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Bible Commentaries
Revelation 6

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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B. The first six seal judgments ch. 6

John received revelation concerning the judgments that would take place on earth after the Lamb opened the seals on the scroll (Revelation 5:1). God gave him this information to help us understand what will take place in the future (Revelation 1:19). The following diagram places the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgements that begin to unfold here in the context of the earlier revelation concerning Daniel’s seventieth week (Daniel 9:24-27).

The failure of scholars to agree on the correlation of events that have happened in church history with these judgments confirms that the events predicted here are still future (cf. Revelation 1:19; Revelation 4:1). Some postribulational interpreters view the seals as describing conditions preparatory to the Tribulation. [Note: E.g., Ladd, pp. 95-96; and Johnson, p. 472. ] Posttribulationists understand the Tribulation to be the culminating period of the church’s persecution on earth before Christ’s second coming. They believe the church will go through the Tribulation. Premillennial scholars believe that the seals picture events that are part of the Tribulation. [Note: E.g., Walvoord, The Revelation . . ., pp. 122-23; Pentecost, pp. 278-79; and Harris, p. 238.] I favor the second view. The seals, trumpets, and bowls judgments seem to fit best this last seven-year period of which Daniel prophesied (i.e., the Tribulation, Daniel 9:27).

The order of events predicted in Revelation 6 is very similar to the order Jesus predicted in the Olivet Discourse. That passage is key to understanding the further revelation that God gave John about this future time. These events are the appearance of antichrists, war, famine, death, martyrdom, and earthly and heavenly phenomena. Later in the Olivet Discourse Jesus mentioned an event that occurs at the middle of Daniel’s seventieth week, namely, the abomination of desolation (Daniel 9:27; Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14). Consequently the events that He described before the midpoint, namely, those of the first six seals, will probably occur in the first half of the Tribulation. Jesus referred to this three and one-half year period as the "beginning of birth-pangs" (Matthew 24:8; Mark 13:8).

The "beginning of birth-pangs" (Matthew 24:8; Mark 13:8)
The first half of the Tribulation
Matthew 24:4-5Mark 13:6Luke 21:8AntichristsRevelation 6:1-2First seal
Matthew 24:6-7Mark 13:7-8Luke 21:9-10WarRevelation 6:3-4Second seal
Matthew 24:7Mark 13:8Luke 21:11FamineRevelation 6:5-6Third seal
Matthew 24:9Mark 13:12Luke 21:16DeathRevelation 6:7-8Fourth seal
Matthew 24:9-13Mark 13:9-13Luke 21:12-19MartyrdomRevelation 6:9-11Fifth seal
Luke 21:11Earthly & heavenly phenomenaRevelation 6:12-17Sixth seal
The "abomination of desolation" (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14)
The middle of the Tribulation

Verse 1

"I saw" marks the continuation of what John had seen that chapters 4 and 5 record, but also the commencement of revelation concerning future events on earth. Chapters 1-5 have introduced this revelation. John was an eyewitness of this revelation that came to him like action scenes in a film rather than as words from the pages of a book.

When the Lamb broke the first of the seven seals on the scroll that He had taken from God, one of the four creatures invited someone to "Come." This was probably an invitation to the first horseman rather than to John or to Christ. The angel gave this command (Gr. imperative) four times (Revelation 6:1; Revelation 6:3; Revelation 6:5; Revelation 6:7), and each time a horseman on a horse came forth.

Verses 1-2

1. The first seal 6:1-2

Verse 2

John saw a horse, which was a war machine in his day (cf. Job 39:19-25; Psalms 76:5-6; Proverbs 21:31), and its rider (cf. Zechariah 1:7-11; Zechariah 6:2-3; Jeremiah 14:12; Jeremiah 24:10; Jeremiah 42:17). The horse was white symbolizing victory, righteousness, and holiness. White has these connotations in other places in Scripture. The horse gave an appearance of purity, but that does not necessarily mean the rider was righteous.

"When men wage war they always pretend to be fighting for righteousness." [Note: D. T. Niles, As Seeing the Invisible, p. 58.]

The first four seal judgments involve riders riding horses of various colors. This imagery recalls Zechariah 1:8; Zechariah 6:1-8. However the horses and horsemen in Revelation evidently represent something different from those in Zechariah, as comparison of these texts suggests.

