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REVELATION OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE - Chapter 6 - Verse 5

Verses 5, 6. And when he had opened the third seal. Unfolding another portion of the volume. See Barnes "Re 5:1".

 

I heard the third beast say, Come and see. See Barnes on "Re 4:7".

It is not apparent why the third beast is represented as taking a particular interest in the opening of this seal, (See Barnes on "Re 6:3") nor is it necessary to show why it was so. The general design seems to have been, to represent each one of the four living creatures as interested in the opening of the seals, but the order in which they did this does not seem to be a matter of importance.

And I beheld, and lo, a black horse. The specifications of the symbol here are the following:

(a) As before, the horse.

(b) The colour of the horse: lo, a black horse. This would properly denote distress and calamity—for black has been regarded always as such a symbol. So Virgil speaks of fear as black: "atrumque timorem."—AEn, ix. 619. So again, Georg. iv. 468:

"Caligantem nigra formidine Iucum."

So, as applied to the dying Acca, AEn. xii. 823:

"Tenebris nigrescunt omnia circum."

Black, in the Scriptures, is the image of fear, of famine, of death. La 5:10: "Our skin was black like an oven, because of the terrible famine." Jer 14:2: "Because of the drought Judah mourneth, and tile gates thereof languish; they are in deep mourning [literally, black] for the land." Joel 2:6: "All faces shall gather blackness." Na 2:10: "The knees smite together, and there is great pain in all loins, and the faces of them all gather blackness." Compare Re 6:12; Eze 32:7. See also Bochart, Hieroz. P. i. lib. ii. c. vii. pp. 106, 107. From the colour of the horse here introduced, we should naturally look for some dire calamity, though the nature of the calamity would not be designated by the mere use of the word black. What the calamity was to be, must be determined by what follows in the symbol. Famine, pestilence, oppression, heavy taxation, tyranny, invasion—any of these might be denoted by the colour of the horse.

(c) The balances: and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. The original word, here rendered a pair of balances, is zugon. This word properly means a yoke, serving to couple anything together, as a yoke for cattle. Hence it is used to denote the beam of a balance, or of a pair of scales—and is evidently so used here. The idea is, that something was to be weighed, in order to ascertain either its quantity or its value. Scales or balances are the emblems of justice or equity, (compare Job 31:6; Ps 62:9; Pr 11:1; 16:11) and when joined with symbols that denote the sale of corn and fruit by weight, become the symbol of scarcity. Thus "bread by weight" (Le 26:26) denotes scarcity. So in Eze 4:16, "And they shall eat bread by weight." The use of balances here as a symbol would signify that something was to be accurately and carefully weighed out. The connexion leads us to suppose that this would appertain to the necessaries of life, and that it would occur either in consequence of scarcity, or because there would be an accurate or severe exaction, as in collecting a revenue on these articles. The balance was commonly the symbol of equity and justice; but it was also, sometimes, the symbol of exaction and oppression, as in Ho 12:7: "The balance of deceit is in his hands: he loveth to oppress." If the balances stood alone, and there were no proclamation as to what was to occur, we should look, under this seal, to a time of the exact administration of justice, as scales or balances are now used as emblems of the rigid application of the laws and of the principles of justice in courts, or in public affairs. If this representation stood alone, or if the black horse and the scales constituted the whole of the symbol, we should look for some severe administration, or perhaps some heavy calamity under a rigorous administration of laws. The reference, however, to the "wheat and barley," and to the price for which they were to be weighed out, serves still further to limit and define the meaning of the symbol as having reference to the necessaries of life—to the productions of the land—to the actual capital of the country. Whether this refers to scarcity, or to taxation, or both, must be determined by the other parts of the symbol.

(d) The proclamation: And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say. That is, from the throne, Re 4:6. The voice was not that of one of the four beasts, but it seemed to come from among them. As the rider went forth, this was the proclamation that was made in regard to him; or this is that which is symbolized in his going forth, to wit, that there would be such a state of things that a measure of wheat would be sold for a penny, etc. The proclamation consists essentially of two things—that which refers to the price or value of wheat and barley, and that which requires that care shall be taken not to injure the oil and the wine. Each of these demands explanation.

