The bark of my chairman
In 1997 I was a first year ophthalmology resident. On one of my evenings being on-call my senior resident and I admitted a child to the hospital under my chairman’s name. We did that because he was on call that weekend and the child had a pool of blood in the front of his eyes. That is a thing physicians call a hyphema, and in 1997 such patients would commonly be admitted to the hospital, assigned to bed rest, and the eye patched shut.
Our pediatric ophthalmologist would take care of the kids and so when he arrived at our morning conference I briefed him on this child. I recall him acting one way as I told him, but walking away from our conference all buddy-buddy with the chair. As I opened the door to the department the door to the chair’s office was open. He was standing in it waiting for me leaning against the door frame with one arm. “Where is your senior?” he bellowed. “Oh great, my little apocalypse,” may have gone my thoughts.
Well, my senior had been out of line. We admitted a patient to the hospital and did not tell our faculty about it. The chair loved to bellow and threaten. He told me how he was going to put a letter in my file, etc., etc. Then 2 and a half years later he hired me right out of residency, and now nearly 2 decades after that event I am still here. So sometimes how we think the end is coming is not really how it comes.
Hyphemas and Revelation 6?
I am coming to that answer, but first come back with me to that scrappy little Monday morning. After the chair finished barking he switched to ordering. I was told to get that patient down to the clinic immediately. Feeling rather sheepish and peeved at how the senior had caused such ruckus I jumped to it. Curiously enough I am rather sure I still know which of our exam rooms the moment was happening.
When the child arrived and my chairman was furiously scribbling his notes into the chart his mouth was going 90 to nothing. “Why did you do this?” and “why did you do that?” Each of our management decisions were challenged. I remember his words, and many people still manage hyphema just like we did that day. He knew we had made reasonable decisions, but just needed to be furious.
Hyphemas, like a number of diagnoses, can be managed many different ways. There is a mantra in medicine that says a when there are a variety of acceptable treatments it means none really work. When it comes to hyphema most of the time they can be treated conservatively while being on the lookout for a few crucial developments: high eye pressure, re-bleeds, corneal blood staining, and some others but that tromps way out beyond the scope of Revelation 6.
It turns out that prophecy has a lot of boisterous proponents as well.
Ok, so here is the transition to Revelation 6
Perhaps you have read this chapter before. If not there are enough American cultural references to it for you to have a bit of an aha. Have you heard of the four horsemen of the apocalypse? The white horse, red horse, black and pale horses? In popular culture these are referred to as ill-omens, and well they should be. We will come to that in a moment. Church culture since John the Apostle’s time have given emphatic notions to what these horsemen meant, what they symbolized. Below are some categories used.
- Destruction of Jerusalem
- History of the church
- Specific events in the last two millennia, or general events
- Civic events or religious events or history in general
- A period of time or era rather than an event.
Remember that mantra in medicine: many treatments = no cures? Same thing goes in prophecy. Many ideas means people don’t get it. People should be loath to rabidly commit to their own interpretation of prophecy and then let things play out all the while holding on to personal godliness as they go.
Albert Barnes on Revelation 6
I really like this commentator for his reasoned approach. He writes in a way that remains submitted to God, but holds things that only God can know in a fitting manner. We must never scream dogmatically about things we do not control or even properly understand. Unfortunately some people will be so blinded by their own view points they are of no use to themselves or others. They can, in fact, be harmful as their dogma’s and “this-has-to-be-this-way’s” fall prey to time and circumstance.
Assumption that Revelation 6 deals with the future
Barnes’ first point in approaching Revelation 6: all things revealed as the seals were broken would be in the future from John’s perspective. They may or may not be from our perspective. In Revelation 6 the horsemen were symbolic of things to come and somewhere in the future of John will be found events to which these symbols referred.
The symbols of Revelation 6 bear meaning
In 1 Peter 1:11-13 Peter told Christians that their understanding of things were God’s revelations to them. In times leading up to our redemption even the angels had longed to understand the mysteries of God. There were symbols and the symbols meant something. The meaning was obscure even from angels for many eons.
The four horsemen of the apocalypse mean something. They are clearly symbolic, but they are neither idle nor useless. They are inspired and as such should be taken as bearing significance both for us as individuals and more widely for the church and world. Whether we can discern the meaning from them is another thing entirely. Remember that the Holy Scriptures are inspired by God. Don’t take that too far for this assumption does not unravel the meaning of the mystery. We do not need to understand all things to value them.