The rider carried a bow (cf. Zechariah 9:13-14) symbolizing warfare, but no arrows. The absence of arrows probably indicates a bloodless victory. The rider threatens war (cf. Numbers 24:8; Psalms 45:5; Zechariah 9:14), but it does not occur, probably because he accomplishes victory through peaceful means. Someone, evidently God, gave him an imperial crown (Gr. stephanos) anticipating an authoritative career (cf. Revelation 9:1; Revelation 9:3; Revelation 9:5; Revelation 13:5; Revelation 13:7; Revelation 13:14-15). Conquerors also wore this type of crown. [Note: Swete, p. 86.] The sovereign God is the only one who can give human rulers authority to rule (cf. Romans 13:1).

"All events in the apocalyptic section of the book are initiated from the throne described in chapter 4 . . ., and must be understood in that light. Though indirect, all that transpires under the seals is in implementation of the ’book of doom’ through the agency of the Lamb introduced in chapter 5." [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 423.]

This rider rode out conquering his enemies and bent on future conquests.

There have been many suggestions concerning who or what this rider represents. These include a Roman emperor, the Parthian invasion of the Roman Empire, Messiah, and the Antichrist. Others have taken him to represent the Word of God, a personification of judgment, the victorious course of the gospel, warfare in general, triumphant militarism, or the personification of ungodly movements. In the Olivet Discourse Jesus predicted that a number of individuals will mislead many people (cf. Matthew 24:5; Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:6; Luke 21:8). This has led some interpreters to conclude that a personification of ungodly activity is what the rider represents in this verse. [Note: Ibid., p. 422.] The most probable view is that this is a prophecy of Antichrist who will make a covenant with Israel but only as a pretense for destroying the Jews (cf. Daniel 9:27; 1 Thessalonians 5:3). [Note: See J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, p. 250.]

Daniel Wong concluded that the horseman is either Antichrist or a trend or movement of which he is the chief example. [Note: Daniel K. K. Wong, "The First Horseman of Revelation 6," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:610 (April-June 1996):212-26.] Several writers have argued that he is Christ. [Note: E.g., Zane C. Hodges, "The First Horseman of the Apocalypse," Bibliotheca Sacra 119:476 (October 1962):324-34; and Jack MacArthur, Expositional Comentary on Revelation, p. 137.] Newell believed the rider on the four horses in the first through the fourth seal judgments is Jesus Christ. [Note: Newell, pp. 102-6.] He viewed these judgments as an overview of the Lord Jesus’ judgment on the world that he believed the following chapters reveal in more detail.

Verse 3

When the Lamb broke the second seal on the scroll, John heard the second living creature order the second horseman forward.

Beale believed the disasters represented by the opening of each seal are simultaneous throughout the church age, not sequential occurrences, for either the purification of believers or for the punishment of believers’ persecutors. [Note: Beale, pp. 370-72.] They began, he believed, after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and they will end at His second coming. Conquest, both literal and spiritual, has led and will lead to civil unrest, which has led and will lead to famine, which has led and will lead to death.

Verses 3-4

2. The second seal 6:3-4

Verse 4

The red horse probably symbolizes bloodshed and war. The rider of this horse removes peace from the earth and begins war. There do not seem to me to be sufficient similarities between this red horse rider and the one in Zechariah 1:8 to identify them as the same individual. The one in Zechariah is probably the Angel of the Lord. [Note: See Merrill F. Unger, Zechariah, p. 27.]

If we observe the Olivet Discourse parallelism, the time when peace ends is probably before the middle of the Tribulation (cf. Matthew 24:6-7 a; Mark 13:7-8 a; Luke 21:9-10). This is, therefore, not a reference to the termination of peace with Israel that Antichrist will effect, which will signal the middle of the Tribulation and the beginning of the Great Tribulation (cf. Matthew 24:15).

The large sword (Gr. machaira megale) represents authority to slay people. War on the earth will follow the manifestation of Antichrist. The warfare in view here seems to be part of what Ezekiel described in Ezekiel 38, 39 as the battle of Gog and Magog. [Note: See Pentecost, Things to . . ., p. 352; and John F. Walvoord, The Nations in Prophecy, p. 103.]

Verse 5

A black horse followed symbolizing the ravage of war, namely, famine. Antichrist, the cause of this famine, again seems to be the rider (cf. Matthew 24:7 b). He carries a pair of balance scales, a symbol of commerce, indicating his control of commodity prices.

Verses 5-6

3. The third seal 6:5-6

Verse 6

The voice in the middle of the four living creatures must belong to God or the Lamb, probably God the Father since He is the ultimate source of all these judgments (cf. Revelation 6:11). The price of wheat (good food) and barley (cheap cattle food) will be very high. A quart of wheat would provide one meal, but it would cost a whole day’s wages. In John’s day a denarius would purchase eight to 16 times as much food as what he said it will purchase in the future. [Note: Cicero, In Verrem 3.81.] The poor would have little money left over for oil, for fuel and health needs, and for wine to drink (cf. Ezekiel 4:16-17). "Do not harm" means, "Do not tamper with," reflecting the strict control over prices that ungodly rulers under Antichrist’s leadership will have at this time.