A measure of wheat for a penny. See Re 9:4. The word rendered measurecoinix, choenix—denotes an Attic measure for grain and things dry, equal to the forty-eighth part of the Attic medimnus, or the eighth part of the Roman modius, and consequently was nearly equivalent to one quart English.—Rob. Lex. The word rendered penny, dhnarion—Lat. denarius—was of the same value as the Greek dracmh, drachme, and was equivalent to about fourteen cents of our money. This was the usual price of a day's labour, Mt 20:2,9. The choenix, or measure of grain here referred to, was the ordinary daily allowance for one man.—Odyss. xix. 27, 28. See Stuart, in loc. The common price of the Attic medimnus of wheat was five or six denarii; but here, as that contained forty-eight choenixes, or quarts, the price would be augmented to forty-eight denarii—or it would be about eight times as dear as ordinary; that is, there would be a scarcity or famine. The price of a bushel of wheat at this rate would be about four dollars and a half of our money—a price which would indicate great scarcity, and which would give rise to much distress.

And three measures of barley for a penny. It would seem from this that barley usually bore about one-third the price of wheat. It was a less valuable grain, and perhaps was produced in greater abundance. This is not far from the proportion which the price of this grain usually bears to that of wheat, and here, as in the case of the wheat, the thing which would be indicated would be scarcity. This proclamation of "a measure of wheat for a penny" was heard either as addressed to the horseman, as a rule of action for him, or as addressed by the horseman as he went forth. If the former is the meaning, it would be an appropriate address to one who was going forth to collect tribute— with reference to the exact manner in which this tribute was to be collected, implying some sort of severity of exaction; or to one who should distribute wheat and barley out of the public granaries at an advanced price, indicating scarcity. Thus it would mean that a severe and heavy tax—represented by the scales and the scarcity—or a tax so severe as to make grain dear, was referred to. If the latter is the meaning, then the idea is that there would be a scarcity, and that grain would be dealt out by the government at a high and oppressive price. The latter idea would be as consonant with the symbol of the scales and the price mentioned as the other, if it were not for the additional injunction not to "hurt the oil and the wine"—which cannot be well applied to the idea of dealing out grain at a high price. It can, however, be connected, by a fair interpretation of that passage, with such a severity of taxation that there would be a propriety in such a command— for, as we shall see, under the explanation of that phrase, such a law was actually promulgated as resulting from severity of taxation. The idea, then, in the passage before us would seem to be,

(a) that there would be a rigid administration of the law in regard to the matter under consideration—that pertaining to the productions of the earth—represented by the balances; and

(b) that that would be connected with general scarcity, or such an exercise of this power as to determine the price of grain, so that the price would be some three times greater than ordinary.

And see that thou hurt not the oil and the wine. There has been a great variety of interpretations proposed of this passage, and it is by no means easy to determine the true sense. The first inquiry in regard to it is, to whom is it addressed? Perhaps the most common impression on reading it would be, that it is addressed to the horseman with the balances, commanding him not to injure the oliveyards and the vineyards. But this is not probably the correct view. It does not appear that the horseman goes forth to destroy anything, or that the effect of his going forth is directly to injure anything. This, therefore, should not be understood as addressed to the horseman, but should be regarded as a general command to any and all not to injure the oliveyards and vineyards; that is, an order that nothing should be done essentially to injure them. If thus regarded as addressed to others, a fair and congruous meaning would be furnished by either of the following interpretations:—either

(a) considered as addressed to those who were disposed to be prodigal in their manner of living, or careless as to the destruction of the crop of the oil and wine, as they would now be needed; or

(b) as addressed to those who raised such productions, on the supposition that they would be taxed heavily, or that large quantities of these productions would be extorted for revenue, that they should not mutilate their fruit-trees in order to evade the taxes imposed by the government. In regard to the things specified here—oil and wine—it may be remarked, that they were hardly considered as articles of luxury in ancient times. They were almost as necessary articles as wheat and barley. They constituted a considerable part of the food and drink of the people, as well as furnished a large portion of the revenue, and it would seem to be with reference to that fact that the command here is given that they should not be injured; that is, that nothing should be done to diminish the quantity of oil and wine, or to impair the productive power of oliveyards and vineyards. The state of things thus described by this seal, as thus interpreted, would be,

(a) a rigid administration of the laws of the empire, particularly in reference to taxation, producing a scarcity among the necessary articles of living;

(b) a strong tendency, from the severity of the taxation, to mutilate such kinds of property, with a view either of concealing the real amount of property, or of diminishing the amount of taxes; and

(c) a solemn command from some authoritative quarter not to do this. A command from the ruling power not to do this would meet all that would be fairly demanded in the interpretation of the passage; and what is necessary in its application, is to find such a state of things as would correspond with these predictions; that is, such as a writer would have described by such symbols on the supposition that they were referred to.

