The Apocalypse of St. John contains countless evocative images and creatures demonic and bestial. One group of figures who have become well-known even outside of religious circles, entering into popular culture in a variety of ways, are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as described in the sixth chapter of Revelation. This chapter is structured around one of several cyclical depictions within the text of Christ, here the Lamb, executing judgment to retake the creation and reestablish justice. In St. John’s vision of the divine throne, Christ has taken the scroll which is the title of ownership for the whole creation, being the only one found worthy to do so. This scroll is sealed with seven seals (Rev 5:1, 5-7). Christ’s establishment of his own kingdom, his reign over the creation, is enacted through judgments which issue forth as he breaks each of the seven wax seals. As he breaks each of the first four seals, the four cherubim surrounding the divine throne call out, and a rider on a horse comes forth to ride out across the earth in judgment (6:1-8).
The text itself names only one of these riders, the fourth and final one to emerge, who is Death (6:8). Following alongside him, like a companion beast, is Hades. Thanatos, the Greek word which occurs here, is the name of a Greek god as, of course, is Hades. Their portrayal here in Revelation, however, does not correspond to their typical Greek or Roman depiction. Thanatos is the god of a peaceful death, as from old age. Offerings were made to him by his worshippers to request of him such a quiet death. Thanatos was conceived as the brother of Hypnos, the god of sleep. The horseman Death, on the other hand, slays a quarter of the earth through the sword, famine, plague, and wild beasts. He is seemingly the exact opposite. Likewise, Hades was the lord of the underworld, part of the triumvirate with Zeus and Poseidon, brothers who governed the world, not a crouching beast who served Thanatos.
St. John’s vision, however, does correspond to the more ancient Canaanite depiction of the god of death and lord of the underworld Mot. Mot was a god of both death in this world and the tyrant of the next. Mot was depicted with a retinue of other gods who he sent forth to slay for him. He collected the lives of those so slain and fed them to Sheol, the grave or the underworld, who devoured them forever. Understanding Death as Mot, the naming of this fourth horseman, then aids the interpretation of the identity of the other three. The sword, famine, and plague of v. 8 are not activities undertaken by Mot, but his agents. Agents described in the preceding verses.
Though it has been the topic of the most debate in modern history, the identity of the first horseman, described in v. 2, is the clearest as he was one of the most popular gods of the ancient world. He is described by St. John as sitting on a white horse, armed with a bow, and riding forth to conquer. The odd-sounding circumlocution at the end of the verse, that he went forth conquering and in order to conquer appears to be a piece of Hebrew syntax, an infinitive absolute, reconstructed in Greek. The god Resheph is attested to in the Ancient Near East from the third millennium BC. So popular was this deity throughout the millennia before the birth of Christ that his cult was assimilated from the West Semitic region into Egyptian religion wholesale from the beginning of the New Kingdom. In Cyprus, his cult and depiction were assimilated into that of Apollo.
One of Resheph’s primary appellations was ‘the horse rider’. This was depicted both in terms of the god riding on a horse and in a chariot. He was typically portrayed as an archer. His name is the word for ‘plague’ or ‘pestilence’. He is the one who smites or burns. He was also a god of war. His influence is detectable in the portrayal of Apollo in the Illiad (1.42-55). Ancients were aware of this connection and Greek authors of the classical period often refer to Resheph as, for example, Phoenician Apollo. He is one of the gods called to bear witness to the treaty between Hannibal and Philip of Macedonia because they considered him shared.
Resheph appears, by name, repeatedly in the text of the Old Testament where he is portrayed as a demonic figure unleashed by Yahweh the God of Israel as a form of judgment. So, for example, in the pronunciation of curses in Deuteronomy 32:23-24, Yahweh says, “I will pile evils upon them, my arrows will I exhaust on them. They will be wasted with hunger. They will be devoured by Resheph and Qeteb the poisonous.” Psalm 78/77:48 describes the seventh plague on Egypt during Israel’s deliverance as Yahweh having, “given up the cattle to hail and the herds to the Reshephs.” Habakkuk 3:5 describes Yahweh coming to render judgment as having Deber, a Canaanite god associated with epidemics going before him and Resheph following behind.
