200 million horses of the second woe
Austin Farrer referred to the “astonishing elaboration of imagery” that John employed in the prophecy of the second woe. Metaphors overlie other metaphors like layers of clothing. In his book A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse [SUNY Press, 1949. pp. 235-236.] Farrer wrote:
In the sixth plague St John carries symbolical elaboration to a further point. He will combine two symbols: Aaronic breastplate (gold, hyacinth, purple), and the stench of Gehenna (brimstone, smoke…). The hosts of destruction appear armed with breastplates fiery (for purple), hyacinthine, and sulphurous, riding horses which breathe fire, smoke, and sulphur (brimstone), by which three plagues are killed the destined number of mankind. The astonishing elaboration of imagery, revealed in the otherwise inexplicable use of the word hyacinthine, is not a meaningless vagary. St John wishes to show us how God, represented by the ministers of his wrath, has put on ‘righteousness for a breastplate, and garments of vengeance for clothing’ in the day when he repays fury to his adversaries (Isa. lix. 17). Even so, why is the breastplate a priestly breastplate? The whole of the ‘fire, smoke, and brimstone’ of the trumpet-plagues are the expression (as we shewed above) of the ‘incense, smoke and fire’ of the liturgy in heaven out of which they arise. We saw how carefully St John works out the parallel. The liturgy is the acceptance of the saints’ prayers for vindication, and the very stuff of the liturgy becomes the stuff of the vengeance exacted. It is part and parcel of the parallel that the priestly garments of the incense-angel should become the garments of vengeance clothing the destroyers.
Listed below are seven interpretations of the 200 million horses and horsemen of the second woe, together with the names of the authors of commentaries supporting each explanation.
1. Roman armies
3. Turks, Saracens, Muslims
4. Asiatic hordes
5. Weapons & artillery
7. Apostate church & preachers
1. Roman armies [Hugo Grotius; J. J. Wetstein; Johann Gottfried von Herder; Johann Gottfried Eichhorn; James M. MacDonald; Thomas Whittemore]
2. Parthians [William Barclay; I. T. Beckwith; Heinrich Ewald; John Mark Hicks; Craig S. Keener; Heinrich Meyer; James Stuart Russell]
3. Turks, Saracens, Arabs, Muslims [Johann Albrecht Bengel; Sylvester Bliss; Thomas Brightman; William Burkitt; Adam Clarke; Thomas Coke; William Cuninghame; George Stanley Faber; Andrew Fuller; John Gill; A. Hutcheson; William Kelly; Paul E. Kretzmann; David Nevins Lord; William Marsh; David Pareus; Matthew Poole; Thomas Scott; Uriah Smith; John Trapp; John Wesley; John Chappel Woodhouse]
4. Asiatic hordes [H. A. Ironside; Hal Lindsey; David C. Pack; J. Dwight Pentecost]
Interpretations 1-4 are refuted because the horses are not natural horses, but have lions’ heads and serpent tails. Thus they are symbolic, rather than natural horses. In prophecy, the horse represents a person who lacks understanding. [Psa. 32:9] This refers to spiritual understanding.
Horses also represent those who do not repent. Jeremiah wrote: “I hearkened and heard, but they spake not aright: no man repented him of his wickedness, saying, What have I done? every one turned to his course, as the horse rusheth into the battle.” [Jer. 8:6]
Jeremiah also depicts lustful human behaviour as horse-like. “They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbour’s wife.” [Jer. 5:8]
The horse, lion, and serpent all have symbolic meanings. The breastplates worn by the riders are symbolic. Fire, smoke, and brimstone from the mouths of the horses, by which they kill, are symbolic. Fire represents God’s word. Smoke, and brimstone depict false teachings, that obscure the gospel.
5. Weapons & artillery [Thomas Brightman (1562–1607); James B. Coffman; William Brown Galloway; George Leo Haydock; Joseph Mede (1586-1639); John A. Pinkston; Matthew Poole; Ray Stedman; John F. Walvoord]
In this theory, the horses with lions’ heads and serpent-tails are interpreted as guns, mechanized vehicles, and artillery. The fire and smoke and sulphur emitted from the mouths of the horses is thought to allude to gunpowder. Matthew Poole wrote of the fire and smoke and sulphur as meaning “fighting with great guns.” John A. Pinkston found even more weapons revealed in John’s imagery: “A storehouse of weaponry similar to America’s jet fighters, bombers, rockets, tanks, ships and submarines.”
