The biblical image of four horses of disparate colors did not originate with the famed four horsemen of the apocalypse (Revelation 6:1-8) but rather the book of Zechariah (Zechariah 6:1-8). Zechariah, the eleventh of twelve minor prophets, was written during the time that the Jerusalem temple was being rebuilt (520-518 BCE).
Zechariah begins with a succession of eight visions (Zechariah 1:7-6:8). The final oracle proves the most obscure and climactic and of the lot (Zechariah 6:1-8). In it, the prophet sees four chariots emerging from bronze mountains (Zechariah 6:1-3). Each chariot is powered by a horse of a different color: red, black, white, and gray or dappled (Zechariah 6:2-3).
With the first chariot were red horses, with the second chariot black horses, with the third chariot white horses, and with the fourth chariot strong dappled horses. (Zechariah 6:2-3 NASB)The first three horses’ pigments are relatively straightforward while the last has generated discussion (Zechariah 6:3). The steed is described by the Hebrew barod (Genesis 31:10, 12; Zechariah 6:3, 6). This word is translated variously as “dappled” (ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV), “gray” (CEV), the combination “dappled-gray” (NLT, NRSV, RSV) and “grizzled strong” (ASV, KJV).
J. Carl Laney (b. 1948) presents the dominant interpretation:
Zechariah..observes that each of the four chariots were drawn by a team of horses—the first chariot by red horses, the second by black horses, the third by white horses, and the fourth by a team of strong, dappled horses. “Dappled” suggests white spots on a dark background. (Laney, Zechariah (Everyman’s Bible Commentaries), 70)Marvin A. Sweeney (b. 1953) analyzes:
This last term is problematic as the Hebrew texts reads sûsîm běruddîm ’amuşşîm. The term běruddîm apparently refers to “spotted” horses as the root brd is related to the term for “hail” which suggests the general shape of stones or spots. The term ’amuşşîm, however, creates difficulties because it is derived from the root ’ms, “to be strong,” and appears in Zechariah 6:7 as an apparent reference to the “strong steeds” that pull the chariots. Although some scholars maintain that the term has been misplaced here from Zechariah 6:7 by scribal error or that it is a textual corruption for ’adummîm, “red” (cf. Zechariah 6:2) that is designed to suggest spotted red horses, the term can be read as a reference to the “spotted strong horses” of the fourth chariot. (Sweeney, The Twelve Prophets, Volume Two (Berit Olam: Studies In Hebrew Narrative And Poetry), 625)The horses are differentiated and defined by their colors. Many have tried to find further significance in their hues. George L. Klein (b. 1955) acknowledges:
Zechariah never explained the symbolism of the colored horses. Consequently, any conclusion one might reach concerning the horses’ colors remains tentative. One approach holds that the colors function solely to distinguish the horses, having no further importance. Alternatively, others attempt to determine precisely what the colors might signify. A particularly popular view associates the horses’ colors in Zechariah 6 with the colors of the horses in Revelation 6:1-8. Following this approach, Merrill F. Unger [1909-1980] suggests that white indicates victory (Revelation 6:2; also Revelation 19:11, 14), red stands for bloodshed (Revelation 6:4), black represents judgment (Revelation 6:5-6), and the dappled color signifies death (Revelation 6:8). Unger fails to demonstrate the accuracy of his association with the diverse colors of horses and concepts such as judgment. Neither does Unger prove that the colors of the horses in Revelation 6 rest on that of the horses in Zechariah 6...The interpretation that the colors signify geographical regions might have merit, but it also lacks certainty. Much like the symbolism in the prophecy in Daniel 7, the ancient rabbis believed that the colors of the horses symbolized world kingdoms. Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome represented probable candidates. However, any association between the colors and world kingdoms must remain tentative at best. (Klein, Zechariah (New American Commentary), 186-187)Some have tried to link the horses in Zechariah’s final vision (Zechariah 6:1-8) with the steeds in his first oracle (Zechariah 1:8). David L. Petersen (b. 1943) examines:
