As Jesus opened the third seal, John heard the command of the third beast (Revelation 4:7), “Go,” and John saw a black horse, and its rider carried a pair of balances (Revelation 6:5). Then he heard a voice that came out of the midst of the four living beings saying, “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine” (Revelation 6:6). A measure of wheat was what one would expect to satisfy one person for one day. A penny was considered a day’s wage for an unskilled laborer (Matthew 20:2), so if a person worked about 12 hours for only what amounted to what he could use to feed himself for a single day, the demand for food was exceeding greater than the supply, so famine conditions seem to be indicated.
Nevertheless, something seems wrong about this understating. A literal famine environment would affect everything in the field. What seems to be represented by the rider of the black horse is an artificial famine imposed upon some but not all. A lack of rain would have caused shortages in the oil and the wine along with the wheat and the barley. Yet, they are unaffected, which infer a different kind of famine. On the one hand, we have a lack of the necessities of life, while on the other there isn’t a famine on feasting and joy (cf. Psalm 23:5).
Jesus mentioned there would be occurrences of famine, as one of the initial stages of sorrows in the Olivet Discourse (cf. Matthew 27:7-8). Although black is the color of literal famine conditions (Jeremiah 14:1-5), it can also indicate the condition of the hearts of the people toward God. Writing about the attitudes of the people toward the Lord, Malachi claimed they believed it was a vain thing to serve the Lord, because there was no profit in obeying him. While his servants mourn (being in want), those who are proud and do wickedly have abundance. Thus, it is implied that to tempt God is more profitable than serving him (Malachi 3:14-15). Viewed from this perspective, the rider of the black horse could indicate enemies of the Lord that take pleasure in taunting his disciples by creating the lack of necessities for the elect, while the wicked feasted and watched on.
About the time Paul brought his second offering for the poor at Jerusalem (cir. 56-57 AD), Josephus records an interesting development that seems pertinent in this context:
179… About this time king Agrippa gave the high priesthood to Ishmael, son of Fabis. 180… Now the high priests clashed with the leaders of the Jerusalem populace, and each side gathered and led a group of trouble-makers of the worst kind. When they clashed, they taunted each other with words and threw stones, with nobody to rebuke them; and the city was in uproar as if no authority existed. 181… Then the high priests shamelessly sent their servants to the threshing floors, to take the tithes due to the priests, so that the poorer of the priests died of want, for the violence of the rebels had trampled to such a degree on all right and justice.
Thus, we see that famine conditions were indeed artificially induced upon parts of the Jewish populace by the Jewish authorities who cared little for their plight. Of course there were also literal famines, and they seemed to coincide with the Jewish sabbatical years, when the fields lay dormant. All that could be taken from those fields was what grew of itself. No planting or harvesting was permitted during the sabbatical year.
The offerings for the poor in Judea came from the gentile churches scattered throughout Asia and Europe and were sent during the sabbatical years. As I mentioned above, it was, at about the time of Paul’s visit and arrest in Jerusalem (cir. 56-57 AD), having brought the offering from the gentile churches, that the above occurrence that Josephus records took place. Moreover, this sort of thing wasn’t a unique occurrence. It was something that took place on an ongoing basis, for Josephus records a similar occurrence just after the high priest had slain James, the brother of the Lord. So, Josephus records a different but similar thing done to the poorer priests who were beaten and had their tithes robbed cir. 62-63 AD, thus implying the famines predicted by Jesus were not always literal, some were artificially created by the wicked to intimidate believers, seeking to force them to recant their faith in Jesus and submit themselves rather to the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.
 JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews, 20.8.8 (179-181)
 The time of the Jerusalem Council (cir. 48-49 AD) was a sabbatical year, and it was at this time that Paul and Barnabas brought the offering from the churches in Antioch, Galatia and Syria (Acts 11:28-30).
 JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.2