onwards. The Lamb now begins to open the seals. The inevitability of history is revealed, for all is seen to be in God’s hands. He is in control of history. But this does not mean He causes it to be. It is man who chooses the way that he takes, with its inevitable results, but God in the end is the overruling force, using it for His greater purposes. The seals will follow the pattern laid down by our Lord. False Messiahs and false prophets, international wars, famine, pestilence, death, intense persecution of God’s people, earthquakes, signs in the heavens, all leading up to the Coming of Christ, and all to be experienced in these days in which his readers and we live.
The seals are opened one by one, but they are opened immediately. The events which they describe are parallel not consecutive. The false Messiahs, the great wars, the famines and pestilences, and massive slaughter (seals 1-4), together with the persecution of God’s people (seal 5) all occur contemporaneously. They present the march of world history. This has been especially the history of the world of the Near and Middle East. The sixth seal is also contemporaneous, showing a world in turmoil (see commentary), although in this case taking us on to the final judgment. In one sense it is the reply to the prayers of the fifth seal. Thus the seventh seal, which results in the blowing of the seven trumpets is also contemporaneous. These describe God’s particular judgments among the world’s self-inflicted misery.
‘And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard one of the living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Go!”. And I saw and behold a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow, and a crown was given to him and he went out conquering and to conquer. And when he opened the second seal I heard the second living creature say, “Go!”. And another horse went out, a red horse, and it was given to him who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another, and a great sword was given to him. And when he opened the third seal I heard the third living creature say “Go!”. And I saw and behold a black horse, and the one who sat on it had a balance in his hand. And I heard as it were a voice among the four living creatures saying “A small measure (a choenix) of wheat for a day’s wages (a denarius), and three measures of barley for a day’s wages, and do not hurt the oil and the wine”. And when he opened the fourth seal I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say “Go!”. And I saw and behold a pale horse, and the Name of the one who sat on him was Death, and Hades followed with him. And authority was given to them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with death, and by the wild beast of the earth.’
It is significant that the four horses are under the control of the four living creatures. As representatives of the whole creation, and preservers of the holy nature of God, the living creatures show their concern for creation and for God’s holiness in this act. If creation is to be restored and God’s holiness established then the going forth of the horsemen is inevitable. And so as guardians of God’s throne they give their commands.
The translation ‘go’ is used as being more vivid, and because the four horsemen then ‘went’ (the same verb) to the earth to fulfil their destiny. It is not so much a command as a granting of permission. God does not make them ride, He allows them to ride.
The meaning of the horses is not really in doubt (in spite of many varied interpretations) when we compare Scripture with Scripture, for the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus began with (1). The rising of false prophets and Messiahs (Matthew 24:5; Matthew 24:11), (2). Wars and rumours of wars and international violence (3). Famines and (4). Earthquakes (Matthew 24:5-7). And the first three are paralleled here, with the earthquakes later (e.g. Revelation 6:12). Furthermore each of the four horsemen must surely be seen as being similar in intent, as they are all commanded by the four living creatures.
As the meaning of the last three is clear to see, they are bearers of tribulation and judgment, this must surely also apply to the first. Thus the white horse too must represent the same unless we have good reason to think the contrary. In line then with the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus we must see it as representing false Messiahs and prophets, antichrist rather than Christ, an attempt to ape the white horseman in Revelation 19:11. (Red and white horses are in parallel in Zechariah 1:8, although for another purpose, and black, red, white and bay chariot horses are mentioned in Zechariah 6:2-3 showing that they are seen as acting in parallel). To suggest that Christ Himself would be under the command of the living creatures must be considered extremely doubtful. He was sent by His Father.
Chapter 6 The Opening of the First Six Seals.
The next stage of John’s vision describes the opening of the seals by the Lamb, and it will soon be clear that the result is the outworking of world history. It is the beginning of the end! However we know that it will take two thousand years and more to come to completion. But that was not apparent then. The passage has many parallels with the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus in Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21, and is mainly based on that discourse except in more vivid style. We will therefore briefly consider those passages.
EXCURSUS: The Apocalyptic Discourse of Jesus (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21).
The background to this teaching was Jesus’ statement, given in reply to the disciples’ expressed admiration of Herod’s Temple, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down’ (Mark 13:2). This leads Peter, James, John and Andrew to ask Him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?’ (Mark 13:4 compare Luke 21:6-7).
Now consider the circumstances. They have just been told that the Temple they see before them, huge and magnificent and permanent, will be destroyed totally. No wonder their interest is stirred. Indeed they can hardly believe it could happen. That is what leads to their questions. All three writers mention this. It is apparent from this therefore that the writers saw the following discourse as mainly applying to the destruction of the Temple, which took place in 70 AD. Jesus was explaining His cryptic comment.
It is true that Matthew adds further ‘Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matthew 24:3). The fact that Mark and Luke did not see fit to include the last phrase is proof positive that their main thought was of the destruction of the Temple. (Enthusiasm for the ‘end times’ must not prevent careful exegesis)
So it is clear that in Jesus’ reply we will expect to have an indication of when the Temple of Herod will be totally destroyed, as it was in 70 AD. Note the clear distinction between ‘these things’ and ‘the sign of your coming and of the end of the age’. The idea of the Temple being destroyed has also taken their minds on to the promised Second Coming of Jesus and the expected ‘end of the age’ when God’s kingdom would be established, for they know that that will be preceded by momentous events. The distinction is important because Jesus will later state that ‘these things’ will occur within the lifetime of that generation (Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30), while He will also state that He does not at that time know when His second coming will take place (Mark 13:32). Thus ‘these things’ does not refer to the second coming.
He then answers their questions by going on to depict a troubled world. False Messiahs will come, there will be wars and rumours of wars. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in many and various places. But these are just the beginning of the Messianic birth pains which will produce the end of the age (Matthew 24:57; Mark 13:5-8). And it must be stressed that they did all occur regularly in that first century AD, a time of constant warfare and many famines and earthquakes, (although not necessarily more so than in other centuries. The world is a troubled place).
He then describes the vilification that will be heaped on the disciples and their followers. They will be handed over to councils, beaten in synagogues, brought before governors and kings (Mark 13:9). Again all these things did happen, as described, for example, in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew adds ‘and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake’ (Matthew 24:9). Jesus then declares ‘And the good news must first be preached to all nations’ (Mark 13:10) (Matthew 24:14 - ‘in the whole world for a testimony unto all nations’).
This phrase ‘all nations’ is an interesting example of how prophecy can speak in a twofold way. Very few towards the end of the first century would have doubted that the Gospel had reached ‘all nations’ and that they had been ‘hated by all nations’, for they thought in terms of the surrounding nations and had no world view. Thus Paul could say to the Romans that their faith ‘is proclaimed throughout the whole world’ (Romans 1:8), and that their ‘obedience is come abroad to all men’ (Revelation 16:19). Compare Acts 11:28 which speaks of a famine ‘over all the inhabited earth’ which ‘came about in the reign of Claudius’ (see also Acts 19:27; Acts 24:5).
