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Bible Commentaries

Matthew Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible

Revelation 6



Revelation 6:1-17 The opening of six of the seals in order, and what followed thereupon.

Chapter Introduction

We are now come to the prophetical, and therefore the most difficult, part of this mysterious book; as to which I judge it reasonable, before we come to open the mysterious text, (after Mr. Pool’s method in his Latin Synopsis), to premise some things which may instruct the reader of these notes, both of the things wherein the difficulties lie, and of the fairest way to find out the sense of them. Hitherto we have met with no great difficulties; what have been, have been chiefly:

1. Concerning the seven Spirits of God.

2. Concerning the seven churches, and epistles to them; whether the churches be to be considered typically, and what was written to them be to be understood in a prophetic, as well as a didactic, or a corrective sense?

But in what follows we shall find great (if not some inextricable) difficulties. To prepare a way for the explication of which:

1. I shall first take it for granted, that from this chapter to the end of the book, is revealed the most remarkable things which have happened, or shall happen, to the church of God over all the earth, from the time of this Revelation first made to John, to the end of the world.

2. Hence it followeth, that many of the things prophesied are fulfilled; but how many is hard to determine, because the time is not set when these revelations should take place; whether (as some would have it) from the beginning of Christianity, which, to me, seemeth not probable; because at this time ninety-five years were elapsed since that time, and this prophecy was concerning the things that were to be after the time of John’s being in Patmos, Revelation 1:1; Revelation 22:6; or from the beginning of the time when the Jewish church and state ceased, which was twenty-six or twenty-seven years before this; or from the time when this Revelation was, which was Anno 95, or thereabouts, in the time when Domitian was the Roman emperor, and had began his persecution of the Christians, which (as historians tell us) was but five years before he was slain, for he was slain in September, 97. And for those that are fulfilled, the things spoken are so applicable to various accidents happening in that period of time, that it is very difficult ofttimes to assert the sense of the prophecy.

3. I take it for granted also, that things happened in the same order as is here described; so as the things under the second seal came not to pass till those prophesied of under the first seal were, in a great measure, accomplished, &c.

4. I agree with those who think, that what we have, Revelation 12:1-13:18; Revelation 17:1-18:24, are but a prophecy of other things that happened to the church at the same times spoken of, Revelation 6:1-10:11.

5. I do believe the visions of the seals, trumpets, and vials, Revelation 6:1-17; Revelation 8:1-13; Revelation 15:1-8; Revelation 16:1-21, the principal prophecies, and contain the revelation of things in order as they were to happen; and of these, that of the seals is the principal.

6. I agree with those who think, that God, by the first six seals, intends the whole space from the time when the things written in this book began to be fulfilled, unto the time when paganism was rooted out of the Roman empire, which some make the year 310, some, 325. In which time (counting the beginning from the time when John was in Patmos, which was in Domitian’s time) the emperors of Rome were Nerva, Trajan, Adrianus, Antoninus Pius, Antoninus Philosophus, Antoninus Verus, Commodus, Severus, Caracalla, Macrinus, Heliogabalus, Alexander Severus, Maximinus, Gordianus, Philippus, Decius, Valerianus, Gallienus, Claudius, Aurelianus, Tacitus, Probus, Carus, Numerianus, Dioclesianus with Maximinianus, Constantius Chlorus with Galerius, Constantius with Galerus, Constantinus; in all, twenty-seven, in about two hundred years: they were all persecutors, and God allowed them short reigns. So as what we have revealed in and under the first six seals, happened within the Short space of the three hundred or three hundred and twenty-five first years after Christ; I am apt to think, after ninety-eight or one hundred of them were elapsed. These things being premised, let us now come to consider the text.

Verse 1

John’s vision continueth still: by the Lamb he means Christ, the Lamb oft mentioned Revelation 5:1-14; and by

one of the seals, one of the seven seals mentioned Revelation 5:1, that were set upon the book which John saw in the right hand of God the Father, given to Christ, Revelation 5:7. Christ began to discover the counsels of God relating to that first period of his church. And John heard one of the four living creatures speaking to him with a great and terrible voice, like

the noise of thunder. Inviting him to come near, or to attend and see.