Some may be inclined to interpret these texts purely within the vein of polytheism, with these beings serving in the retinue of Yahweh rather than Mot in Canaan or Marduk in Babylon. However, the continued enmity between Yahweh and Resheph is also described in several texts. So in Psalm 76/75:4, Yahweh shatters “the Reshephs of the bow” as well as “the shield, the sword and the weapons of war.” The plagues and pestilence issued forth from the arrows of Resheph are something from which Yahweh delivers his people, as the “sons of Resheph” which fly high and afflict Job (5:7) or the “arrows that fly” amidst a litany of demonic powers enumerated in Psalm 91/90 (v. 5). Though there is nothing in St. John’s description that mentions plague, pestilence, or disease, the traditional identification of this horseman as Pestilence reflects the preserved memory of his identity as Resheph.
Within the Hebrew Bible, there are three feared causes of death. These personified as demonic spirits associated with pagan gods. Resheph, pestilence is the first and the second and third horsemen complete that triumvirate of deities feeding Mot and Sheol. The second horseman rides upon a red horse takes peace from the earth and leads humanity to slay one another. He is best identified, however, by the ‘great sword’ which he is given. “The Sword” as an entity is one of the ways in which the Hebrew Bible speaks of violence and bloodshed. The other is the word “Blood,” generally in the plural, “Damim” in Hebrew. This speaks of a demonic being responsible for violent death, including murder, war, and other bloodshed.
“The Sword” as an entity is described often as one which Yahweh threatens to unleash in judgment (Ex 5:8; 22:24; Lev 26:7-8, 25; Num 14:43; 20:18; Deut 28:22; 32:25; 2 Sam 2:26; 11:25; 12:10; 18:8; Ezra 9:7; Job 5:15, 20, 22, 29; 27:14; 39:22; Ps 22:20; 37:15; 63:10; 76:3; 78:62, 64; 144:10; Is 1:20; 31:8; 37:7). The language of “the sword devouring,” which action is also generally ascribed to Mot and Sheol, is common. Likewise, “Bloodshed” is depicted as a force of vengeance upon those who have shed blood themselves. This idea of an avenging demon runs parallel to the Greek conception of the furies who descend upon those guilty of crimes of blood to drag them to Hades. Likely the most famous example of this is David’s prayer to be delivered from ‘Bloodshed’ in Psalm 51/50 (v. 14). This imagery is also seen in Abel’s blood crying out from the ground for vengeance (Gen 4:10-11). Joseph’s brothers express concern about this potential vengeance after harming their brother (Gen 37:22-26). In the context of Revelation 6, this is represented by the cries of the martyrs after the opening of the fifth seal (v. 10). These martyrs had been “slain,” the same verb used of the activity of the second horseman. This understanding, further, is why sin offerings of the old covenant were often described as being a ransom for the life of a party guilty of blood and therefore Christ’s self-offering as a “ransom” (eg. Matt 20:28; 1 Tim 2:6).
The third horseman comes forth with scales, with a balance. The cry which accompanies his arrival describes a shortage of food, a famine (Rev 6:6). The terms in which this famine is described are important to the nature of justice in St. John’s vision. Famine in the ancient world had its most devastating effects on subsistence farmers, on the extremely poor. St. John’s vision, however, describes famine here unleashed as a judgment in terms related to commerce. Meaning, this is a judgment coming against the cities, the civilization, the wealthy, and the rulers of the world. The poor have already gone hungry and been deprived by the wicked. This judgment brings justice in the rebalancing of those scales.