In that sense, which was certainly the sense in which His listeners would understand it, this prophecy was completely fulfilled. Butweknow today that there were many nations outside their purview and that its complete fulfilment awaited our own day and possibly beyond, thus we may see the words as having a deeper meaning, a double entendre.
Jesus goes on to describe further the tribulation that they must face, ‘they will deliver you up into tribulation and will kill you’ (Matthew 24:9). They will be delivered up even by their own families, being ‘hated of all men for My name’s sake’ (Mark 13:11-13). So the early church will face tribulation, - which of course they did.
Then He describes the fulfilment of the words that began the questioning, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD (Mark 13:14-20). The ‘abomination of desolation’ is a phrase taken from the book of Daniel (Daniel 9:27; Daniel 11:31; Daniel 12:11). ‘Abomination’ refers to the ‘abomination’ of idolatry. This was fulfilled when the eagles of the Roman legions (to which sacrifices were offered) were brought into the ‘holy city’, and inevitably into the Temple itself, as battle raged and the Temple went up in flames, flames which were actually fanned by fanatical Jews in order to prevent further sacrilege.
The Jews looked on the Roman Eagles, often adorned with an image of the emperor, as graven images and idolatrous, and indeed many legionaries did offer sacrifices to their standards. The earlier history of intense resistance to the presence of the Roman Eagles demonstrated how intensely seriously this issue was viewed. Pontius Pilate, for example, ever insensitive, tried to introduce them into Jerusalem by stealth and only withdrew when there were mass protests. Such was the strong feeling that many bared their necks declaring their willingness to die to prevent it.
‘Let him who reads understand’ (Mark 13:14). This comment, put in by Mark, clearly indicates that he has the Romans in mind, for it is a hint to those in the know without being too blatant. The reference to ‘fleeing to the mountains’ was fulfilled when many Christians in the light of this passage left Jerusalem and took refuge elsewhere. We know that a good number fled to Pella, a Gentile city in Peraea, East of the Jordan, ‘by divine guidance’. (It is true that the divine guidance is said to be through church prophets, but we can reasonably assume that they had these words of Jesus in mind).
‘For those days shall be tribulation (Matthew puts it ‘then shall be great tribulation’ (Matthew 24:21)) such as there has not been the like from the beginning of the creation which God created, until now, and never shall be’ (Mark 13:19). The incredible story of the final days of the war which led to the destruction of the Temple is one of horrific proportions and, if it had not been recorded would be impossible to believe. Fellow Jews treating each other in abominable ways (for they were so unrestrained, fanatical and divided that they fought each other viciously, as well as the Romans, in a way that is difficult to comprehend, as they followed different ‘inspired’ leaders); wholesale crucifixions by the Romans; the ravages of famine during the siege and its consequences; widespread slaughter; all are chronicled by eyewitnesses. But we can be sure that even more dreadful things occurred which have never been revealed. It is an almost unbelievable story of suffering and misery.
Luke confirms this reading of events when he interprets the words of Jesus for his non-Jewish readers (Luke 21:20; Luke 21:24). ‘The abomination of desolation’ becomes ‘Jerusalem encompassed with armies’. Then Luke 21:24, based on words of Jesus not recorded by Mark, shows that it is certainly this destruction of the Temple that is in Jesus’ mind, for he adds ‘there will be great distress on the land and wrath to this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword and will be led captive into all nations, and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled’. Thus their tribulation carries on through history,
‘Unless the Lord had shortened the days, no flesh would have been saved. But for the elect’s sake, whom he chose, he shortened the days’ (Mark 13:20). Even in the midst of these terrible events God did not overlook His people, and He held a restraining hand on events so that they would not reach beyond a certain point. This is confirmed by the fact that many of His people did survive those dreadful days.
These were all manifestations of human nature, and because both human nature and Nature itself are as they are, history would repeat itself again and again, false ‘Messiahs’ would continue to arise, wars would continue to abound, famines would be a regular occurrence, earthquakes would continue to happen and be seen to be messages of divine wrath, but unquestionably by 70 AD the disciples could confidently say ‘all these things have taken place’, included, be it noted at least the beginning of the ‘great tribulation’ on the Jews. We must not let some theoretical view of ‘the end times’ make us ignore this fact.
There are some who, in order to support their theories, try to distinguish what Luke said from the words in Matthew and Mark, as though the latter recorded only words spoken of the end times and Luke recorded different words and ignored the end times, but this is quite frankly incredible. All began by stressing that their questions related to the coming destruction of the Temple which they saw in front of them and which was mentioned by Jesus. Therefore we must see their words as primarily describing that destruction of the Temple. It is merely that Luke (or Jesus) interprets the apocalyptic language for readers who will find it difficult. It really is not possible to believe that both Matthew and Mark ignore the destruction of the Temple when that was a main theme of the opening questions, and that Luke so ignores words about the end times.
‘But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give her light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken’ (Mark 13:24-25), and until all this has happened the Son of Man will not come. This apocalyptic language is typical of the kind of phraseology used in ancient days to describe people’s reaction to cataclysmic world events, they began to see natural phenomena as giving signs. This is clear in Luke when he first summarises it ‘there shall be signs in sun and moon and stars’ and then explains it, ‘and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows, men fainting for fear and for expectation of the things which are coming on the world, for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken’ (Luke 21:25-26).
After the destruction of Jerusalem, during the final mopping up operations of the Roman army and the events that followed this is precisely how things would appear to the people of Judea. Everything was finished. Hope had gone. The world was on the point of collapse. The heavens were falling in. For this apocalyptic language we can compare Acts 2:19-21 where Peter sees the words of Joel as fulfilled in the death of Jesus and what follows. Otherwise he would have stopped the quotation at Acts 2:18. The disciples had felt indeed as though the world itself was in process of collapse, and such feelings were often helped by eclipses of the sun and moon, meteors and ‘falling stars’. Peter was almost certainly deeply affected by the uncanny darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33).
We can see a number of examples of this in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 13 the prophet describes the desolation of Babylon. Babylon, that proud nation which desolated Judah and Israel will itself be desolated. For them it will be ‘the day of the Lord’ (Isaiah 13:9), the day when God acts in judgment (the phrase is not, be it noted, only used of the end times. Each nation may have its separate ‘day’ when God deals with them, although there is certainly a view in the prophets of a final ‘day of the Lord’ when God finalises His programme). He describes this further as ‘the stars of heaven and the constellations of it will not give their light, the sun will be darkened in his going forth and the moon will not cause her light to shine’. To the Babylonians, who saw sun, moon and stars as gods and goddesses this was especially relevant. The gods and goddesses will have failed them! Their help has been taken away from them.
Indeed it is apparent that the King of Babylon had been making similar great claims for himself, describing himself as the ‘day star, son of the morning’ and claiming divinity and access to the heavens, and even to be like the Most High (Isaiah 14:12-14 - there are no real grounds, only wishful thinking, for applying these verses to the Devil. We do so love to know about things that God has not been pleased to reveal to us. But these were the sort of claims being made by the King of Babylon, and therefore pagan myth). This is one star that will fall. So this vivid apocalyptic language describes natural events, possibly exacerbated by perceived heavenly signs as the astrologers scoured the heavens.
