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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Revelation 6

Chap. 6. Bengel in his “Erbaulichen Reden” gives utterance to a sentiment, which is of importance for judging in regard to the historizing mode of interpreting the Revelation adopted by him in common with many others: “Thus far we have considered five chapters, and have not met with much of human history, although it was the substance and design of the book to shew what was to come to pass. But now such things come. And from the quality of the persons here present, it is not possible to say much respecting them.” Bengel thus felt that the Revelation, in respect to its main subject, could not through his exposition be enjoyed by the vast majority of Christians, and remained dark in spite of all disclosures. This should have led him to subject that mode of interpretation to a severe ordeal. For, it is scarcely at the outset to be imagined, that a book, which is so decidedly ecclesiastical in its contents, should have been intended for the narrow circle of the learned. And if we consider more closely, it would not thus be really fitted to serve the interests and necessities of that class. For what renders a book unintelligible to the unlettered Christian, also renders it unedifying to the learned. [Note: There are not wanting expressions in Bengel which show that he himself felt this; as at ch. 9:1, ss., “The preceding context might indeed be regarded, as if little edification was contained in it since a woe is therein described, which is already long since past,” &c.]

Verse 1

First Seal

Revelation 6:1. And I saw that [Note: It is properly: And I saw when, that is, I was a beholder when. It is better to explain thus than with several: And I beheld, when the Lamb dad opened one of the seven seals, then I heard. The hearing can certainly be comprehended under the seeing, in a more general sense. But where, as here, there is merely something to be heard, and nothing properly to be seen, the: I saw, could scarcely be so employed. But the opening of the first seal was of itself, and apart from its contents, of such moment, that it was proper for the Seer to say in regard to it, that he saw.] the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. And I heard one of the four beasts say as with a voice of thunder: Come and see. Bengel: “The four first seals have apparently a special resemblance to each other and a close connection, as hare also the three last. In the four first the four sacred beasts exclaim after each other to John: Come; and on each occasion John saw a horse of a certain colour, and a certain power that either belonged, or was now given to him that sat on it. But in the three last seals the four sacred beasts are not mentioned, and neither is there any horse.”

Expositors for the most part remark, that one of the four beasts may be as much as the first, and that this, according to ch. Revelation 4:7, may be the lion. But in harmony with only one of the four beasts and not the first being here named, is the circa instance, that there is no evidence whatever of the particular beasts being taken into account.

But why generally should such appearances of the beasts hare been announced? The answer is: because they are the representatives of the earth, on which the judgments were to be inflicted, or rather of all living beings on the earth. To the same conclusion points also the expression in Revelation 6:6: in the midst of the four beasts.

The words: as with a voice of thunder, are used only of the first in the series, and as to the meaning also appear to belong only to this. For, this distinction corresponds with the surpassing elevation of the object. With a voice of thunder was he announced, whose voice, according to ch. Revelation 1:15, “is like a voice of many waters,” of whom it is said in ch. Revelation 10:3, “And he cried with a loud voice as a lion roars, and when he cried the seven thunders uttered their voices.” The voice of thunder is a suitable announcement of the God-man conqueror, who, with invincible might, carries everything before him. Especially in the third of the series the thunders would have been unsuitable. They are elsewhere found also only in connection with the greatest transactions.

The second thing peculiar to the preparation for the first appearance is the “Come and see” (in the following seals, it is merely: Come), which is spoken here to John as the representative of the whole church, which must be instructed through him regarding future events. This also points to the higher dignity of the first appearance, to the “great sight” ( Exodus 3:3; Acts 7:31), which was presented in it. Bengel falsely: “This word see is put only at the first seal and its joyful contents. In the three following seals it is merely said come. They are of mournful import.” In this respect there is no difference between the first seal and the others, according to the right exposition. The appearances are all joyful for the church, all terrible for the world.

There exists here a wonderfully close resemblance between the Revelation and Gospel of John. The “come and see,” which rests as to its ground on Psalms 66:5, “come and see the deeds of God,” and often occurs in the Talmudic and Cabbalistic books as an invitation to the attentive consideration of some important matter (see Schöttgen) is found also in John’s Gospel with reference to Christ. According to John 1:40 the “come and see” [Note: The want of the καὶ? ἰ?́?δε in several important manuscripts, which has led some recent critics to omit them in the text, has no weight. For, we can perceive the reason of the omission to be, that in other codices the words are added at the second, third, and fourth seals. People sought in various ways to bring the seals into agreement with each other. For the originality of the καὶ? ἰ?́?δε there is the parallel mark of distinction in the first seal of the voice of thunder, and the agreement with John 1:47.] was the second word which was heard from Jesus by John along with his companion Andrew (see the proof for John’s being the unnamed disciple of the Baptist, who on his testimony followed Jesus with Andrew, in Lampe Proleg. i. c. 2, § 2.) That word had indelibly impressed itself on the thoughtful mind of the apostle. Through him probably had it come to Philip, and here it is once more sounded forth again.

Verses 1-17

THE SEVEN SEALS

The seer is snatched up to heaven, and sees there a holy assemblage, in which all points to the judgment, which, for the benefit of his sorely oppressed church, the Lord is going to execute upon the ungodly world, ch. 4. What the whole scene was of itself fitted to suggest is then brought clearly out in ch. 5, where a book with seven seals is delivered to Christ for the purpose of being opened, containing the judgments to be inflicted on the world. This opening follows, and the judgments- one after another become manifest in ch. 6 and in ch. Revelation 8:1. Ch. 7 forms an intermediate episode, in which is represented the preservation of the faithful in the midst of the judgments which alight on the world.

Verse 2

Revelation 6:2. And I saw, and behold a white horse, and he that sat on him had a bow, and a crown was given him, and he marched out conquering, and that he might conquer. Bengel remarks: “Much such another, one quite peculiar and incomparable rider upon a white horse, is to be seen in ch. Revelation 19:11; but this one in the first seal had to be exhibited in some proportion with the riders in the second, third, and fourth seals, that there might be only some distinguishing traits in him as compared with the others.” The desired “proportion” must, no doubt, be found, but there is no proof of its needing to stand in the circumstances indicated by Bengel. Even if we understand by the rider on the white horse here, in accordance with ch. Revelation 19:11, Christ, there still exists between this seal and the others both a formal agreement and a matter-of-fact one also, in so far as the appearance here, as well as the others, threatens destruction to the anti-christian world, and brings it. This essential and indispensable point of unity is entirely left out of view by Bengel. According to him it was the appearance of the reign of Trajan that was represented, and so the church, instead of getting an answer to her anxious and sorrowful question, “Lord, how long?” gets only a bald proof of the omniscience of God: “Trajan’s reign could have been guessed by no human sagacity, and yet the things which were to take place under it shortly after the vision of John in Patmos, were so clearly announced beforehand.” That by such an interpretation the connection is quite broken between this appearance and what follows in the other seals, is clear as day. But for the identity of the rider on the white horse here with that in ch. Revelation 19:11, “And I saw the heaven opened, and behold a white horse, and he that sat upon him is called true and faithful, and he judges and makes war in righteousness,” there are the following reasons.

1. The agreement with ch. Revelation 19:11 is of the greater moment as the end of Christ’s war and victory there corresponds with the beginning here.

2. That the rider here is no other than Christ is clear from the unmistakeable reference of this passage to the Messianic Psalms 45, which is distinctly referred to Christ in Hebrews 1:8. The royal dignity, the sitting upon a horse, the bearing of a bow, the going forth to fight, the fulness of victory, all, excepting only the white colour of the horse, presents itself there again.

3. The original passage for the whole first four seals is Zechariah 1:7-17 (where see the Christology). The starting-point there, too, is the prosperity of the world, the distress of the church; and the subject is the announcement of the impending judgment on the world. That judgment the prophet there also incorporates under an equestrian figure. He sees a proud rider on a red horse in the myrtle bush of a deep valley, surrounded by red, bay, and white horses. He recognises in the rider at the head the angel of the Lord, and in his attendants the angels that serve him. In that portraiture also the angel of the Lord, the Logos, appears at the head.