At a recent garage sale I picked up a DVD of The Matrix Reloaded. Certain scenes need skipped in that movie, but others intrigue me. At one point Councilor Hamann and Neo are brought together by insomnia and the two end up deep below their fortress city of Zion. Hamann points out a water treatment machine saying he has no idea how it works, but he understands its purpose. He puts faith in the purification process of that machine.
In Revelation some things we need to let be. We do not need to know the how to value the purpose. The mysteries of Revelation do not have be solved for us to put value in them. The symbols of the apocalypse are not intrinsically different. They bear meaning, but the entirety of their meaning remains hidden until God decides we get to know it.
Predictions are often necessarily obscure
Could God have been very specific? Absolutely. We speak this truth from our youngest days sometimes coupling to it the most unlikely of questions. Barnes suggests that had God been very specific laying out the minutest of details it would give man the opportunity to frustrate the will of God. Oftentimes, though, the specifics cannot just be spoken as they may depend upon many, many other things.
The example Barnes puts forth is that of rapid spread of news that was made possible by the telegraph. What might happen in Europe could be near instantly spoken of in New York City. Nowadays this is even more established. The smart phone allows individuals around the world to tap into global networks. A figure in Cairo could stream an event from his city which might be seen in a gas station in rural Nebraska.
How would this kind of thing be spoken of by God? By us? How would you and I explain such a thing to people from John’s day? They having no parallel experiences would not be able to process it, grasp it, at least not in the how of it all.
Donald Richardson in his book Eternity in the Hearts spoke of motor boats going up river in Papua New Guinea in the 1950s or 1960s. The white men in these loud, fast boats were perceived as deities. They worshiped them. Alternatively how do people from the more rural sections of the world consider the vision restoring procedure of cataract surgery? A miracle!
This thing can be explained in that knowledge of one particular fact is so connected with other facts that understanding of it by itself is at that time impossible.
Examples in our time
Let us look at some modern examples of this. I write this on a computer and use a Bluetooth mouse. That makes a lot of sense to me, but without knowledge of computers, radio waves, and why valuable how would one speak of it. Why call the thing a mouse anyway? What about the cursor on the screen.
I am reading about Eisenhower’s direction of the conquest of Western Europe and the Battle of the Bulge was reviewed. What if the book of Revelation spoke of this battle saying only that a great army expanded west from Germania? Or what if it just said a great army expanded from the East not even mentioning Germania. The point here is that without the context of World War 2 the prophecy could be entirely accurate and entirely obscure. Any interpretation of such a prophecy would of necessity run far afield of reality.
The symbolic can be put out there and it can sleep like a seed in a paper envelope until the conditions for sprouting are right. Then when it sprouts the prophecy will fit like a hand in a glove and one can say, “See God spoke of this ahead of time.” C.S. Lewis spoke well when he described a child drawing a circle. The child may not be able to draw the circle well, but when the perfect circle is presented to him he will know its perfection.
A fourth point: We must not demand that understanding precede predictions
Think back to Barnes’ idea that information, e.g. that event in Cairo, be known almost immediately around the world. The trial of faith would be in believing that it would occur. The trial of faith would not be in the how nor in the symbols. For Hamann in The Matrix Reloaded the trial of faith about water reclamation was that the reclaimed water could be satisfactory drinking water. He did not need to know the how claiming he had not the slightest idea.
As a final and ultimate example consider the prophecies of the Messiah and Jesus Christ. Many of these prophecies were obscure when they were spoken. Some may have been so obscure as to seem contradictory or so unparalleled in the human era as to suggest impossibility. One would try in vain to tie the cohort of predictions into a meaningful construction ahead of what Jesus’ life has been.
After the fact the obscurity has gone. The meaning looses its haziness. The fit between the predictive symbols and his advent, life, death, resurrection leaves little doubt to the divine origin of the prophecies.
Barnes’ reasoned approach
- To explain the meaning of the symbols without attempting historical connection
- To briefly state positions taken by others in the interpretation of this passage
- Barnes’ interpretation of historical context
- Admit ignorance in the areas where it seems a reasonable conclusion cannot be drawn
- Part of this last approach is to recognize that as time passes more and more of the book of Revelation will be elucidated. A person’s efforts can only be valid up to the time in which they live, but confidence can be placed that obscurity will be diminished, erased even, at the conclusion of world events.
The First Seal: Conquest
1 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” 2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. (Revelation 6:1-2–ESV)
John had been present throughout the search for one who could open the seals. The lamb opened the first seal, and one of the four beasts 1 called John to come.
Have you ever thought what John did? I think I have always imagined John standing as an observer in unfolding events maybe as the shepherd David observed the taunts of Goliath. John had witnessed the worship services of Revelation 4 and Revelation 5. Was this what was happening here? Or, did John read or watch what we would call a video? Did he see an event set down in watercolors or with paints? Was it like anime or a comic book?
