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B. W. Johnson
Vision of the Ages (1881)



The Vision of the Second Seal.--The Red Horse; Peace Taken Away.--The Era of Civil
Discord.--Commotion for Ninety-two Years.--The Gift of the Great Sword.--The Third
Seal.--The Black Horse.--The Balances.--The Seal of Want.--The Fourth Seal.--The
Pale Horse.--Death and Hades.--The Era of Death from War, Famine, Pestilence and
Wild Beasts.--Gibbon's Striking Testimony.


      And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see. And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.--6:3, 4.

      Next in order, the second seal is opened by the Lamb. Next in chronological order to the history foreshadowed by the first seal, we may expect the events of the second seal to follow. Will the reader stand with John on Patmos and behold the vision? John beheld the Lamb open the second seal of the book, and the voice of the second beast was heard to repeat the [76] command "to come and see." Immediately the first vision is replaced by a second, of a startling character. There appears in the field of view a, second horse, no longer white, but as red as blood. Upon the horse sat one with a great sword in his hand, to whom "was given power to take peace from the earth, and to make men that they should slay one another."

      The explanations already given will assist us in determining what this symbolism must mean. The horse is the symbol of war, but the changed color indicates that the conditions of war are entirely changed. It is no longer triumphant war in the dominions of their enemies, while within all is peace, but the land is drenched in blood. During the period of the first seal the fertile provinces of the Roman Empire, never saw the face of a hostile soldier, unless borne is a captive from the distant frontiers, where the Roman generals waged triumphant wars in the countries of their enemies. All was peace within.

      At no other period of the twelve centuries that passed from the foundation of the city of Rome, until it was taken by the Goths, was the condition of the empire so happy, or its population so prosperous. Golden streams flowed from every land into the coffers of Roman [77] citizens. No fear of hostile invasion or internal disturbance ever troubled the tiller of the soil, and artisan. Under the firm but mild rule of Trajan, and the Antonines, security, peace, and plenty smiled upon the civilized world. The epoch of the first seat was one of triumphant war, but of internal peace.

      It is not such a period which is predicted by the second seal. It indicates the existence of war, but that internal peace will exist no longer. The "earth" contemplated by John was the Roman earth, or empire. From it peace shall be taken away. Nor is it to be destroyed by foreign invaders. "They are to kill one another." In as plain language as symbolism can disclose, it is indicated that the next great feature of history is that the land shall be torn by civil war.

      CIVIL WAR.--The meaning of the symbol is plain. If it has been fulfilled, we must look for an epoch of civil war, following soon after the events of the first seal. History ought to point out a period of civil commotion following the glorious period of conquest indicated by the first seal. That period of peace ends with the reign of Commodus, who was slain A. D. 102. Let me repeat a passage of history that will serve to illustrate the character of the next period. [78]

      Commodus, the son of the second Antoninus, ascended the throne in A. D. 182. He was one of the most contemptible tyrants that ever cursed a people, but was borne, with for ton years on account of the virtues of his father. At last his excesses could be borne no longer, and he was slain by the Prætorian Prefect, aided by various inmates of the palace, 'whose lives were threatened by the tyrant. His assassination took place in A. D. 192, and immediately, the Prætorian Prefect induced Pertinax to ascend the vacant throne. Eighty-six days after, he was murdered by the Prætorian soldiers whom he refused to bribe. The crown was then sold to the highest bidder, and was bought at auction by Didius Julianus. As soon as the news of this shameful sale of the sovereign power reached the army of the Danube, it proclaimed its general, Septimus Severus, Emperor, and marched upon Rome. After a reign of sixty-six days, Didius was defeated, dethroned, and beheaded. The army in the island of Britain and also that in Syria, each considered its right to make an emperor as good as that of the army of the Danube, and each nominated its general for the throne. For four years the empire was torn by civil war, and Severus, after a desperate contest, vanquished successively and put to death two rival [79] competitors for the throne. Thus, the next period begins, but this is not the end. It is marked in the history of man by the most prolonged and sanguinary civil commotion that history records.

      "Peace was taken from the earth" for ninety-two years. During this long period of nearly a century, the Roman Empire, that portion of the "earth" which was the seat of civilization and of the Christian religion, was constantly torn by bloody, civil contests between rival competitors for power. The history of this epoch is epitomized by Sismondi in the following language:

      With Commodus commenced the third and most calamitous period, it lasted ninety-two years, from 192 to 284. During that period thirty-two emperors, and twenty-seven pretenders alternately hurled each other from the throne by incessant civil warfare. Ninety-two years of almost incessant civil warfare taught the world on what a frail foundation the virtue of the Antonines had placed the felicity of the empire. Sismondi's Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I. p. 36.