4. Only if Christ here appears at the head will the design and import of the following appearances become clear. They then present themselves as means for accomplishing the victory of Christ, which they must necessarily be from the starting-point of the whole book and from the connection of the introductory chapters, in which everything serves as a preparation for an exhibition of the victory of Christ over the world. In the second, third, and fourth horses by themselves there is only a fact set forth which can be contemplated from several points of view. We take the right one only when we refer Revelation 6:2 to Christ. In Zechariah also the signification of the symbol would have been doubtful if the angel of the Lord had not been at the head, whose appearance as such announced the salvation of the church, the destruction of the world.

Comp. John 17:9.

5. The difference, along with the agreement, between the first appearance and those that follow, discovers itself in the “voice of thunder,” the “Come and see,” and “there went out another horse,” in Revelation 6:4, which is said in respect to the second horse only from its relation to the first, and must, therefore, point to a diversity. 6. The crown is not the victor’s crown, but the badge of royal dignity. This shows that the first rider cannot, according to Züllig’s opinion, be like the rest, “a plague-spirit,” and points to Christ, who, according to ch. Revelation 19:16, has a name written upon his garments and upon his thigh: “King of kings and Lord of lords.” That the discourse here cannot be of a victor’s crown is evident alone from the consideration that he receives it before he goes out to fight, and in ch. Revelation 14:14 also he appears having a golden crown on his head.

The white, λευκό?ς , luceo, to enlighten, shine, is throughout the Revelation the colour of lucid splendour, the symbolical image of glory.

Comp. on ch. Revelation 4:4, and hence the prevailing colour in the appearances of Christ; comp. ch. Revelation 1:14, “But his head and his hair white as wool.” The white horse has respect to the glory at once of his person and of his operations. Vitringa distinguishes unnecessarily between things that are most essentially limited. That the latter could not be excluded is plain from the analogy of the other horses, the colours of which foreshadow what was to be done by the riders, as also from the analogy of the horses in Zechariah in the passage already referred to, and in ch. Revelation 6:1-8.

The crown is given to the rider, materially, that he may bear it in his warlike and victorious march. The king wears the royal crown only when he is engaged in kingly actions.

We must not interpret: conquering and so that he conquered; but only: conquering and that he might conquer. Victory and nothing but victory! The expression: and that he might conquer, is a substitute for the annexed infinitive absol. in Heb., which “describes vividly unceasing progress.” Ewald, § 280, b. It might also have stood: conquering and conquering, or, so that he conquered and conquered.

The object of the victory can only be the world as hostile to Christ. Viewed in regard to it, the affirmation, “This is no image of terror but of joy,” must be changed into the opposite. We must not, also, determine the relation of this horse to the following ones, so as to imply that this brings victory and these three misfortune. The description of a court of judgment opens the whole group. The book with the seven seals is the book of the judgment which God suspends over an ungodly world for the deliverance of his people. This character of it must necessarily come out to view in the first vision. Then in support of this view is the analogy of ch. Revelation 19:11, where also the appearance of him who sits upon the white horse is terrible and appalling to the enemies. Finally, if we were to regard this first appearance as one altogether cheering and joyful, we must destroy its connection with the three following, and overlook the fact that the three last riders form the sequel to the first, are the instruments of his victory. (Bossuet: “In his train march the three scourges of the wrath of God, as they were presented to David, 2 Samuel 24:13, war, famine, and pestilence.”). Behind the punishment there is salvation also for the world, if they submit to the punishment, and the case referred to in ch. Revelation 9:20, and Revelation 16:11, does not enter, of salvation being hid. The book is primarily a book of consolation for the church. This in all its feebleness and tribulation shall be revived by having the image of its heavenly King placed before its eyes, as he goes forth with invincible might to win a sure and glorious victory.

Verse 3

Second Seal

Revelation 6:3. And when he opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say: Come. [Note: The words: and see, which Luther here, and in Revelation 6:5; Revelation 6:7, has added, hive no critical support of any importance, and are taken from Revelation 6:1, without regard to the difference between the first appearance and the others.] V

er. 4. And there went forth [Note: Several expositors: and there drew out, with reference to the ἐ?ξή?λθε in Revelation 6:2. But we can scarcely say of a horse what can be said of a rider. We must, therefore, understand the word here of the going forth, the in scenun prodire, an opposed to its being hitherto enclosed in the sealed book.] another horse, which was red, and it was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another; and there was given him a great sword. The supposition of Vitringa, that here the rage of the heathen emperor against the innocent confessors of the truth, with their bloody martyrdom, is here represented, proceeds on an entire disregard of the connection. Here, in the contemplated judgments, which under the leadership of Christ, God suspends over the world, as opposed to Christ and his church, war takes only a subordinate place. The seven trumpets are occupied fully and at large with this. But the object of the passage before us, is a threatening of bloody discord; it is one of the chief punishments which alight upon an ungodly world; one of the chief means of Christ’s victory. It breaks the might, the confidence, the security, the arrogance and fury of the antichristian world; it disposes the princes of the world to peace. Therefore the Christian should not be frightened if he sees this judgment realizing itself anew and still proceeding. It should be to him a harbinger of the victory of his Lord. When wars find terrors overspread the earth, he should see in them the dawn of the church’s triumph.

On red as the colour of blood, see on ch. Revelation 12:3. To this view the whole points, and in particular the words: there was given him a great sword; so that Hoffmann’s remark: it means shedding of blood and burning, is to be rejected. Only such a colour is here naturally indicated as agrees with the natural colour of the horse. The redness of the fox-coloured horse suffices for the representation of blood redness.

