Bible Commentaries
Revelation 6

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

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Verses 1-17

Revelation 6:1 . One of the living creatures, that is, the lion, with a voice roaring like thunder, said, Come and see. The saints must keep their eyes on what the Lord is doing in the earth.

Revelation 6:2 . He went forth conquering, and to conquer. Christ having put down the jews, gave power to the apostles to subdue the nations to the faith; and the word of the Lord had free course, and was glorified.

Revelation 6:4 . There went out another horse that was red, whose rider was invested with power to take peace from the earth. The Roman empire, from the time of Nero to the reign of Constantine, knew little but wars, and rebellions in the provinces.

Revelation 6:5-6 . And lo, a black horse, designating great scarcity and famine, when all sorts of provisions should be sold by weight and measure, for a denarion of silver in times of plenty would buy half a dozen chenixs, or measures of corn or pulse; that is, about one quart, the quantity given to a slave for one day. These times of famine followed the above wars, when agriculture was neglected. Mr. Mede applies this seal to the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus, and subjoins two proclamations of his to regulate the price of wheat.

Revelation 6:8 . Behold, a pale horse, whose rider was death. He came at the consummation of crimes with consummate punishments. Mede puts the progress of the pale horse to the wars and troubles in the reign of the emperor Maximinus, in the year 235.

Revelation 6:9-11 . I saw under the altar, at the feet of Christ, the great martyr, the souls of them that were slain, cruelly slain with the sword.

Revelation 6:12-13 . I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earthquake. Though σεισμος be generally rendered earthquake, yet here it figuratively denotes the shaking of the Roman world, and the obscuration of their sun. Great revolutions have happened in moments of the profoundest peace, as when Babylon said, I am, and shall see no sorrow. It was the same with the French revolution, in 1789; all was courtly pleasure and profound repose. The Roman senators, brilliant stars in wealth, and in bloody persecutions of the saints, fell from their glory in the civil wars; and during this earthquake all the idols of Greece and Rome fell to the ground, like dagon before the ark.

Revelation 6:14 . The heavens departed as a scroll, which, when the right hand lets the parchment go, coils up into its wonted form. See Isaiah 34:4. Ezekiel 2:10. This prophecy is very remarkable, for at that time the Roman empire was in its utmost splendour. No nation dared in that age to contend with Rome.

Revelation 6:15 . The kings of the earth hid themselves in the dens and rocks of the mountains. Poole, after giving five applications of this seal, finally applies it to the defeat of the wicked and cruel persecutors of the saints, by Constantine the great.

On the death of his father, the Roman soldiers in York, and England, proclaimed him emperor. On his arrival at Rome he liberated the city from tyranny, and defeated Maxentius, who was drowned in the Tiber. While engaged in these civil wars, and looking for aid from titular deities, it struck his mind that Dioclesian, who rigidly worshipped the gods, had been unhappy in his affairs, and that Constantius, his father, who had renounced the superstition of the Greeks, had led a more happy and prosperous life. While in this dilemma, being on a march, he saw, a little while after noon, a pillar of light, in figure like a cross. The persons about the emperor saw the same sign in the heavens.

The night following, continues Socrates, Christ appeared to him in his sleep, and said, Make a standard like that which appeared to thee, and display it as an infallible banner of victory: in hoc signo vinces, by this thou shalt conquer. And so it proved. Maxentius was driven into the Tiber; and afterwards Licinius in the east was defeated in many battles by sea and land. In those civil and protracted wars, the vanquished rebels not expecting quarter, hid themselves in dens and caves of the earth, and paid in their own and in their children’s lives, for the profusion of the blood of christians shed during the ten years that Dioclesian, and after him Licinius, had persecuted the church.

Socrates writes thus far; but in the life of Constantine by Eusebius, cap. 27., the account of this banner is more copiously related. He also adds, that he received the account, viva voce, from the emperor’s own lips. Certainly the grand crisis of salvation to an empire, and the peace of a bleeding church, are worthy of the interposition of heaven. Dr. Cave, in his Latin work on the writings of the fathers, ed. fol. 1688, confirms the above with many collateral evidences. This vision had such an effect on the jews at Rome, that twelve thousand of them received baptism, besides a multitude of others.