The causes of the famine were not extremely severe since they killed the wheat and barley but not the vines and olive trees (Revelation 6:6) whose roots go deeper. [Note: Beckwith, p. 521.] As the Tribulation grows worse, the rich as well as the poor will suffer, but at this early stage the poor will suffer more than the rich. Probably the wars that the ungodly rulers under Antichrist’s leadership begin will reduce the food supply greatly. These rulers will control it strictly with consequent suffering for many people (cf. Luke 21:11).

Verse 7

The Lamb broke the fourth seal, and the fourth living creature called the fourth horseman out.

Verses 7-8

4. The fourth seal 6:7-8

Verse 8

John next saw an ashen (lit. pale green) horse the color of a human corpse. Presumably Antichrist, the cause of this death, is the rider since his name is "Death." [Note: Swete, p. 88; Lange, p. 165; Lenski, p. 224; et al.] "Hades," which claims unbelieving people’s immaterial part at death, followed on his heels. Death claims the material part of the person and Hades the immaterial part. Perhaps John saw Hades following Death as a man on foot followed a mounted warrior grimly gathering in his victims, or as a hearse followed a horse.

God gave death and Hades authority to take one-fourth of the world’s population. This evidently is the total number that will die as a result of all the catastrophes predicted so far. These catastrophes are war, the resulting famine, and disease. Attacks by wild animals will also contribute to the death rate (cf. Jeremiah 15:2-3; Jeremiah 24:10; Jeremiah 29:17-18; Ezekiel 5:12; Ezekiel 5:17; Ezekiel 14:21). Presently the world’s population is about five billion people. These initial calamities would reduce that number by one and one-half billion. It seems that nuclear war could play some role in this devastation since so many people will die in these judgments.

Beale believed the four devilish forces and their four kinds of woe falling on a fourth of humanity represent "all the ways that death can come and which all result in death." [Note: Beale, p. 382.]

Verse 9

The altar John saw was evidently in heaven (cf. Revelation 8:3; Revelation 8:5; Revelation 14:18). Earlier John had seen a throne-room in heaven (chs. 4-5), but now he saw a temple. Probably the concepts of palace and temple communicate aspects of God’s magnificent dwelling-place in heaven (cf. Psalms 11:4; Psalms 18:6; Psalms 29:9-10; Isaiah 6:1: Habakkuk 2:20). This altar was evidently an altar of sacrifice rather than an incense altar (cf. Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3-5; Revelation 14:17-18). Under this altar were the souls (Gr. psyche, lives) of people who had died for their faith in God and their faithfulness to Him during the period just described (Revelation 6:3-8; i.e., in the Tribulation so far). Some amillennialists believe these martyrs are all Christians who die for their faith during the entire church age, which according to their view, is all believers who die from Christ’s ascension to His second coming. [Note: E.g., ibid., p. 396.] Preterists view these people as Christians who died in the first century of the church’s history. [Note: E.g., Swete, p. 92.] Perhaps the idea is that the lives of these martyrs were sacrifices to God (cf. Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6). The "and" (Gr. kai) is again probably ascensive (cf. Revelation 1:2; Revelation 1:9) meaning the word of God "even" the testimony they maintained.

These people must be those who died after the Rapture since all Christians living at the time of the Rapture will experience bodily resurrection and go directly into Jesus Christ’s presence then (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Consequently the people John described in this verse are evidently those who come to faith in Christ after the Rapture (cf. Matthew 24:9; Luke 21:12). They became believers during the first half of the Tribulation and then suffered martyrdom for their faith. John did not see their resurrected bodies because God had not resurrected them yet. The resurrection of Tribulation saints will not occur until the end of that seven-year period (cf. Revelation 20:4).

Verses 9-11

5. The fifth seal 6:9-11

What happened next evidently took place in heaven.