Now, it so happens that there were important events which occurred in the Roman empire, and connected with its decline and fall, of sufficient importance to be noticed in a series of calamitous events, which corresponded with the symbol here, as above explained. They were such as these:

(a) The general severity of taxation, or the oppressive burdens laid on the people by the emperors. In the account which Mr. Gibbon gives of the operation of the Indictions, and Superindictions, though the specific laws on this subject pertained to a subsequent period, the general nature of the taxation of the empire and its oppressive character may be seem—Decline and Fall, i. 357-359. A general estimate of the amount of revenue to be exacted was made out, and the collecting of this was committed to the Pretorian prefects, and to a great number of subordinate officers. "The lands were measured by surveyors who were sent into the provinces; their nature, whether arable, or pasture, or woods, was distinctly reported; and an estimate made of their common value, from the average produce of five years. The number of slaves and of cattle constituted an essential part of the report; an oath was administered to the proprietors which bound them to disclose the true state of their affairs; and their attempts to prevaricate or elude the intention of the legislature were severely watched, and punished as a capital crime, which included the double guilt of treason and of sacrilege. According to the different nature of lands, their real produce in the various articles of wine or oil, corn or barley, wood or iron, was transported by the labour or at the expense of the provincials to the imperial magazines, from whence they were occasionally distributed for the use of the court or of tile army, and of the two capitals, Rome and Constantinople," i.p. 358. Comp. Lactant. de Mort. Persecut. c. 23.

(b) The particular order, under this oppressive system of taxation, respecting the preservation of vineyards and oliveyards, may be referred to, also, as corresponding to the command sent forth under this rider, not to "hurt the oil and the wine." That order was in the following words: "If any one shall sacrilegiously cut a vine, or stint the fruit of prolific boughs, and craftily feign poverty in order to avoid a fair assessment, he shall immediately on detection suffer death, and his property be confiscated."—Cod. Theod. 1. xiii. lib. xi. seq.; Gibbon, i. 358, note. Mr. Gibbon remarks, "Although this law is not without its studied obscurity, it is, however, clear enough to prove the minuteness of the inquisition and the disproportion of the penalty."

