Revelation 6:5–11 (NKJV)
After introducing the antichrist and the executioner at the opening of seals one and two, respectively, we see the third and fourth seals opened revealing additional riders on horses, while the fifth seal is opened to reveal the plight of the souls martyred for their faith during the tribulation.
5 When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come and see.” So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. 6 And I heard 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 the wine.”Revelation 6:5-6
When the third seal is opened, a black horse appeared with a rider holding a pair of scales. The living creatures declare pricing for wheat and barley that are abnormally high, while it appears that wine and oil are available to those who have the wealth. These two commodities’ availability shows that the famine is limited, and does not signify worldwide starvation. Only some staples are in short supply, and the wealthy still seem to be able to get what they want.
There is some speculation that the relationship between the grain shortage and the oil and wine availability related to the land apportioned for each. During some plagues, vineyards were destroyed to make room for the more basic needs of grain. However, “It may be concluded that the reference to prohibiting the harming of oil and wine (olive trees and vineyards) cannot be certainly correlated with the vine edict of Domitian.”1 Such an edict was made under a Roman leader, but is not the reference point here.
For whatever reason, we see what may be a class system in place here, where only the rich are able to buy the things needed and wanted, and the poor suffer for lack of resources. There is an outside chance, though, that this represents the difference in availability to those in the good graces of the government and those outside the circle of approval. This may be a convention of the mark of the beast, which will be discussed later.
7 When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come and see.” 8 So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.Revelation 6:7-8
The pale horse is thought to have actually been a yellowish-green color, which is associated with disease and death. The green spoken of might also be a gray-green, or even the color of grass, as per many uses of the Greek word chloros. It is a color that could mimic the skin of a corpse. The rider of the horse was called Death, and it seemed Hades in some personified form, was close on his heels. According to some scholars, Death is the king and Hades is his kingdom. In this case, they are both seen as persons, going into the earth to destroy with death. Death and hell, in addition to the other riders, were unleashed on the earth, given the power to destroy over a fourth of the human population. They died from physical attack, hunger, disease, and attacks from wild beasts. While this devastation was limited in scope, it was devastating and horrific. These souls could all be identified as Great Tribulation saints, who were all martyred for their faith. They had no place to hide, and were then spoken of in the next revelation of the fifth seal. While the rapture would have taken place before the institution of the antichrist’s government, these are souls that persevered in the Great Tribulation, standing for Christ at the cost of their lives.
9 When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. 10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.Revelation 6;9-11
After the four horses and riders were identified, the attention shifts to a group of martyrs located under the altar in heaven. These were Tribulation saints who gave their lives for their faith. They did not get taken by Jesus in the rapture, but were left behind and endured torture and eventual execution for not taking the mark of the beast and standing for Christ. They cried out for justice from God for their bloodshed. They asked, “how long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood…?” They then received a white robe, and they were told to rest a little while longer, until all those who would be killed during the Tribulation for their faith joined them under the altar. These very martyrs could have been killed by one of the horsemen. Therefore, this summary of the results of the first four seals sort of puts a bow on the actions of the four horsemen. Seal five shows what happened as a result of the actions of the riders who were revealed and released at the breaking of the first four seals. From this point forward, we see very different things happening at the breaking of the remaining two seals.
1David E. Aune, Revelation 6–16, vol. 52B, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 400.