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The Opening of the Seven Seals
The First Seal. Chap. 6 vv. 1, 2
1. one of the four ] Presumably the Lion, as the other voices are described as those of the second, third, and fourth. But the voice (so the word “noise” should be rendered: cf. 10:3, 4) like thunder does not refer to the lion’s roaring: no doubt the other three voices were as loud.
Come and see ] The two last words are almost certainly spurious here and in vv. 3, 5, 7: the cry is only “Come!” in all four cases. Who then is to come? Some say the received reading, originally no doubt a gloss, is a correct gloss the Seer is to draw near. But the word is quite different from the “Come hither” of 17:1, 21:9: also there is no sign that he does draw near or has need to do so, and if he has done so once, why is he bidden to do it thrice again? Others take it to be a summons to the Horseman who in fact does come: and this at least is in harmony with the context, and makes good sense, and applies equally to the opening of the first four seals where the same expression occurs. Others, comparing 22:17, 20, take it as addressed to the Lord Jesus. His creatures pray Him to come and behold, instead of His coming immediately, there come these terrible precursors of His, so increasingly unlike Him. But in an address to the Lord, surely His Name must have been added. It would have been not merely ‘Come,’ but ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’
2. behold a white horse ] The image of these four horses is certainly suggested by the vision of four chariots (with perhaps four horses in each, and so related to this exactly as Ezekiel’s vision of the living creatures to that in ch. 4) in Zech. 6:1 8: cf. ibid. 1:8. But that passage throws little light on this: it is in fact the obscurer of the two. Here, the colours of the four horses plainly symbolise triumph, slaughter, mourning , and death ; we are told expressly who the fourth Rider is: and hardly anyone doubts that the second and third represent War and Scarcity respectively. But about the first there is controversy. His white horse and golden crown resemble His Who appears in 19:11, Whose Name is called the Word of God: and hence many think that this Rider is Christ, or at least the representative of Christ’s Kingdom. But is it possible that when He has come, the plagues that follow should come after him? or why should the living creatures continue to cry to Him to come, if He be come already? It would be more credible, that the first Rider is a false Christ, just as Matthew 24:5 precedes vv. 6, 7. But on the whole it seems more reasonable to suppose that all four riders symbolise the woes before Christ’s coming foretold in the two latter verses: and that the first is the spirit of Conquest: the description is like that in ch. 19, because there Christ is described as a Conqueror, and here we have a Conqueror who is nothing more. Then what is the difference between the first and the second Rider? Conquest is necessarily painful it may be unjust and cruel, but it may be beneficent even to the conquered: at least it is not necessarily demoralising to the conquerors, as war becomes, when it sinks from conquest into mere mutual slaughter. This Rider has a bow, that a sword: the first is prepared to fight, and slay if necessary, but he will do so without passion or cruelty just as it is commonly observed, that fire-arms have tended to make war less brutal, by removing the soldiers from the excitement of a personal struggle.
was given unto him ] Apparently he comes into view armed with the bow, but his crown (either that of an honoured soldier or of a king, see on 4:4) is given to him afterwards perhaps as his title to the dominion he is to conquer. But the phrase “was given” is from Daniel 7:4 , Daniel 7:6 , Daniel 7:14 : which proves that it is not necessary to suppose that the Seer actually saw some one crown him.
he went forth ] Apparently out of the field of vision perhaps out of Heaven to carry his conquests over the earth.
conquering, and to conquer ] He makes war successfully, but his purpose is the securing the victory, not the excitement of the battle and carnage.
The Second Seal, vv. 3, 4
4. to take peace ] The word “peace” has the article, which according to Greek usage may mean merely “peace in general, peace in the abstract,” but may also very well stand for “ the peace” which the conquests of the previous Rider have left as their fruit.
that they should kill one another ] Some understand this of civil war exclusively: and such wars have indeed most of the character of war as indicated under this seal. But its full meaning perhaps includes all wars, so far as they are aimless bloodshedding, not painful steps towards human progress. Here we can agree almost entirely with the “continuous historical” interpreters, who see the fulfilment of these four seals in the reigns of the “five good emperors,” when Trajan carried imperial conquest to its utmost height: in the civil wars and mutinies during and after the age of the Severi, in the famines that followed: and in the general distress that made the Barbarian conquest possible. Only we need not regard their meaning as exhausted in the fifth century (much less in the third). We may see e. g. the contrast of the two first seals in the Crusades compared with the religious wars of the Reformation: in the conquests of the French Republic and Empire, compared with the Red and the White Terror, and the mutual crimes of the Holy Alliance and the Carbonari: even in our own country, in a comparison of the reigns of Edward III. and Henry V. with those of their respective successors, or of Elizabeth’s with Charles I.’s: while again the civil war of the latter was noble and fruitful compared with the Dutch war of his son.