Yet even as he describes what is to happen to Babylon the prophet finally goes beyond the local event, for, probably unaware of the fact that it will be delayed, but certain that it is inevitable, he describes a future yet to come when Babylon will be totally destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrha, never to be inhabited again. In his heart God has shown him that this total destruction must finally be necessary for Babylon because of its evil past and its grandiose claims. And indeed Babylon is now a mass of ruins.
This movement from the current to the distant future is a feature of prophecy (and is also true to some extent of the apocalyptic discourses), as the prophets recognise that in the end God’s judgment must be final. They are not ‘foretelling’ events but declaring the inevitability of God’s judgment.
Again, when the prophet is announcing God’s judgment on Edom and ‘all the nations’ in Isaiah 34 he uses similar language. ‘All the nations’ means those round about Edom. He would hardly have selected out a small country like Edom if he had meant world powers! Here then he uses similar language to describe the dreadful events they will face. ‘All the host of heaven shall be dissolved and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll, and all their host shall fade away as the leaf fades from the vine, and as a fading leaf from a fig tree’ (Isaiah 34:4). In the end ‘the land will become burning pitch, it will not be quenched night or day, the smoke of it will go up for ever, from generation to generation it will lie waste, none shall pass through it for ever and ever’. Yet that this is not to be taken at face value is proved beyond doubt by the fact that it will then be a place for birds and wild beasts of many kinds who could not survive in burning pitch (Isaiah 34:11-17), which demonstrates that we must not take the language too literally. It is prophetic licence describing devastation.
Again, in Ezekiel 32, Ezekiel describes God’s judgment on Egypt at the hands of the Babylonians (Ezekiel 32:11). God says, ‘when I extinguish you I will cover the heaven and make the stars of it dark, I will cover the sun with a cloud and the moon will not give her light, all the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you and set darkness on your land’ (Ezekiel 32:7-8). The ancients constantly sought in heavenly phenomena the course of life in this world. Thus Ezekiel’s message would be doubly effective.
And again, in Joel 2, God’s visitation on Zion is described as ‘the earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble, the sun and the moon are darkened and the stars withdraw their shining’ (Joel 2:10). So this kind of language is simply and vividly stating that there will be terrible events of one kind or another which will make it seem as though the world is about to end. In His discourse Jesus is thinking especially of the devastation of Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem and their dreadful after effects.
The above descriptions, whichdo not all refer to the end times, demonstrate that this kind of language must not be applied too literally. They refer to how men discern things in times of catastrophe (an invading army constantly burning fields and trees in abundance produce smoke in large quantities which itself distorts man’s view of the heavens), not to the actual destruction of the heavens. (This can be confirmed from many sources, for it is remarkable, in times of catastrophe, how many heavenly signs are spotted by astrologers. Yet heavenly signs are in fact occurring all the time for those with eyes to see them).
Moving back, then, to the apocalyptic discourse it is of all ‘these things’ described above that Jesus says they will happen within a generation. Not until then, an inevitable part of history, would the Son of Man return in His glory. But the timing of that return is deliberately not tied to any events, it occurs ‘after them’, for even Jesus, while on earth, did not know when it would be (Mark 13:32).
From a longer term point of view we can agree that 70 AD was not the end of history. What happened between the death of Jesus and 70 AD was a mirror of the future of the world before the second coming of Christ, and as we read His words we recognise that they held meanings deeper than are simply apparent for that period. This, in fact, is what the Book of Revelation will demonstrate.
But we must not put all the emphasis on what we read as happening in ‘the end days’, unless like the Apostles we see ‘the end days’ as commencing at the resurrection. The disciples believed they were in the end days, and they were right. They were the days that would result in the finalising of God’s purposes. But they just did not realise how long they would last.
(End of Excursus).
The Opening of the Seals.
THE WHITE HORSE - FALSE ‘MESSIAHS’ (Revelation 6:2).
Many have gone out through history representing themselves as the chosen of God, and have brought death in their train. We do not need to identify a specific one as intended here, for the horseman represents all such. It represents theideaof antichrist, and of false claimants to divine authority, whether messiahs, emperors, kings, or prophets.
It may well have been seen by John in the first place to represent such emperors of Rome as claimed to be divine, but we must not limit the horse to Rome. Included are many small ‘Messiahs’ who sought to inspire people to rebel in the first century AD (most not recorded but we can be sure that some accepted the title in their petty insurgencies against Rome). Included is Bar Kokhba, ‘son of the Star’, a so-called Messiah (around 134 AD) accepted by prominent Rabbis, who persecuted Christians, and who would later bring such misery on the people of Judea. Included are all who represent themselves as specially chosen by God, or as divine, and go to war on that basis blinded by religious zeal or arrogance.
Religion is regularly made the excuse for rampant murder. The white horse is a warning to ‘go not after them’ (Luke 21:8), but its march is inevitable due to the nature of man. It will be noted that there is no stress on bloodshed with this horse (contrast the next horse). He goes out to spread his particular ‘truth’, the wholesale murder is secondary and not his main aim.
The bow in the hand of the rider shows him to be warlike but clearly distinguishes him from the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19:11-16. There is in fact not a single parallel apart from the white horse. This rider receives a single crown, while the rider in chapter 19 wears many diadems. This rider carries a bow, while the rider in chapter 19 has a sharp, two edged sword coming from His mouth.
But has the bow any meaning? In Psalms 120:4 lying lips and a deceitful tongue are likened to ‘the sharp arrows of the mighty’, an intriguing contrast with the sword of the Spirit of truth (Ephesians 6:17) and both the psalmist and Hosea speak of ‘the deceitful bow’ (Psalms 78:57; Hosea 7:16). Thus the bow, with which men are taken by surprise and brought down, is seen as a weapon of deceit. Indeed the bow in his hand may well have in mind the ‘fiery arrows’ of the Evil one (Ephesians 6:16). The white rider is out looking for people to strike down from a distance by stealth and deceit. While God deals directly, the Devil prefers subtlety. A bow was also carried in the hand of the mysterious Gog, who symbolised the forces of darkness (Ezekiel 39:3).
Furthermore the bow in the hand of the first rider, combined with the sword in the hand of the second, may have been gathered from Psalms 44:6, ‘For I will not trust in my bow, neither shall my sword save me’ demonstrating that the riders are the opposite of those who trust in God, for they clearly do trust in their bow and sword.
‘A crown was given to him’. Even these horsemen are in the end controlled by God. Unless God had given a crown to the rider on the white horse, he would have had none. Thus even the mighty Roman emperors receive their crown from God. (The use of the passive tense in this way to indicate the action of God parallels Jesus’ similar use of the passive tense e.g. in the Beatitudes. It was a characteristic of apocalyptic literature). It is this alone that enables him to go out ‘conquering and to conquer’ (‘overcoming and to overcome’ - a deliberate parody of the behaviour of true believers who in Revelation also ‘overcome’).
