When the Lamb opens the third seal, a rider on a black horse appears. The meaning of the black horse is famine. The natural result of war is famine, and the third horse is black horse, clearly intended to represent famine.
Famine was well-known in the Roman Empire in the late first century. In A. D. 90 there was such a glut of wine and lack of grain that Domitian issued an edict forbidding new vineyards and commanding the destruction of half of the present vineyards so the land could be converted to grain production (Aune 2:398-99; Seutonius, Domitian 7.2). Asia Minor protested this edict and it was eventually reverse in A.D. 93. It is possible John has this edict in mind with the time “do not damage the wine” (Aune does not think it is in the immediate background).
The rider is given set of scales used to measure grain and a voice declares a quart of wheat will cost one denarius. The English “quart” translates χοῖνιξ (chonix), a day’s ration for one person (BDAG). One denarius is about what an average working person could expect to earn for a day’s work. This means someone needs to work a whole day to earn enough to buy food for themselves for that day. If a man is supporting a family, his day’s labor will not feed his wife and children. Normally a denarius would buy as much as eight times the food. (Charles, 1:167; Aune 2:397).
A Roman soldier was issued thirty-two measures of wheat a month. According to Polybius, the standard ration was one “measure” for a man, and three for his horse (6.39.13). Barley is usually the grain given to animals, to feed one’s family with barley would be an indication of poverty.
Famine was an expected hardship in the ancient world. In 2 Kings 7:1 Elisha predicts merchants at the gates of Samaria will sell food at inflated prices: “a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel.” Although the weight/price is different, the idea is the same. Because of war, Samaria experienced famine and inflated food prices.
Famine is also common in apocalyptic literature. In the second Sibylline Oracle, the writer predicts famine, pestilence and thunderbolts in the final generation.
Sib. Or. 2.20–24 Then there will be bloody precipitation from heaven, but the entire world of innumerable men will kill each other in madness. In the tumult God will impose famines and pestilence and thunderbolts on men who adjudicate without justice.
Later in the same oracle, famine is one of the signs of the end:
Sib. Or. 2.154–157 But whenever this sign appears throughout the world, children born with gray temples from birth, afflictions of men, famines, pestilence, and wars, change of times, lamentations, many tears.
In the third Sibylline Oracle “a sign to mortals of sword, famine, and death” (Sib.Or. 3.335) combines several of the images found in the four horsemen of Revelation 6. See also 3.317; 3.476). in fact, famine is mentioned often in the Oracles as a sign of God’s punishment. So too 4 Ezra 15:5, the Lord says ““I bring evils upon the world, the sword and famine and death and destruction.” In 4 Ezra 16:21, “the calamities shall spring up on the earth—the sword, famine, and great confusion.” In 2 Baruch 27.6 famine and drought are included as the appointed calamities before the coming of the messiah (cf., 2 Baruch 62:4). The Apocalypse of Abraham 30.5 lists pestilence and famine among the “plagues on the heathens.”
The irony of this famine is that the luxury items, the “oil and wine” are not in short supply. These things are plentiful, but the people cannot afford them since them must spend all their money on the day’s bread.
Greg Beale suggests the inflated prices for food has Christians specifically in mind (Revelation, 381). He argued the second horse was not war in general but rather persecution of Christians. So too the third horse refers to the economic difficulties faced by Christians suggested by Revelation 2:9. In addition, those who do not receive the mark of the beast will not be permitted to buy and sell, forcing them the pay inflated prices outside of the price-contrlled agora.
While it is clear the book of Revelation describes the economic effect of loyalty to Jesus (they cannot buy or sell, they hunger and thirst), to limit this famine to Christians does not do justice to the scope of the first four seals. The first rider is bent on conquest, which results in war; continual wars result in famine. Food shortages in the Roman world were not limited to Christians.