all believers during that time (Ephesians 4:30). These demonic locusts are allowed to torment unbelievers for five months (Revelation 9:5) with painful stings. Although victims will long for death (Revelation 9: 6), they will not be granted that release.
The second woe is revealed after the sixth trumpet judgment. This woe begins when a voice commands, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates” (Revelation 9:14). These four angels are demons who were cast from heaven along with Satan. God is right now keeping them imprisoned until the appointed time (Revelation 9:15; cf. Jude 1:6; 2 Peter 2:4). These angels and their armies, numbering two hundred million, are released to kill a third of mankind (Revelation 9:15-16).
After the second woe passes (Revelation 11:14), there comes a clear division in the book with the announcement from heaven, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Revelation 11:15). In other words, this final stage of judgment will be the end, and righteousness will be restored to the earth.
The third woe is revealed after the seventh trumpet judgment. This woe is parallel to the trumpet that sounds in Joel 2 and signals the consummation of God’s plan for the entire world. This third woe marks the finishing of God’s judgment on sin; it occupies the book of Revelation through the 19th chapter when Christ’s Kingdom is established on earth. Incorporated within this third and final woe are the seven “bowls” of God’s wrath, described in Revelation 16:1-21. This series of judgments is the greatest horror the citizens of earth have ever seen. Jesus said, “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive” (Matthew 24:22).
The language of the Bible is rich with metaphor. The biblical writers used familiar, everyday objects to symbolize spiritual truth. Symbols are quite common in the poetic and prophetic portions of the Bible. By its very nature, poetry relies heavily on figurative language; when Solomon calls his bride “a lily among thorns” (Song of Solomon 2:2), he is using symbols to declare the desirability and uniqueness of the Shulamite. Prophecy, too, contains much figurative imagery. Isaiah often used trees and forests as symbols of strength (e.g., Isaiah 10:18-19; 32:19). Daniel saw “a goat with a prominent horn between his eyes” who “came from the west . . . without touching the ground” (Daniel 8:5), and we interpret this as a kingdom (Greece) and its king (Alexander the Great) who speedily conquered the world.
Jesus’ teaching was full of symbolism. He presented Himself as a Shepherd, a Sower, a Bridegroom, a Door, a Cornerstone, a Vine, Light, Bread, and Water. He likened the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast, a seed, a tree, a field, a net, a pearl, and yeast. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other symbols in the Bible.
Note that a literal interpretation of the Bible allows for figurative language. Here’s a simple rule: if the literal meaning of passage leads to obvious absurdity, but a figurative meaning yields clarity, then the passage is probably using symbols. For example, in Exodus 19:4, God tells Israel, “I carried you on eagles’ wings.” A literal reading of this statement would lead to absurdity—God did not use real eagles to airlift His people out of Egypt. The statement is obviously symbolic; God is emphasizing the speed and strength with which He delivered Israel. This leads to another rule of biblical interpretation: a symbol will have a non-symbolic meaning. In other words, there is something real (a real person, a real historical event, a real trait) behind every figure of speech.
Here are a few symbols used in the Bible:
Walk with God: To “walk” with someone is to live in fellowship and harmony with him. Since God can only live in a way that reflects His holy character, to “walk with God” is to live according to the path He has laid out, to obey Him.
Dust, stars, sand: The Bible often uses these metaphors to represent the number of descendants God promised to Abraham. This would include Abraham’s physical descendants (Jews and Arabs) as well as Abraham’s spiritual progeny (those who live by faith, Galatians 3:7).
Flowing with milk and honey: God often referred to Canaan as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” An abundance of milk and honey was symbolic of lush, fertile farmland, plenty of water, and rich grass for dairy animals and flowers for bees. Milk and honey were two of the most prized foods in Old Testament times, and a land “flowing” with them would be very desirable.
Exodus 3:8; 17; 13:5; 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:27; 14:8; 16:13, 14; Deuteronomy 6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 27:3; 31:20; Josh. 5:6; Song of Solomon 4:11; 5:1; Isaiah 7:22; Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22; Ezekiel 20:6, 15
Circumcised hearts: Physical circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and His chosen people, the Jews. It was, of course, an external alteration. What God really wanted, though, was an internal alteration—a spiritual circumcision, as it were. To have one’s heart circumcised was to fully identify with Him. It is not enough to obey His Word on the outside; we must be characterized by His Word on the inside.
Cedars of Lebanon: In Israel, large trees were hard to come by and very valuable. The cedars in Lebanongrow up to 130 feet tall with trunks up to eight feet in diameter. They were valued for their resin, which Egyptians used in mummification, and wood, which was used to build ships. The cedars are used symbolically in the Bible to represent strength and stature or pride.