I do not think John read words, but saw representations. The passage does not say John came and read, but that he came and looked. John even used the word behold suggesting seeing not reading, and goes on to convey events. The rider initially had a bow, but received a crown, and came out conquering. These are action words, words that suggest a thing watched not a thing read as Terry Brook’s druids might read of events in Paranor’s Keep, or as Gandalf might study the scroll of Isildur at Minas Tirith.
At this point I would favor sketches as in a comic book or video as on an iPad.
What about the horse, its color, rider and armaments?
Horses are real and when used as symbols bring along with them all their implications. Barnes rightly assembles the traits of the horse to include: war, conquest, speed, strength and safety. He goes on to apply the color of the horse as well as the character of its rider to solidify what implications we should draw from what John saw.
Barnes reports many vantage points held upon the meaning of this passage. The conclusions he drew rest upon his understanding of works, e.g. Virgil, Justin, Plautus, Propertius, the books of Proverbs and Judges, as well as Gibbon. These and other authors lead Barnes to conclude that the white horse represents the Roman Empire.
Barnes makes a compelling case treating the subject in what would seem to be an exhaustive manner. While I think the fit that Barnes applies is excellent I find myself wanting to yet hold my conclusions in abeyance. Could not the fit be excellent in order to lay the foundation of understanding? What if the excellent fit was merely to say an event in the future would be like that which the Romans did? Many of the authors which Barnes referenced lived and died before the time of Christ. Gibbon’s work was published in 1776 with Barnes to enter his studies about 50 years later.
It is my preference to hold that the white horse of the apocalypse merely represents a powerful military event. Both World Wars came after Barnes had passed away (1870) and such could fall under his paradigm that future events may more clearly elucidate prior prophecy.
The Second Seal: Strife and bloodshed
3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword. (Revelation 6:3-4–ESV)
Here is the second beast of the four calling John to come and see the revealing of the second seal. Here is the second horse: a red one. This red color and the permission which the rider of this horse was given point to bloodshed. The white horse may have been a harbinger of bloodshed, but victory was its greater point. This time carnage, discord, strife, loss of peace and bloodshed seems to be the best fit.
Barnes points out that in the original wording of verse 4 the word peace was really “the peace.” So a time of peace which existed seems to have been removed. This would be further supported in that the rider was given a sword. Barnes connects the time of peace to the reign of Hadrian and the era which followed that to this red horse.
Coming to this point I begin to find myself diverging further and further from the pathway that Barnes is taking. My take is that human nature and history being what they are periods of peace and war will come. Skills of politicians and historians allow a fitting of the symbolic to the historic. A man who is astute, insightful, possessed of many historical facts could easily draw these conclusions. To know with certainty though remains the domain of God and not us humans.
The Third Seal: Tyranny
5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “
Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. 6 And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” (Revelation 6:5-6–ESV)
The color black could be ascribed to many ill-events from pestilence, famine, disease, death and others such as tyranny. At first consideration verse 6 suggests famine, but the pale horse which is revealed in the fourth seal seems to diminish that view for the third seal.
More likely what is being spoken of here is a severe exaction of taxes. Barnes reports the Emperor Galerius as exacting the most severe taxes from the citizenry many times even under torture and duress. It did not matter whether they were rich or poor it seems that Galerius lumped them all together to assign them to a specific tax bracket. The only people he did not tax were beggar whom he took to the ocean and threw in the sea.
The Fourth Seal: Death
7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:7-8–ESV)
Think of how you know a person is sick. You see their color. The pallor which they bear tells others that something is amiss. The rider of this horse is not confined to tyranny or to strife or conquest. He is merely called death and as such is given no weapon or implement. This rider is merely attuned to the destruction of humans by all means at its disposal. Death brings along with it the abode of the dead perhaps the hordes of the previously living come along to cheer on and beckon death to fill their ranks. The dead, jealous of the living, raise their voices and intentions to take life from those who yet are living.
Many, many theologians have taken varied positions on this obscure book. We do well not to bury our heads in the sand over its complications, but we must be sure that we do not stake out positions which time may unfasten proving your dogma to be just that. I take these horsemen as symbols of things to come believing them to be inspired. That God gave them to John the Apostle was not idle, but purposeful. At some point they will become very clear the symbol fitting perfectly to the events. At that time we will see that indeed God did foretell the events as only God can. I want to have held a commendable position, and the commendable position seems to be belief of purpose without understanding of the mechanism.