The horses of the first chariot are bay; those of the second, black; those of the third, white; and those of the fourth, dappled. Only two of these four colors, bay and white, occurred in the description of the horses in Zechariah 1:8...Much ink has been devoted to a comparison of the first and last of Zechariah’s visions, since they both include detailed descriptions of horse colors. Most instructive, however, are the contrasts within this similarity. In the first vision, there are an indefinite number of horses of each color. In the final vision, there are almost certainly eight horses, two per chariot. In the first version one horse has a rider. In the final version all belong with chariots. In the first version we see the horses rest in the divine corral; in the final version we see the horses at an opening that leads into the domain of human affairs. In the first vision the horses have just come from surveying the cosmos, whereas in the second they are about to set out to roam over the earth. In the first vision the colors seem to have no rationale, i.e., there are three colors, two of which are almost identical. In the final vision there are four distinct colors and/or patterns, which, so the interpretation goes, point to the four major points of the compass. The distinctive colors provide the basis for the interpretation of the final vision. Such was not the case in the initial vision. (Petersen, Haggai and Zechariah 1-8: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 268-269)Petersen evaluates another theory as well:
Perhaps the most comprehensive explanation of the colors of the horses is that used most recently by Gerhard von Rad [1901-1971], Friedrich Horst [1896-1962], Joyce G. Baldwin [1921-1995], and others. They maintain that the colors of the first vision are those of the sunset, those of the end of a period, and those of the eighth vision are those of the early morning, those of a new dawn and day. Intriguing and apt as this suggestion is, it is difficult to see how the “dappled” designation is more appropriate for dawn than sunset. Further, I suspect that though this suggestion might explain the origin of the colors, i.e., signifying the temporal frame of Zechariah’s night vision, it does not function importantly as a statement about the interpreted significance of the visions. (Petersen, Haggai and Zechariah 1-8: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 269)There many be no symbolism entailed. Mark J. Boda (b. 1962) notes that each of the horses’ displays a naturally occurring pigmentation:
The colors identified for the horses are the normal range of colors found in nature. The Hebrew tern for “red” (,adom) can be used for a deep brown horse or a chestnut horse, for the chromatic range of this word includes brown (animals), yellowish-brown (lentils), deep red (blood), wine color (wine) and pink (flesh). The Hebrew term behind “brown (saa roq) should be translated “sorrel,” a color combining red and white that produces a pinkish tone and is found among horses. The final color, “white” (laban), regularly occurs among horses. There is no need then to attach symbolic meanings to the colors of the horses in this scene. (Boda, Haggai, Zechariah (The NIV Application Commentary))Pamela J. Scalise (b. 1950) speculates that the colors say more about their owner than of the horses themselves:
The variety of colors emphasizes the owner’s wealth. In the ancient world, kings and emperor’s owned chariots and used them to exert their military power in war and their authority over conquered territory. These horses and chariots suited their purpose, for all of them were powerful. Israel’s most powerful enemies had used chariots against them—Egypt (Exodus 14:25, 15:4) and the Canaanites at Hazor (Joshua 11:6, 9) and Tabor (Judges 4:5, 5:28). Kings of Israel and Judah had owned chariots, but in postexilic Yehud the only chariots belonged to the Persian emperors. (John Goldingay [b. 1942] and Scalise, Minor Prophets II (New International Biblical Commentary), 239)Have you ever experienced a vision? What meaning, if any, do you attach to the horses’ colors? Why are these horses, unlike those in other oracles (Zechariah 1:8; Revelation 6:1-8), pulling chariots? What is the meaning of the vision?