This last phrase suggests an excessive determination to conquer. The fact that the crown is specifically stated to have been given by God (Paul had stated that the powers that be were ‘ordained of God’ (Romans 13:1)), and the fact of his rapacity in conquering, may again point to ‘divine’ Roman emperors as very much in mind here, for it would demonstrate to the readers that whatever their claims their crown came from God - and Rome’s thirst for conquest was a byword.
Some would say that the bow prevents too close an identification, but the figure was not intended just to depict Roman emperors, but all false Messiahs, and as we have seen, the writer uses the bow mainly to prevent identification with Christ (Revelation 19:15) and to indicate his more stealthy, deceitful and distant type of approach. As Jesus warned us, many a false Messiah will ride forth in history before the end.
Some have suggested that the bow indicates Eastern origins e.g. the Parthians, but the conquering of the first horse is in contrast with the taking peace from the earth of the second horse. Had it been the Parthians in mind we would expect the descriptions to be reversed. The fact that it represents false Messiahs and the equivalent comes out in that:
1) The horse is white, copying the horse of the true Messiah in Revelation 19:11.
2) The order of events in Jesus’ discourse shows false ‘Christs’ (Messiahs) as coming first.
3) The lack of emphasis on bloodshed.
4) The fact that the bow is linked with lying and deceit.
5) The deliberate emphasis on conquering or ‘overcoming’. He is a false ‘overcomer’.
6) In Ezekiel 14 the idea of ‘deceitful prophets’ (Ezekiel 14:9-10) precedes the four sore judgments which parallel the next three horses (Ezekiel 14:21).
THE RED HORSE - WAR AMONG NATIONS (Revelation 6:3-4).
To the red horse, the colour of blood, it was given to take peace from the earth, and he ‘is given’ a great sword. This great sword is in contrast to the sword which came from the mouth of the Son of Man (Revelation 1:16). That one was the powerful word which aimed to bring peace and true judgment, the intent of this one is to make war and take peace from the earth. Thus he makes war and causes nation to rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom (Matthew 24:6-7 and parallels). But once again, in the end it is God Who gave him the sword.
The sword is often seen as a symbol of judgment. In Ezekiel 38:21-22 God says ‘and I will call for a sword against him --- every man’s sword shall be against his brother’. This is linked in Ezekiel 38 with pestilence and blood, and great hailstones, fire and brimstone thus to some extent paralleling Revelation (Ezekiel 38:22 compare Revelation 7:7). Indeed the sword is seen as one of God’s sore judgments. ‘How much more when I send my four sore judgments upon Jerusalem, the sword, and famine, and the noisome beast and pestilence’ (Ezekiel 14:21). These four sore judgments are clearly in John’s mind. False prophets preceded them, the sword is here, the famine comes next, followed by sword, famine, pestilence and wild beasts with the pale horse. It is surely significant for the significance of the white horse that these judgments are preceded by ‘deceitful prophets’ (Ezekiel 14:9-10). But the evidence from Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse is final.
THE BLACK HORSE - FAMINE (Revelation 6:5-6).
Famine is the second of God’s sore judgments (Ezekiel 14:21). In Lamentations those who suffered famine were described as ‘their visage is darker than blackness, they are not known in the streets, their skin cleaves to their bones, it is withered, it is become like a stick’ (Lamentations 4:8), and we are told ‘our skin is black like an oven because of the burning heat of famine’ (Lamentations 5:10). We can compare with this Jeremiah 14:2 where the people sit in black on the ground because of the dire famine. So blackness is associated with famine.
The measurements of the wheat and barley also indicate famine, for men measure their food like this when hard times stare them in the face (Ezekiel 14:10; Ezekiel 14:16-17). In the time of the emperor Trajan a denarius would buy twenty times as much wheat as mentioned here, so that there is clearly a great shortage. But it is not quite starvation rations. So the black horse represents shortage and famine.
Yet the oil and wine is not to be hurt . Elsewhere we are told that the one who loves oil and wine will not be rich (Proverbs 21:17). This suggests that these items were seen more as luxury items. So it would seem that the idea is that the rich will not be inconvenienced. Only the poor will suffer. How true this has often been through history. But as Jesus stressed in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the rich will one day be called to account. So the black horse represents the many shortages and famines that will bring such misery to mankind, starting from the first century onwards. These too God allows in His purposes.
THE PALE HORSE - WHOLESALE DEATH (Revelation 6:7-8).
This represents all four of God’s sore judgments as mentioned in Ezekiel 14. It sums up every form of death, which is why its rider’s name was DEATH, with HADES (the shadowy world of the grave) following with him, to collect the victims. Its pale colour is intended to show the pallor of death.
Death and the Grave are seen as co-partners elsewhere in Revelation (Revelation 1:18; Revelation 20:14). Compare Hosea 13:14 where the promise is made that men will be redeemed from the power of ‘death and the grave’. Thus they were regularly seen as together. Here they ride out to claim their victims, but the reader has the assurance that Jesus Christ holds the keys of death and the grave (Revelation 1:18) and will one day destroy them (Revelation 20:14).
‘A fourth part of the earth’. This stresses that, while considerable licence is given, there are reins upon the pale horse. He cannot go beyond the boundaries set by God. Judgment it may be, but it is tempered with mercy.
The word for ‘death’ is regularly used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) to translate the Hebrew word ‘deber’ which means destruction, plague, pestilence (1 Kings 8:37; Jeremiah 14:12). So, just as in the past pestilence was called The Black Death, we have a similar situation here.
Here then we have sword, famine, pestilence and wild beasts as in Ezekiel 14. Throughout history the world, beginning in the first century, has experienced devastating examples of all four which have carried off vast numbers of people.
The ‘sword’ mentioned here (rompheia - used in Revelation 1:16) is a different type from that in the second seal (macheira), possibly suggesting that there is an increase in warfare as different nations using different types of weapons enter the fray, but the words are used elsewhere interchangeably. The wild beasts would naturally arise in the areas depopulated by the earlier wars and famines, and they carry on the dreadful work. So the horsemen ride and the world suffers. But as God is here pointing out, they are precursors of the end, they are ‘the beginning of suffering’ (Matthew 24:28).
The Significance of the Four Horsemen.
In the words of Jesus the four horsemen are ‘the beginning of birth pains’ (Matthew 24:8). As the world sees religious fanaticism which results in men’s destruction, international warfare, famine and widespread pestilence, they can recognise that ‘the end’ is beginning. In the first century Christians men saw all four riding, and they have continued to ride to the present day,and they are riding today, and often they have raised questions as to whether God is aware of what is happening.
But this vision contains within it the encouragement that when these things happen it does not mean that the world is out of control, for they ride with God’s permission. He has allowed them, firstly because they are the inevitable consequence of men’s sinfulness, and secondly in order that through them men might be brought to consider eternal realities. Nothing makes men face more up to reality than prospective death and the grave.
It should be noted that these horsemen are riding at the same time. While one follows another, building up to the worst one of all, each continues to ride. The first century AD saw false Messiahs and prophets, war, famine and pestilence and earthquakes, continually side by side. They ride together through world history, a continual reminder of the end. The beginning of the third millennium has already demonstrated that they are riding as bloodthirstedly as ever, especially in the countries of the Bible.