Verse 2

Some, by this white horse, understand the gospel; others, the Roman empire. And by him that sat thereon with a bow, some understand Christ going forth with power to convert the nations; others (and in my opinion more probably) the Roman emperors, armed with power, and having the imperial crown, carrying all before them. So as that which God intended by this to reveal to St. John, was, that the Roman emperors should yet continue, and use their power against his church. Those that understand by the white horse, the gospel, or God’s dispensations to his church under the first period, and by the rider, Christ, (amongst whom is our famous Mede), think, that hereby all the time is signified from Christ’s ascension, which was in the thirty-fourth year after his incarnation, till the time that all the apostles were dead, that is, the first hundred years after Christ (for so long histories tell us John lived). It was the age then current, and so may take up part of the vision of things that were to come. The history of all but forty of those years we have in the Acts, till Paul was carried prisoner to Rome. In this period ruled Augustus Caesar, (in whose time Christ was born, Luke 2:1), Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero, Galba, Otho, F. Vespasianus, Titus, and Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan, ten or eleven in all. They went on

conquering, and to conquer the world. But till Nero’s time, about the year 66, they did not begin to persecute the Christians; nor did Vespasian and Titus much rage, nor Domitian, till he had reigned eight years: so as I leave it indifferent to the reader, whether to understand by the white horse and his rider, God’s dispensations of providence to his church these first years, causing his gospel to prevail much, and conquering many to the profession of it, or the Roman empire, with those that ruled it: what is said is true of both.

Verse 3

The second seal; the second of those seven seals with which the book, mentioned Revelation 5:1, was sealed.

The second beast; the beast like a calf, Revelation 4:7.

Come and see; inviting John to attend.

Verse 4

And there went out another horse that was red; signifying blood and slaughter.

And power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth; either to Christ, (as some say), or to those that ruled the affairs of the Roman empire at that time, to disturb the peace of the church.

And that they should kill one another: this was a time of much blood.

And there was given unto him a great sword; and therefore a sword is given to him that rode upon the this horse. Some think that this period began with Nero, thirty-four years before the other ended (according to what was said before); others make it to begin with Trajan, and to comprehend eighty years, until the time of Commodus; in which time Trajan, and Hadrian, and the three Antoninuses successively ruled the Roman empire: the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian took up near half the time, in which time this prophecy was most eminently fulfilled; for in Trajan’s time the Jews rebelling, and killing many subjects of the Roman empire, to the number of twenty-two thousand in one place, and two hundred and forty thousand in another place, themselves were as miserably handled by the Roman forces sent by Trajan and Hadrian, who slew of them (as histories tell us) five hundred and fourscore thousand: nay, the Jews themselves say, they lost double the number of those who came out of Egypt, and more than they lost by Nebuchadnezzar, or by Titus when their city was taken: on the other side the Romans lost very many. Many Christians also were put to death during this period, during which was the third and fourth persecution.

Verse 5

The third beast was he who had the face of a man, who also inviteth John to come and see what came forth upon his opening

the third seal. He seeth

a black horse, and a rider upon him, with

a pair of balances. There is a difference amongst interpreters what should be signified by this black horse; some by it understand famine, because a scarcity of victuals bringeth men to a black and swarthy colour; some understand by it justice, because the rider is said to have a pair of balances in his hand; others understand by it heresies, and great sufferings of the church by heretics and others.

He that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand; either to give men their bread by weight, (as is usual in times of great scarcity), or to measure out every one their due.