Verse 10

John saw these martyrs calling out to their heavenly Master (Gr. despotes) to punish their murderers. Contrast the prayers of Jesus (Luke 23:34) and Stephen (Acts 7:60) in which they asked God to be merciful to their murderers. The difference is that the time of God’s longsuffering has now ended and He has begun to pour out His wrath on sinners. "Master" implies divine might, majesty, power, and authority, and it stresses the absolute power of God. [Note: Moffatt, 5:391; Lange, 176; Robertson, 6:344; Alford, 4:619.] How much longer did they have to wait for God to avenge them (cf. Psalms 79:10; Psalms 94:3; Habakkuk 1:2)? "Holy and true" were attributes of Christ earlier (Revelation 3:7), but here the Father is probably in view since He is the ultimate source of the judgments. "Those who dwell on the earth" is almost a technical expression in Revelation describing unbelievers who are hostile to God (cf. Revelation 3:10; Revelation 8:13; Revelation 11:10; Revelation 13:8; Revelation 13:12; Revelation 17:2; Revelation 17:8).

"Their [the Tribulation martyrs’] prayers for revenge upon their enemies are viewed as the fifth judgment against the earth-dwellers." [Note: Robert Thomas, "The Imprecatory Prayers of the Apocalypse," Bibliotheca Sacra 125:502 (April-June 1969):127; idem, Revelation 1-7, pp. 517-24.]

Verse 11

Each martyr received a long white robe (Gr. stole). These martyrs had been faithful and had suffered martyrdom for their fidelity to Christ (cf. Revelation 3:5; Revelation 7:9; Revelation 7:14). God told them to be patient. More people would experience martyrdom before it would be God’s time for Jesus Christ to return to the earth and judge their living adversaries.

Verses 12-13

Next God will send a tremendous earthquake that will rock the whole world (cf. Luke 21:11). The darkening of the sun (cf. Isaiah 13:10; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 2:10; Joel 2:31; Amos 8:9; Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25), the reddening of the moon (cf. Joel 2:31; Acts 2:20), and the falling of the stars to earth (a meteor-like shower?) appear from the context to be consequences of this judgment. A less likely possibility is that they will be unrelated phenomena.

That the stars do not literally fall but appear to do so seems clear from the fact that they are still in place in Revelation 8:12. This fact suggests that we should also understand the other phenomena described here as appearing to happen, how these things will look as people on earth view them.

Many commentators have taken this description as picturing a metaphorical convulsion among the nations, not a literal shaking of the earth and the heavens. Beale, for example, saw it as a metaphor describing God’s judgment of all sinners just before the last judgment, which he saw taking place at Christ’s second coming. [Note: Beale, p. 398.] We should probably take them literally for at least two reasons. First, Jesus used the same language in the Olivet Discourse and gave no indication that it was symbolic (cf. Matthew 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11). Second, a shaking of the nations follows in Revelation 6:15-17.

Verses 12-17

6. The sixth seal 6:12-17

The scene now shifts back to earth.

"The entire passage in every clause utilizes well known prophetic anticipations of the day of the Lord, and by his use of these images John identifies the day for his readers. One may check this by consulting the chief scriptures John employs, notably Joel 2:10; Joel 2:30 f., Isaiah 13:9 ff; Isaiah 2:10 ff; Isaiah 34:4, Ezekiel 32:7 f., Hosea 10:8. These passages depict the concomitants of the day of the Lord and supply John with all his pictures." [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 138.]

The eschatological day of the Lord in prophecy includes a time of judgment (the Tribulation) followed by a time of blessing (the Millennium).

Verse 14

Evidently the sky will appear to split and roll back in two opposite directions (cf. Isaiah 34:4). [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 454.] The universe will seem to be coming apart. Apparently the opening of the sky will give earth-dwellers a glimpse into the throne-room of heaven (Revelation 6:16). Probably the earthquake (Revelation 6:12) will cause mountains and islands to rise and fall (cf. Nahum 1:6).

Verses 15-16

The reaction of every category of humanity all over the world is amazing. It indicates that people’s perception of God and the Lamb in heaven will be far more terrifying to them than the physical consequences of this judgment. Whereas the martyrs cry, "Avenge us" (Revelation 6:10), these unbelievers cry, "Hide us."

"What sinners dread most is not death, but having to stand before a holy and righteous God." [Note: Ibid., p. 456. Cf. Swete, p. 94.]

Literal interpretation does not rule out the use of hyperbole, which appears at this point. If all the mountains moved out of their places, there would be no places for people to seek to hide.