      A full history of this dark and unhappy period is also given in the first volume of Gibbon. That the reader may form a better conception of this era of blood, I will give a table of the emperors, indicating those who died violent deaths. The first column of figures indicates that the emperor whose name is opposite died by violence. The second column, [80] with figures at such rare intervals, indicates when an emperor died a natural death.

Commodus 192  
Pertinax 193  
Didius 193  
Severus   211
Geta 212  
Caracalla 217  
Macrinus and his son 218  
Elgabalus 222  
Alexander Severus 235  
Maximin and his son 237  
The Two Gordians 237  
Maximus 238  
Balbinus 238  
Gordian the Third 244  
Phillip and his son 249  
Decius and his son 251  
Gallus 253  
Volusion   253
Æmillianus 253  
Valerian 260  
Gallienus 260  
Nineteen Tyrants 260-8  
Claudius 270  
Aurelian 275  
Tacitus 276  
Florianus 276  
Probus 282  
Carus 283  
Numerianus 293  
Carinus 284  

      In this list are thirty-four emperors, besides nineteen pretenders, known as tyrants. Of these all but two died violent deaths. What could more strikingly represent such a period of civil contention, of incessant civil warfare, of fratricidal bloodshed, than the red horse and its rider, "to whom was given a great sword, and [81] the power to take away peace, that men should kill one another?" I suppose that no such prolonged and terrible period of civil warfare can be pointed out in the history of the world, and there is certainly a wonderful correspondence between the vision and the events of history.

      There is one feature of the vision that has not yet been considered. There was given to the rider of the red horse a great sword. It has been found that the bow under the first seal had a special significance, and there is reason to believe that the sword marks particularly some feature of the fulfillment of the second seal. It is easy to understand that such a symbol points to the military order as the class "to whom it was given to take peace from the earth." Wherever there is a standing army there is a class whose profession is war. To this bloody trade their whole lives are devoted, as those of others are devoted to commerce, or to agriculture. They are men of the sword. At this period Rome kept immense standing armies upon all the frontiers, in the outlying provinces, in the great cities, and in the capital itself. It was the quarrels of this class among themselves, that filled the earth with blood and desolation.

      Civil wars arise from various causes. Our [82] own was a conflict of the citizens of the Republic over the extension of slavery; the last great civil contest in England was concerning the prerogatives of the crown, and divided the nation into two great parties, under Parliament and king; at an earlier date in Roman history, a mighty contest between the popular and aristocratic factions had convulsed the state for generations; but this terrible period of civil commotion, without parallel in the history of a civilized state, was due solely to the jealousy and ambition of the men of the sword. No principle was involved in the fearful struggles, and the nation had no interest, save in being ruled by the least ferocious of the contending generals. It is an era of the sword, of the total abeyance of civil rule for that of the sword, of the earth drenched in blood by the contests between the men of the sword. What could more appropriately describe such all epoch than the giving of a great sword, the military emblem, to the figure that marches before the vision of the prophet?

      It is possible that a still more particular fact may be indicated. There was stationed at Rome an army corps which outranked all others, received the highest pay, and peculiar privileges. This band of soldiers was called the Prætorian Guards, and their commander [83] was styled the Prætorian Prefect. When he was inducted into his office, by the emperor, there "was given to him a sword." This was a symbol of the fact, that he had jurisdiction over the life and death or citizens for one hundred miles around Rome. He was the only officer, besides the emperor, who had the right to inflict death at the capital. It was this Prætorian Prefect, inducted into office by the public investment with a sword, and the Prætorian Guards, who inaugurated this long period of blood. It was the Prætorian Prefect who secured the death of Commodus, and made Pertinax emperor. It was the Prætorian Guards who slew Pertinax eighty-six days after, and sold the crown to Didius Julianus. It was the Prætorian Prefect who slew Caracalla, the son of the successor of Didius. It was these lawless soldiers of fortune who precipitated the era of blood.

      Those who dissent from this interpretation of the second seal, must admit that the imagery of a prophetic vision never received a more striking fulfillment.