The Third Seal, vv. 5, 6
5. a pair of balances ] The primary meaning of the word is a yoke: but no doubt the A. V. is right, as what follows proves that scarcity rather than oppression is to be symbolised. The sense is, that mankind shall be placed on limited rations of bread, like the people of a besieged city; as in Leviticus 26:26 ; Ezekiel 4:16 .
6. I heard a voice ] One of the many voices heard throughout this book without anyone being defined as the speaker.
A measure of wheat ] The object of the voice is rather to define the extent of the scarcity than, as some say, to mitigate it. A quart (or somewhat less) of corn is to be bought for a silver penny (about 8½ d. ); the former was the estimated ration for an able-bodied man’s daily fare, the latter the daily pay of a soldier, apparently a liberal daily pay (see Matthew 20:2 ) for a labourer. So there is not such a famine that the poor must starve, and the rich “give their pleasant things for meat to relieve the soul:” the working man can, if he pleases, earn the ordinary necessaries of life for himself: he may even procure a bare comfortless subsistence (for barley, an ordinary article of human food down to the time of the kings of Israel, was now considered as fodder for cattle) for a family, if not too numerous. Meanwhile, nothing is said about the fish and vegetables, which the plain-living man of the Mediterranean ate with his bread, as the plain-living Englishman eats bacon or cheese: but the comparatively superfluous luxuries of wine and oil are carefully protected. In short, we have a picture of “bad times,” when no one need be absolutely without bare necessaries, and those who can afford it need not go without luxuries. All that we know of the age of the decline of the Roman Empire points to this prophecy having been eminently fulfilled then; but we need not go so far for fulfilments of it any more than of the two former: indeed this is much nearer to us than the grand army and the barricades, or Waterloo and Peterloo.
The Fourth Seal, vv. 7, 8
7. I heard the voice of ] The slight variation of phrase serves to mark the fourth rider off, as partly distinct in character from the rest. They have brought an increasing series of scourges to the earth: his work is utter and unmitigated woe, combining the worst features of theirs.
8. a pale horse ] Or livid , lit. green , as in 8:7, but used constantly of the paleness of the human face when terror-struck, or dead or dying. It is not certain whether it here expresses a possible colour for a real horse: it seems not very appropriate for the “grisled” of Zechariah 6:3 . Perhaps it might apply to the colour of the bare skin of a mangy horse.
and his name &c.] Lit. and he that sat upon him, his name was Death .
that sat on him ] Alford remarks on the fact that the phrase for “upon him” is different from that used of the previous riders, and may be rendered “on the top of him,” perhaps taking it to suggest that the spectre (or skeleton, or demon?) did not ride astride and manage his horse, but simply sat clumsily on his back.
and Hell ] Hades, personified as a demon, as in 20:13, 14. He follows Death, to devour those slain by him.
the fourth part of the earth ] No good explanation of this proportion has been given: the best is, that the four riders divide the earth between them, and that the three afflict or decimate their subjects, while the last exterminates his.
with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth ] God’s “four sore judgements,” Ezekiel 14:21 . For “pestilence” there the LXX have “death,” which fixes the sense of the word in this clause: but the personified Death, the rider, is not to be so limited; he is the sovereign over all four modes of death. The preposition “with the beasts of the earth” is different from those before: it might be rendered “by” instead of “with.”
The first four Seals are distinguished from the rest ( a ) by Personification; ( b ) by the part which the four living creatures bear in the representation.
