(5) When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. (6) And I heard what seemed to be 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 wine!”
Black is not a color; it is the absence of light. While we may often think of darkness as sinfulness (John 3:19; 1 Peter 2:9), this is not the case here or in plenty of other areas of scripture. Darkness is a significant aspect of God’s judgement language used throughout scripture. When God turns the lights out, it means “lights out” for whomever he is judging. He said it of old testament Judah (Jeremiah 4:23; Joel 2:10); he said it of first century Judea (Joel 2:31, 3:15; Matthew 24:29; Acts 2:20); he said it of Egypt (Ezekiel 32:7-8); he said it of Israel (Amos 8:9); he said it of Babylon (Isaiah 13:10); he even said it of David’s enemies (Psalm 18:7-11). This is common language of God’s judgments against wickedness. The black horse suggests darkness coming; judgment coming.
A pair of scales in his hand shows that he intends to scrutinize the weight and measure of food. This suggest that food is not in large quantity; this suggests a famine. God described something similar for the Jews of Ezekiel’s time: “Moreover, he said to me, “Son of man, behold, I will break the supply of bread in Jerusalem. They shall eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and they shall drink water by measure and in dismay. I will do this that they may lack bread and water, and look at one another in dismay, and rot away because of their punishment” (Ezekiel 4:16-17). Famine is a critical theme of God’s judgment language (Isaiah 51:19; Jeremiah 11:22, 14:12-18, 15:2, 24:10, 27:8; Lamentations 5:10; Ezekiel 5:12-17, 6:11-12, 14:21; Amos 8:11; Revelation 6:8, 18:8). One of my favorites is Jeremiah 28:8, “The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms.” There can be no doubt that God used famines as signs of his judgments.
A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius. This statement establishes that food is scarce. Literally, Josephus records that great famine in Jerusalem in “Wars of the Jews” books five and six. For example, he said “Thus did the miseries of Jerusalem grow worse and worse every day; and the seditious were still more irritated by the calamities they were under, even while the famine preyed upon themselves; after it had preyed upon the people. And indeed the multitude of carcasses that lay in heaps one upon another was an horrible sight; and produced a pestilential stench” (Wars 6.1.1). Josephus also records the terrible account of a woman name Mary who ate her son during the famine (Wars 6.3.4). After saying that I must admit that we are still in a symbolic book; there can be no determination to consider this text to refer to any one particular event in the downfall and judgment of Judea. This only symbolizes the fact that God is bringing judgment upon the unfaithful people.
Do not harm the oil and wine. It is a good thing that we are not subjection ourselves to a literal understanding of the book of Revelation or this statement would be a challenge to figure out. Symbolically, this is somewhat simple. Oil and wine have been spoken of from early times as blessings (Deuteronomy 7:13), and as offerings to God (Deuteronomy 18:4). Such were always used in the service of God’s house (1 Chronicles 9:29). In Joel, these entities referred to the joy of the faithful in the victory they have with the Lord (Joel 2:19, 2:24, 3:18). As the psalmist spoke of God’s gracious preservation of the faithful, he spoke of “wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (Psalm 104:15); but to the sinners he said, “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more!” (v.35). The fact that these blessing for the saints (not the sinners) were not to be harmed symbolizes the continued blessings and protection for the saints. We will see more detail on the sealing of the servants of God in the next chapter (7:1-8).