‘And when he opened the fifth seal I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, Oh Master (despotes), the holy and true, do you not judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?” And to each one was given a white robe, and they were told that they should rest yet for a little time until their fellow-servants also, and their brothers, who would be killed even as they were, should be fulfilled.’
After Jesus spoke of the coming Messiahs, the coming wars, the coming famines, the coming plagues and earthquakes, He spoke of those who would be delivered up to tribulation and would be killed for His sake (Matthew 24:9-14; Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12-19). Indeed, as Luke tells us, He says this will happenfirst, for they will happen ‘before all these things’ (Luke 21:12). And, as we know, they did happen from the very beginning.
That is why we see here, not a description of persecution following the riding of the four horsemen, but the results of previous persecution. Even before the horsemen have ridden the people of God have been attacked and persecuted, and have suffered tribulation and death right from the beginning in Acts and onwards. And this has been because they held to the word of God, and because they believed in it and fearlessly witnessed to it. In view of Revelation 19:13 we must see a double meaning in the Word of God. Not only do they suffer for the truth He brought them and their belief in God’s word, they also suffer for Him Who is the Word of God.
They are described as being ‘underneath the altar’. Underneath the altar was where the ashes and remains of sacrifices and offerings went, including the drink offerings. So these martyrs are seen as sacrifices and offerings, not propitiatory, for only Christ’s sacrifice was that, but offerings to God in praise and thanksgiving (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6 compare Romans 12:1 and see Colossians 1:24), for their deaths have brought great glory to God (compare the sufferings of Job in the book of Job, where Satan is discomforted by Job’s faithfulness and God is glorified).
The idea behind it is that their deaths have been worthwhile, and pleasing to Him because of the faith they demonstrated. So being underneath the altar is a special and privileged position. Yet we must also see in their sacrifice that ‘something extra’. Like Paul they have ‘filled up that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ’ (Colossians 1:24). Christ’s sufferings lacked nothing in their efficacy and sufficiency for atonement and forgiveness, but in the purpose of God the suffering of His people was also to be a part of the cost of bringing men to Himself. These martyrs are a part of that purpose.
Their description as ‘souls’ may not be especially significant for ‘souls’ often means ‘persons’ and they are depicted as speaking and receiving white clothes. On the other hand the resurrection of the dead has not yet taken place so they are clearly in that intermediate state about which the Bible tells us very little. They do not yet have their resurrection bodies. Compare here on Revelation 20:4. This does tend to confirm, along with Philippians 1:23, that that state is not one of total unconsciousness.
‘And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, Oh Master --?’. We must remember this is a symbolic vision conveying an idea. It is not suggesting that martyrs are full of desires for vengeance for themselves. They are not so much concerned about revenge as about the seeming delay in the purposes of God. They are concerned about the time that has passed since their martyrdom, with the purposes of God not seeming to come to fulfilment.
They knew that Jesus had promised that they would be speedily avenged (Luke 18:8). Then why the delay? How much longer must the people of God have to wait? When is coming the judgment of which Jesus spoke? When will come the day when God calls men to account? These questions were of some concern to the early church too, as 2 Peter 3:9 tells us, and this episode assures the living that God has not forgotten them. Their cry is probably intended to parallel the cry of Abel’s blood from the ground for God to act in justice (Genesis 4:10 compare Hebrews 12:24).
‘Oh Master’. The word is ‘despotes’ and is used of Jesus in 2 Peter 2:1 when describing men as ‘denying the Master who bought them’ and in Jude 1:4 of those who deny ‘our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ’. (It is used of God in Acts 4:24, and is sometimes used to translate ‘lord’ (adonai) in the Old Testament). It describes the Master of the world, not ‘the Master’ (‘teacher’ - didaskolos - a different word) of believers. So there is the thought here that those on whom the vengeance is to come have denied their Master, the One Who has rights over them, the Lord of Creation. It is a more austere word for Master than didaskolos.
‘The holy and true’. It is Jesus Christ Who has been called the holy and true in Revelation 3:7, which confirms He is in mind here. As holy He would not stand by when injustice was done. As true He would not forget His servants.
‘Do you not judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’. When Abel’s blood cried from the ground for judgment it came almost immediately. Why then does the Master of the world now delay? The vengeance they speak of is God’s vengeance not theirs, a constant theme in the Old Testament descriptions of the last days. Compare also Paul who speaks of, ‘the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels, in flaming fire rendering vengeance to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus’ (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8).
The fact that it is primarily God’s vengeance that is in mind and not theirs is shown by the fact that ‘judge’ comes first. These people are seeking for the great day of judgment to come so that God’s righteous will might be done. (Compare Psalms 7:6-10). They are concerned for justice, not personal vengeance. Like many on earth at the time they cannot understand why there has been such a long delay and nothing has happened. The language also has in mind Deuteronomy 32:43 where it is promised that He will avenge the blood of His servants and will render vengeance on His adversaries.
‘Those who dwell on the earth’ appears regularly in Revelation of those who are not on the side of God (Revelation 3:10; Revelation 11:10; Revelation 13:8; Revelation 13:12; Revelation 13:14; Revelation 14:6; Revelation 17:8). It is similar to the use of ‘the world’ in the Gospels, they dwell in the world, they do not dwell in the Kingdom. They are not ‘strangers and pilgrims on the earth’ (Hebrews 11:13) looking for what is to come, but permanent residents with all their hopes pinned on the world.
‘And a white robe was given to each one’. The white robe is a symbol of heavenly beings (Matthew 28:3; Mark 16:5; John 20:12; Acts 1:10; Revelation 4:4; Revelation 15:6; Revelation 19:14). Thus this gift is a promise to them that ‘soon’ they will become ‘those who dwell in Heaven’ with the angels of God. This is why white robes were promised to overcomers (Revelation 3:4-5; Revelation 3:18).
‘And it was said to them that they should rest yet for a little while until their fellow-servants also and their brothers who would be killed even as they were, should be fulfilled’. God has not overlooked His promises, but there is yet more to be endured, more to be accomplished. Thus they must enjoy their rest and wait patiently, for the resurrection and judgment will come in God’s good time.
‘A little while’ warns that God’s purposes have not yet reached the ultimate, further persecution is still to come and will come soon, more martyrs will be offered up until their number is complete. But when God says ‘a little while’ it can have large perspectives. A few thousand years is nothing to Him.
For this ‘rest’ compare Daniel 12:13 - ‘go your way until the end be, for you willrestand stand in your lot at the end of the days’. Paul also in 2 Thessalonians 1:7 connects the Christian’s coming ‘rest’ with the expectation of vengeance.
‘Until --’. This is hugely significant. It is what this whole passage has been leading up to. It is a warning to the people of God. It stresses the persecution yet to come. Many more will yet be called on to die for the name of Christ. But when it comes they must look on it as a fulfilment, and recognise it is within the purposes of God. It is not something to be feared but to be triumphed in. And God has told them beforehand that it will happen. Let them then be ready!