Verse 5

Third Seal

Revelation 6:5. And when he opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say: Come. And I saw, and behold a black horse; and he that sat thereon had a pair of balances in his hand. Revelation 6:6. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say: A measure of wheat for a denarius, and three measures of barley for a denarius; and do not hurt the oil and the wine. The blackness of the horse indicates, not as Bengel and others suppose, “black hunger as the Greek and Latin poets called it;” but it is employed simply as the colour of mourning. This appears from the analogy of the black horse in Zechariah 6. It appears also from the fact that it is not hunger which is discoursed of, but only scarcity. This judgment forms only the stepping-stone to the fourth, where hunger in the proper sense enters, in fulfilment of Matthew 24:7. The balances are mentioned here only as a symbol of scarcity. For, according to what follows, the corn is not weighed but measured.” Where there is a superfluity, there people count and miss not ( Genesis 41:49), but where they weigh anything, it is a sign there is not too much.” Original passages are Ezekiel 4:10, “And thy food which thou shalt eat (thou must eat) by weight, twenty shekels a day,” and Ezekiel 4:16, “And he said to me, Thou son of man, Behold I break the staff of bread in Jerusalem, and they eat bread by weight and in sorrow,” which passages again rest on Leviticus 26:26. In regard to the voice heard, the only question is, what it proclaimed, not whence or by whom. It is hence unprofitable to seek to determine this. The sound came from “the midst of the four beasts,” the midst of the representatives of the living beings on the earth, because the report concerns these. Those who take up wrong views of the Cherubim, who, for example, understand by them the evangelists, or the leading men in the church, or the four offices, know not what to make of” the midst of the four beasts.” A measure, choenix, of wheat is stated by Suidas to be the daily support of a man (ἡ?μερή?σιος τροθή? ). Herodotus makes a reckoning in B. VII. c. 187, how much corn was needed for the Persian army, if every one received a choenix of wheat per day and no more, showing that this was the necessary daily allowance. A denarius was the usual day’s wages, according to Matthew 20:2. The price of the corn is therefore certainly a high one, but still it cannot be a case of absolute famine. If barley bread were to be eaten, the common food of the poorer sort of people ( John 6:9, John 6:13), which is three times cheaper than wheaten bread, a family could still be brought through with difficulty. On the words: “and the oil and the wine hurt not,” Bengel remarks, “Barley and wheat are earlier than oil and wine. Here the discourse is of a time which is better for oil and wine than for barley and wheat. This, along with the other, points to a moderate scarcity: take heed, since the deficiency in the one kind can be made good by fulness in the other. Wheat and barley, oil and wine, are the most common and necessary means of life. The use of oil is considerably more common both in oriental and southern countries than with us.” Ewald thinks that the wine and oil are here not hurt by a sort of irony. “The greater the want there is of corn, the most necessary of all the means of support, the more painfully we feel a superfluity in a kind of provision, not profitable to us, such as oil.” But in this it is overlooked, that in oil and wine countries these productions have a quite different value from what they have with us in the north of Germany. Corn, oil, and wine, are put together as the three chief products of Palestine, and the three essential necessaries of life, in Deuteronomy 28:38-40, Micah 6:15, Ezra 3:7, and even the failure of the two latter we reckon there a calamity to the country. It is father overlooked, that even the wheat and barley are not represented as perfect failures, but only as high priced.” Where the means of support are wanting, there certainly it cannot avail, that there is still enough of oil and wine. But here the price is still pretty moderate. Should it come to pass, that oil for the preparation of food and wine retain their usual price, the scarcity is undoubtedly sufficient to press upon the poorer class, but still is not insupportable. But then the fundamental passage of Exodus 9:31-32, is left out of view; on which Züllig remarks, “We have there the seventh Egyptian plague, the hail, smiting the flax and barley, but sparing the wheat and rye; and that because, as is expressly mentioned, the barley was already in the ear and the flax was boiled, while the wheat and the rye being later of growth escaped injury.” If the sparing of the wheat and rye is there a mitigation of the divine judgment, so also here must be the sparing of the wine and oil. From the relation too of this seal to the following one, we can only think of a mitigation being intended. The subject here is not of a single divine judgment of the kind indicated, so that we should need to search in history for a particular period of scarcity, during which the representation here given was realized; but the prophecy has respect to an entire species of divine judgments, and the fulfilment is one that runs through all history. We have here just a prelude of the fulfilment of Matthew 24:7, “There shall be famines in divers places.” Bad crops and scarcity are one of the scourges in the hand of God, with which he chastises unbelief and enmity to Christ and his church through the whole course of centuries, and punishes and breaks the arrogance of an apostate and rebellious world, so as to prepare the way for Christ’s dominion. Bengel: “The balances of this rider serve as a sign, that all the fruits of the ground, and consequently all heaven with its progressive influences, all the seasons of the year and the course of events, with their manifold changes and vicissitudes, are subject to Christ. They do well, who diligently mark the course and issues of things, as connected. among other things, with the divine judgments, which are accomplished through failures of crops, scarcity, pestilence, earthquakes, waterfloods, fire, hail, thunder and lightning; and those chronicles and narratives, which are devoted to the collection of such materials, are to be highly prized. For they celebrate the work of the Most High, whose hand leaves wonderful traces behind it, not only in the operations of war and peace among earthly states, but also in the course of nature.”

Verses 7-8

Fourth Seal

Revelation 6:7. And when the fourth seal was opened, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come. Revelation 6:8 . And I saw, and behold a pale horse, and he that sat on him, his name is death, and hell followed after him. And power was given him to kill the fourth part on the earth, with the sword, and hunger, and with death, and by the beasts of the earth. Bengel: “Here we have combined together and increased indeed, what in the preceding seals was set forth by particulars, and in a less oppressive form.” Certainly we have here a junction and an aggravation of the two preceding plagues; but the first seal is also improperly combined with them by Bengel. War, and indeed such a war, as scatters death and destruction far and wide, appears here in connection, not merely with scarcity, but with absolute famine, and along with that also disease and wild beasts. Striking as regards the relation of the fourth seal to the second and third, is the passage in Matthew 24:6-8, “Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that ye be not troubled ; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.” The for in Revelation 6:7 indicates, that this verse is to be regarded as a higher gradation of what is said in the preceding verse. There scattered wars were spoken of, but here a universal warfare, a kind of general uproar spreading over the whole earth. They were not to consider wars and rumours of wars as the immediate harbingers of the end. For before this should take place, there must be a rising of people against people, etc.; and even this should not bespeak the immediate approach of the end, but only the beginning of sorrows; as here, after the fourth seal, there are still then more to follow. The second seal corresponds to the wars and rumours of wars in Revelation 6:6, and also the third; as the scattered wars appear like heralds of the universal warfare, so the scarcity is like the herald of the famine. The pale [Note: Χλωρό?ς properly green, is used even by Homer in the sense of pale, II. vii. 479, where χλωρὸδεό?ς is pale fear; comp. Artemidorus i. 77. Constantius, the father of Constantine the Great, according to Zonaras, was called Chlorus, on account of the paleness of his countenance.] horse images wan death. As the rider under the fourth seal has the name of death, the second is personified war, the third personified scarcity. In the train of death hell appears; Greek, Hades Bengel: “The four seals turn upon living men; and so death, by which they are carried off, is most prominently represented, but hell, only in so far as he receives those who have been cut off by death, acting as death’s hearse, on which account no separate horse is assigned him.” He further remarks: “By the German word Hölle (hell), two Greek words are expressed, which are widely different. The one is Gehenna, and means in particular the place of fire and torment; the other is Hades, and corresponds to the Hebrew Scheol. Here it is the word Hades that is employed, which generally signifies the state of the dead, whether the soul may have gone to peace or may be under wrath.” This remark cannot be held to be just. The word Hades is used in the New Testament only in reference to dead sinners—see my Commentary on the Psalms, vol. III. p. 86. (Eng. Trans.), and especially Luke 16:23, where to be in Hades and in torment are inseparably connected together. This usage prevails especially in the Revelation (comp. ch. Revelation 1:18, Revelation 20:13); in the latter of the passages referred to it is the ungodly alone that are spoken of; Hades appears as their temporary receptacle after they leave the world. Now in the passage before us, there is no reason why we should take Hades in the Old Testament meaning. The subject of discourse is the judgments to be executed upon the ungodly world as opposed to the kingdom of Christ. For such to die and to go into hell is all one. Of the elect no account is made here. How it was to fare with them in the midst of these judgments, first appears in ch. 7. [Note: It is from misapprehending the proper import and position of this seventh chapter, that Bengel makes the following remark here: “Whether and how far the servants of God were to be spared from the judgment, is not mentioned; for these are secured by the sealing in ch. 7, not from what is spoken of here, but from what follows under the trumpets.” Ewald still more distinctly goes against the connection, when he represents the plagues mentioned here as affecting the Christians not less than others, and even specially intended to put their faith to the proof. The analogy of the Egyptian plagues should have kept commentators from such irrelevant remarks, which would substitute the judgments on the Church for that of the world, for which alone preparation wan made in ch. 4 and 5.] If Hades were used here in the Old Testament sense, there would have been no occasion for specially mentioning him after .death. It is appropriate only as the place of torment, and is fitted to deepen the impression of terror. The fourth part of the earth is the fourth part of the human race. The judgment is a frightful one, especially when it is considered that where so many are carried away by death, untold sorrows must also be experienced by the rest. Even yet, however, it is not the end of all things. That only the fourth part is destroyed points to this, that fearful judgments were still to come, as we have yet but the first four of the seven seals of that book, which was filled with terrors.

The instruments of death are comprised in the number four. They stand in a certain relation to each other. Famine and pestilence not rarely break out in the train of war, and in the lands which have suffered depopulation by such causes ravenous wild beasts take possession, and become formidable to the people that are left ( 2 Kings 17:25). The original passage is Ezekiel 14:21, “My four sore judgments, the sword, and famine, and the noisome beast, and pestilence, I send against Jerusalem, that I may cut off from it man and beast,” (comp. what is said more at length regarding them in Ezekiel 14:12-20). The result here is exactly the same as in Ezekiel, only that the noxious beasts, which were threatened so early as in Leviticus 26:22, take here the last place, because relatively they produce the smallest devastations. Hunger, war, pestilence, appear as the three great judgments of God in 2 Samuel 24:11, ss.