Verse 17

This "great day of their wrath" is the Tribulation, Daniel’s seventieth week (cf. Jeremiah 30:7; Daniel 12:1; Joel 2:2; Matthew 24:21). These people will not turn to God in repentance but from Him in terror (cf. Isaiah 2:19; Isaiah 2:21; Hosea 10:8; Luke 23:30). By the end of the sixth seal judgment, they will know that what they are experiencing is the outpouring of His wrath. This is the first part of the judgment phase of the day of the Lord (cf. Joel 2:11; Joel 2:30-31; Isaiah 2:10-11; Isaiah 2:19-21; Isaiah 13:8-13; Isaiah 26:17-19; Isaiah 34:4; Isaiah 34:8; Isaiah 66:7-9; Jeremiah 30:6-8; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Hosea 10:8; Micah 4:9-10; Matthew 24:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:3). The day of the Lord includes Daniel’s seventieth week (seven years) of judgment, Christ’s return to the earth, and His 1,000 year reign on the earth. Some have sought to limit the day of the Lord to Armageddon only. [Note: E.g., Gundry, pp. 91-92.] But this view fails to take all the day of the Lord data in Scripture into account.

The Tribulation will be a distinct judgment of God unique from other times of distress that the earth has ever experienced (Jeremiah 30:7). It will be worldwide and severe. Furthermore everyone will not only know that it is a divine judgment, but they will act like it by seeking death to hide from God, not just from these calamities. The judgments of the sixth seal appear to be a foreshadowing of the similar but even greater judgments that will come at the end of the Tribulation, just before Jesus Christ returns to the earth (cf. Revelation 16:17-21; Matthew 24:21).

"The cosmic disturbances immediately before the beginning of the Joel 3 Day of the Lord and the Second Coming of Christ immediately after the Great Tribulation are not the same as those of the sixth seal. The cosmic disturbances immediately before the beginning of the Joel 3 Day of the Lord and the Second Coming of Christ will occur at the end of the 70th week, but those of the sixth seal will occur and end considerably before then." [Note: Showers, p. 70.]

Other cosmic disturbances appear in the Great Tribulation before the one described in Joel 3 occurs, namely, those associated with the fourth and fifth trumpets and the sixth bowl (Revelation 8:12; Revelation 9:1-11; Revelation 16:12-16). Joel 3 does not refer to a cosmic disturbance before the Tribulation begins.

Postmillennialists and amillennialists interpret the revelation of tribulation in chapters 6-18 as a symbolic description of various troubles that have come and will come on believers before Jesus Christ’s second coming. [Note: See David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion; idem,The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation; and David S. Clark, The Message from Patmos: A Postmillennial Commentary on the Book of Revelation, for postmillennial views. William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, is one of the most carefully argued amillennial commentaries, as is Beale’s. Hailey is also clear, while Herman Hoeksema’s Behold, He Cometh! is comprehensive.] They do not believe the Tribulation will be a specific seven-year period of the unique outpouring of God’s wrath yet future.

Posttribulationists believe the church will be on earth during the Tribulation. Among premillennialists there are pretribulationists (those who believe that the Rapture will occur before the Tribulation) and posttribulationists (those who believe that the Rapture will occur at the end of the Tribulation, immediately before or concurrent with the Second Coming). Gundry, a posttribulationist, held that sufferings Christians experience during the Tribulation will not come as a result of God’s penal judgments but will be persecutions that arise "from other quarters." [Note: Gundry, p. 51.] He viewed the martyrs of this period as Christians (believers living between the day of Pentecost and the Rapture) rather than as tribulation saints.

Marvin Rosenthal argued, correctly I believe, that the first four seals describe what Jesus called "the beginning of sorrows" (Matthew 24:8). [Note: Marvin Rosenthal, The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church. See Robert Van Kampen, The Sign, for a similar view.] He equated this period with the first half of Daniel’s seventieth week (i.e., three and one-half years, or 42 months). However, he wrote, incorrectly I believe, that the fifth and sixth seals picture "the Great Tribulation" (Matthew 24:21), which he limited to the following 21 months, not the whole second half of Daniel’s seventieth week. He further argued, also incorrectly, that the seventh seal begins "the day of the Lord" (Joel 2:1-2), which will only be the final quarter of Daniel’s seventieth week, namely, the remaining 21 months. He placed the Rapture at the beginning of the day of the Lord, which he believed would be the only period of wrath poured out. Thus since the Rapture will occur before it, according to his scheme, we can expect a "Pre-wrath Rapture." [Note: For refutations of Rosenthal’s view, see Paul S. Karleen, The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church-Is it Biblical?; Gerald B. Stanton, "A Review of The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church," Bibliotheca Sacra 148:589 (January-March 1991):90-111; John A. McLean, "Another Look at Rosenthal’s ’Pre-Wrath Rapture’," Bibliotheca Sacra 148:592 (October-December 1991):387-98; and Renald E. Showers, The Pre-Wrath Rapture View: An Examination and Critique.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Revelation 6". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/revelation-6.html. 2012.
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