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(not really; ... but seriously!)

by Ong Kok Bin



The horse is a ubiquitous animal this season around (i.e., February 2014); after all, it’s the year of the horse according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Images of the equine creature are splattered across banners, advertisement boards, greeting cards and the ‘idiot-box’ a.k.a. the TV screen. Wishes of ‘ma dao cheng gong’, or ‘ma nian mong en’, or ‘long ma jin sheng’ besides the ever eternal ‘prosperity and happiness’ are exchanged among the Chinese community and even those of other ethnicity. The festiveness of the lunar new year is so infectious as to be irresistible (but not to those who wish to find exception to some silly satire). Those born in the year of the horse are said to be favoured with great virtues and positives like success, power and strength.

The horse is indeed a most majestic animal, exuding raw power, strength, beauty and grace. In times past, it was a much sought after animal, especially amongst the nobility, kings and generals alike. It was a ‘must-have’ in the equipment of the military when wars were fought with swords and shields, spears and arrows. Endowed with a great sense of balance, speed and endurance and particular good fright to flight response, it often made the difference between victory and defeat in battles of yore. Off the war front, the horse makes good companionship with its genteel disposition and amicable spirit.

The horse is found too in the scriptures. Who can miss the four great horsemen of the apocalypse located in Revelation 6:1-8? In this most mysterious and enigmatic passages of the Bible, the exiled and aged apostle John presents a scene from heaven. He sees ‘a scroll with writing on both sides’ but the scroll is sealed with seven seals and no one is able to unseal them. For a while John is despondent because no one is deemed worthy to open the seals. But then one of the twenty-four elders around the throne of God speaks to him and tells him that there is one who is able to open the seals and thus reveal the contents in them. He is ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David’. But instead of a ‘Lion’, John sees a ‘Lamb’.

Nevertheless, John does not waste time quarrelling with what he is told and what he sees. He is too caught up in the vision for that. To cut the story short, the vision finally takes him to the opening of the seals. The first seal reveals a white horse. Its rider carries a bow and wears a crown. He is said to be riding out ‘as a conqueror bent on conquest’. The second seal has a fiery red horse. Its rider has a large sword and he is given power to ‘take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other’ - an obvious allusion to his mission as a warmonger. The third is a black horse and the rider is carrying ‘a pair of scales in his hand’. Then, there is the fourth horse, pale (more like chlorine) in colour. The rider is ‘Death and Hades’, so named because he is given power to ‘kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth’. Taken together, the four horsemen of the apocalypse spell judgment from God in the form of war, pestilence, famine and death: not really a most auspicious or pleasant vision to have.

Then in the Old Testament, in Zechariah 6:1-8, the prophet of old is given a vision of four chariots: each pulled by powerful horses of red, black, white and dappled respectively. These four chariots and their horses are said to represent ‘the four spirits of heaven’ sent to the four ends of the earth, to ostensibly, check on the state of affairs of humans on earth.

Typically, the horse as a unit in cavalry is used in the Old Testament to instruct the Israelites not to put their trust in their own might or in foreign alliances but in the strength and goodness of the Almighty God. Thus,

His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his delight in the legs of a man;
the Lord delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love.

No king is saved by the size of his army;
no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,
on those whose hope is in his unfailing love

Some trust in chariots and some in horses;
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

The horse is made ready for the day of battle,
but victory rests with the Lord.
(Psalms 147:10-11; 33:16-18; 20:7; Proverbs 21:31)

The last verse, from Proverbs 21:31, brings us back to the book of Revelation in the New Testament. The theme of deliverance and victory with the Lord rings out loud and clear in the 19th chapter of the book. Pertinently, in verses 11-16 of the chapter, the aged apostle John provides us with a vision of heaven opened and there is a white horse trotting forth (or, is it galloping?). Its rider is called ‘Faithful and True’ and John leaves us in no doubt that he is the Lord Jesus Christ when we read the description given in verses 12-16. This is nailed in certitude as John reveals another name written on the rider: ‘KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS’. But what is most interesting and relevant to us is that this rider on the white horse is leading an array of ‘armies of heaven’. Their riders are on white horses too and they are dressed ‘in fine linen, white and clean’. White horses are favoured by generals and often when a general is returning from a successful campaign, he would be seen riding on a white horse ahead of his army in a victory parade before an adoring crowd of citizens lined along the streets to welcome the victors home. The vision that John sees of the rider on a white horse ahead of the ‘armies of heaven’ is, without a doubt, a vision of the final victory of the Lord and his entourage of faithful believers over Satan and his cohort of demons. The Lord is leading his followers in a triumphal procession - a victory parade, so to speak.

In more sedate circumstances and more down on earth, another apostle also speaks the ‘triumphal procession’ language. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes:
     But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ
     and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.
     For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved
     and those who are perishing.
- 2 Cor. 2:14-15

In thus writing, Paul is expressing confidence in the Christian’s victory through the Lord Jesus: a victory that is not future but a constant present. Elsewhere, in Romans 7, Paul draws the Christian’s attention to his/her wretchedness in the seemingly hopeless battle against sin to the extent that Paul labels the Christian’s body ‘this body of death’. In editorial despondency, Paul laments “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Then in a quick change of mood, he exults: “Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Two apostles, two intimations of triumph for the Christian. One writing in old age and from the vantage of heaven; the other in the prime of his life and from a stopover in the course of a missionary journey. In heaven, John sees the final consummation of victory. On earth and in the midst of doing duty for Christ, Paul feels the pulse of victory - even through times of adversity and burdensome circumstances. He is to write to the Corinthians:
     We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed,
     perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not destroyed.
     We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus,
     so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
- 2 Cor. 4:8-10

Such is the confidence of the apostle that twice he tells the Corinthians “we do not lose heart” (4:1 & 16). In the second instance, he compares the earthly to the heavenly, the mundane to the spiritual:
                   outwardly wasting away : inwardly renewed day by day
          light and momentary troubles : eternal glory
                                             seen : unseen
                                     temporary : eternal

In the same confident breath, he exhorts: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (4:18).

Paul may not have realized it. But what is unseen to him is seen by his counterpart, the exiled and aged John: the rider on the white horse, that ancient emblem of triumph. The sweet of it all is that this rider on the white horse is leading an array of riders on white horses too.

Horsing around? Not really ... but seriously!


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