The sealed book is opened with thunders, as was the law on Sinai, to mark the majesty of God, and the shaking of the earth. The opening of the first seal represents Christ going forth from Jerusalem to spread the gospel, and the white horse betokens his rectitude and purity. His arrows are his words, which wound the penitent unto healing, but the impenitent unto death. And the crown is a sure pledge of final conquest.

The red horse indicates the cruel emperors and kings, who were bloody persecutors of the church. Adrian slew twelve hundred thousand jews; and very bloody wars and rebellions prevailed till the establishment of Constantine on the throne. The great sword given to this rider is highly expressive of the Roman power, which trampled the nations with its iron feet.

The black horse is thought to indicate the dark times of heresy, and of Arianism in particular, which overspread the church. Add to this, as heresy led to licentiousness, God punished the nations with famine and short harvests; so that bread was weighed with great exactness, and a man’s earning would do little more than buy bread for the day.

The pale horse exhibits death inflicting Israel’s three plagues, of famine, sword, and pestilence on the Roman world, which included the south of Europe, all the west, and all western Asia. God’s strokes are harder and harder on the impenitent nations. The date of this seal is fixed from the beginning of the reign of Maximinius. Eight even of the emperors perished miserably in about thirty years. And what is most awful, hell followed with enlarged jaws to receive her prey; and one fourth of the empire perished by the visitation of God. The last periods of pagan Rome exhibited the dregs of wickedness, and the sublime of vengeance.

Losing sight of the horses and their riders, a new and higher scene next opens at the feet of Christ, who is our altar. It is the souls of the martyrs under the Dioclesian and other persecutions, which began in the year three hundred and three, and continued till three hundred and thirteen; and no war was ever more bloody and destructive. The christians had enjoyed forty years of comparative repose, and were greatly multiplied in all parts of the empire. Hence in this tenth and last persecution there were more martyrs than in all the former. Seventeen thousand perished the first month; and one hundred and forty four thousand were slain in Egypt, besides seven hundred thousand who were banished. This persecution was not only severe, but general through the empire; for the pagans found their temples in danger. But Christ gathered their precious souls to his feet, and placed them nearest to himself, the model of martyrs. Their characters had been blackened on earth, but he clothed them in flowing white robes, badges of righteousness, victory, and joy. The prayers of these martyrs were heard, the cry of blood has a voice which pierces heaven; but they were bidden to rest awhile, the wicked must fill up their measure, and then heaven will strike. The blood of these martyrs was scarcely washed from their streets, before Constantine destroyed and exiled the wicked. In Jezebel’s case vengeance did not sleep more than half an age; but in the French persecution, it slumbered till the third and fourth generation; and during the late revolution, it fell in a full shower on all the old families who massacred the protestants. See the note on Exodus 20:5.

The opening of the sixth seal has been vaguely expounded of the punishment of antichrist by the old doctors, and by the popish critics. But our Mede, according to the excellent wisdom given him of God, has applied it with striking harmony and propriety to the total fall of paganism in the Roman empire. This was a moral earthquake; their political heaven became black, and saw no more day. The priests, prefects, and princes fell from their dignity, as the stars of the empire, and in the middle of life, as a figtree casteth her untimely fruit when shaken by a tempest. They hid themselves in dens and caves where they could; for this was the wrath of the Lamb for the blood of his martyrs. His meekness turned to fury, his love kindled to anger, and his longsuffering burst in unexpected vengeance. So the pagan heaven departed, as we lose sight of a scroll of parchment when it is rolled together. And this vengeance augurs the remaining cup which shall be poured on the wicked in the latter day, and at the end of the world. Thus, I believe, these six seals are clearly explained, and as fully understood as any other accomplished prophecies.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Revelation 6". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. 1835.