Black Horse Apocalypse
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31. Black Horse Apocalypse
Revelation 6.5-8

"When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come!' I looked, 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, 'Two pounds of wheat for a day's wages, and six pounds of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!' When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, 'Come!' 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." (Revelation 6.5-8)✞

Three Main Crops

Black HorseThe Revelation black horse symbolizes severe famine indicated by the horseman carrying a pair of scales in his hand. The scales weigh bread during shortages when ordinary people could afford only a part of a loaf. Famine inevitably results in death following a war in antiquity, which in its turn creates devastation. Plagues ending in death become the scourge of many areas of the ancient world and often result in half or three-quarters of the population dying. The first recorded instance of famine is in Rome in BC 441. Between 400 and 800 AD, Rome's population fell by over 90% because of hunger and plague! Nine out of every ten people died! Because of this, the colorblack has become a sign of death in Roman Empire communities. Even today, black is the standard color for mourning. The black horse and its rider are the bringers of death. Because there are famines and destruction around, wheat is short but still available but at prohibitive prices and only to the wealthy few. Wine and oil are also luxury items carefully rationed by the Roman authorities but affordable by the wealthy elite.✞

Corn Wine and Oil

Wheat FieldThe three main crops, the land's produce, in the Roman Empire are "corn, wine, and oil." The black horse rider has a pair of scales and the cross-beam of a balance in his hand. In the Old Testament, the phrase "to eat bread by weight" indicates a great scarcity of bread in society. Ezekiel 4.16 reads, "He then said to me: 'Son of man, I am about to cut off the food supply in Jerusalem. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair.'" Because it is scarce, the poor people could not afford a full loaf, but only a piece weighed on a scale. A voice from among the four living creatures dictated the bread, barley, corn, and wine price. Two pounds of wheat was about 2.205 lbs in weight. A day's wage was in Greek coinage "a denarius," and six pounds of barley was about 3 kilograms in weight. Instead of buying bread by the loaf, which would have been the norm, it was sold in pieces by weight in famine times. It is an essential staple from the dough of flour, salt, and water. Leviticus 26.26 describes the idea of shortages in time of famine, and it is the threat of God if the people are disobedient, "When I cut off your supply of bread, ten women will be able to bake your bread in one oven, and they will dole out the bread by weight. You will eat, but you will not be satisfied." It is also a warning in Ezekiel 4.16, "He then said to me, 'Son of man, I am about to cut off the food supply in Jerusalem. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair.'" Starvation and lack of good bread are a significant threat in those times and bring trepidation and consternation.

Deeply Rooted

Olive OilHowever, people can buy wine and oil from the olive tree's fruit even when there is no corn. The olive tree and the grapevine are much more deeply-rooted than corn and can reach water that corn can not. We need to note that, "Corn means a cereal crop and not the maze of North America." Olive trees and grapevines can, therefore, stand a much harsher drought than the corn crop. When Jacob had to send down to Egypt a plea for corn in Joseph's time, he can still send delicacies along with his sons. In Genesis 43.11, we read, "Then their father Israel said to them, 'If it must be, then do this, Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift — a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.'" Wine and oil and other delicacies are plentiful, but corn prohibitively expensive. The necessities of life are scarce.

Wheat Flour Measure

BarleyThe four living creatures announce a reduced wheat flour measure for a day's labor. It is now not enough to sustain an ordinary family. The fact that this statement comes like "the voice from thefour living creatures" emphasizes its importance famine when necessities are at a premium. It shows how important the price of food is to God and the people. In times of food shortage, two pounds or "about 1 kilogram" of wheat for bread or six pounds of the coarser barley costs one denarius. The denarius is a small silver Roman coin first minted in BC 211 and represented a day's wages for a workman. The Greek word in the text for "a day's wages" is "a denarius." A denarius was equivalent to about $80 in today's money. Usually, one denarius buys from eight to sixteen fine white wheat flour measures or three to four times as much of its equivalent barley. What John of Patmos in his vision is emphasizing here is that food is so expensive that a man's whole working wage is needed to buy enough just for himself. Nothing remains for any of the other necessities of life or his wife and family. It is a desperate situation for any working man. It is a severe economic challenge for the people and one which is to cause widespread famine and subsequent riots in the Roman Empire. The four living creatures in Revelation are concerned about this life or death problem for the people.

