The measure spoken of here is the Greek measure of capacity of very ancient usage, the choenix. As early as the time of Homer it was indicated as the amount of wage given to a workman for a full days work (Odyssey XIX:XXVIII). Herodotus also gives this as the measure of wheat consumed by each soldier in the army of Xerxes (VIII:CLXXXVII).1
σίτου [sitou] , used of wheat in the context of hardship as an indication of severe famine and rising prices . . . Ignatius, in his fervent longing for martyrdom, uses this symbolic language . . . I am Gods wheat and will be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts.2
That famine is intended here is evident for this amount was a workmans average daily wage.3 Men will work an entire day and barely procure enough to stay alive. Ordinarily, from sixteen to twenty measures were given for a denarius.4
do not harm the oil and the wine
ἀδικήσῃς [adikēsēs] , second person singular, imperative mood. The voice from the midst of the four living creatures is commanding the one on the black horse not to harm the oil and wine. Again, we see the judgments which pour forth are precisely under the control of God. See commentary on Revelation 6:1.
Some attempt to understand this verse in relation to an edict of Domitian restricting vine production in favor of corn:
It is argued that Rev. Rev. 6:6+ refers to Domitians edict against vines in AD 92, a measure which may have been intended as a drastic means of increasing corn production, but which hit Philadelphia with exceptional severity because of its dependence on viticulture.5
Because of the earthquake, which drove them from the city proper, and because of the fertility of the soil, many of the people had turned to farming as a means of livelihood, specifically to the cultivation of vineyards. Apparently, because of famine, in A.D. 92 Domitian issued an edict that at least half the vineyards in the provinces be cut down and no new ones planted. This action was designed to increase production of corn which the Empire needed badly. This crisis affected Philadelphia more critically than any other, because no city of Asia depended on the fruit of the vine more than it. Dionysius, god of wine, was the principal deity.6This seems unlikely for the four horsemen ride out after the Lamb begins opening sealssomething which remains future even to our own day. Moreover, it appears Domitians edict was not motivated in response to famine.7
Others have understood the reference to oil as pertaining to the marking upon the foreheads of the servants of God who are anointed for protection during this time (Rev. Rev. 7:3+; Rev. 9:4+; Rev. 22:4+), but this seems unlikely since the context concerns food supply and famine.
Another suggestion is that the common commodities are hard to come by, but luxury items will remain available for the upper classes.
This intimates that the famine is by no means universal: yea, it suggests that side by side with abject suffering there is abundance and luxury.8
Some interpreters have suggested that the brunt of the suffering falls upon the poorer classes, but the rich are left largely untouched, but this is a less likely interpretation, for while fine wine and oil could be understood of the luxuries belonging to the rich, the poorer quality product may be in view here as descriptive of the ordinary provisions used by the common people.9
One of the great criticisms of the present time is that there is scarcity in the midst of plenty. This is the situation which will be accentuated a thousandfold when the Antichrist begins his reign. It is a social maladjustment.10Still another idea is that the oil and wine denote medicinal supplies. That although food will be lacking, there will be an abundance of medicine.11 This seems unlikely in view of the catastrophic conditions (medicinal supplies require careful storage and efficient distribution) and the number of deaths inferred.
Others suggest another possibility. They point to a similar passage in 1 Samuel which records famine conditions caused by rainy conditions which destroyed the grain crop, but under which vineyards and olive trees would flourish:
The proper understanding of the phrase do not damage the oil and the wine is found in an event recorded in 1 Samuel 1S. 12:1. . . . Samuel was threatening to call upon the Lord to bring thunder and rain as punishment. Why? . . . Heavy rains at the time of harvest would destroy the wheat, thereby bringing famine. . . As Nogah Hareuveni of Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Gardens of Israel, 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 temperatures that prevail in Israel by Shavuot (in late May-early June). This interpretation explains why the Israelites cried out to Samuel pray. . .to save us from death (1S. 1S. 12:19)from death by starvation that would follow the destruction of the grain crop.. . . the oil and the 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.12The reverse scenario might also be possible: that of drought. Since the roots of the olive and vine go deeper, they would not be affected by a limited drought which would all but destroy the grain.13 However, the nature of the famine which attends these beginning of sorrows (Mtt. Mat. 24:8) is probably uniquely severe in history and argues against understanding the distinction between food items as denoting a limited famine. This situation contrasts with a locust-induced famine, such as that of Joel, in which all crops were ruined: The field is wasted, the land mourns; for the grain is ruined, the new wine is dried up, the oil fails (Joel Joel 1:10).
The problem with taking this as a reference to limited famine is that it underrates the severity of the seals. This famine will be serious enough to make it unique in history up to that time. The world has already seen many limited famines, but never one like this. . . . So it is wrong to take a major feature such as this prohibition against hurting the oil and the wine and interpret it as a limitation on human hardship. It indicates rather the inequity that will prevail. The poor will have it extremely hard while the wealthy will experience no interruption to their luxurious lifestyle.14Both oil and wine are listed among the commercial wealth of Babylon at the time of her destruction (Rev. Rev. 18:13+). See commentary on Revelation 18:13.
2 Frederick William Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 752.
3 Ibid., 179.
4 A. R. Fausset, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, in Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, 1877), Rev. 6:6.
5 Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 175.
7 Ibid., Rev. 6:6.
11 For while there is a famine of food, there will be an abundance of medicine, for the oil and wine are not hurt. These items were used for medicinal purposes.Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah, rev ed. (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2003), 219.
12 Gordon Franz, Was Babylon Destroyed when Jerusalem Fell in A.D. 70?, in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 226-227.