      The first and second seals mark distinct epochs, clearly separated from each other. We can determine the exact number of years that [84] belongs to each period. It is not possible to separate, with the same distinctness, the events indicated by the third and fourth seals. The prophecies are fulfilled with startling accuracy, and the occurrences symbolized by each seal follow each other in the same order as the seals, but the events overlap, and are related to each other as effects to cause. During the terrible period of civil commotion, indicated by the red horse, the era of blood and anarchy produces the events symbolized by the black horse, and as the combined result of the two preceding seals there follow the events indicated by the pale horse. The opening of the third seal is described in these words:

      And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo, a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, 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. 6:5, 6.

      Again there appear a horse and a rider. Again the color of the horse is changed, as well as the instrument held in the hand of the horseman. If the white and red colors, the bow and the great sword, had a significance, this must be true also of the black color and the balances.

      It has been found that the horse, whatever [85] his color, is the symbol of war. The black horse makes it plain that the land is torn by calamitous war, and is filled with sorrow, mourning, and despair. Black is the color of mourning. The prophet (Jer. 14:2,) says: "Because of the drought Judah mourneth, and the gates thereof languish; they are in deep mourning (lit. black) for the land." This single illustration shows the idea attached to this gloomy color in all ages.

      The things to be noted in this vision are, 1, the horse; 2, his color; 3, the balances in the hands of the rider; 4, the charge given to him. As to the first and second of these, the meaning is plain. There is more difficulty about the last two items.

      If the balances were alone, we would say that they were a symbol of justice, but in the hands of the rider of the black horse, and in the connection that follows, they are an indication of a scarcity of food. "Bread by weight" indicates scarcity. The following passages indicate the significance of' the weight in connection with food:

      And when I have broken the staff of your bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall deliver you your bread again by weight: and ye shall eat and not be satisfied. Lev. 26:26.

      Moreover he said unto me, son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall cat bread by [86] weight, and with care; and they shall drink water by measure, and with astonishment: That they may want broad and water, and be astonied with one another, and consume away for their iniquity. Ezek. 4:16, 17.

      The balances were also, in those days, used in taxation. A portion of the produce was demanded in Judea, is still in Turkey, and was a part of the taxes extorted by the Roman Empire. The balances indicate a period of excessive taxation, as well as of scarcity. The prices of wheat and barley are famine prices. The "measure" was about a quart, and the term rendered "penny" is the Greek denarius, which was equivalent to about fourteen cents of our money. A bushel of wheat, at the price designated, would be worth four dollars and fifty cents, and of barley one dollar and fifty cents; but in those days the relative value of money was four or five times greater than at present. A denarius was the usual price of a day's labor. Hence, when we consider the changed value of money itself, the prices of wheat and barley must be placed at about twenty dollars, and six dollars per bushel, respectively. Nothing but a period of extreme scarcity could maintain such exorbitant prices. Oil and wine were the common articles of food for the people, but the voice prohibits their use. Taken in connection with the context it is implied that in this time [87] of want they are no longer in use by the common people. There is designated a period of extreme taxation, of enormous prices, of great scarcity and want.

      This is just what continued civil war would effect. Military expenses would multiply taxes. This was done even by our civil war of four, instead of ninety-two years. Lands would lie uncultivated, crops would be destroyed, and vast regions would be desolated by the march of contending armies. High prices, scarcity, and want, would necessarily be the result.

      I will not consider the historical fulfillment of those features of this seal, which refer to scarcity and want, until I explain the next seal. I have already stated that these seals are in part coincident in time, and under the fourth seal, the seal of Death, famine is one of the awful agencies employed. The feature of crushing taxation is, however, peculiar to the third seal, and I will make quotations from our usual historical authority, Gibbon, and also from Lactantius, a historian of the fourth century. Gibbon notes in strong language the ruinous edicts promulgated in the reign of Caracalla (A. D. 211-217) and his successors, as being among the prominent causes of the decline and fall of the empire. He says:

      Nor was the rapacious son of Severus (Caracalla) contented [88] with such a measure of taxation its had appeared sufficient to his moderate predecessors. Instead of it 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. Vol. I. p. 95.

      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 (wheat), wine, oil, and meat, which were exacted of the provinces for the use of the army, the court, the capital.

      Swarms of exactors sent into the provinces, 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 were numbered, and an examination made of the men. *   *   * The sick and weak were borne to the place of inscription, a reckoning was made of the age of each, years were added to the young and subtracted from the old, in order to subject them to the higher taxation the law imposed. The whole scene was filled with wailing and sadness.--Lactantius.