The Fifth Seal, vv. 8 11
9. This series of seven visions, like the other groups of seven throughout the book, is divided into two parts. We have seen (2:7, 19) that the messages to the seven Churches were divided into a group of three and one of four: here the first four seals are marked off from the last three , and similarly with the four trumpets of chap. 8 from the three that follow in chaps. 9 11: perhaps also, though less clearly, with the vials of chap. 16.
under the altar ] Here first mentioned; it is a part of the arrangements of the heavenly Temple: see on 4:6. Are we to understand that its position was that of the golden altar within the Holy Place (Exodus 30:1 sqq.) or of the brazen altar in the open court before the Temple (Exodus 27:1 sqq.)? i.e. is it an altar of incense or of burnt offering? In 8:3 sqq. we find incense offered at a heavenly golden Altar, and it is not distinguished from this: yet it may be thought that the image here is more suitable to the altar of sacrifice. For at the foot of it the blood of the victims was poured out (Exodus 29:12 ), and the blood, we are told repeatedly, is the life: then is it not meant that the lives or souls (the words are interchangeable, as Matthew 16:25 sqq.) of the martyrs are poured out at the foot of the heavenly altar, when they sacrificed their lives to God? Probably it is meant: but we are not to assume without evidence that the altar here is different from that in chap. 8. Admitting that the Israelite tabernacle and Temple were copies of a really subsisting heavenly archetype, it is not certain that they were exact copies in all respects: they might have to be modified to suit material conditions. Just as it was impossible to have a real sea (see on 4:6) in front of the earthly temple, so it may have been necessary to have on earth an inner and an outer Sanctuary, an altar before each, whereon to present the symbols of those things which in heaven are offered on one.
the souls ] There is undoubtedly a distinction throughout the N. T. between the words for “soul,” the mere principle of natural life and “spirit,” the immortal and heavenly part of man: see especially 1 Corinthians 15:44 sqq. Yet it is probably an overstatement of this distinction to say that these are mere lost lives, crying to God for vengeance like Abel’s blood (Genesis 4:10 ), but different from the immortal souls, which have all their wants satisfied, and desire the salvation, not the punishment, of their murderers. They are the “lives” of the slain: their being under the altar is well illustrated by the ceremonial outpouring of the blood, and their cry for vengeance by that of the blood of Abel, but what follows in the next verse is surely addressed to the inmost souls of the saints, not to impersonal abstract “lives.”
of them that were slain ] As the four former verbs correspond to Matthew 24:6-8 , so this to ibid. 9. In Enoch xl. 5, a voice (that of “him who presides over every suffering and every wound of the sons of men, the holy Raphael,” ib. 9) is heard “blessing the elect One, and the elect who are crucified on account of the Lord of spirits.” There is a passage more like this in sense in the same book, xlvii. 2, “In that day shall the holy ones assemble who dwell above the heavens, and with united voice petition, supplicate, praise, laud, and bless the name of the Lord of spirits, on account of the blood of the righteous which has been shed, that the prayer of the righteous may not be intermitted before the Lord of spirits; that for them He would execute judgement, and that His patience may not endure for ever.”
for the word of God, and for the testimony ] Cf. 1:9, 20:4.
the testimony which they held ] For the construction cf. 12:17 fin. The verb rendered “held” here and “have” there being the same. Some argue from the name of Jesus not being used here, as in the three places referred to, for describing their testimony, that there are Old Testament martyrs, like those in Hebrews 11:0 ad fin . But surely their blood was very amply avenged, and very speedily: of the three great persecutors, Jezebel and Antiochus perished miserably, and Manasseh suffered equal misery, though he repented in time to receive some alleviation of it. We have, however, a Jewish parallel to the thought of this passage in Enoch xxii. 5 sqq., where Enoch hears in heaven the accusing cry of the soul (not, as in Genesis, the blood) of Abel.
10. How long ] Cf. Psalms 94:3 .
O Lord ] Not the ordinary word of reverence applied to God, but one meaning (as we say) “lord and master.” It is used of God in Luke 2:29 , Acts 4:24 ; and of Christ in Jude 1:4 (according to the right reading and probable translation), 2 Peter 2:1 . Perhaps, as the usual word “Lord” in the N. T. and other Hellenistic writings stands for the Name Jehovah, so this is used where the sense “Lord” is really meant, i.e. it answers to the name Adonai , which the Jews pronounced instead of the Unutterable Name, and which Symeon and the Apostolic Church no doubt used in their thanksgivings. Their use of the word, especially in the latter instance, shews that it is no argument for these Martyrs being only Jews as though it proved a servile rather than filial spirit, as some have imagined: at most, it only proves Jewish habits of expression, and it needs no proof that such prevail throughout this Book.