Verse 6

A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny: interpreters are at so great a loss here to fix the sense, that some think this phrase signifies famine and scarcity; others think it signifies great plenty. The Greek word here used, signifieth, say some, half a bushel; others say it signifieth so much bread corn as is sufficient for four loaves; others say, something more than a quart; others, so much as was allowed servants for maintenance for a day: let it be which it will, it signifies no great scarcity; for the word signifying

a penny, signified but as much in our money as came to seven pence halfpenny. I think therefore Mr. Mede judgeth well, that by the black horse was signified not a time of famine and scarcity, but of plenty; and the rather, because it is added, hurt not the oil and the wine: and that the balances in the rider’s hands signified not scales to give men their bread by weight, (as in a time of scarcity), but the balance of justice; nor will the colour of the horse conclude the contrary. The whole therefore of this prophecy seemeth to foretell that this period, from the time of Commodus the Roman emperor, who ruled the empire from the year 180 to 197, and was followed by Severus, Macrinus, Caracalla, Hellogabalus, and Alexander Severus, the son of Mammeas, who came to the empire Anno 222, and reigned to 237, should be a time of great plenty and civil justice. Histories tell us of no famine in that time, but large stories of the great care of two of those emperors especially, for supplying their countries with corn, and for the administering of civil justice. The things foretold by the opening of this seal, our famous Mede makes to have had their accomplishment with the determination of the reign of Alexander Severus.

Verse 7

The beast mentioned Revelation 4:7, that had the face of a flying eagle, inviteth John to attend to the opening of

the fourth seal, that is, the revelation of the counsels of God, as to what should happen to the church (within the Roman empire) in the fourth period, which is conceived to have begun with Maximinus, about the year 237, and to have ended with the reign of Dioclesian, 294.

Verse 8

A pale horse; a horse of the colour of his rider,

Death, which makes men look pale, and bringeth them into the state of the dead, (here translated hell), whether heaven or hell, as they have lived.

And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth; over a great part of the earth.

To kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth; to kill men all manner of ways, with the sword, famine, pestilence, and by throwing them to wild beasts. Interpreters judge that here was prophesied what should happen to the Roman empire, and the church within it, from the time when Maximinus was made emperor, which was about the year 237, to the time of Aurelianus, which was about 271. Some extend it to Dioclesian’s time, which ended about 294; but Mr. Mede rather reserveth that for the fifth seal. If the former time only be taken in, there was within it the seventh, eighth, and ninth persecutions; Dioclesian began the tenth and greatest of all. Within this time this prophecy was eminently fulfilled: Maximinus destroyed all the towns in Germany, for three or four hundred miles. There was a plague lasted fifteen years together in the time of Gallus, who had the empire Anno 255. Three hundred and twenty thousand Goths were slain by Flavius Claudius. Maximinus and Gallienus were both great butchers, both to their own subjects that were heathens, and to Christians. Gallienus is said to have killed three or four thousand every day. Such wars and devastations could not but be followed with famine; besides that we are confirmed in it, both by the testimony of Eusebius and Cyprian, the latter of whom lived within this period.

Verse 9

And when he had opened the fifth seal: this and the next seal’s opening, is not prefaced with any living creature calling to John to

come and see. We must consider:

1. The number of the beasts was but four, who all had had their courses.

2. Some have thought that it is, because here is no mention of any new persecution, but a consequent of the former.

3. But this vision was so plain, it needed no expositor.

I saw under the altar; still he speaks in the dialect of the Old Testament, where in the temple was the altar of burnt-offering and the altar of incense; the allusion here is judged to be to the latter.

The souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held; from whence we may not conclude, that the souls of men and women when they die do sleep, as some dreamers have thought. These are said to be the souls of them that were slain

for the word of God, & c., for preaching the word, and their profession of the gospel, bearing a testimony to Christ and his truths. Mr. Mede thinks that under this seal is comprehended the ten bloody years of Dioclesian’s persecution, which of all others was most severe; paganism at that time (as dying things are wont) most struggling to keep itself alive. This tyrant is said, in the beginning of his reign, within thirty days to have slain seventeen thousand, and in Egypt alone, during his ten years, one hundred and forty-four thousand. He thinks that the souls of those which this wretch had slain throughout all his dominions, within his short period of ten years, were those principally which were showed John upon the opening of this seal.