By death here the pestilence must be understood, according to many expositors. Nor can there be any doubt that pestilence must be chiefly meant, by comparing the original passage in Ezekiel, and others, in which the pestilence is named as a main instrument of judgment. Still, since death is employed and not pestilence, λοιμό?ς , which might so naturally have occurred from the discourses of our Lord, also because of the parallel passage ch. Revelation 18:8 (comp. besides ch. Revelation 2:23), and because in the classical authors no trace is to be found of the supposed special signification of the word death, nor does the Sept. version, when more narrowly examined, afford any proof of it, [Note: When the LXX. render, as they often do, דבר by θά?νατος , it was not because they employed the latter simply in the sense of pestilence, but because they took the Heb. word in a general sense, as the word itself indeed properly means destruction in general, and is only to be taken in the more special sense of pestilence when the connection clearly determines it to be so used.] the word death must be taken as a comprehensive expression, which besides pestilence includes other things that tend to produce a general desolation. So already Bengel, “Death properly means pestilence, and yet we can also understand by it earthquakes, destruction by fire and water, inasmuch as multitudes of men are violently killed by these.” There are not wanting examples in Scripture of the general being thus mentioned in the midst of the particular. Perfectly analogous is Genesis 1:26, “Have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of heaven, and over the cattle, and over the whole earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth.” The expression: over the whole earth, is put in the room of: over the wild beasts of the earth, but at the same time includes in itself whatever might be on the earth besides the things specially named. Then also Genesis 15:21, where the mention of the Canaanites has led to the groundless supposition of there being a separate race with that name, from the manner of Scripture in this respect not being attended to. The general term introduced in such cases among others of a special nature, shews that the different kinds named are only to be regarded as representatives of the whole species.

All the judgments mentioned here are directed to the one point of chastising and breaking the pride and insolence of the world, restraining its persecuting zeal, and converting out of it what is to be converted, and laying it at the feet of Christ the conqueror. The fulfilment pervades all history, and is ever renewing itself before our eyes: as often as the world’s hatred against Christ and his church breaks forth anew, the commission is also again given to him who bits upon the pale horse, and whose name is death. It is a spectacle of fearful magnificence to see him riding on through centuries. Bengel: “We know not what sorrows may come upon the earth even in our days, and much yet remains to run its course. O, how needful is it for us to make sure indeed of the love of the Lamb and his gracious protection! Come what may, there shall assuredly be safety and blessing to his true people.”

Verses 9-11

Fifth Seal

Revelation 6:9. And when the fifth seal was opened, I saw under the altar the souls of those who were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they had. Revelation 6:10. And they cried with a loud voice and said: How long, Lord, thou holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth! Revelation 6:11. And there was given to every one of them a white garment, and it was said to them that they should rest yet for a time, until their fellow-servants and their brethren, who should also be killed as they were, should fulfil. The book is the book of the Lord’s judgments against a hostile world and for his church. With every particular seal that is opened, a part of its contents, a phase of the judgment must be laid open. At the head of the whole we see Christ marching forth as conqueror. All that follows must connect itself properly with this victorious emblem; nothing can happen which does not disclose Christ as a conqueror. We have not to do here with the signs of Christ’s coming in general. Agreeably to the starting-point, the oppression of the church through the world-power, and the despairing thoughts this gave rise to in believers, the judgments that belong to this portion are the preliminary ones, that give indication of the end, in which the whole is to be consummated. Now, all the rest really bears this character. Only the seal before us forms an apparent exception, which yet cannot be suffered, without interrupting the symmetry of the whole, and imputing to the holy Seer a kind of thoughtlessness. If we should, for example, suppose with Hoffmann, that there is here set forth “the persecution of those who keep and maintain God’s word and the testimony of the Lamb,” as a sign of the end ( which, however, is opposed by the circumstance of the persecution not being described, but pre-supposed as done, and only the question raised, when the time of recompense was to come), we should then place this seal out of the compass of the introductory vision in ch. 4, in which all announces the judgments of God on the ungodly world. The same may be said also of Ewald’s view: “It is intimated that those plagues shall be especially destructive to the Christians, and that already many martyrs have fallen under them;” by which, also, the import of the preceding seals is wholly misapprehended. The plagues of the four first seals have respect merely to the world; under them the blood of the martyrs is not shed; but they are the beginning of revenges for that blood. The difficulty vanishes whenever it is perceived, that the question, “How long dost thou not judge and avenge our blood?” which was spoken at a determinate period of time, had its occasion in the circumstances of the time, and inasmuch as it presupposes these to come into consideration here. The impending provisional judgments are so frightful, more frightful even than those described in the first four seals, that they impel the mind to think of the approaching final judgment. In the fourth seal only the fourth part was carried away; with all its terribleness it bears only a partial, provisional character. But here a general judgment begins to come forth on the inhabitants of the earth. The shaking of the foundations of the ungodly power appears to announce its final overthrow. Yet an indication is given, that, notwithstanding present appearances, this was not to take place quite immediately; and so the prayer of this seal has a definitive relation to the sixth, and prepares the way for it. What here begins to be vigorously entered on, is accomplished afterwards under the seventh seal, after the premonitory signs have under the sixth assumed an extensively threatening character. The cry of the martyrs, therefore, stands in a similar relation to the circumstances of the time, as Daniel’s prayer, in Daniel 9, occasioned by the overthrow of Babylon, that the Lord would fully execute his promises. The substance, in short, of the fifth seal is, such catastrophes as bring to view the final judgment on the world, and in connection with that the glorification of the church. Here, as in the preceding context, the Seer has primarily in view the Roman world, for it was this which in his time shed the blood of martyrs; it was this which primarily had led him, for his own interest and that of his companions in tribulation, to place himself on his watchtower, and look forth for what God might speak to him, and what he should answer to his complaint ( Habakkuk 2:1). Great shakings of the Roman empire were what the cry of the martyrs, “how long,” immediately called forth for the inquiring and expecting prophet. But the prophecy does not reach its end with the immediate fulfilment. It comes to life again, so soon as a new antichristian power, which the Seer himself indicates in ch. Revelation 20:7, ss., though certainly in a very general manner, treads in the footsteps of the old Roman power, and provides consolation for the church that shall then groan under its persecutions. It is quite characteristic of the groups of the seven seals and the seven trumpets, that every thing in them bears a general and comprehensive character, nothings refers specially or at all exclusively to the Roman empire. The special references to this belong to the later groups.

According to Lücke, a rebuke is given to the martyrs for their impatience, as seeking not to gratify their revenge, but to call down the judgment of God from heaven. But there is no symptom of a rebuke. The idea is, that the judgment, which through its surpassing frightfulness seemed to bring the end immediately into view, still did not carry this import, but only of a presage, that the final judgment was only to come when the world, through the continued persecution of the church, had filled up the measure of their sins; comp. Matthew 24:6, “But ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that ye be not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.” Whenever it is perceived that the introduction of the martyrs is of a purely poetical character, it becomes manifest that there can be nothing of impatience and rebuke.

These souls had already cried for vengeance, and it was the hearing of their cry that is reported in the four first seals. But that was still not the vengeance itself, which could be satisfied with nothing short of the entire overthrow of the adversaries, but only a prelude of it. Now, however, the circumstances have entered, which place the full vengeance distinctly in view.

