The fourth horse of Revelation 6 is pale and sickly; a deadly shade of green. It brings pestilence and death on the earth.

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 (Rev 6:7,8).

The horseman is called "Death", but this is probably not a good translation. The Greek word is "Thanatos". This word does mean death, but in the Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint) it is used more than thirty times to translate the Hebrew word for "pestilence" (deber).

"Pestilence" is probably a better translation of "thanatos" in this context. This horseman is a symbol of deadly disease spreading over the earth. John saw something like the bubonic plague (black death), which spread to Europe in the 14th century and decimated the population. During 1348-9 over a third of the population of England succumbed to this disease.

This horseman was called Pestilence, and Hades follows him. This suggests that those who have rejected the gospel and are destined to Hades will be more vulnerable to this pestilence.

This horseman was given power to kill people by what appears to be four methods. The construction of the greek text is interesting.

en rhomphaia kai en limos kai en thanatos kai hupo ho therion ho ge

The literal translation of this expression is:

in sword and in famine and in death and by the animals of the earth

The preposition used for the first three methods is "en", which is usually translated as "in", but sometimes as "by". The preposition for the fourth noun is "upo" meaning "by". The fourth noun is in the genitive form, whereas the first three are dative. This suggests that the last two nouns are not a description of two different methods, but should be linked together.

Combining these two nouns gives "pestilence by wild animals". This suggests a virus that affects animals, but has mutated into a pestilence that could affect many humans. "Pestilence by animals from the earth" could be a description of a pandemic caused by a virus that mixes genetic material from humans and animals, eg a virulent form of bird flu.

The fourth horseman uses a sword. The Greek word is "romphaia". It was a large a sabre or broad sword designed for attack in an offensive war. This sword could be a symbol of death, but that seems to be superfluous in the context. The sword is also a symbol of "state power" and this one is large. John seems to be suggesting that the events released with this horseman will lead to an increase in state power. John might also be suggesting that the pestilence will be exacerbated by state intervention. For example, inappropriate use of anti-viral drugs and quarantines might cause the virus to mutate to a more serious form that does greater harm.

According to Zechariah 6:6, the pale horse travels to the south. He also says that the horseman was given power over a third of the earth. This does not refer to the proportion of the world's population that will die, as he was not given a quarter of the earth, not a quarter of the people. When put together with Zechariah's message, this indicates that this deadly horseman will attack the southern quarter of the earth.

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