6. Demons [Charles D. Alexander; G. K. Beale; M. Eugene Boring; E. W. Bullinger; Friedrich Düsterdieck; Anthony Charles Garland; Gärtner; David Guzik; Wilfrid J. Harrington; A. E. Knoch; George Eldon Ladd; Tim LaHaye; Clarence Larkin; John MacArthur; Heinrich Meyer; J. Ramsey Michaels; Henry M. Morris; Leon Morris; Robert H. Mounce; William R. Newell; Peter Pett; John Phillips; Richard of St. Victor (d. 1130); Charles C. Ryrie; Joseph Augustus Seiss; Daniel Whedon]
The horses and horsemen can not be demons, since they wear armour, which signifies they are mortal. Demons would have no need of breastplates, and specifying the colours of the breastplates would be redundant, if those wearing them were invisible.
7. Apostate christians & preachers [Ambrose Ansbert (d. 778); Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (b. 1093); the venerable Bede (c. 673-735); Augustus Clissold; John N. Darby; Johannis Gagneus; James Gray; Gregory the Great; Haymo (d. 853); John Hooper; Cornelius a Lapide (1567-1637); Fredrick Denison Maurice; William Milligan; Moraliter; Ford Cyrinde Ottman; Justin Almerin Smith]
The serpent-tails of the horses clearly identify them as people promoting false teachings. It is the fire, smoke and brimstone from their mouths, (that is, their doctrines and beliefs) that causes harm, and kills a third of men. They kill in a spiritual sense.
Wikipedia provides the following data on Christian populations as a percentage of world population.
World population 7 billion
Roman Catholic 18.85%
The 200 million horses and horsemen of the second woe depict spiritual things that millions of professing Christians have in common.
1. Lack of understanding.
Lack of spiritual understanding is depicted by the figure of 200 million horses of the second woe.
Horses represent people who lack understanding. David wrote: “Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee.” [Psa 32:9]
Understanding comes from God, and from his Word.
Millions of people in tens of thousands of denominations believe different things, and interpret prophecy in many different ways, because they get their doctrine from men, and rely on their own understanding, rather than God’s word.
Humans do not possess spiritual understanding by nature. The carnal, human understanding men possess naturally is represented by horses.
Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way. [Psa. 119:104]
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. [Prov. 3:5-6]
Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. [Prov. 3:13]
He taught me also, and said unto me, Let thine heart retain my words: keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth. Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee. [Prov. 4:4-6]
He that refuseth instruction despiseth his own soul: but he that heareth reproof getteth understanding. [Prov. 15:32]
How much better is it to get wisdom than gold! and to get understanding rather to be chosen than silver! The highway of the upright is to depart from evil: he that keepeth his way preserveth his soul. [Prov. 16:16-17]
He that getteth wisdom loveth his own soul: he that keepeth understanding shall find good. [Prov. 19:8]
In the prophecy of the second woe, John embellished the metaphor of the horse, by saying that they possessed heads of lions. The lions’ heads represent carnal human nature, opposed to the Spirit of God, and also allude to the adversary, the devil. The apostle Peter wrote: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.” [1 Peter 5:6-9]
Horses with heads of lions depict people who lack understanding, who need to humble themselves, and repent.
Humans are mortal, and do not possess immortality. Paul said only Jesus Christ has immortality. He wrote: “… our Lord Jesus Christ: … who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords; Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen.” [1 Tim. 6:16]
Those represented by the horses are mortal, which is evident because they wear breastplates. The horses and horsemen are not demons, but men. If they represented demons, they would not need breastplates.
3. False prophets
In prophecy, tails represent false prophets. Isaiah wrote: “The ancient and honourable, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth lies, he is the tail.” [Isa. 9:15] John embellished Isaiah’s metaphor by saying the tails of the horses are serpents, which like lions’ heads, alludes to Satan. The 200 million people represented by horses are the armies of antichrist, who are at war with Jesus Christ.
The 200 million horses contrast with the 144,000 of Rev. 7:4, and 14:1-5, and with those who are figuratively “beheaded” in Rev. 20:4; individuals who have lost their lions’ heads, and for whom Satan is bound, who live and reign with Christ.