Verse 10

And they cried with a loud voice; their blood cried, or their souls cried to God,

saying, How long, O Lord, holy; and therefore thou canst not abide iniquity, and of all iniquity canst least abide innocent blood, which is the blood of thy saints, whose blood is precious in thy sight.

And true; and who art true to thy word of threatenings against blood thirsty men, and to thy promises for the deliverance of thy people.

Dost thou net judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? Dost thou not judge our cause, and avenge us, who have committed vengeance to thee, not daring to avenge ourselves upon wicked men, who dwelling upon the earth are seen, and their practices known to and by thee, and are under thy power, so as thou canst at pleasure do it.

Verse 11

And white robes were given unto every one of them; white robes of glory; for the white robes of Christ’s righteousness, and of a holy life, were by them put on before they were slain.

That they should rest yet for a little season; that they should be satisfied, and acquiesce in God’s dispensations.

Until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were; for God had yet more faithful witnesses to be martyred, (though not in such flocks as before), who should die for the same faith and profession.

Should be fulfilled; when the number of those his martyrs should be completed, he would avenge their blood upon their enemies.

Verse 12

And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal; the sixth of those seals with which the book was sealed, mentioned Revelation 5:1; this signifieth the revelation of some things which should happen in some certain period of time, but what period is the question, as to which interpreters differ. Some think, the time when Jerusalem was taken; but this was a time past twenty-six or twenty-seven years before John was in Patmos, where he had this vision about things that shall be, Revelation 1:1; Revelation 22:6. Some think, that period of time which shall be immediately before the day of judgment; but that guess seemeth worse, for after this there was a seventh seal to be opened. Some think, the period of the church’s conflict with antichrist. But Mr. Mede’s judgment (followed by many other famous men) seems best, that it denotes that period when Constantine, the first Christian emperor, restored peace to the church, by overturning the whole pagan state, and making Christianity the religion of the greatest part of the world. This was about the year 311, and perfected upon his victory over Licinius, 325. In this I acquiesce. Let us now see how what is said in this and the following verses about this period will agree to that time.

And, lo, there was a great earthquake: the great question is here, what is meant by this great earthquake, the darkening of the sun, the moon becoming as blood, &c. No history recording any such prodigies, hath made many (taking these things in the natural, literal sense) to say the period under the first seal signifies either the time when Jerusalem was taken, or the day of judgment; but there is a metaphorical sense of these expressions, very usual in the prophetical writings, to show great changes in states; and in this sense it is to be taken here. Thus the prophet describeth the great change God would make in Jerusalem, Isaiah 29:6, Thou shalt be visited of the Lord of hosts with thunder, and with earthquake, and great noise, with storm and tempest, and the flame of devouring fire: and Jeremiah 15:9, Her sun is gone down whlie it was yet day. And, Ezekiel 32:7, the change God would work in the ruin of Egypt, is thus expressed: When I shall put thee out, I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; and the moon shall not give her light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee. So Joel 2:10,Joel 2:31, and Joel 3:15. What is an earthquake, but the shaking of the earth? And under this notion God expresseth the changes he makes in states and kingdoms, Isaiah 2:19,Isaiah 2:21; Isaiah 24:18; Haggai 2:6,Haggai 2:7. Thus by

earthquake here is to be understood a great change in the Roman empire.

And the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood: the sun signifies those that are in the highest power; the moon, those that are next to them in place and dignity.

Verse 13

This is but another phrase signifying a great change: the whole verse is much the same with Isaiah 34:4. Literally these things were never yet fulfilled. It is a phrase signifying the fall of great and mighty men.

Verse 14

Two expressions more signifying the same thing. The first is used by the prophet, to signify the change God would make in the state of the Edomites, Isaiah 34:4, as will appear by comparing what that prophet saith, with what Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Obadiah say, upon the same argument, Jeremiah 49:7-22; Ezekiel 35:1-15.