Famine, again personified as a deity, “Ra’av.” Ra’av is the third deity in the retinue of Mot who feeds him and Sheol those whom he devours. Jeremiah, in particular, frequently speaks of Ra’av and “the Sword” being unleashed in judgment as a pair. In a few cases, he also includes pestilence as the third (Jer 2:30; 4:10; 5:12; 9:16; 14:12-16; 15:2-3; 16:4; 21:7-9; 24:10; 25:16, 27-29; 32:24-26; 42:16-22; 44:12-18). Zechariah portrays these three figures and death as charioteers, a foreshadowing of St. John’s vision (Zech 6:1-8). Here again, however, the prophet portrays these three beings as being set loose by Yahweh the God of Israel to enact his judgment. Mot does not seem to have been the subject of direct worship in the Ancient Near East. Resheph, Ra’av, and various spirits of bloodshed and vengeance, however, were objects of worship, or at least of sacrificial appeasement. Sacrificial offerings were offered to placate these spirits and keep them at bay. Charms, amulets, bowl inscriptions, and various other forms of magic were used to ward them off. They were seen to be lurking in the world and constantly threatening the people of the nations. Jeremiah’s enslavement of them to Yahweh, despite their demonic status as spirits of evil, turns this on its head. They, in and of themselves, are not worthy of fear because they are controlled. They are likewise not worthy of worship or appeasement. Rather, it is Yahweh, God Most High, who ought be worshipped as the one who can deliver humanity from all of these hostile powers. When these powers afflict humanity, it is repentance before the God of Israel which will bring relief and healing, restoring justice.
In our contemporary world, much ink has been spilled on the subject of theodicy. This is, literally, the attempt to justify God. The presuppositions behind this entire discussion are founded on a loss of the understanding of the Scriptures described above. There are seen to be two kinds of evil in the world. The first originates in man and his decisions to do evil. The second is sometimes called “natural evil.” It includes things like disease epidemics and natural disasters. The former have a human agent. The latter is seen to be the product of essentially random chains of material cause and effect. In both cases, it is objected that God ought to do something to stop both of these or to disallow them entirely. This presupposes that God stands away and apart from the created order. It assumes that the only conscious agents in the created order are humans. It assumes that creation other than humanity operates on purely material principles. All three of these presuppositions are false.
Rather, God is intimately involved in the created order. His grace, his working in the world, permeates the entirety of the creation which he is transfiguring and bringing to perfection. Sin came into existence through evil spiritual powers that have rebelled against their creator. Human persons who join in their rebellion mediate their evil into the created order as humanity was created to mediate between the invisible and visible creations. That humanity is not irredeemably demoniac and damned living in a creation transformed into a literal hell on earth is purely the gracious work of God. God has done all that he has done, preeminently the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension in glory of Jesus Christ, in order to redeem the created order and humanity in particular. He has given us this life for repentance. He makes use of the rebellious spiritual powers which hate him in order to bring about the repentance, healing, and restoration of human persons. It is for this reason that he handed all of humanity over to death (Gen 3:2-23). It is to restrain man’s evil that his life is foreshortened (Gen 6:3). As in the book of Job and all the passages here cited, he gives the powers of evil limited leash to afflict the unrighteous in order to bring them to repentance. The Apocalypse describes how, in the last days of the last days, as part of the final judgment, all of these forces are unleashed fully. The sinful angels of the days of Noah and their spawn are set free from the Abyss (Rev 9:1-12). The Devil himself is set free from the chains with which Christ bound him at the harrowing of Hades (Rev 20:7-8). The four horsemen ride forth to the four corners of the earth (Rev 6:1-8).
The means through which God has chosen to restrain these powers is prayer, specifically the intercessory prayers of his people. In the old covenant, this took the form of Israel as a kingdom of priests and the sacrificial and festal worship of the tabernacle and temple. In the new covenant, this takes the form of the Church as a royal priesthood and her life of prayer, most especially the prayers accompanying the sacrifice of the Eucharist. It is these prayers that preserve the world, transforming and illuminating it. It is these prayers that bring human persons to salvation. It is these prayers that restrain, protect, and preserve the world from the threat of Pestilence, Violence, Famine, and Death.