More details of the persecution to come will be given shortly. The truth is that the next two or three centuries would see persecution of the most awful kind, when periods of calm for the church would be followed by periods of intense persecution and tribulation, but it was to this book could they look for strength and courage in those times. Furthermore such persecution has been the lot of God’s people through the ages. We who live in countries where it rarely happens should not overlook the fact that in some countries it is a continual and dreadful reality.
‘Should be fulfilled’ or possibly, ‘should be filled up’ (the textual authorities are divided). There may be here the idea that there is a kind of roll of martyrs which has to be completed (similar to the book of life). It reminds us that the number of martyrs is not yet complete, and we too should be ready to suffer for Christ. God’s purposes are accomplished through suffering. Job did not understand it, we may not understand it, but as we remember the sufferings of Christ we know it is so. When churches through the ages have suffered persecution they could look to these words for comfort and encouragement. God even controls the number of martyrs.
Everything described above did occur in the first century AD. They were truly things that would ‘shortly come about’, and some of the coming dreadful persecution being described was only years away. But they have continued on through following centuries, for in God’s longsuffering He has given men time to respond to Him (2 Peter 3:9), and man’s own sinful nature makes them inevitable. That the final days of this age will also see their continuation is thus to be expected, for these things will continue to the end, ‘even to the end will be war, desolations are determined’ (Daniel 9:26).
‘And I saw when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the whole moon became as blood, and the stars of the heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when it is shaken by a great wind. And the heaven was removed as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and every island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the princes, and the chief captains, and the rich and the strong, and every bondman and every freeman, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains.’
The question to be decided here is how we are to approach the interpretation of this type of language. Are the events described here to be interpreted politically and apocalyptically as mainly events leading up to the Great Day, or are they to be seen as natural events describing that final great day itself? On a literal reading the latter may seem the case. But the language is apocalyptic, and cannot be taken literally. All the stars cannot fall to earth - the earth is not large enough, and if heaven was removed as a scroll how could the sun and moon still be there? Furthermore the prophets used similar language of events in their own day describing political upheaval (and thus not to be interpreted literally), possibly but not necessarily accompanied in some cases by signs in the heavens - see Appendix below. They used such language to give an impression of world shaking events. And stars falling from heaven are elsewhere used of angelic activity. Thus that may be the case here.
We should remember that throughout this chapter John is following the pattern of Jesus discourses in Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21. And at this point in His discourse Jesus used language like this, a use which we have argued above was describing the political upheaval around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. So John may be saying that great political tumult and great supernatural activity (revealed more fully later on, especially in the fifth and sixth trumpets) are to occur.
‘There was a great earthquake’. Jesus had forecast ‘and earthquakes’ (Matthew 24:7). A similar event happened at the resurrection of Christ (Matthew 28:2), and great earthquakes are forecast to take place through the ages (Luke 21:11), as are world-shaking events which could be described in such apocalyptic language with regard to sun, moon and stars. The Old Testament prophets spoke of them in similar language as happening in their day (see Appendix below). Such events are often seen as presaging awesome things to come. And men have regularly hid from them saying that God’s day has come. In one sense therefore the first part of the sixth seal could be seen as having taken place again and again. But the difference here is that we are to see all this as pointing forward to a climax, to the actual final occurrence when that Day does actually come. Here John is not describing only the potential, he is describing the actual.
An earthquake is mentioned in Revelation 8:5 when the trumpets are about to sound in John’s day. A great earthquake is also mentioned as occurring in Jerusalem (Revelation 11:13 compare ‘where also their Lord was crucified’ - Revelation 11:8) as a kind of pre-emptive strike as the last judgment commences, and finally one occurs among ‘the cities of the nations’ (Revelation 16:19), the latter the greatest ever. They all signify God’s wrath.
. In Revelation 8:5 the earthquake preceded the seven trumpets and their great devastation and judgment, in Revelation 11:13 and Revelation 16:19 it is part of the great judgment day itself. Each introduces divine activity. Here it is seen as preceding the signs in the Heavens, which are either manifestations of that last judgment or apocalyptic pictures of the world’s turmoil which lead to that final judgment. Every earthquake is thus intended to be a reminder of the coming judgment of God, and the same applies here. This one is clearly to be seen as very severe, and as also preparing the way for divine activity. (The message is not diminished by the fact that we now know the main cause of earthquakes. It was God Who made the world that way).
The fact that ‘every mountain and every island were moved out of their places’ is a vivid eyewitness description of an earthquake. It demonstrates the greatness of the particular earthquake being described, so that John may well possibly have seen it as then causing the other natural phenomena. Its results would thus include the blackening out of the sun, the moon appearing like blood through the dust and debris thrown up, and the blotting out of the stars so that they appear to have fallen from heaven. It may then be seen as the last earthquake itself. (There is no mention of the vicinity in which the earthquake was to take place). Furthermore the description of falling stars may also suggest its connection with a meteor or asteroid, breaking up in its descent, appearing like falling stars (‘shooting stars’), with the other stars blacked out, and which could well cause a great earthquake and bring about the final devastation. This would be to interpret literally to a large extent.
On the other hand stars falling from Heaven regularly reflect angelic activity in Revelation. The phrase here almost exactly parallels that in Revelation 9:1 where it is clear an angel is in mind, and we can also compare Revelation 12:4. So it may be political turmoil that is in mind here combined with supernatural events, occurring through history and leading up to the final judgment (such events as are described later). (See Appendix below for a more detailed treatment of apocalyptic language).
Such events, of course, have happened throughout history in different parts of the world, from the first century onwards pointing forward to the final day. Thus each large earthquake has reminded men of the great judgment day that is coming and has turned the thoughts of many to the day of judgment. And each age has experienced tumultuous political events and spiritual attack that could be described in this fashion. But the description here is, in the last analysis, of the ultimate.
As we have said there is no indication where this earthquake actually takes place and whether it is universal. So in men’s minds it could equally have applied to any large scale earthquake that has taken place when terrified people indeed took refuge in caves and mountains (it does not say the kings of thewholeearth), and where men’s hearts cried out in fear. Each was one more indicator in preparation for the coming of Christ, and indeed could have been seen, as far as the participants were concerned, as the last. John is not in the business of forecasting the future in detail as such. The purpose of Revelation is not so much to forecast events as to prepare God’s people for them. He is concerned to prepare them for what they and the world have to face. ‘There will be earthquakes’. But then one day the last great earthquake will occur. And then His day will come.
So we have to consider the real possibility that at least part of the phenomena described here, if not all, are to be interpreted mainly politically as describing apocalyptic events leading up to the final day. As a whole the description parallels the words of our Lord Himself in His apocalyptic discourse, ‘the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken’ (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24-25), which were not there directly connected with an earthquake, and which Luke explains for his Gentile readers as, ‘there will be signs in sun, and moon, and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity, for the roaring of the sea and the billows, men fainting for fear, and for expectation of things which are coming on the world, for the powers of the heaven shall be shaken’ and Jesus saw this as being fulfilled within a generation. Thus even the earthquake may also be mainly political rather than physical.