The horses are sent in directions as different as their colors. Barry G. Webb (b. 1945) notices that none goes east:
The chariots with the black horses go north; those with the white ones go west, and those with the dappled horses go south. Only three points of the compass are represented, and only three colours (of horses) instead of the four of Zechariah 6:2-3. Furthermore, Zechariah 6:6 opens (in Hebrew) with a connecting word which normally occurs only in mid-sentence. All this taken together seems to indicate that the opening part of Zechariah 6:6 has been accidentally lost in transmission, and that in the original form of the text all four points of the compass were covered. In any case, Zechariah 6:8 makes it clear that the chariots went everywhere, to enforce God’s kingship in every place. (Webb, The Message of Zechariah: Your Kingdom Come (Bible Speaks Today), 104)The narrative concludes by focusing on the black horse traveling to the north (Zechariah 6:8). Mark Allen Hahlen (b. 1959) and Clay Alan Ham (b. 1962) comment:
Of the three directions depicted, the movement of the black horses to the north is emphasized; these horses are named first and again in Zechariah 6:8. North is a place with ominous connotations for the Hebrews (Jeremiah 1:14, 4:6, 6:22; Ezekiel 1:4). From there, enemies of Israel and Judah have entered the land (Jeremiah 10:22), and to the north is the land of the exile (Jeremiah 3:18, 6:22, 16:15, 23:8). Although other nations besides Babylon may be included in the designation “the north” (Isaiah 41:25; Jeremiah 1:15, 46:10, 50:9), Babylon is surely the focus here. (Hahlen and Ham, Minor Prophets, Volume 2: Nahum-Malachi (College Press NIV Commentary), 394)William P. Brown (b. 1958) delineates:
Between the bronze mountains come four chariots, drawn by different colored horses. Their mission is identical to that of the horses found in the first vision, namely to “patrol the earth” (cf. Zechariah 1:10-11). The two bronze mountains, nowhere else mentioned in scripture, likely mark off the boundary between heaven and earth. The image of the chariot represents the presence of God (Habakkuk 3:8). Indeed, a common title for God was “rider of the clouds” (Psalm 68:4). As the four winds, the chariots are commanded to scatter in all directions (cf. Jeremiah 4:13). The winds were traditionally conceived as messengers of God (Psalm 104:4)...Since it is not mentioned in the list of directions (Zechariah 6:6), the first chariot, with red or bay horses, is the one, presumably to fly eastward. Yet it is the second chariot (with black horses), which heads towards the north, that gains the spotlight. It is through the black horses that God’s spirit is set at rest. The land that lay to the north, which included the land of Shinar (Zechariah 5:11), was traditionally regarded as the land of the enemy of Israel. To claim that God’s spirit is at rest in the north is tantamount to claiming that the superpowers that have plagued Israel throughout its history have been subjugated once and for all. (Brown, Obadiah through Malachi (Westminster Bible Companion), 156)James E. Smith (b. 1939) summarizes:
The cycle of visions comes to a close with a symbolic portrayal of worldwide judgment. In the first vision the angelic reconnaissance force found the world to be at ease and the people of God humiliated. Now divine wrath is unleashed against those oppressors. The security of Zion, the people of God, is thus achieved. (Smith, The Minor Prophets (Old Testament Survey), 553)Zechariah’s message is one of hope. Elizabeth Achtemeier (1926-2002) interprets:
Various colored horses...pulling war chariots symbolic of God’s sovereign might, come forth from the entrance to heaven, which is here symbolized by the two impregnable mountains of bronze (cf. Jeremiah 1:18). The horses and chariots are said to represent the four winds of heaven (Zechariah 6:5, contra RSV; cf. Jeremiah 49:36; Daniel 7:2). That is, they are the messengers of God (cf. Psalm 104:4). Impatient to leave on their mission, they are dispatched by God all over the earth, symbolizing that his sovereignty is worldwide. This is explicitly stated in the oracle of the Lord in Zechariah 6:8: God’s spirit is at rest in the north country; nothing further needs to be done before the Lord can bring his Kingdom. (Achtemeier, Nahum--Malachi (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 129-130)Peter C. Craigie (1938-1985) adds:
The vision of the departure of horses and chariots on worldwide missions of military intervention establishes not only a central part of the meaning of all eight visions, but also a chronological perspective within which to interpret the prophet’s words. The restoration of the temple and of leadership in Judah presupposed a renewal of the Kingdom of God in the world; it intimated that more lay in the future than simply a refurbished temple and a rejuvenated government. Only when foreign nations were overthrown could the chosen people be truly free once again...Although the words are concerned with Zechariah’s immediate present, with the temple and government in Jerusalem, time is collapsed in the vision to join the present to what was a more remote future. What was happening anticipated in a mysterious fashion what was yet to happen. And though we may find the visionary words as difficult to grasp in detail as did the prophet’s first audience, we may share with them the absolute conviction of the prophet’s central message. God was and is sovereign in human history. (Craigie, Twelve Prophets, Volume 2 (Daily Study Bible Series), 186)Israel’s enemies assume that Yahweh is another god they had vanquished like all the others. Zechariah’s final vision (Zechariah 6:1-8) affirms that Yahweh is a horse of a different color.
Why do you think none of the horses is explicitly said to travel east? How does your perception of God’s sovereignty affect your life? How active is God in history? In your life?
“There’s only one of him and he’s it. He’s the Horse of a Different Color, you’ve heard tell about.” - Guardian of the Emerald City Gates (Frank Morgan, 1890-1949), The Wizard of Oz (1939)