Alexandria Corn Ship

Alexandria Corn ShipThe arrival of an Alexandria corn ship in Ostia in a time of severe famine created a riot. The vessel, however, brings no food but only sand for the gladiatorial games. Although John of Patmos is describing theblack horse of famine that preceded the end, he is also painting scenes of coming shortages of food. A good illustration of the people's desperation for food occurred when an Alexandria corn ship arrived from Puteoli. Alexandria is the great center for shipping for all kinds of goods from Egypt and other exotic places bound for Rome. The vessels came to the port of Ostia for delivery to nearby Rome. Ostia is now inland and silted up, but its merchant's streets and decorated mosaic tile floors remain outside Rome. Puteoli (now "Pozzuoli") is the fleet's central hub, some 170 miles away in Alexandria. In Rome, the starving populace thinks the ship contains food, for corn ships typically come from ancient Alexandria. When the people discover that the ship's cargo is not corn but sand for spreading on the ground at the Games in the Colosseum, they riot. The unique sand comes from the Nile Delta and covers the gladiatorial games arena to amuse the people. This sand has the great benefit of soaking up any blood spilled by the competitors in the games!


Wheat FieldThe denarius is the small silver coin mentioned by Jesus to Saint Peter in payment for taxes in Matthew 17.27, "But so that we may not offend, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth, and you will find a four drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours." The fish, traditionally thought to be a tilapia, or "St. Peter's Fish," is still available on restaurant menus. A pay packet is essential for the Roman society's working people to buy food, particularly wheat, for bread. Grain and the denarius determine a family's continued existence. A scarcity means famine and death to many, and lives hang in the balance. The black horse and the scales are omens of disaster for ordinary people. The first famine in Ancient Rome is recorded in 441 BC by Livy (BC 59-17 AD), the Roman historian in the "Founding of the City 4.12." In Emperor Nero's time (37-68 AD), severe famines savage the poor, but the rich's luxuries and "the oil and the wine" remain untouched. The oil and wine are protected from inflation and readily available to the wealthy elite.✞

Emperor Domitian's Vineyards

Wheat HarvestThe wine edict concerning Emperor Domitian's vineyards adds to the scarcity of corn, barley, and wine in the Roman Empire and causes great hardship for the poor. In 92 AD, Emperor Domitian issues a wine proclamation, banning the planting of new vineyards in "Roman Italy." Roman Italy was created officially by the Roman Emperor Augustus with the Latin name "Italia," uniting the Italian Peninsula under the same name and government. Domitian (51-96 AD) is emperor from 81-96 AD, one of the most prolonged emperor rules. He is known as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. Domitian's edict orders the uprooting of half of the existing vineyards in the Roman provinces, which are the most extensive territorial and administrative units in the empire. This so-called wine edict is a way of controlling taxation and production. It encourages farmers to grow more cereals and comes when John of Patmos is writing from his prison cave on Patmos Island. The Grain is short at that time with a severe famine but also a great abundance of wine! Revelation 6 reflects certain events concerning starvation and death in John of Patmos's day. However, Domitian's edict has the opposite effect than that intended as it comes very near to causing a rebellion in the province of Asia in which John is writing. The vineyards are one of the principal sources of revenue. Emperor Domitian rescinds his law because of this hostile reaction and orders the prosecution of those who stop cultivating their vineyards. Here is the situation in which corn is scarce. Interference in the wine supply from the Emperor's vineyards is forbidden, protecting the wine and oil prices.✞

Pale Horse Apocalypse

The Pale HorseThe pale horse apocalypse of Revelation represents the coming of death, Hell, and famine and leave people white with terror. The fourth seal's opening reveals Revelation's "pale horse," the last of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." The term "Pale" represents the color of a person's face when it is filled with terror or about to die. It describes the ashen appearance of the dead and symbolizes death. The rider of the "pale horse" is the only one of the four horsemen named "Death" and "Hades." Death is himself accompanied by Hades as his companion. Hades is the equivalent to the Hebrew Sheol. In Revelation 1.18, Jesus says to John of Patmos, "I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of Death and Hades." Because of the pale horse and his rider, it is now not just a case of scarcity of food, but terrible famine and death are coming upon the earth.✞

"Black Horse Apocalypse"
by Ron Meacock © 2020

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