As we have seen earlier (beginning of chapter 6), such are the continual parallels between this chapter and Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse that dependence of this whole chapter on the words of our Lord cannot really be doubted, and Jesus Himself specifically said that the generation of His disciples would not pass away until all He described was accomplished, including signs similar to these. If we are to be honest we must not avoid the plain meaning of His words just to support our theories.
(Greek is a wonderful language in the hands of expositors, and the most obscure uses of words can be called on so as to make it fit into our theories. And we are all guilty of it. But we must beware of so treating the word of God. Jesus did describe all these things as happening as a build up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD within that generation, and happen they did. That was not describing some far future ‘day of the Lord’, it was describing current world events).
John, however, is not referring specifically to that time spoken of by Jesus. He is extending the significance of the words. These things will go on, he is saying. 70 AD was not the end. The Jews have been scattered among the Gentiles as Jesus foretold, enduring great tribulation and ‘wrath unto this people’ (Luke 21:23). And the world will yet experience tumult among the nations and the wrath of God just as they did in Old Testament days as described by the prophets and in the days of the destruction of Jerusalem. The very people to whom he was writing lived among those who had yet to experience more of it.
(To John, looking forward to the second coming, although aware that it may be delayed (John 21:22) the idea is that these events will take place within the gap between his writing and the second coming. He had no idea how long that gap might be although aware that it might be a long time - ‘a thousand years’ (Revelation 20:4).)
In the chapters to come we will learn more of such effects in sun, moon and stars, with stars falling from Heaven, and the powers of Heaven indeed being shaken. These will be revealed in the events following the opening of the seventh seal as happening throughout history. What happened to Jerusalem in 70 AD was a precursor to further terrible events for nations, which could all be described in these words. But all are but preparation for the final terrible end of the age events.
We have seen much of this in the opening of the first five seals. The first five seals began in John’s day and have continued on through history, resulting in false Messiahs, war, famine, wholesale death, persecution. Many a time portents must have been read in the heavens. But now the sixth seal, which illustrates to us men’s terror in the face of natural events and political tumult, describes the continuation of those events and brings us up to the final day of reckoning, the day of the wrath of the Lamb. It is an addition to the cataclysm of history when everything heads up to final climax, a situation for which there have been many rehearsals. Each age has at times thought that the time had come. Now it has come!
Up to this point in time the events of all the five seals have been continuing in parallel through history, and, as we shall indicate, in relative parallel with the first five trumpets and the first five bowls yet to be described. But what is happening through history in the opening of these five seals (and in the contemporaneous blowing of the trumpets and the emptying of the bowls) continues, and finalises, in the sixth seal, in the Day of the Wrath of God and of the Lamb. It is the sixth in each series, the sixth seal, the sixth trumpet and the sixth bowl, that introduces the closing events of the age. (In contrast the opening of the seventh seal will issue in the blowing of the trumpets which themselves also lead us up to this final day of reckoning, while the seventh trumpet and the seventh bowl themselves describe the final judgment).
The Opening of the Sixth Seal (Revelation 6:12-17).
‘And the kings of the earth, and the princes, and the chief captains, and the rich, and the strong, and every bondman and freeman, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains. And they say to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of His wrath has come, and who shall be able to stand?”.’
Here we do have the culmination of world history. When the third horseman rode out the rich were not over-affected, but now all are involved. There is no hiding place. King and commoner, rich and poor, free man and slave, all are involved. It is the day of God. Earthquakes are great levellers, and men have often taken refuge in natural shelters when their own have been collapsing. But this one is perhaps the one beyond all earthquakes, the coming of the wrath of the Lamb.
This description is taken from Isaiah 2:20-21. There it speaks of the great and final Day of the Lord when the glory of His majesty is revealed, and men hurl away their idols and hide themselves from the wrath of God. It is thus the time of final reckoning.
All this parallels the words of Jesus which follow His similar description of activity in sun moon and stars. ‘Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn’ (Matthew 24:30). And it will be followed, as the remainder of Revelation makes clear, by ‘and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory, and he will send out his angels with a great sound of a trumpet and they will gather together his chosen ones from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other’ (Matthew 13:30-31). The difference here is that John is emphasising the negative side, (often, be it noted, stressed by Jesus) and that is that for those who are not of the chosen, that day is one of fear and terror, for it is the day when God’s anger against sin will reach its culmination. (He will describe the positive later).
Thus the ‘great day of Their wrath’ is the ultimate outworking of the final ‘day of the Lord’ (period of the Lord’s judgment) forecast in the Old Testament. This great wrath is mentioned at the time of the seventh trumpet, linked with the judgment day (Revelation 11:18), it is mentioned in Revelation 14:10, again linked with God’s final judgment and its consequences, it is mentioned in Revelation 14:19 of the angel putting in the sickle and reaping, which our Lord used as a description of the day of judgment, it is used of God’s final dealings with the nations and with ‘Babylon’ (Revelation 16:18-19), and it is used of the coming of Christ as judge (Revelation 19:15). The sixth seal therefore climaxes with the coming of the Judge to make known His final wrath against sin, the great day of His wrath.
Final note on the wrath of God.
We should, however, note that the Day of His wrath is not the beginning of the revelation of the wrath of God. The wrath of God has been revealed through history. It was already revealed in Paul’s day. ‘The wrath of god is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who by their unrighteousness hold down the truth’ (Romans 1:18). And that it will be made manifest in a restrained way through history the first five seals, trumpets and bowls demonstrate. The opening of the seven-sealed book is itself a manifestation of the wrath of God. So this final ‘Day of His wrath’ will certainly be preceded by manifestations of that wrath, and indeed is specifically stated of the seven plagues (Revelation 15:1; Revelation 15:7; Revelation 16:1). This latter reminds us that we must not just read everything in Revelation as referring to thefinal‘wrath of God’. Much of it reveals God’s continual wrath against sin throughout history. That is one message of Revelation, that God’s wrath is revealed constantly through history, although with restraint, while in the last day of judgment there will be no restraint. For the wrath of God is not just a final outburst against sin, it is the continual attitude of a holy God to the manifestation of sin. It is a reminder that God hates sin. And the only reason it is not full applied immediately is because of His merciful restraint (2 Peter 3:8-10).
End of note.
‘Who will be able to stand?’ We are given the answer in the next chapter.
Preliminary Note Concerning The Seventh Seal.
The events described in the seven seals occur in parallel with the other six seals, unfolding different aspects of what future history will produce. That the seventh seal that is yet to be opened does not follow on chronologically from the other six seals is clear first of all from the fact that the sixth seal has taken us right on to the second coming of Christ, to the day of His wrath, and the indication is that that is the day of judgment itself. The kings and people are in despair because there is no more time. That is certainly the impression that John intends to give.
So the seventh seal is rather describing what will occur at the same time as the events in the other six seals progress. The events in all seven seals go on together up to the end of the age. Thus the seventh seal will further illuminate what is happening during the period described in the six seals, and will clearly demonstrate their extension beyond 70 AD. For what Revelation, and the opening of the seven seals, is unfolding, is the whole of what was written in the sealed book in one great panorama. What occurs in the following chapters thus occurs during the periods described in the other seals, and will illuminate further what is meant by the apocalyptic imagery of the sixth seal. .