(c) Under this general subject of the severity of taxation—as a fact far-spreading and oppressive, and as so important as to hasten the downfall of the empire, may be noticed a distinct edict of Caracalla as occurring more directly in the period in which the rider with the balances may be supposed to have gone forth. This is stated by Mr. Gibbon, (i. 91,) as one of the important causes which contributed to the downfall of the empire. "The personal characters of the emperors, their victories, laws, and fortunes," says he, "can interest us no farther than they are connected with the general history of the decline and fall of the monarchy. Our constant attention to that object will not suffer us to overlook a most important edict of Antoninus Caracalla, which communicated to all the free inhabitants of the empire the name and privileges of Roman citizens. His unbounded liberality flowed not, however, from the sentiments of a generous mind: it was the sordid result of avarice," etc. He then proceeds, at length, to state the nature and operations of that law, by which a heavy tax, under the pretence of liberality, was in fact imposed on all the citizens of the empire—a fact which, in its ultimate results, the historian of the Decline and Fall regards as so closely connected with the termination of the empire. See Gibbon, i. pp. 91-95. After noticing the laws of Augustus, Nero, and the Antonines, and the real privileges conferred by them on those who became entitled to the rank of Roman citizens—privileges which were a compensation in the honour, dignity, and offices of that rank for the measure of taxation which it involved, he proceeds to notice the fact that the title of "Roman citizen" was conferred by Caracalla on all the free citizens of the empire, involving the subjection to all the heavy taxes usually imposed on those who sustained the rank expressed by the title, but with nothing of the compensation connected with the title when it was confined to the inhabitants of Italy. "But the favour," says he, "which implied a distinction, was lost in the prodigality of Caracalla, and the reluctant provincials were compelled to assume the vain title, and the real obligations, of Roman citizens. Nor was the rapacious son of Severus [Caracalla] contented with such a measure of taxation as had appeared sufficient to his moderate predecessors. Instead of a twentieth, he exacted a tenth of all legacies and inheritances; and during his reign he crushed alike every part of the empire under the weight of his iron sceptre," i. 95. So again, (ibid.,) speaking of the taxes which had been lightened somewhat by Alexander, Mr. Gibbon remarks, "It is impossible to conjecture the motive that engaged him to spare so trifling a remnant of the soil; but the noxious weed, which find not been totally eradicated, again sprung up with the most luxuriant growth, and in the succeeding age darkened the Roman world with its deadly shade. In the course of this history, we shall be too often summoned to explain the land-tax, the capitation, and the heavy contributions of corn, wine, oil, and meat, which were exacted of the province for the use of the court, the army, and the capital." In reference to this whole matter of taxation as being one of the things which contributed to the downfall of the empire, and which spread woe through the falling empire—a woe worthy to be illustrated by one of the seals—a confirmation may be derived from the reign of Galerius, who, as Caesar, acted under the authority of Diocletian; who excited Diocletian to the work of persecution, (Decline and Fall, i. 317, 318;) and who, on the abdication of Diocletian, assumed the title of Augustus.- Decline and Fall, i. 222. Of his administration in general, Mr. Gibbon (i. 226) remarks: "About that time, the avarice of Galerius, or perhaps the exigencies of the state, had induced him to make a very strict and rigorous inquisition into the property of his subjects for the purpose of a general taxation, both on their lands and on their persons. A very minute survey appears to have been taken of their real estates; and wherever there was the slightest concealment, torture was very freely employed to obtain a sincere declaration of their real wealth." Of the nature of this exaction under Galerius; of the cruelty with which the measure was prosecuted—particularly in its bearing on Christians, towards whom Galerius cherished a mortal enmity, (Decline and Fall, i. 317;) and of the extent and severity of the suffering among Christians and others, caused by it, the following account of Lactantius (De Mort. Persecut. c. 23) will furnish a painful but most appropriate illustration:—"Swarms of exactors sent into the provinces and cities filled them with agitation and terror, as though a conquering enemy were leading them into captivity. The fields were separately measured, the trees and vines, the flocks and herds numbered, and an examination made of the men. In the cities, the cultivated and rude were united as of the same rank. The streets were crowded with groups of families, and every one required to appear with his children and slaves. Tortures and lashes resounded on every side. Sons were gibbeted in the presence of their parents, and the most confidential servants harassed that they might make disclosures against their masters, and wives that they might testify unfavourably of their husbands. If there were a total destitution of property, they were still tortured to make acknowledgments against themselves, and, when overcome by pain, inscribed for what they did not possess. Neither age nor ill-health was admitted as an excuse for not appearing. The sick and weak were borne to the place of inscription, a reckoning made of the age of each, and years added to the young and deducted from the old, in order to subject them to a higher taxation than the law imposed. The whole scene was filled with wailing and sadness. In the mean time individuals died, and the herds and the flocks diminished, yet tribute was none the less required to be paid for the dead, so that it was no longer allowed either to live or die without a tax. Mendicants alone escaped, where nothing could be wrenched, and whom misfortune and misery had made incapable of farther oppression. These the impious wretch affecting to pity, that they might not suffer want, ordered to be assembled, borne off in vessels, and plunged into the sea." See Lord on the Apoc. pp. 128, 129. These facts in regard to the severity of taxation, and the rigid nature of the law enforcing it; to the sources of the revenue exacted in the provinces, and to the care that none of those sources should be diminished; and to the actual and undoubted bearing of all this on the decline and fall of the empire, are so strikingly applicable to the symbol here employed, that if it be supposed that it was intended to refer to them, no more natural or expressive symbol could have been used; if it were supposed that the historian meant to make a record of the fulfilment, he could not well have made a search which would more strikingly accord with the symbol. Were we now to represent these things by a symbol, we could scarcely find one that would be more expressive than that of a rider on a black horse with a pair of scales, sent forth under a proclamation which indicated that there would be a most rigid and exact administration of severe and oppressive laws, and with a special command, addressed to the people, not for the purposes of concealment, or from opposition to the government, to injure the sources of revenue.

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