And every mountain and island were moved out of their places; all sorts of people shall be destroyed, or all the paganish religion shall be rooted out.

Verse 15

A terror shall fall upon all sorts of men, high and low; and, like men affrighted, they shall seek for themselves hiding places, where they can think themselves most secure: see Isaiah 2:19.

Verse 16

And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us: see Hosea 10:8; Luke 23:30. They shall be in a great consternation, and be ready to take any course for security.

From the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; from the wrath of God, and of Jesus Christ.

Verse 17

For this judgment that is upon us, is the effect of his wrath for our abusing and persecuting his members; and we, with all our courage, might, and power, are not able to abide his wrath. These words import, that in this great change, as the greatest persons should be at a loss what to do, so they should perish under a conviction that the great vengeance of God was come upon them for their opposing the gospel, and provoking Christ by persecuting of his members.

There are other more particular explications of the sun, moon, stars, heavens, & c., but they all centre in this general, that here is prophesied a great and universal change of the religion of the world, which should strike a great terror into the pagan rulers, and issue in the overturning of all their altars and temples, and the ruin of the great men, relating either to their civil or ecclesiastical state; and that they at last should know that, God was God, and that these judgments came upon them for their opposition to Christ. And (which addeth strength to this interpretation) Mr. Durham hath observed, that no so short period of time hath produced so many remarkable judgments, and extorted so many ingenuous confessions from enemies, that what came upon them was for their persecutions; and a catalogue of which may be found in Mr. Mede, and in Mr. Durham. Mr. Mede reckoneth Galerius, Maximinus, and Licinius. Galerius was eaten up of worms, being before he died sensible of his guilt, ceasing from his persecution, and begging the Christians’ prayers. Maximinus, another Roman emperor, (or partner in the empire with the former), being beaten by Licinius, fled to Tarsus, and there fell upon his pagan priests, who had deceived him by their lying oracles, and made a decree for the Christians’ liberty; but God would not suffer so bloodly a wretch to die after the ordinary death of man; he died miserably through intolerable pain, his eyes dropping out of his head. Licinius was a Christian, and joined a while with Constantine, but apostatized, was overcome in two battles, taken, and by him put to death. All these three were within the space of eighteen years. Mr. Durham to these adds the instances of Dioclesian and Maximinian, little above twenty years before, in the heat of their persecution making a stop, and through a horror of conscience laying down their imperial dignity; and Maxentius, drowned in the river Tiber; and he says Licinius, before mentioned, before he died, revenged himself upon his idolatrous priests that had persuaded him to forsake Constantine’s God. The change was so great in the empire, upon Constantine the Great’s coming to the throne, by the death of some great persons, turning others out of place, destroying the whole frame and practice of the pagans’ religion, that it might well be expressed by earthquakes, the sun turning black, the moon as blood, the stars falling from heaven to earth, the heavens departing like a scroll, and the removal of islands and mountains, and by the consternation it would bring all the pagan great men into, &c. And this time, which was a period of about twenty-five or twenty-seven years, is thought to be understood to be the time predicted upon the opening of the sixth seal. Thus we see the dragon’s reign at an end in about three hundred and eleven or three hundred and twenty-five years after Christ; the empire, as pagan, persecuting the church of Christ, and following it with ten successive persecutions, quite overturned, and a Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, ruling it. But we must understand these great things were not perfected in a few months; some relics of paganism remained; for though Constantine shut up the pagan temples, yet all the idols in them were not destroyed until the time of Theodosius, who began to rule in the empire Anno 379, and reigned sixteen years. Between Constantine and him were Constantius and Constans, Julian the Apostate, and Jovianus, Valentinianus, Valens, and Gratian; during some of whose reigns (Julian’s especially) the Christians suffered much both from pagans and Arians, so that the Christians had not a full and perfect quiet till after the year 390.

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Bibliographical Information
Poole, Matthew, "Commentary on Revelation 6". Matthew Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible. 1685.