      Could there be a more impressive symbol of such a period than is supplied in the vision and charge of the third seal?


      And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale, horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. 6:7, 8.

      Again, for the fourth time, the exile Of Patmos beholds a horse. It is still a time of war. The horse is now pale, the bloodless color of the [89] sheeted dead. Upon him sits an undescribed figure, called by the apostle, DEATH. Behind the dread destroyer follows Hades, the unseen world, swallowing up the dying mortals and hiding them from human vision. The means employed to destroy men are described. Death and Hades employ, (1), the sword, or war; (2), hunger, or famine; (3), death, or pestilence, for so is the word hero used often translated, and such is its meaning in this place; and, finally, (4), the destruction caused by the wild beasts of forests and field. The evident meaning of this symbolism is so plain that all can understand its application, and we need only ask if the facts correspond. Do we find the scarcity, want, hunger, and pestilence, indicated by the prophecy, during the latter portion of this period of civil commotion? Do we have an awful reign of Death in the forms signified by the seal?

      Let the reader turn to the tenth chapter of the first volume of Gibbon's Rome. It recounts the events of the reign of Gallienus, which ended in A. D. 268, or about seventy-six years after the death of Commodus. It details the attempts of no less than nineteen pretenders to the throne, who aroused rebellions that were quenched in blood, and themselves forfeited their lives by their presumption. It describes [90] the dreadful sufferings of the Roman Empire during the period of disaster and gloom, and then the historian closes the chapter with the words we give below. I ask the reader to carefully read the words of the Scripture and then compare them with the following words of Gibbon:

      But a long and general famine was a calamity of a more serious kind. It was the inevitable consequence of rapine and oppression, which extirpated the produce of the present, and the future harvests. Famine is almost always followed by epidemical diseases, the effect of scanty and unwholesome food. Other causes must, however, have contributed to the furious plague, which, from the years two hundred and fifty to the year two hundred and sixty-five, raged without interruption in every province, every city, and almost every family of the Roman Empire. During some time five thousand persons died daily in Rome; and many towns, that had escaped the hands of the Barbarians, were entirely depopulated.

      Applying this authentic fact to the most correct tables of mortality, it evidently proves, that above half the people of Alexandria had perished; and could we venture to extend the analogy to the other provinces, we might suspect that war, pestilence, and famine, had consumed, in a few years, the moiety of the human species.

      Let all notice the correspondence. The prophet asserts that one-fourth of mankind would be destroyed, but the infidel historian goes beyond the prophet, and doubtless exceeds the facts when he makes the mortality twice as great. The prophet names the sword, famine, [91] pestilence, and beasts of the field as instruments of destruction. The historian affirms that half the human race were destroyed by the first, three of these agencies, but fails to mention the fourth. We might, without historical proof, dare to assert that on the terrible depopulation of large districts, the beasts of prey, wolves, hyenas and lions, would so multiply as to become objects of terror, but we are not left to this necessity. Not a generation later, about A. D. 300, Arnobius "Adv. Gentes," refuting the charges made by heathen that various calamities were due to the enormous increase of Christians, exclaims: "When were wars waged with wild beasts and contests with ions? Was it not before our time? When did a plague come upon men, bitten by serpents? Was it not before our time?"

      I have thus far discussed the opening of four seals. The second verse of chap. VI. reveals to us the white horse and the crowned conqueror who was his rider. This I have pronounced the seal of conquest, foreshadowing the wonderful conquests of Trajan, in the second century. The red horse of the fourth verse is the seal of civil war, fulfilled in the awful convulsions that began about A. D. 186, and agitated the whole civilized world. The third seal, the black horse and balance of the fifth verse, is the seal [92] of want, while the next, the pale horse of the eighth verse, is the seal of death.

      Such is the symbolism of the first, second, third and fourth seals. About its meaning there can be no mistake. Nor can there be any doubt as to its wonderful fulfillment. Prophecy, on the one hand, points to the pictures upon the panorama of Patmos, and says, "Here is the future." Upon the other hand, history points to its undubitable records, and replies, "Here is the fulfillment." The intelligent reader beholds with astonishment the wonderful agreement. [93]

[VOTA 76-93]

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B. W. Johnson
Vision of the Ages (1881)