The souls of the martyrs in Revelation 6:9 are not the souls in the intermediate state, as expositors commonly suppose; the souls are meant of which it is said in the Old Testament, that they are in the blood—the animal souls (see, for example, Genesis 9:5); they are murdered souls; but the blood itself might as well have stood, and in Revelation 6:10 indeed is actually put instead of the souls here. This is plain from comparing the original passage, Genesis 4:10, where the blood of Abel cries to God from the ground. (Züllig: “Only a dramatizing of the thought: your blood demands vengeance, according to Genesis 4:10, Genesis 9:5, etc.”) It is in accordance with the phraseology of the Old and New Testament, in which everywhere the spirits only, not the souls of the departed are spoken of—see my Commentary on the Psalms, vol. III. p. 87. Trans. It is shown by a comparison of the parallel passage, ch. Revelation 20:4, where the discourse is of the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and where the prophet sees them live again. It is plain, finally, from the fact, that the souls were seen under the altar, in reference to Leviticus 4:7 (comp Leviticus 5:9), “And the whole blood of the bullock shall he pour out at the bottom of the altar of burnt- offering, which is before the tabernacle of the congregation.” Accordingly, since the place under the altar has nothing to do with souls in the higher sense, we can only understand by the souls the animal souls, which perish with the body. The introduction of the souls of the martyrs here, therefore, is a purely poetical one. They are in reality as little living, as the blood of Abel in reality cried to God from the earth. Life is only lent to them here, that they might utter what the thought of them, combined with the relations of the time, tended to as a result.

The altar is that of the heavenly sanctuary. For heaven is the stage on which all here proceeds—comp. ch. Revelation 4:1. Two altars occur in the Revelation, namely, the golden altar of incense, and the altar of burnt-offering, which is not said to be golden. That is treated of in ch. Revelation 8:3-4, Revelation 9:13; this in ch. Revelation 14:18, Revelation 16:7. Here it can only be the altar of burnt-offering that is meant. For this, as being the more public of the two, accessible, and open to the view of all, is always the one intended in Scripture, and especially in the Revelation, when the altar simply is mentioned, and without any further addition (comp. ch. Revelation 16:7). And here we can the less think of any other than it, as on it alone were bloody offerings presented, and only under it could the blood be found, or the souls of those that had been slain.

Why does John see the souls of the martyrs under the altar? The answer is furnished by what has been already remarked. By this is already disposed of the view of those who consider the spot under the altar as the place “where they could best be kept under the view of God, to whom their obedience in their death had been a sweet smelling savour,” as “a fine keeping place,” as the first stage of that blessedness to which others afterwards succeed; so that some are even inclined to understand by the altar Christ (Gerhard, Calov, &c.,) “under whose protection and shade the souls of the martyrs are preserved free from all perils and evils till the day of judgment.” Such a view must at once give way as soon as it is established, that it is not the spirits but the animal souls of the martyrs that are here spoken of. It withdraws from the vengeance-cry of the martyrs, in Revelation 6:10, the foundation which is here provided for it, and which rests on the circumstance, that their murdered souls lie upon the ground. For the spirits of the departed, too, the place under the altar, by which it is quite arbitrary to understand Christ, is a rare sort of keeping place! Then, such a view of the subject here brings it into conflict with what is elsewhere said of the state of the departed righteous, especially in this series itself; and in ch. Revelation 7:9 ss., according to which the departed righteous stand before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white garments and palms in their hands, and this even partly during the tribulation which passes over the world. Bengel’s supposition of different stages rests upon a misapprehension as to the relation of ch. 7 to ch. 6, and the regressive character which belongs to the latter. The whole of the sacrificial system is an allegory. The sacrifice of beasts symbolised that of men. The presentation of the burnt-offering in particular symbolised the consecration of the persons by whom and for whom they were brought, primarily indeed, their spiritual consecration, but this also in the external, in martyrdom, formed the chief and fundamental element. Hence, it was very natural to consider those who had yielded up their life for the cause of God and Christ, as having been sacrificed on the altar of the heavenly sanctuary; the more so, as from Isaiah 53. the death of Christ was wont to be considered as a sacrificial death, and to be set forth under sacrificial terms, not preventing, but prefiguring the death of his people for the truth (comp. ch. Revelation 12:11). The blood of the slain victims, which were offered on the material altar of burnt-offering, according to Leviticus 4:7, was to be poured out at the bottom of the altar. Accordingly it was natural to assign the murdered souls of the martyrs a place under the altar. There they lie, and complain of their murder, so long as it still remains unavenged. From this passage has arisen the custom of preserving the relics of the martyrs in the altars.

Bengel remarks, “who killed them? Babylon (ch. Revelation 18:24, and in her, in the spiritual Babylon, that is Rome, was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all those that were killed upon the earth.) When Babylon is reckoned with, the blood that cries here is found in her, ch. Revelation 19:2. Now, since the Roman martyrs in the fifth seal still cry for vengeance, it may be perceived that the plagues in the fourth seal do not particularly point to Rome, for that city remains yet unavenged.

When John received the vision, many Christians had already been executed; the persecution was past which had been raised by the savage Nero in Rome itself, in which Peter was crucified, and Paul was put to death by the sword.” It is true that the Seer had primarily in his eye the Roman martyrs. Still, these only occupied the foreground—as surely as the contents of this fifth seal could not find merely a single fulfilment. But in so far as the Roman persecution is kept in view, we are not merely to think of the souls of those who were slain under Nero and onwards till the time of Domitian; but we are to regard the Seer as beholding along with these all such as, up to the period of the fifth seal, were destined to suffer amid the approaching catastrophes of the Roman dominion. He that saw through the causes of the bloody commencement could have no doubt as to the bloody progress. But from this Bengel quite erroneously concludes, that the Roman martyrs still cry for vengeance, and that the plagues in the first four seals do not especially respect Home. The revenge which is sought here is the definitive, the final one. As certainly as the Roman persecution forms the starting-point, must the plagues in the first four seals primarily have respect to Rome (though still neither specially, nor exclusively so), and an exposition which does not recognise this, bears error on its very front. For the word of God and for the testimony which they had, therefore, for the very same reason that had occasioned John’s banishment to Patmos, as stated in ch. Revelation 1:9. The testimony, according to this parallel passage, is the testimony of Jesus; and the addition, “of the Lamb,” or “of Jesus Christ,” which is found in some critical authorities, is right in substance. The expression: which they had, appears at first sight singular. We would have expected something, that more distinctly marked their activity. But according to the kind of representation adopted in the Apocalypse, the witnessing properly belongs to Christ, who is the true and faithful witness—ch. Revelation 1:5, Revelation 3:14. The martyrs, as they are commonly called, are but the depositaries of this testimony; those that are Christ’s have but to abide true to the testimony they have received, to keep that which has been given them, ch. Revelation 11:3, to hold what they have. Jesus witnessed concerning the truth during his walk on earth, and continually bears witness through the Spirit of the Father, which he sends—comp. John 15:26-27. The testimony also of Jesus, which is deposited in this book, belongs originally not to him, through whom it was communicated to the church, but Jesus testifies in it of himself, and John merely has the testimony of Jesus according to ch. Revelation 19:10, comp. ch. Revelation 12:17; where “having the testimony of Jesus” also occurs.

