Virtually everyone agrees this passage describes the triumphal return of Christ. But as David Aune notes, the imagery used is not derived from other early Christian traditions concerning the return of the Lord (Revelation, 3:1046). The description of the return of Jesus as conquering king are drawn from a wide variety of texts in the Old Testament and Second Temple literature. In fact, the rider on a white horse is the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom.
The rider is described in somewhat familiar terms to those who read apocalyptic literature. His eyes are like a fiery flame (v 12). Eyes like flaming torches are associated with heavenly beings, as in Dan 10:6 (Theodotian LXX). He has many crowns (diadems) on his head (12). In the Greco-Roman world, multiple crowns is an indication of sovereignty over territories.
Just as the dragon had seven crowns and the kings to come had crowns, so the rider has many crowns, perhaps so many they are not counted. He wears a robe dipped in blood (13). Normally blood is associated with the atonement, but this is not the case here. The blood is that of the enemies of God, and is likely an allusion to Is 63:1-3.
A sharp sword comes out of his mouth (15a). This is a reference to the power of his word (Rev 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21), but the image appears elsewhere in Jewish apocalyptic.
4QIsaiah Peshera 8-10 iii 15-19 (tr. García Martínez, Dead Sea Scrolls, 186): [He will destroy the land with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he will execute the evil] ? [The interpretation of the word concerns the shoot] of David which will sprout [in the final days, since with the breath of his lips he will execute] his enemies.
The rider has several names. First, he is named Faithful and True. These titles are used for Jesus in Revelation 1:5 and 3:14. Second, he has another name inscribed which he alone knows (12b). Divine beings sometimes had a secret name or were unwilling to give their true names. In Gen 32:29, for example, God does not give his name when asked. Third, his name is “the Word of God” (13b), reminiscent of John 1:1 where Jesus is called the Word. Finally, on his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed: King of kings and Lord of lords (16).
James Edwards has recently published several examples of writing on the thigh of statues. The article includes photographs of statues of Apollo found in Miletus (fifth century BCE) and Claros (sixth century BCE) with writing on Apollo’s thigh indicating who offered a sacrifice to Apollo. These two statues date centuries before Revelation was written, but there are literary references to inscribed statues in Cicero and Pausanias indicate the practice of inscribing a name to honor the donor was well-known. Since all but one of his examples are dedicated to Apollo, Edwards argues this is an allusion to the Apollo cult, something he argues appears in Revelation 12 (Edwards, 529-535). For Edwards, the name on the thigh is therefore a “divine rejoinder to the inscription on the forehead of the great harlot” (535).
In Jesus the Bridegroom, I suggested Isaiah 49:14-26 adapted elements of Lamentations and Jeremiah 2 into a complaint song. In Isa 49:14 Lady Zion complains that her husband has forsaken her. The Lord protests, however, stating that he has in no way forgotten his bride. The Lord cannot forget his bride Zion because her name is “inscribed on his palms.”
While the vocabulary is different, “inscribing on the arm” is an indication of love in Song 8:6. Fox sees a parallel between Song 8:6 and the Cairo Love Songs (COS 1.150) in which a young man expresses his desire to always be near his beloved: “If only I were her little seal–ring, the keeper of her finger! I would see her love each and every day.” As Marvin Pope suggests, anatomical descriptions in poetry are quite flexible. An “arm wearing a ring” in Song 8:6 should likely be understood as a hand.
But there is considerable difference between a mark or symbol on one’s hand and a name inscribed on one’s thigh. However, in the context of the final chapters of Revelation, the rider on the white horse is coming to the wedding banquet of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-8). In Isaiah 49:18, the Lord swears an oath that Zion will adorn herself as a bride once again as her children return to Jerusalem. These verses are likely an allusion to Jeremiah 2:32, “can a girl forget her ornaments?”
I suggest, therefore, that the name on the thigh is part of the marriage imagery present in Revelation 19-22 and draws on the rich imagery of Israel’s marriage relationship with God in the Hebrew Bible. As in Isaiah 49, God has not forsaken his bride Israel and is now returning to rescue her from her oppressors.
The rider has come in order to judge in righteousness (11b). That the messiah will be God’s righteous judge is a theme of several texts in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 98, 72:2, 96:13, Isa 11:4). He will wage war in righteousness (11b) and smites the nations with the sharp sword (15a). He will rule the nations with a rod of iron (15b). That the Messiah will be something of a true shepherd is common in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 2:9) as well as Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25.
Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25 See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; To shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth; At his warning the nations will flee from his presence; and he will condemn sinners by the thoughts of their hearts.
John describes this judgment as treading “the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” This is yet another familiar metaphor for the anger of God in Revelation and the est of the prophets. John has already used this metaphor in Rev 14:19.
The Rider on the White horse therefore represents the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom. God intervenes in history by means of a mighty warrior who renders justice. He will punish the enemies of Israel, destroying them utterly. But he will also vindicate those who have suffered on behalf of their testimony for Jesus: they are raised to new life in Rev 20.
Bibliography: James R. Edwards, “The Rider on the White Horse, the Thigh Inscription, and Apollo: Revelation 19:16,” JBL 137.2 (2018): 519-536.Long, Jesus the Bridegroom: The Origin of the Eschatological Feast as a Wedding Banquet in the Synoptic Gospels (Pickwick, 2013).