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 is a symbol of severe famine indicated by the horseman carrying a pair of scales in his hand. The scales are used for weighing bread during shortages when only a part of a loaf could be afforded by the ordinary people. Famine inevitably results in death following a war in antiquity, which in its turn creates great 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 being wiped out. The first recorded instance of famine is in Rome in BC 441. Then, between 400 and 800 AD, the population of the city of Rome falls by over 90% because of famine and plague! Nine out of every ten people die! Because of this, the color black has become a sign of death in the communities of the Roman Empire. Even today, black is the standard color for mourning. The black horse and its rider are therefore seen as the bringers of death. Even though there are famine and death all 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 still affordable by the wealthy elite.✞

Corn Wine and Oil

Wheat FieldThe three main crops in the Roman Empire are "corn, wine, and oil" and it is these three which are mentioned when the produce of the land is being described. The rider of the black horse has a pair of scales and the cross-beam of a balance is 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 so 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 price of the bread, the barley, corn, and wine. Two pounds of wheat was about 1 kilogram 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 is sold in pieces by weight in times of famine. It is a basic staple from the dough of flour, salt, and water. The idea of shortages in time of famine is reflected in Leviticus 26.26, 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 adequate bread are a great threat in those times and bring anxiety and despair.

Deeply Rooted

Olive OilPeople can, however, buy wine and oil from the fruit of the olive tree 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 is intended to mean a cereal crop and not the maze of North America." Olive trees and grapevines can, therefore, stand a much greater drought than the corn crop. When Jacob had to send down to Egypt a plea for corn in the days of the famine in Joseph's time, he is still able to 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.'" This was a situation in which 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 that the wheat flour measure is to be reduced for a day's labor. It is now not enough for an ordinary family to live on. The fact that this statement comes like "the voice from the four living creatures" emphasizes its importance in times of famine when necessities are at a premium. It shows how important the high 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 much coarser barley costs one denarius. This is a small silver Roman coin first minted in BC 211 and represented a day's wages for a workman. A denarius in the First century AD was equivalent to about $80 in today's money. Normally, one denarius buys anywhere from eight to sixteen measures of fine white wheat flour or three to four times as much of barley which was a more course and cheaper equivalent. 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, leaving nothing for any of the other necessities of life and nothing at all for his wife and family. It is a desperate situation for any working man to be in. It is a serious 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 creates a riot. The ship, however, brings no food but only sand for the gladiatorial games. Although John of Patmos is describing the black horse of famine which preceded the end, he is nevertheless also painting scenes of coming shortages of food in terms of actual historical situations that his readers could have easily recognized and which are commonplace at the time. Two pounds of wheat equals a day's wages. The equivalent in course barley is six pounds. The Greek word in the text for "a day's wages" is "a denarius."


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 cause offense, 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." A pay packet is very important for the working people in Roman society to buy food particularly wheat for bread. Wheat 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 the time of Emperor Nero, (37-68 AD) there are severe famines among the poor but the luxury of the rich and "the oil and the wine" are left untouched. The oil and wine are protected from inflation and readily available to the wealthy elite.✞

Sand from Alexandria

CrowdA good illustration of the people's desperation for food occurs when an Alexandria corn ship arrived from Puteoli in Alexandria. This is the great center for shipping for all kinds of goods from Egypt and other exotic places bound for Rome. The ships 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 main hub of the fleet, some 170 miles away in Alexandria. The starving populace in Rome thinks the ship contains food, for corn ships normally 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 Coliseum they riot. The special sand in the ship comes from the Nile Delta and is to be spread in the arena for the gladiatorial games to amuse the people. This sand has the great benefit of soaking up any blood spilled by the competitors in the games!

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, a wine edict is issued by Emperor Domitian banning the planting of any new vineyards in what is called "Roman Italy." Roman Italy is 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 which is one of the longest rules of any emperor. 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 largest territorial and administrative unit in the empire. This wine edict, as it was called, is a way of controlling taxation and production. Here, it is intended to encourage farmers to grow more cereals and comes at the very time that John of Patmos is writing from his prison cave on Patmos Island. There is at that time a very serious shortage of grain with the prospect of a severe famine but also by coincidence a time of a great abundance of wine! Revelation 6 reflects certain events concerning famine and death in John of Patmos's day. Domitian's edict, however, 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. Because of the hostile reaction, Emperor Domitian rescinds his edict and orders the opposite that those who allow their vineyards to go out of cultivation would be prosecuted. Here is the situation in which corn is scarce. Yet interference in the supply of wine from the Emperor's vineyards is forbidden and the price of wine and oil is protected.

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 opening of the fourth seal 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 filled with terror or of someone 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. See also Revelation 1.18 where 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 coming upon the earth.✞

"Black Horse Apocalypse"
by Ron Meacock © 2019

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