In Revelation 6:10 it is not the souls that are the subject (for these could not speak of their blood), but the slain. The address, as it seems, is directed to Christ; for it is he who opens the fifth seal. The fundamental passage is Psalms 79:10, “Make known to the heathen the revenging of the blood of thy servants, which has been shed.” This again points back to the words of Moses, “for the blood of his servants will he avenge,” which form the conclusion of the Song in Deuteronomy 32:43. The sad and wistful, but still believing (for faith alone wonders that God should be so long in executing revenge) how long, is very common in the Old Testament, and especially in the Psalms; for example, Psalms 35:17, “O Lord, how long wilt thou look on?” Psalms 94:3, “How long, Lord, how long shall the wicked triumph?” The address, “O Lord,” corresponds to the mention of the servants in the Psalms. Compare the expression “their fellow-servants,” in Revelation 6:11. The Lord must himself undertake for his servants and avenge them As it belongs to them to serve him truly, and as they have done this even to the sacrificing of their life, so it rests with him to afford them true protection and avenge them. In the Psalms the prayer for help and vengeance is commonly founded on the circumstance of the Psalmist’s being the Lord’s servant. Bengel: “In the Greek here there is a word ὁ? δελσπό?της , which nowhere else occurs in the Revelation, and properly signifies a landlord, or head of a house. The martyrs cried to God as their own proper lord. Innocent blood, if shed without any charge of crime, and guiltless only in a common respect, cries; but much more does the blood of those cry, who have shed it for the truth of heaven”—the servants of God and Christ, who had sacrificed their lives in their service. The New Testament constantly uses the word δεσπό?της , lord or householder, in denoting the relation of any one to servants—comp. 1 Peter 2:9, “Let servants be subject to their masters with all fear.” Luke 2:29, “Now, Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” Acts 4:28-29; 1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1:1, Jude 1:4. The holiness denotes God's absolute separation from the world, in its impotence and transitoriness; comp. on ch. Revelation 4:8. In reference to the truth, see on ch. Revelation 3:7. The divine truthfulness in keeping promise is only a particular element of the truth, and the idea of the truth is weakened, if it is wholly confined to that. The martyrs sought for revenge as such, so that the nature of their God might manifest itself therein, which would otherwise be at fault; for if revenge was wanting God could not be God ; as certainly as he is the holy and the true, he must execute it. But they also desired revenge, as appears from Revelation 6:11, because it is the necessary condition of the church's glorification, and peculiar to it. If with Wolf we take away the former, one does not see how provisionally and as an earnest white clothing could be given them. The fulfilment of what is here prayed for is disclosed in ch. Revelation 19:2, where, in the words of Bengel, “the desire of the martyrs, with a very remarkable repetition of their words, is transformed into a song of praise.” God is there praised by great hosts in the heavenly world, “because his judgments are true and righteous, because he has judged the great whore, who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and has avenged the blood of his servants at her hand.” Comp. ch. Revelation 18:20. As the groups, however, are each complete in themselves, the fulfilment must be indicated even in this group itself; and such an indication is actually found under the sixth and seventh seals, which disclose the full vengeance of God on the persecutors of the church.

That there can be nothing here of a revengeful spirit on the part of the martyrs, is clear from what has been remarked on the import of the whole scene, according to which also conclusions such as those of Bossuet are to be rejected: that pious souls know that God has still not avenged their blood, wherefore they must be cognizant of all that is going on upon earth. We have shewn, that the introduction of the souls of the slain is of a purely poetical character. But the thought that God avenges the blood of his people on their persecutors is an entirely scriptural one, and one thoroughly in accordance with the mind of the Saviour. The general law, which receives here a special application, was uttered by our Lord in Matthew 7:1-2. He himself applies it to the very case before us in Matthew 23:35-36, “So that upon you may come all the righteous blood, that has been shed on the earth from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zecharias, son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.” And in Luke 18:7-8, “Shall not God avenge his elect, who cry to him day and night? I tell you, he will avenge them and that speedily.” The last passage shews, that not only is the revenge agreeable to the nature of God, but also that the wish for the revenge is acceptable, whenever it proceeds from the right affection, a desire for the glorification of the divine nature, and the exaltation of his church on earth. This, indeed, might be understood of itself; for what God does from the necessity of his nature, this may, and even should be wished for by believers; see my remarks on the Vindictive Psalms, in the dissertations appended to my Commentary.

The inhabitants of the earth appear here as the persecutors. The small flock that have been redeemed from the earth are not formally mentioned as an exception to the worldly mass; comp. the words of our Lord in Matthew 24:9, “Ye shall be hated of all nations for my name sake.”

According to Revelation 6:11 there was given provisionally a white garment to each of the suppliant martyrs, in answer to their prayer, as this could not at present receive a complete fulfilment. What has been said on the white as the colour of lucid splendour, the symbolical image of glory, at ch. Revelation 6:2, Revelation 4:4, may be compared. According to ch. Revelation 3:4-5, and Revelation 7:14, a white garment is the clothing of the blessed generally, and their clothing as such: without any exception they go from this life immediately into glory. Hence the expression here, “there was given,” can only be referred to the consciousness of the Seer, as a thing connected with the fifth seal, not to the actual fact; for long before this had martyrs finished their testimony, Antipas for example, who had died before the seals began at all to be opened. For John’s sake and that of the church there was given to them what they already in fact possessed. The thought can only be this, that they must be satisfied meanwhile with the heavenly glory, till the time should come when the kingdom of glory would be set up on the earth. Had the slain martyrs presented themselves to the Seer at once in their white garments, their cry would have made little impression on him. Bengel’s view of the giving of the white garments as an extraordinary reward and distinction (“In fact something was given to these souls, which in their blessedness they did not possess. White Stolae, or white long robes, are an excellent ornament and high honour”) cannot be maintained in accordance with the parallel passages. As little can the view of Vitringa, who thinks that the giving of the white garments must symbolize the fact, “that those martyrs shall be openly justified in the church, and they shall be acknowledged and honoured as partakers in the glory and kingdom of Christ, while their case for a long time appeared in a doubtful light.” According to the parallel passages, the white garments denote, not the acknowledgment of the martyrs on the earth, but the heavenly glory conferred on them. Bossuet’s remark: “A white garment—this is the glory of pious souls in expectation of the resurrection,” is fitted to create a misunderstanding unless it were defined in some such way as this: the white garment, in itself a mark of glory generally, signifies here from the connection the contrast to the completed glory, etc.

The resting, ἀ?ναπαύ?εσθαι (comp. Mark 6:31, Mt 14:41; Luke 12:19; Matthew 11:29) is carefully to be distinguished from simple resting and ceasing, καταπαύ?εσθαι . Hence we are not to think, with Bengel, of a resting of the souls from their cry. The ἐ?́?πι alone is against this, since it presupposes, that they had even till now been resting, and intimates, that they must still continue to enjoy their rest, till the period when they should be admitted to their full inheritance. We can only think of a resting and refreshing of themselves from the sufferings and troubles of this life. Comp. ch. Revelation 14:13, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord . . . that they may rest from their labours,” ἱ?́?να ἀ?ναπαή?σονται ἐ?κ τῶ?ν κό?πων αὐ?τῶ?ν . As there the resting corresponds to the blessed, so does it here to the white garments. The blessedness and glory before the resurrection consist especially in the resting—as also in ch. 7, in the representation of the state of the blessed before the resurrection the negative element is the predominating one: they shall hunger no more, nor thirst any more, neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat, and God will wipe away all tears from their eyes. Resting from the troubles and annoyances of the earthly pilgrimage—this is a blessed earnest that God will certainly give to his people a rest in most intimate fellowship with Christ; for otherwise dying could be no gain to them, Php_1:21 . See on the state of the departed till the resurrection, Nitzsch’s excellent remarks in his System, § 215.

For: a time, some critical helps have: a little time, χρό?νον μικρό?ν . But the attribute is evidently borrowed from ch. Revelation 20:3. The simple: a time, is found elsewhere also, where it was not wished to define the period more exactly, Acts 19:22; comp. Isaiah 27:11, Sept., Tob_14:4 , and Nehemiah 13:6 in the Hebrew. In ch. Revelation 10:6-7: “And he swore—that henceforth there should be no time more. But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall sound, the mystery of God shall be finished, as he has declared to his servants the prophets, “it is intimated, that the delay fixed here had come near its close. From that passage we are here to supply: then shall the mystery of God, which he declares to his servants, the prophets, be finished, and consequently in the place of the resting the complete glory promised by them shall enter along with its necessary ground-work, the completed revenge on the enemies of the kingdom of God.

