The four horsemen of the apocalypse are four biblical figures who appear in the Book of Revelation. They are revealed by the unsealing of the first four of the seven seals. Each of the horsemen represents a different facet of the apocalypse: conquest, war, famine, and death.
What are the seven seals of Revelation?
The seven seals are one of a series of end-times judgments from God. The seals are described in Revelation 6:1–17 and 8:1–5. In John’s vision, the seven seals hold closed a scroll in heaven, and, as each seal is broken, a new judgment is unleashed on the earth. Following the seal judgments are the trumpet judgments and the bowl or vial judgments.
The prelude to the opening of the seven seals in John’s vision is a search for someone worthy to open the heavenly scroll in Revelation 5. John writes, “I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals” (Revelation 5:1). This scroll contains the judgments of God; the fact that it is written on both sides indicates the extensive nature of the judgment pending. A mighty angel cries out, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” (verse 2). No one was found worthy of breaking the seals and opening the scroll, a fact that causes John to mourn (verse 3–4). If the scroll could not be opened, then wickedness would not be judged and evil would continue to infect the earth.
As John is weeping over the unopened scroll and its unbroken seven seals, he receives good news: “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals” (Revelation 5:5). “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne. . . . He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne” (verses 6–7). This is a picture of Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain who is also the Lion of judgment. Jesus is the only one worthy to judge the world (cf. John 5:22). As He takes the scroll to open the seals and pronounce judgment on the unbelieving world, the beings in heaven glorify Him with a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. . . .
Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!” (verses 9 and 12).
Amid the worship due to Him, the Lamb begins to open the seals (Revelation 6:1). With each seal opened, the scroll is able to be unrolled a little more, revealing bit by bit the judgments God has in store during the tribulation period. The first four of the seven seals release what are known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, because the judgments appear symbolically as a horse and rider bringing devastation in their wake.
The first seal. The first seal introduces the Antichrist (Revelation 6:1–2). From the biblical description, we gather several details: he rides a white horse, which speaks of peace; at the beginning of the tribulation, the Antichrist will come under the pretense of bringing peace to the world (cf. Daniel 9:27). He is given a crown, which indicates that the Antichrist will exercise great authority (cf. Daniel 7:24–25). He holds a bow, which shows his true intentions, and he advances “as a conqueror bent on conquest” (Revelation 6:2).
The second seal. When the Lamb opens the second seal, great warfare breaks out on the earth (Revelation 6:3–4). This is symbolized by a rider with a large sword on a fiery red horse.
The third seal. The breaking of the third of the seven seals causes famine (Revelation 6:5–6). The rider that John sees is riding a black horse and “holding a pair of scales in his hand.” Then John hears a declaration that people will have to work all day to earn just a little food.
The fourth seal. The fourth seal is opened, and John sees a pale horse. “Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him” (Revelation 6:7–8). The result of this fourth seal is that one fourth of the earth’s population are killed “by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
The fifth seal. The scroll’s fifth seal reveals those who will be martyred for their faith in Christ during the tribulation (Revelation 6:9–11; cf. Matthew 24:9). The souls of these martyrs are pictured as dwelling under the altar in heaven. God hears their cries for justice, and He gives each of them a white robe. The martyrs are told to wait “until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.” God promises to avenge them, but the time was not yet (cf. Romans 12:19).
The sixth seal. When the Lamb of God opens the sixth seal, a devastating earthquake occurs, causing massive upheaval and terrible devastation—along with unusual astronomical phenomena: the sun turns black, and the moon turns blood-red, and “the heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place” (Revelation 6:12–14). Survivors of the sixth seal, regardless of their social position, take refuge in caves and cry out to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (verses 16–17).
After the opening of the sixth of the seven seals is an interlude in the book of Revelation. John describes the 144,000 Jews who will be protected during the tribulation (Revelation 7:1–8). Then, in heaven, he sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (verse 9). These people wear white robes, hold palm branches, and shout:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb” (verse 10).
John is told who this white-clad multitude is: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (verse 14). They are given the promise that
“‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat. . . .
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’” (verses 16–17; cf. Isaiah 25:8; 49:10).
The seventh seal. When the Lamb opens the seventh seal, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1). The judgments that lead up to the close of the tribulation are now visible in the scroll and are so severe that a solemn silence falls upon all of heaven. The seventh seal obviously introduces the next series of judgments, for John immediately sees seven angels who are handed seven trumpets ready to sound (verse 2). An eighth angel takes a censer and burns “much incense” in it, representing the prayers of God’s people (verses 3–4). The angel then took the same censer, “filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake” (verse 5).
Once the seven seal judgments are finished, the next part of the tribulation, featuring the seven trumpet judgments, is ready to begin.