I have talked a bit about how apocalyptic literature should be read in the past. In an earlier post I argued apocalyptic should be read along the lines of a political cartoon from another culture and time. This means the interpreter needs to know the both the literary and historical background that sheds light on the metaphorical language in Revelation. This requires both some knowledge of the Hebrew Bible as well as other Second Temple apocalypses. The literature and history of the Greco-Roman world may also have some bearing on how a particular image would have been understood by John’s readers. The opening of the seven seals in Revelation 6 is a good opportunity to “test” the method.
Of the four horsemen, the identity of this rider is the most debated. In fact, there is not really any discussion of the meaning of the sword, famine and pestilence! A first option is that the rider is the Roman Empire/emperor or general triumphant warfare in the Roman period. The color of the horse is important since white is often associated with victory. Roman emperors, for example, rode in white when they celebrated victory.
A second and more common suggestion is that the image represents the conquest of the gospel in the present age. Those who read Revelation as an idealist note that the preaching of the gospel continues throughout the present age. In 19:11-16 Christ is the rider of a white horse at the time of his second coming, also wearing a crown. But the color is often associated with righteousness, especially in the book of Revelation. White robes are promised in the letters to the seven churches and the martyrs in chapter 6, even the martyrs in chapter 5 might be said to be “victorious” because they have overcome. When the Lord returns in Rev 19 he is wearing a white robe. Christ’s righteousness and spiritual victory are often associated with white clothing in Rev 1:14, 2:17, 3:4-5, etc.
If Christ is who the horse represents, it is usually observed that Jesus predicted that the gospel would be preached throughout the whole world before he returns, this horse would represent that predication being fulfilled. The white rider is the progress of the gospel going out to the nations throughout the present age. This is parallel to the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13:10) implies the gospel will be heard throughout the world prior to the return of the Messiah.
A third possibility is that the white horse is a parody of Christ in 19:10-16, he is a “false messiah,” he is “anti-Christ.” If the rider is the antichrist, he is “bent on conquest” from the beginning of the tribulation. Several contrasts with the white rider in chapter 19 can be noted, for example, in 19:10-16 the name of the rider is “Faithful and True.” In Rev 6:1-2 the rider is given the power to judge and make war. The crowns are different: in chapter 6 the rider wears a στέφανος, while in 19:12 the rider has “many crown” (διάδημα). Even the weapons are different, in 6:2 the rider is given a bow (τόξον) but in 19:14 the sword is a ῥομφαία, a broad sword. Since this sword “comes out of his mouth” it likely refers to the word of God. A bow is more naturally a symbol of an enemy, connected to the enemies of God rather than the presentation of the gospel. Ezekiel 39:3, for example, associates the bow with one of the ultimate enemies of God lead by Gog (cf. Psalm 11:2, 37:14, 46:9, 78:57, Hosea 7:17). The first horseman being the Anti-Christ could also fit well with the Olivet discourse since military conquests are associated with the nearness of the end, as are the presence of false-Christs. The word in Matthew, however, is pseudeo-christ not anti-christ.
If John’s primary “image set” is the Hebrew Bible, then the crown/bow seems to lean toward the white rider as an enemy of God, and the context of the following seals seems to confirm that the activity of this rider is not the gospel going out to the nations. If the second through the sixth seal parallel the Olivet discourse, then perhaps it is best to see the first seal as a parallel as well. This leaves two options, the victory of the gospel and the progression of the anti-Christ. Since the context of the second through fourth seal is not the verse about the gospel, but rather the appearance of false messiahs, it is best to conclude the white horse is a parody of the Messiah. This position has the advantage of being based on exegetical considerations (i.e. the context of the Olivet Discourse) as well as “compatible” with either a-mil or pre-mil positions as well as an idealist or futurist position.