In the expression: till they should complete or fulfil (πληρώ?σωσι ), we must supply: their course or their work. To complete, fulfil one’s course, work, the gospel, that is, the service connected with it, is a mode of speech of which St Paul was peculiarly fond; see especially Acts 20:22-24, “And now, behold, I go bound in the Spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befal me there; save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me there. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear to me, that I may complete my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received from the Lord Jesus, to testify of the gospel of the grace of God.” Also 2 Timothy 4:6-8, “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me at that day; and not to me only, but to all them also, who love his appearing.” (See, besides, Romans 15:19; Luke 9:31; Acts 13:35, Acts 12:25, Acts 14:26.) From a reference to these passages, in which just as here the completion of the course is, put in connection with martyrdom, we can explain the elliptical mode of expression. It must have respect to this very reference. The different variations in the text have arisen from the oversight of this ellipsis. [Note: Of these the reading πληρωθῶ?σι has the greatest support in MSS., while πληρώ?σονται , which is vindicated by Ewald, has little or none, as was long ago sufficiently shown by Bengel. But the former also, when more narrowly examined, yields hardly any satisfactory meaning. The common rendering: till they have been completed, for till their number has been made up, is hard. So also is that of Vitringa: till the whole measure of the sufferings appointed to them might be full. No parallel passages can be produced for either.]

So far as the idea is concerned, there is a close resemblance in Hebrews 11:39-40, “And these all (the faithful witnesses of the Old Testament) having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise; God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” If the completion were precipitately hurried on, the precious opportunity would be denied those who come after us, of saying with St Paul, “I have finished my course,” etc.

The naming of the brethren, still more than that of the fellow-servants, points to this, that we must not lay hold of anything that is disadvantageous to them. Because these are their fellow-servants, God must not have a partial respect to them; because they are their brethren, they must not desire that any such respect should be had. They must be satisfied with the white clothing, and the rest after their labour, until opportunity has also been given those to deserve the crown of righteousness, who should fight the good fight, and love not their lives unto death, during the further persecutions that should be carried on by the beast, under the Roman dominion, under the ten kings, and lastly under the assault of Gog and Magog. One must be very much captivated by Jewish representations, if by the fellow-servants one understands the future martyrs from the heathen, and by the brethren those that should come from the house of Israel. The Apocalypse knows nothing of such a distinction. It would need in such a case to have been first of all expressly stated, that by the slain for the word of God only martyrs from among the Jews were to be understood.

The sixth seal follows now in Revelation 6:12-17 . First, in Revelation 6:12-14 , the plague is described which alights upon the ungodly world. This description is completed in the number seven, divided by the four and three; the earthquake, the sun becoming black, the bloody moon, the falling stars of heaven—the disappearing heavens,’ the mountains and islands moved out of their places. Then in Revelation 6:15-17 the impression is delineated, which these facts produced upon those who were affected by them, the indescribable anguish by which they were seized.

This seal has had a false interpretation put on it in two different ways. First, by those who suppose (as recently Hoffmann), that the subject here discoursed of is the end of all, the day of judgment. What this view has to support it, rests on mere appearance. That the things, which in Revelation 6:12-14 appear to carry one over the boundaries of the present world, only belong to the figurative style of the representation, is evident from Revelation 6:15-17, in which we find ourselves in the existing state of things. Only by adhering to the figurative style also does it become clear, why precisely the heavens, and the mountains, and the islands are brought together. But the most important, and of itself alone quite decisive ground against the interpretation in question, is the circumstance, that we are here still only at the sixth seal, and another, the seventh, follows. The final judgment must first enter with this seventh seal. For, according to the starting-point of this group, and the whole contents of the book, the seals cannot reach farther than the judgment. Then, the judgment, which meets us under this seal, does not at all bear the character of the final judgment. We behold here kings of the earth, the nobles, etc., certainly in great trouble and despair; but the deadly blow is still not struck against them even at the close. Of what really does characterise the final judgment—the resurrection of the dead and their appearance before the tribunal of Christ—there is not a word said. Finally, that this judgment with all its terrors is still but a preparatory one, appears from the original passages of the Old Testament, and likewise from the declaration of our Lord in Matthew 24:29, which is to be regarded as the text on which the Seer comments. That the last judgment cannot be meant there, that the passage is to be understood figuratively of times of great tribulation and uproar, is clear from what follows, in which men still appear to be living after the catastrophe has taken place; and the manifestation of Christ, corresponding here to the seventh seal, only appears afterwards.

While the signification of this seal is over-valued by this class of expositors, by another it rated too low. It is so by those who, not perceiving that the Revelation falls into a series of independent groups, think that the seventh seal comprehends the whole of the rest of the book. So great and lengthened a course of things could not possibly have followed the sixth seal if this were taken in its natural import, and hence the attempt must be made to rob it of this; as was done by Bengel, for example, when he set forth the singular view that the end of the world is here merely exhibited beforehand to the unrighteous dead. If we do not stand here exactly at the final end, we yet stand at the beginning of the end. “The great day of his wrath” is immediately before the door, is already as good as come; and ch. 7 can only come in as an episode between ch. Revelation 6:17 and ch. Revelation 8:1, where the dawn of that day is announced. The two verses are very closely connected together, and in ch. 7 we have only a repetition of what belongs to an earlier period.

The historical realization of the section before us is to be found, first, in the times of complete uproar and begun destruction in respect to that world-power, whose persecution of the church was the primary occasion of the composition of this book, and whose approaching overthrow must therefore have been peculiarly comforting to the church—the Roman. The impending terrible convulsion of this power also appears in ch. Revelation 16:18, under the symbol of a mighty earthquake. What in this respect is marked here in its general features, is more fully detailed in the following groups. But the prophecy does not come to an end with this first realization. It continually revives anew, whenever a new persecuting world-power steps into the place of the Roman. As another of this kind Gog and Magog are named in this very book. The original passage also, Matthew 24:29, has had more than one fulfilment:—the first a provisional one, which our Seer already saw behind him in the overthrow of Jerusalem, a more general one in the breaking up of the Roman state; the most extensive one is still future, and may already be descried in its beginnings.

The mistake of several of the older expositors, who refer the darkening of the sun, etc., to the fates of the church instead of the judgments on the world, against which the elect are fully secured by the sealing vision in ch. 7, has been well exposed by Vitringa.

Verse 12

Sixth Seal

Revelation 6:12. And I saw when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake, and the sun was black as sackcloth of hair, and the whole moon was like blood.