dost thou not … avenge ] It has been argued again from this, that the temper of the Martyrs’ souls is less than Christian. But however right it may be to contrast 2 Chronicles 24:22 with Acts 7:60 , no one can surely imagine that the spirit of this passage is a selfish desire for personal vengeance. As we meet with the germ of the thought in Psalms 94:3 , so we have a developement of it, substantially identical with this, from the mouth of Christ Himself, Luke 18:2-8 . Faith looks on evil with a hatred like God’s own shares God’s will that it shall not triumph, and trusts in God that it will not: but without sharing the depth of God’s counsels, Who knows best how and when to overthrow it. Therefore the Church on earth (the probable meaning of the Widow) and the Saints in heaven, cry alike to God to execute His own purpose, and bring the reign of evil to an end and He does not yet, but He surely will.
11. And white robes were given ] We should read, and there was given them to each one a white robe, bringing out still more fully than the old text, that the white robe is an individual, not a common blessing. It serves to mark them both as innocent and as conquerors: what it is is better felt than said. We see that the “souls” appeared in some visible form, like enough to bodies to wear garments: one of the considerations against regarding them as abstractions, not personal beings. There can hardly be any doubt that this verse (cf. 3:4, 5) represents a portion of the reward given by God to His Saints, and if so, evidently such a portion of their reward as they receive in the interval before the Resurrection. But whether all the elect are in the same position as the Martyrs, or whether we have here described a special privilege granted to them only, is more doubtful: the prevalent belief of Christendom has been, that Martyrs and the like more excellent Saints have, in this intermediate state, a privilege above all the other justified ones.
and it was said unto them ] From the nature of the case, their cry and the answer to it had to be heard by St John successively. But doubtless in fact they are contemporaneous: the Saints at once share God’s desire for the triumph of righteousness over sin, and rest in God’s assurance that it is for good reason that that triumph is delayed.
that they should rest ] i.e. not be impatient and disquieted. Something more is meant than to be at peace, freed from the troubles of their earthly life (as 14:13): but the word does not in the least imply that they are to be unconscious, or as it were asleep.
yet for a little season ] Yet to Stephen and his companions it is not less than 1840 years: and though the Old Testament Martyrs be not exclusively meant, they are no doubt included. But notice that it is contemplated that there will be an interval between the Martyrs of the Primitive Church and those of the last days.
their fellowservants also and their brethren ] It would be possible to construe the words “ both their fellowservants and their brethren,” as though two classes were spoken of. In 19:10, 22:9, where we get the same words coupled, though in another construction, it may be thought that St John is called a brother of Martyrs and Prophets in a special sense. It would therefore be possible to distinguish the two classes, “their fellowservants (viz. all their true fellow-believers), and their brethren which should be killed as they were.” But it is much simpler to translate as the A. V., making both nouns antecedents to the clause that follows.
that should be killed as they were ] The word “as” is slightly emphasised, “ even as they.” The Martyrs of the last days are to be like those of the first, Martyrs in the strictest sense Christians slain because they hold the Christian faith, and will not renounce it. Such Martyrs there have been, no doubt, in the interval between the great ages of persecution under the Roman emperors and under Antichrist, e.g. in the Mohammedan conquests, in the age of the conversion of central Europe, in Japan in the seventeenth century, and in Madagascar, China, New Zealand, and Zululand in our own time. It is likely enough also that martyrs to charity men like St Telemachus and St Philip of Moscow, Abp. Affré and Bp. Patteson have their portion with the perfect martyrs to faith: in some cases, as in the last, it is hard to draw a line between the two: any way, those who suffer for righteousness’ sake suffer for Christ, as St Anselm said when Lanfranc wished to deny the honours of a martyr to St Alphege. But to suffer for conscience’ sake, however noble, is not necessarily quite the same thing: and it is hardly right to claim the name of martyr for the victims certainly not for the victims on one side only in the fratricidal contests of Christians. “The Lord knoweth them that are His;” He knows whether Becket or Huss, More or Latimer, Charles I. or Margaret Wilson, had most of the Martyr’s spirit: we had better not anticipate His judgement whether any or all of them are worthy of the Martyr’s white robe.
should be fulfilled ] Probably we should read, should have fulfilled i.e. their course, as Acts 13:25 , or their work.
