The Apostle John describes the opening of the third seal in this way: “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 hands. 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 the wine’.” (6:5, 6 NKJV).
Several prophecy teachers have come up with some interesting interpretations of this passage. For example, in his book, Days of Hunger, Days of Chaos, Texe Marrs (1999) suggests that the third seal judgment will be a worldwide famine caused by government and corporate manipulation of the seed supply. He calls this the “Global Seeds Conspiracy.” Interestingly, he never deals with the phrase “do not harm the oil and wine.”
In a conspiratorial magazine Paranoia, it was suggested that the phrase “do not harm the oil and the wine” was fulfilled in November 1992 when President George H. W. Bush “announced that he would NOT triple the tariff on rapeseed oil and Chardonnay wine” (Wallace 1995:21). Wallace believes that this is the only time in history that oil and wine, and only oil and wine, received the attention of the international market.
Another prophecy teacher has observed, “At the opening of the ‘third seal,’ in Revelation 6:6, basic food staples will be meted out in small amounts and sold at rates that make possible only a bare subsistence. This is the fate of the common man. Note that the wealthy will still have access to their ‘oil and … wine.’ As always, during hard times, the division between rich and poor grows wider. Not only the Bible, but the population figures themselves point to a future global famine” (Church 1997: 327).
How credible are these three observations in light of what Revelation 6 states? First, is the third seal judgment talking about a global conspiracy to control the supply of seeds? Second, was the third seal fulfilled in 1992 with President Bush’s announcement? Third, is bread only the food of the poor and the oil and wine only the food of the rich?
Nogah Hareuveni, the founder of Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, has a wise and appropriate statement regarding the interpretation of agricultural passages of Scripture. He says, “Let’s look for the obvious!” There is no need to spiritualize, allegorize, or devotionalize the interpretation of this passage, or any other passage relating to agriculture or nature in the Mediterranean Basin, and the land of Israel in particular.
In this seal judgment, the rider on the black horse is trying to sell wheat and barley at an expensive price due to a shortage of grain, but he is not to touch the oil and wine.
On a visit to the island of Patmos, a combination of an unusual weather pattern and an upcoming Jewish holiday triggered the “obvious” interpretation of this passage in my mind. One afternoon, a rainbow appeared over the eastern end of the island. While that, in and of itself, was not unusual, because John had seen two rainbows while he was on the island (Rev. 4:3; 10:1), the timing was significant. Rainbows are caused by refraction of sunlight through raindrops. This particular rainstorm occurred on Friday, June 6, 1997, five days before Shavuot. Christians would know Shavuot, the feast of weeks, as Pentecost. For the Jewish farmer, Shavuot was the beginning of the wheat harvest (Ex. 23:16; Num. 28:26). Helen Frenkley, the director of Neot Kedumim, points out; “The Hebrew for Feast of Harvest is Hag Ha-Katzir. Katzir means harvest of grain and since the barley harvest begins on Passover, Shavuot is the start of the wheat harvest” (personal correspondence, Aug. 24, 1997).
Most commentators have interpreted the third seal as famine, which resulted from conflicts and wars, mentioned in the first two seals (Rev. 6:1-4). Some also suggest the oil and wine were luxury items of the rich. The first interpretation is plausible, but the second is not true. There is, however, a better explanation from the agricultural background, weather pattern and Scripture for this seal.
The four foods: wheat, barley, (olive) oil and wine, should draw the Bible students mind to a phrase used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures for the essential foods of daily life for all people. This phrase, “grain, oil and wine” is used at least seventeen times in the Bible (Deut. 7:13; 11:14; 12:17; 14:23; 18:4; 28:51; 32:13,14; I Chron. 9:29; II Chron. 2:15; 31:5; 32:28; Neh. 5:11; Ps. 104:15; Jer. 31:12; Hosea 2:8,9,22; Joel 2:19; Hag. 1:11). These four foods were the most important foods of the “seven varieties” (Deut. 8:7-10). The figs, pomegranates and (date) honey are the other three. These seven foods all share a common fate that is determined by a delicate weather balance between Passover and Shavuot (Hareuveni 1980:30-45).
An observant Jewish farmer, rich or poor, living in the Land of Israel during the Talmudic period would remember this phrase every time he recited Deut. 11 and had a Shabbat meal. On Friday night the “table of man” would be set with hallah bread made from grains, wine from grapes, and the oil lamp which used olive oil. Each was a reminder that their “daily bread” came from the Lord.
A farmer would pray for the right wind to blow at the appropriate time during the seven weeks, or fifty days, between Passover and Shavuot. The rabbis say, “The northern wind is beneficial to wheat when it has reached a third of its ripening and is damaging to olive trees when they have blossomed. The southern wind is damaging to wheat when it has reached a third of its ripening and is beneficial to olives when they have blossomed. This is symbolized for you by [placing] the table to the north [side of the Tabernacle and the Temple] and the menorah in the south [side of the Tabernacle and Temple] …” (Baba Batra
147a; cited in Hareuveni 1988:21).
