In Revelation chapters 6 and 7 we see some of the most vivid imagery in the Bible. When read untethered from the teaching authority of the Church many people read into the chapters overly literalistic interpretations that have stuck in the public consciousness for generations. But let’s be clear both chapters are primarily symbolic imagery.
The White horse symbolizes Conquering:
And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.
The Red horse symbolizes Bloodshed:
And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.
The Black horse symbolizes famine:
A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius …
To interpret this correctly you must know a little history. These are exorbitant prices for wheat and barley roughly equivalent to a day’s wages for a loaf of bread. When food is scarce the price goes up.
And the Pale horse symbolizes Death:
And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him.
Together the Four Horses symbolize War. And we know from experience that war comes to each and every generation. Historically, the four horseman are closely associated with a PARTICULAR war, that of the Jewish uprising in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 that led to the destruction of the temple.
In part we can infer this because famine was the particular key lynchpin to that war. The Jewish people revolted to throw off Roman rule. The Romans surrounded the city. However, Jerusalem was a true fortress city. It had an underground spring to supply water and it had diligently saved up stores of wheat and barley sufficient that should have sufficient food for ten years, enough that they could have easily outlasted the Romans. However, the residents turned on each other. The factions within the city destroyed each others food supplies. With no food, the taking of the city was an easy victory for the Romans. So the Four Horsemen most closely represent the war that destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. They also represent all wars to come but most particularly wars in which Christian peoples are martyred for their faith (hence the souls under the alter praying for justice).
What do the Four Horseman say about the end of days? I think it is safe to say that end of time will be proceeded by a great war. Will the final day of Judgement contain four actual horsemen riding across the earth in some great spiritual culling of the wicked? Well, certainly anything is possible with God. However, God seems to consistently work by using simple things in significant ways. Maybe the uniforms of the offending armies will be white, red, black and pale. The important thing to remember is that Jesus himself said that no one knows the day or the hour. Thus, why an ever increasing frequency and severity of wars might be a sign that the end is nearer still no one can say how near it might be. All we can say is that we are closer today than yesterday.
Similarly, the 144,000 is a symbol.
The one hundred and forty-four thousand is a symbol or perfection as it is twelve times twelve times one-thousand. It symbolizes that the end will come when God has finished the work of creation and salvation and therefore achieved the “perfection” he intends. Here perfection simply implies the finishing of the task.
We know the 144,000 is symbolic because there were not twelve tribes of Israel but actually thirteen. Even a cursory examination of the text shows that the tribe of Dan is missing from the list. Instead, the list counts the tribe of Joseph and its split-off, the tribe of Manasseh as two tribes. Ancient tradition holds that the tribe of Dan is left out because it is from Dan that the Anti-Christ will rise.
Some denominations and sects take the 144,000 too literally and hold that only that number of souls in all human history will be saved. However, there is an easy way to disprove that, simply look at the next sentence:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Here are people, in heaven, clearly saved, who believe in and follow the Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ. We are told that they are a “great multitude which no man could number”. Since 144,000 is a finite number which a person could in fact count to, by definition there must be more people in heaven then just 144k. Good news! (To say the least).
One interesting thing about the 144,000 is that they are “sealed”. In Ezekiel 9 there is a story of God’s people being sealed before destruction comes to the city. The people are sealed with the Hebrew letter “taw” which is written as an “X” or more correctly a “t” on its side. (Hmmm, what do you think that is a foreshadowing of?) Later, the Jewish priests of the temple in Jerusalem would bless people by holding up the Bread of Presence and using it to make a “taw” sign over the crowd as they filed by while repeating, “God loves you”. (Again, a not so subtle foreshadowing of the Eucharist). So in the past there were literal sealing’s of the Jewish people.
So again, we see that the imagery of the book of Revelation has reliable symbolic meaning but may also have a more literal prophetic meaning. Potentially, this may have something to do with the prophecy that the end times will not come until the Jewish people convert and accept Jesus. Recall Luke 13:
34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! 35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
So while the 144,000 does not mean that only 144,000 will be saved it might coincide with the conversion of the Jews just before the end of days. One could envision a great war in which 144,000 represents a substantial percentage of Jews still living in Israel or Jerusalem. Potentially, their sealing with the “taw” could represent their conversion to Christianity and the final acceptance of Jesus by the people of Jerusalem.