The Sixth Seal, vv. 12 17
12. a great earthquake ] Earthquakes follow wars, famines, and pestilences in Matthew 24:7 , as the earlier signs of the approach of Christ’s Coming. But here it is coupled with the darkening of the sun and fall of the stars which, ibid. 29, precede His Coming immediately: whence Alford says, that here it is more than the earth that quakes that it is a fulfilment of Hag. 2:6, cf. Hebrews 12:26 sqq.
black as sackcloth ] The image is used in Isaiah 50:3 .
the moon became ] Read, the moon wholly became , or, the whole [i.e. full] moon became .
as blood ] From Joel 2:31 , “the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood.” The image, no doubt, is suggested by the phenomena of natural total eclipses, when the sun disappears entirely, but the moon, though ceasing to be luminous, does not in general become invisible, but assumes a dull reddish colour. We are told of “signs in the Heaven” before the fall of Jerusalem which, if natural, must be assigned to this last cause, and in any case may be regarded as partial fulfilments of these prophecies, and types of their final fulfilment. See Jos. B. J. VI. v. 3; Tac. Hist. V. xiii. 1.
13. and the stars of heaven ] So still in Matthew 24:29 .
as a fig tree ] It is curious that a “parable of the fig-tree” follows in Matthew 24:32 , immediately after the “fall of the stars.” But this image is taken, not from our Lord’s prophecy l.c., but from Isaiah 34:4 (the Hebrew, not LXX.). The “untimely fig” is the fig which, having formed too late to ripen in the autumn, hangs through the winter, but almost always drops off before the sap begins to rise in spring, so as not to come to maturity. See Comm. on Matthew 21:19 and parallels.
14. And the heaven departed ] i.e. parted asunder. The verb depart was so used (only in a transitive sense) in the Marriage Service until the last revision of the Prayer-Book, “till death us depart,” i.e. “till death part us.” Here we still have a reference to Isaiah 34:4 . The word for “scroll” is the same as that rendered “book” in c. v. &c.
every mountain and island , &c.] Cf. 16:20. There the convulsion is greater than here: and even there it does not imply quite so much as 20:11 a fact to be remembered in the interpretation of this passage.
15. chief captains ] Should be transposed with “rich men.” The word means lit. “captains of thousands,” and was in St John’s time the recognised equivalent (as e.g. Acts 21:31 , &c.) for the tribunus of the Roman army. Probably St John is thinking of Isaiah 3:2 , Isaiah 3:3 .
in the dens , &c.] Isaiah 2:19 , Isaiah 2:21 .
16. and said ] should be and they say .
to the mountains , &c.] Hosea 10:8 : adopted by our Lord, Luke 23:30 . In that passage, it is entirely natural to understand Him to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem only: and therefore it does not seem necessary to understand this vision as implying that the Last Judgement is immediately to come. A judgement of the Lord has now been prepared for, by all the signs that He foretold of it: His Disciples, no doubt, will “look up and lift up their heads,” while the world which does not “love His appearing” is terrified. And we see in the next chapter that the faith of those is not unrewarded: but the dread of these is not immediately realised. In fact, the last “Day of the Lord” will come “when they shall say, ‘Peace and safety’ ” (1 Thessalonians 5:3 ) not therefore, apparently, preceded by terrors like those among the ungodly, but rather by an unbelief (not so uncommon now) that has outlived such alarms, and asks, “Where is the promise of His Coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.”
from the face of him that sitteth , &c.] In spite of John 5:22 , it seems plain that the Father as well as the Son will be specially present and specially revealed in the judgement. See Matthew 16:27 and parallels: which are to be taken into account in the interpretation of Titus 2:13 , and of ch. 20:11 in the book.
from the wrath of the Lamb ] It is scarcely necessary to point out the paradoxical character of the words, and its deep significance.
17. for the great day of his wrath is come ] So the world has thought in every great social convulsion, since they have learnt so far to believe the Gospel, as to confess that such a day is coming. The thought has led men to repentance or to despair, as they were worthy of one or other: but, since the world has so often thought wrongly that the Day has come, it does not follow that, when this Book tells us that the world thinks it has come, we must suppose the world to be right.
who shall be able to stand? ] Cf. Malachi 3:2 .
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the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29