Hearts of stone or flesh: A heart of stone is emblematic of a spiritually dead heart that cannot respond to God’s grace. God promises to remove our heart of stone and replace it with a living, loving heart that can follow Him.
Ephraim and Judah: In the divided kingdom, the ten tribes in the north were many times collectively called “Ephraim” after the most prominent tribe living there. The tribes in the south were often referred to as “Judah” after the most prominent southern tribe. This particular figure of speech, in which a part is substituted for the whole, is called metonymy.
Ramah and Rachel: Ramah was a small town about five miles from Jerusalem. Rachel was one of Jacob’s wives buried near Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19). Ramah mourning and Rachel weeping in the book of Jeremiah are symbols of the sadness experienced when Judah was conquered by Babylon and sent into exile. Matthew quotes Jeremiah and furthers the metaphor, applying it to Herod’s massacre of the babies in Bethlehem. Ramah becomes a symbol of Bethlehem, and Rachel becomes a symbol of the grieving mothers there.
Shaking the dust off one’s feet: In New Testament times, a devout Jew would shake the dust off his feet when he left a Gentile city to symbolically cleanse himself of ungodly practices. Jesus told His disciples to do the same if a Jewish household or village rejected the message of the Messiah.
Whitewashed tombs: A whitewashed tomb is a stone crypt that is clean and well kept on the outside but filled with bones and death. Jesus used this image as a symbol to represent hypocrites—religious people who do not follow God in their hearts.
Capstone: A capstone is one of the top stones on a wall. Metaphorically, it is the finishing touch or the crowning achievement. Jesus used this symbol of Himself.
Slave/servant of Christ: The New Testament writers use the idea of being a slave or servant of Christ to symbolize our responsibility to do the will of Christ and not be self-serving. It is sometimes juxtaposed with its alternative of being a slave to sin; a believer is set free from sin and is now led by the Spirit. An indentured servant, after fulfilling his obligation to his master, could volunteer to stay and serve his master for life—a picture of how we serve Christ willingly.
Serpent: Snakes are mentioned many times in the Bible, and never in a positive light. In Genesis and Revelation, the serpent symbolizes Satan. The serpent of Eden is described as crafty—an idea Jesus reiterates in Matthew 10. In Hebrew, the noun for “serpent” is related to the verb for “divining and fortune-telling.”
Genesis 3:1, 14; 49:17; Numbers 21:6; Deuteronomy 32:33; Job 26:13; Psalm 58:4; 91:13; 140:3; Proverbs 23:32; 30:19; Isaiah 14:29; 65:25; Matthew 10:16; 23:33; Luke 10:19; Revelation 12:9, 14, 15; 20:2
Genesis 49:9; Numbers 23:24; 24:9; Deuteronomy 33:20, 22; 1 Chronicles 12:8; Job 4:10, 11; 10:16; 28:8; 38:39; Psalm 10:9; 91:13; 104:21; Proverbs 19:12; Ecclesiastes 9:4; Isaiah 5:29; 11:6, 7; Jeremiah 2:15, 30; 4:7; 12:8; Ezekiel 1:10; 19:2, 3; 19:6; Daniel 7:4; 2 Timothy 4:17; Revelation 4:7; 9:17; 10:3
Dog: Dogs in Bible times were not cherished family pets. They were mongrels who ran wild and scavenged. Jews often referred to Gentiles as “dogs”—not a complimentary epithet. Jesus’ interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Matthew 15 shows how He ministered to the “dogs” and the children, both.
Exodus 11:7; Deuteronomy 23:18; 1 Samuel 17:43; 24:14; 2 Samuel 16:9; Job 30:1; Psalm 22:20, 16; 59:6; 68:23; Proverbs 26:11; 26:17; Ecclesiastes 9:4; Isaiah 56:11; Jeremiah 15:3; Matthew 7:6; 15:27; Philippians 3:2; Revelation 22:15
Sheep: Sheep are herd animals who are amazingly dependent on a shepherd for their well-being. And they are the animal most used by God to symbolize His followers. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are the sheep who recognize His voice, follow Him, and rely on Him for our safety and provision.
Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chronicles 18:16; Psalm 23:1; 44:11, 22; 49:14; 74:1; 78:52; 95:7; 119:176; Isaiah 53:6, 7; Jeremiah 23:1; 50:6; Ezekiel 34:11, 12; 34:17; Matthew 9:36; 10:6; 26:31; John 10:11, 16, 26
We interpret the Bible literally, but this does not mean we ignore symbols and metaphorical language. God’s written communication to the world is a richly textured literary masterpiece and makes full use of the tools of language, including symbolism, metaphor, simile, and motif.
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