The north wind during the winter months usually brings rains (Prov. 25:23) and is beneficial in the first third of the ripening of the wheat and barley. Yet this same rain would ruin the buds of the olive trees or grape vines if the buds were already opened. In the case of open buds, the rain would wash away the pollen so the tree or vine would not be pollinated and fertilized. The southern wind is good for the pollination process of the olive and grapes if they come later in the 50 days. If the southern wind comes early, the grain will not fill with starch and the crop will be decimated (cf. Gen. 41:6). The farmer prays to the Lord that the winds would come at the right time. If, however, the winds come at the right time, but the rains come after “its season” the grain crop will still be ruined (Lev. 26:4; Deut. 11:14; 28:12).
Someone once said, “The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself.” Another example of the third seal judgment, albeit on a smaller scale, is recorded in I Sam. 12. Heavy rains during the wheat harvest would bring disaster for the wheat farmer. This occurrence is illustrated in I Sam. 12. “Is today not the wheat harvest? I (Samuel) will call to the LORD, and He will send thunder and rain, that you may perceive and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in the sight of the LORD, in asking for a king for yourselves” (12:17 NKJV). The people cried out, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die…” (12:19 NKJV). People do not die from thunder and rain! However, as Nogah Hareuveni has pointed out, “The ripe, heavy-eared wheat can suffer from a downpour not only through physical damage from the force of the wind-driven rain, but also by rotting from the sudden moisture combined with the high temperature that prevail in Israel by Shavuot (in late May – early June). This is why the Israelites cried out to Samuel to ‘pray … to save us from death’ (I Sam. 12:19) – from death by starvation that would follow the destruction of the grain crop” (1988:25). Mildew is one of the results of disobedience to the Word of God (Deut. 28:22; I Kings 8:28 // II Chron. 6:28; Amos 4:9; Hag. 2:17; Boronski 1987:158-160).
This author experienced such a phenomenon in June of 1992. For two days, Israel was hit with heavy rains and the wheat harvest was devastated by mildew. Ironically, it was right before the national elections when people were crying out “Itzhaq, melek Yisrael! Itzhaq, melek Yisrael” (Itzhaq, king of Israel) at their election rallies!!!
The third seal judgment of Revelation 6 has nothing to do with a global seed conspiracy, nor was it fulfilled in 1992 by President Bush’s decision not to put a tariff on rapeseed oil and Chardonnay wine. However, the third seal judgment is validation of Adam Smith’s law of supply and demand. Apparently, during the Tribulation, there will be an untimely rainstorm during the wheat harvest that destroyed a great portion of the crop in Israel and the rest of the Mediterranean world. The demand for wheat, plus the shortage in supply, will lead to higher prices for all. The olive trees and grapevines, the “oil and wine”, will not be affected by this rainstorm because they will have already been pollinated. In fact, the water might even help them, thus giving oil and wine for all, rich and poor alike. This is the “obvious” interpretation.
It has been the purpose of this series of articles to put Revelation 1:9 in its proper historical and geographical context (setting). John was exiled to Patmos because he took a stand for the Word of God and the God of the Word. Even with the temple to the self-proclaimed deified emperor in his back yard, John refused to bow down to him. Yet when he saw the glorified Son of Man in a vision on Patmos, he fell down as dead. Because of his proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” and not Domitian, the proconsul removed John to Patmos. Once on Patmos, John was free to move about the island. I can not help but imagine John standing on the piers in the harbor of Patmos passing out gospel tracts to the sailors coming and going from the island. On at least one occasion he took advantage of a boat heading to Ephesus and sent along the Book of Revelation, which he received while on the island. It probably went back with the seven messengers who came to visit him from seven churches in Asia Minor.
This book would have encouraged the believers in the Lord Jesus who were going through difficult times to take a stand for the Lord and to realize that God has a plan and a purpose for what they are going through. One day He would set things in order. The redeemed, those who have trusted solely upon the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work on Calvary, will one day gather around the Throne of God and worship the Lamb of God by saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12). Might we be encouraged by this same message.
1987 Agriculture in Iron Age Israel. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
1980 Nature in Our Biblical Heritage. Translated by Helen Frenkley. Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim.
______1987 The Emblem of the State of Israel. Translated by Helen Frenkley. Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim.
Church, J. R.
1997 Riders of Revelation 6, Mount Up! Pp. 315-338 in Foreshocks of Antichrist. Edited by William T. James. Eugene, OR: Harvest House.
1999 Days of Hunger, Days of Chaos. Austin, TX: RiverCrest.
1908 “Hurt Not the Oil and the Wine.” Expositor 7th series. 6: 359-369.
1995 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Paranoia 2/5: 21-27.