In place of the earthquake, Züllig puts a commotion generally, on the ground that the heavens and the sea were also affected by it. But the word when standing alone is always used of the earthquake. So in particular in Revelation, ch. Revelation 8:5, Revelation 11:13; Revelation 11:19, Revelation 16:18. And Zullig’s reason is disposed of by the remark that the heavens and the sea are spoken of in a figurative sense, and in point of fact the whole catastrophe is confined to the earth.” Storms, earthquakes, are not images of God’s omnipotence in general; they are the natural symbols of the destroying omnipotence of God, and were regarded as such by the nations of antiquity. Earthquakes were viewed as precursors of approaching ruin; comp., for example, the remarkable passage of Herodian, VI. 98, from which it appears that he himself, participating in the general belief, held them to be such; also IV. 28; Thuc. II. 8; Justin. XL. 2. As the manifestation of the destroying power of God in inanimate nature calls forth, even in the rudest minds, the anticipation that the same destroying power shall also manifest itself in the relations of men; as in every storm, in every earthquake, we behold a sort of prophecy in act concerning God’s judgments on men; so, on the other hand, where these judgments are experienced, where mournful disorder and distress on all sides prevail, even external nature seems, to the troubled and anxious mind, to be dissolved; it feels as if heaven and earth were convulsed together. And this explains how the manifestations of the destroying power of God in nature—how storms and earthquakes should be so frequently used in Scripture as images of similar manifestations of the same power in the affairs of man. Hence, for example, the description of the storm in Psalms 18, to denote the fearful ruin which God was ready to bring on the enemies of the Psalmist. Hence, too, Isaiah 13:13, where the contemplation of the destruction that overhung Babylon is extended so as to embrace a judgment over the whole earth, of which it was a prelude, an execution in part, and at the same time a matter-of-fact prophecy. “Therefore will I make the heaven to tremble, and the earth shall quake from its place, through the anger of the Lord of Hosts, and in the day when his anger burns.” So also Psalms 60:3, where sore calamities of the covenant people appear under the image of an earthquake, by which great breaches of the earth had been occasioned. Even in the poetical prose of the first book of the Maccabees, 1Ma_1:28 , the terrible sufferings by which the covenant people had been visited, appears directly as an earthquake.” (Christology on Haggai 2:6.) In Psalms 46:6, “the nations roared, the kingdoms were moved,” is parallel; and “he utters his voice, the earth melts.” The tumultuous roaring of the nations, the moving of the kingdoms, appears as a spiritual earthquake sent among them by God; so also in Psalms 46:2, In Haggai 2:6 the words, “I shake the heaven and the earth and the sea and the dry land,” are explained by those in Haggai 2:7, “and I shake all heathen.” If it is established, that by the latter is meant the causing of the foundations of empire among the heathen to shake, the dissolving of their power, then the shaking of heaven and earth must be referred to the same. In Haggai 2:22 likewise, by the words, “I shake heaven and earth,” great revolutions are indicated, through which the condition of things on earth was to be so changed that the highest should become lowest. This is manifest from Haggai 2:22, which serves as an explanation, “and I overthrow the throne of kingdoms, and I destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the heathen, and I overthrow the chariots of war and their warriors, and the horses and the riders come down, every one by the sword of his brother.” From this commentary we perceive that the shaking of heaven and earth denotes great revolutions, which God by his almighty power brings about in the state of nations—bloody wars, by which he precipitates from their seat of power those who proudly lifted themselves up against him. It is this that is denoted by the words: and there was a great earthquake, which we can the more readily understand, as we have now the beginning of such an earthquake before our eyes, and which always takes place where the earth rises up in rebellion against its Creator and Redeemer. The shining of the heavenly lights is the symbol and the visible reflection of the grace of God. Hence its extinguishment by the sun and moon becoming dark in storms and earthquakes, &c., is regarded as a prelude of severe judgments. Comp. Joel 3:4, “the sun shall be changed into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes,” and the Christology on the passage. The main point in such representations was not the sign itself, but the state of mind it indicated, the consciousness of guilt, which filled the soul with thoughts of an avenging God, and the posture of affairs which brought him strikingly into view. Hence we find an explanation, why in the Old Testament the darkening of the sun and moon usually appears as an image of troublous and distressing times. When such really come, the lights of heaven appear to be extinguished. The sun seems to shine only for the prosperous. Isaiah, after having described heavy troubles that were going to break in upon the land for its ungodliness, says, in Isaiah 5:30, “There was darkness in its heaven.” Jeremiah, when describing the judgment that was impending over Judah, says, in Jeremiah 4:23, “and I saw the earth, and behold! it was waste and desolate, and the heaven and it had no lights.” And in Jeremiah 15:9, “her sun went down while it was yet day.” In Ezekiel. Ezekiel 32:7-8, we meet with the extinguishing of the heavenly lights in his delineation of the overthrow of Pharaoh the king of Egypt, to indicate such unutterable evils as it would be impossible to escape from. In Amos, Amos 8:9-10, it is said, “and it comes to pass in that day, saith the Lord Jehovah, that I make the sun to go down at mid-day, and give darkness to the land in clear day. And I turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentations; and I bring upon all loins sackcloth, and upon every head baldness; and I make it as the mourning for a first-born, and its end as a bitter day.” Michaelis: “I make the sun to go down, that is, I make all that is mournful suddenly rush in.” In Micah 3:6 it is said, “And the sun goes down for the prophets, and the day becomes dark for them,” meaning, “that everything of a dismal kind was ready to overtake them.” Comp. besides Isaiah 13:10; Zechariah 14:6; Joel 3:15.

Since there is such a regular figurative use in Old Testament Scripture of the darkening of the sun and moon, we shall not think of anything else in the declaration of our Lord, which forms the immediate basis of the passage before us, “But soon after the tribulation of those days the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light;” we shall only find in it a description of the most dismal and mournful times—such times as existed immediately before the destruction of Jerusalem, and as are now again beginning to appear, when the lights of heaven are as good as extinguished for the miserable, because these are no longer sensible of the enlivening rays they emit. This view also is rendered necessary by the falling of the stars from heaven that immediately follows which must be figuratively understood, both from the parallel passages in the Old Testament, and because the stars falling from heaven, if understood otherwise, would crush and destroy all, while in the following verses the tribes of men are spoken of as being still in existence.

The comparison of the sun with sackcloth of hair (sackcloth as the mourning-garb again in ch. Revelation 11:3, comp. Matthew 11:21) is not to be referred to the blackness—for hair-cloth was usually made of camel’s hair, Matthew 3:4—but to the want of all bright and shining colour. No stronger contrast to the glittering splendour of the sun could be found than the sackcloth of hair worn by mourners, the natural hatefulness of which is still further heightened by its symbolical use.

On the expression: the whole moon, Züllig remarks, “as she appears only when at full moon, so that the sight would be still more terrible.” The whole, however, is wanting in many manuscripts; and is also rendered somewhat suspicious by never occurring in the fundamental passages of the Old Testament.

Verse 13

Revelation 6:13. And the stars of heaven fall to the earth, as the fig tree casts its unripe fruit, when shaken by a strong wind. Every thing mighty is in Scripture transferred to heaven; see on ch. Revelation 12:9. But the stars of heaven, in particular, are so natural an image and symbol of the greatness and splendour of worldly rulers, that the employment of them in this sense is found among almost all nations, and pervades also nearly all Scripture, from Numbers 24:17 onwards (see my work on Balaam there.) In Isaiah 34:4-5, Isaiah says in words, from which those here are principally taken, to which also those of our Lord in Matthew 24:29 refer, “And all the host of heaven is dissolved, and the heavens are rolled together as a scroll; and all their host falls down, as a leaf falls from off the vine, and as that which is withered from the fig-tree. For my sword is bathed in heaven, behold it comes down on Idumea.” It is the same thing in meaning that is expressed in Isaiah 34:12, “Their nobles! there is none whom one calls to the kingdom, and all their princes have come to nothing.” The heaven is the princes-heaven, the entire order of kings and nobles. The stars are individual princes and nobles. The “in heaven” of Isaiah 34:5 puts this beyond a doubt, as heaven stands there for the region where the sword rages, which could not be said of heaven in the proper sense. Michaelis remarks, “That this prophecy cannot be understood immediately of the last day, is clear from the circumstance, that the desolation of many regions follows this rolling up of the heavens.” In Isaiah 24:21, “And it comes to pass on that day, that the Lord will visit the host of the height in the height, and the kings of the earth on the earth,” the second member is explanatory of the first. No trace is to be found anywhere else in the Old Testament of a punishment of “the bad heavenly powers.” The whole chapter has to do only with judgments on the earth. The height occurs in Isaiah 24:4, Isaiah 26:5, in undoubted reference to the heights of the earth. In Isaiah 14:12, the now fallen and prostrate king of Babylon appears under the image of the morning-star falling from heaven. In this book itself, ch. Revelation 12:4, in imitation of Daniel 8:10, mighty kings appear as the stars of heaven, and their overthrow is represented as the falling down of these to the earth. In ch. Revelation 8:10 a great star of heaven denotes a mighty ruler.

In regard to the image of the fig-tree we may apply what Bengel says of the book in the next verse, “When Scripture compares something very great to what is very small, the majesty and omnipotence of God, before which the great is as the small, is thereby magnified, Job 38:9.” To the “strong wind,” corresponds the mighty storm of the divine judgments; comp. ch. Revelation 7:1.

In the verse before us, therefore, we are told, that those who have been the leaders in the conflict with the kingdom of God, in the persecution of his church, shall first experience his avenging hand; that the abuse of their power must draw after it the shaking and the absolute loss of that power: an announcement, the truth of which is realizing itself anew. With devout wonder we see before our eyes, how the stars of heaven are falling to the earth, precisely as a fig-tree, when violently shaken by the wind, casts off its unripe fruit. But the immediate fulfilment was the overthrow of the possessor of the old Roman power, the bright morning-star, that shone in heaven at the time the Apocalypse was composed.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Revelation 6". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/revelation-6.html.