v.5-6 When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come and see.” And I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard 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.”
This black horse symbolizes economic chaos and famine (undoubtedly caused by the wars and natural disasters). The phrase, “A quart of wheat for a denarius and three quarts of barley for a denarius” carries with it the thought that a whole day’s wages will be required to purchase a one-day supply of food. The fact that neither the oil nor wine (non-essential luxury items) will be hurt probably suggests that while the poor become victims to horrific inflation and become poorer, the rich retain their luxuries.
v.7-8 When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come and see.” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.
This pale horse, mounted by a figure called Death and followed closely behind by Hades, is the grimmest apparition of all. By him “a fourth of the earth” will die from war, famine, death, and the beasts of the earth (the result of this first wave of judgment). Moreover, as people die Hades follows closely behind to seize the soul of each non-believer the moment they perish. This gruesome image could be what the prophet had in mind when he wrote, “Therefore Sheol has enlarged itself and opened its mouth beyond measure” (Isa.5:14).
v.9-11 When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.
John’s attention gets redirected from earth to heaven—from the grim to the glorious. He is shown the souls of those martyred during the Tribulation for their testimony of Jesus Christ—the first suggestion in Revelation regarding the great revival that occurs during the Tribulation period.
The image of these souls “under the altar” is somewhat uncertain because commentators are split on which altar this signifies. Some say that this is the altar of sacrifice, thereby signifying that they are covered by the blood of Jesus Christ and justified because of His death on the Cross (Heb.10:8-12); whereas others suggest that this is the altar of incense to show them covered by prayer. Though they are crying for vengeance (unlike the Church which has always been instructed to love and pray for its enemies) they are instructed to remain patient until they are joined by all the other Tribulation believers yet to be martyred.