In Revelation 6:5-6 we find the narrative of the opening of the third seal in the general context of the signs that point to and bring the coming of the end of all things. The content of that seal is a rider upon a black horse, which rider holds in his hand a pair of balances or measuring scales. In interpretation of this black horse and rider we are told in verse 6, “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.”
If we interpret this seal in the light of Scripture, then we find that the black horse is symbolic of famine that shall occur in the last times, along with the hardship and suffering and death that accompany famine. This famine, however, is pictured not as universal, but as selective, as seen from the idea of the balances as interpreted in verse 6. Not all people upon the earth shall be affected by the shortage of food, but only certain ones, for the black horse and rider will carefully mete out famine and plenty as with a very precise and accurate scale. Those who are touched by the famine are the poor of the earth, the common people, for a measure of wheat and three measures of barley will sell for a penny. A penny represents the wages of one man for one day, his livelihood, and a measure of wheat or three measures of barley represent the amount of food necessary to sustain a bare existence. The meaning is therefore that the famine is of such a kind that it requires the full resources of a man just to acquire his daily bread. There is no extra food, but only that which affords subsistence; nor is there money left over for the purchase of more food or other goods. Man is just barely able to scratch out an existence, living from hand to mouth. In sharp contrast to such a life, the oil and wine must not be touched or affected in any way. Oil and wine are symbols of luxury, of the finer things of life, of wealth and great plenty, of feasting and high living. The meaning is clearly that the rich are not to be touched by this famine, but must be allowed to continue their lives of plenty. (We cannot help but be reminded of the rich man spoken of in Psalm 73). The overall picture, then, is one of great contrast between untold wealth and abject poverty, of the infinite gulf between the have and the have-nots.
All of this is meant by way of explanation of the title of this article. You will probably recognize it as the first half of a popular saying or proverb of today, the other half of which is, “and the poor get poorer.” These words are often spoken by way of complaint by the workingman to his fellows as he contemplates his position in relation to those who are wealthy. It seems that the common people cannot “get ahead,” and sometimes cannot even keep up or stay even with the cost of living, while such matters as daily bread are insignificant trivialities to the rich. Surely these words are not meant as an expression of a Scriptural truth, but as the lament of discontent with life. Occasionally Christians are even heard to say these words in the spirit of discontent or mild rebellion. This should not be, of course, but sometimes it is so. But although this little saying is not meant to express a truth of the Scriptures concerning the end times, the fact is that it is precisely accurate, for this is exactly the teaching of the third seal of Revelation 6.
The contrast described in the third seal was forcefully illustrated in the September 12, 1977 issue of TIMEmagazine. One article described the bumper crop that is even now being harvested in the U.S.A. American farmers are reaping about 2 billion bushels of wheat, 6 billion bushels of corn, and almost 2 billion bushels of soybeans. And this is the third year in a row of bumper crops in some areas, so that there is no room to store the crops, and so that there is a drastic drop in prices, according to the laws of supply and demand. The article went on to mention the economic implications of this oversupply for this country (the irony of it all is that many farmers have produced so much but are receiving so little for their products that they are being forced out of business by rising production costs). But all of this is not of concern here. Rather, consider the simple fact of abundance: billions of bushels of grain,millions too many, grain piled on the ground, even on main streets of small rural towns. There is so much food right now that we do not know what to do with it all!
In the same issue of TIME was another article on the creeping deserts in many parts of the earth. The article described the recent advance of deserts into previously fertile or semi-fertile areas because of poor land management practices and over-population in semi-arid areas. The results of all of this have been tragic, resulting in much suffering and poverty, and even death in some African nations. In 1974 alone more than 100,000 people perished from famine just in the southern Sahara region. And there are many more places on the earth that are nearly as bad. There are literally millions of people who live from hand to mouth, and when there is any unusual drought, they die by the thousands. They are able to get a measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny, but they get nothing when there is no food.
All of this illustrates that the matter of the division between rich and poor is not only an individual thing. It is true, of course, that within almost any nation there is this stark contrast between the few wealthy and the masses of the poor. But this is true also on a national level, so that some nations wallow in superabundance while others have their very existence threatened by lack of daily bread. And to see both extreme riches and extreme poverty at the same time, and written about in one issue of a news magazine is striking indeed. Surely we may draw from all of this the conclusion that the contrast between nations serves only to highlight the internal contrasts within nations, for the running of the black horse is a worldwide phenomenon.
All of this is most significant for the people of God today. We are able to see the signs of the times exemplified in the running of the black horse, and then we know that the end is near. And the more the black horse becomes evident, the nearer is the end. But if we say only that the contrast between riches and poverty is a sign or indication of the coming of the end of all things, then we have missed a very important point. The book of Revelation teaches us that this sign, along with the others detailed in Scripture, actually cause or bring the end as well. The church is saved in .the way of all sorts of calamities; Zion is redeemed through judgment, so that the same judgments that bring ruin and destruction upon the world and the wicked are the means of the salvation of the church. Moreover, the signs in their causative function also increase in intensity as the end becomes closer. The truth is, then, not only that the manifestations of these signs become more visible, but also that more and more clearly they cause the end to approach.
This may be understood if we pause to consider the implications of the running and work of the black horse and his rider in the earth. What is produced in the world is social difference, class structure, the basic difference between rich and poor, all due to economic differences. Moreover, the result is inevitably social chaos wherever the black horse goes; sometimes this takes the form of internal trouble or revolution in nations, sometimes this takes the form of nation rising against nation, which is in itself a sign of the end. All of this has always taken place to a certain extent; that is the nature of the signs, for they do not concern unusual or new phenomena, but things that are considered normal and usual, but which have great significance and which increase in intensity. There has thus always been the difference in the social structure of the peoples of the earth, but that distinction is becoming more and more pronounced in our world, and will continue to grow.
In this light we are able to understand the sign of the black horse. It is perhaps true that objectively the famines and difference of social class are not increasing in frequency or even in severity. But surely it is true that the black horse is much more visible than in former times even from the viewpoint of the publicity and knowledge regarding famines and social upheavals, due to the modern communications media. And it is also true that the contrasts of plenty and famine are increasing in their significance for the world as a whole. Marshall McLuhan has observed that we live today in a “global community.” No longer are nations isolated from each other, but their economies, governments, and futures are closely intertwined with one another. Though perhaps it is not possible to point out or prove the exact implications of the present contrast in food supplies, we may be sure in the light of Scripture that they are there. When we put all of this into the context of the rise of antichrist and the eventual unity of the entire world under his wicked rule, and when we remember that this world order shall not be permanent but will end at the battle of Armageddon, then these events take on significance for us. We must know the testimony of Scripture so that we can see these signs in their manifestation. And we must believe that God in His sovereignty controls all these things, and that, notwithstanding all efforts of men, He uses social differences and calamities for the coming of His kingdom, and will continue to do that even up to the very end. It will be interesting to follow the progress of this social situation, to observe man’s efforts to remedy it, as well as God’s direction and use of this phenomenon. Our calling is then to be aware of this sign, and to put our trust in God, believing that He will use it for our salvation in the coming of the kingdom of Christ.