EXCURSUS ON THE MEANING OF APOCALYPTIC LANGUAGE.
When reading these apocalyptic descriptions we must learn to ask ourselves genuinely what the words spoken would mean to the readers of the time, for that is what they also meant to the writer. Language which is patently used with a high degree of symbolism must not be taken too literally. This is very much the situation here. This is apocalyptic language, language which vividly symbolises dramatic events, but what does it intrinsically mean?
In these circumstances it is vital to compare Scripture with Scripture, for what better authority is there then that? And fortunately for us, if we are willing to see it, Scripture itself provides us with a solution.
In the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus outlined above both Matthew and Mark use descriptions very similar to these in Revelation. As we have seen, however, Luke puts it somewhat differently. He starts (but in abbreviated form) with ‘the sun, moon and stars’, for he wishes to be faithful to the original idea, and he finishes with ‘for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken’ (Revelation 21:26; compare Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:25), which demonstrates that he is referring to the same part of the discourse, but he realises that the language may lead his more prosaic readers astray. So in between he interprets the apocalyptic language.
Whether we take this as his explanation or as the explanation of Jesus does not affect the issue, either way we learn that the apocalyptic language of darkened sun, unlit moon and falling stars refer to ‘distress of nations in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows, men fainting for fear and for expectation of things that are coming on the world’ (Revelation 21:25-26). The language is still somewhat picturesque and metaphorical, but solidly down to earth. He is pointing out that the extravagant metaphors refer to political and social, as well as heavenly, upheaval and man’s consequent panic and fear. And it should be noted that John confirms that interpretation here, for he goes on to describe just such situations.
In fact most of the apocalyptic language he uses here is directly borrowed so let us look at:
The Background to and Sources of the Apocalyptic Imagery.
‘There was a great earthquake. And the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the whole moon became as blood, and the stars of the heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when it is shaken by a great wind. And the heaven was removed as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places’. The description of the sun as black as sackcloth comes from a combination of Isaiah 50:3, ‘I clothe the heavens with blackness and I make sackcloth their covering’ with ‘the sun will be darkened in her going forth’ (Isaiah 13:10), ‘the sun and the moon will be darkened’ (Joel 2:10), ‘the sun shall be turned into darkness (Joel 2:28), and ‘I will cover the sun with a cloud’ (Ezekiel 32:7). See also ‘the sun shall be darkened’ ( Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24).
‘The whole moon became as blood’ comes from ‘the moon (will be turned) into blood’ (Joel 2:28), compare ‘the moon will not cause her light to shine’ (Isaiah 13:10), ‘the moon will not give her light’ (Ezekiel 32:7; Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24). Indeed the moon turning into blood is a description regularly used through history of natural phenomena such as eclipses which can make the moon appear red. Both these phenomena can be the result of natural causes, and both are constantly linked with political unrest and social upheaval, both in the Bible and in other literature. When men are in fear they see even the heavens as affected by their difficulties.
‘The stars of heaven fell to the earth’ can be compared with ‘I saw a star from heaven fallen to the earth (Revelation 9:1), ‘and his tail draws the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth’ referring to the fall of angels (Revelation 12:4) and (of the little horn) ‘it waxed great even to the host of heaven, and some of the host and of the stars it cast down to the ground and trampled on them’ (Daniel 8:10) spoken of Antiochus Epiphanes attacking the gods of other nations.
For mention of the stars as a whole we have, ‘the stars of heaven and the constellations of it will not give their light’ (Isaiah 13:10), ‘I will cover the heaven and make the stars of it dark --- all the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you and set darkness on your land’ (Ezekiel 32:8), ‘the stars withdraw their shining’ (Joel 2:10), and ‘the stars shall fall from heaven’ (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24). Here in Revelation the fall of the angels is almost certainly in mind (Revelation 8:8; Revelation 8:10; Revelation 9:1; Revelation 10:4 with 9), with the consequent effects on earth.
For ‘the heaven removed as a scroll’ and ‘as a fig tree casts its unripe figs’ see ‘all the host of heaven shall be dissolved and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll, and all their host shall fade away as the leaf fades from the vine, and as a fading leaf from a fig tree’ (Isaiah 34:4). This latter specifically refers to God’s judgment on Edom and their neighbours, so that it was not seen as literally happening, and did not refer to the end times. It was metaphorical for the devastation they would suffer.
The apocalyptic language in Ezekiel 32 (especially compare Ezekiel 32:7 and Ezekiel 32:8 with Ezekiel 32:9 and Ezekiel 32:10) has specifically in mind the downfall of Pharaoh and of Egypt at the hands of the Babylonians, including the surrounding nations. It is then followed by a description of the fate of other nations. There is nothing to indicate that it is specifically related to ‘the day of the Lord’ or to a period called ‘the end times’. These nations did suffer these fates historically and we must hesitate before we assume that fulfilment in history is so irrelevant that we must push everything into the context of the ‘end times’.
Isaiah 13-14 (see Isaiah 13:10; Isaiah 13:13) refers to the downfall of Babylon, and while the language is extravagant it is specifically said to be related to the Medes (Isaiah 13:17) which was historically correct, but in this case there is a movement on to later times for in Isaiah 13:19-22 the prophet ‘sees’ beyond the times in which he lives to the final destruction of Babylon, when it will be destroyed to rise no more, which would occur a few hundred years later. From its earliest history (Genesis 11:9) Babylon was a symbol greater than itself, (like Rome later), and therefore its final doom was to be total. In the end the prophet knew that this was what must happen. What he did not know was when or how.
Isaiah 34 (see Isaiah 34:4) refers to the downfall of Edom and ‘all the nations’ i.e. the nations around Edom who have troubled Israel, specifically the people of His ‘curse’, assigned to destruction (Isaiah 34:5) as is evidenced by the fact that the rest of ‘the nations’ do not take part but are called in to witness the event - Isaiah 34:1. While it refers to the day of the Lord’s vengeance it is revenge on Edom for their behaviour towards Israel (Isaiah 34:8). It is not said to be in the end times, nor is there any reason for suggesting that it is (except to those who quite unreasonably put ALL prophecy in the last days).
Although he goes on to describe its punishment in apocalyptic terms, ‘its streams will be turned into pitch, and its dust into brimstone, and its land shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day, its smoke shall rise for ever, from generation to generation it shall lie waste, none shall pass through it for ever and ever’, yet that this is not to be taken too literally even here is evidenced by the abundant wild life which will then occupy it (Isaiah 34:11-15) which demonstrates quite clearly that we are not to take the language literally. It is the language of apocalyptic judgment. Like the language about Babylon it contains within it the recognition that all man’s rebellion can finally only end in total destruction. In that sense only it indirectly applies to the end times.
The latter part of Joel 2 is a different case. It is specifically referring to the end times, for it refers to the final restoration of God’s people. But as we have seen Peter applies the words to his own day (Acts 2:19-21) (which of course he describes as ‘the last days’ (Acts 2:17); ‘the end of the times’ (1 Peter 1:20); compare Hebrews 1:1-2). And Joel’s apocalyptic language (Joel 2:30-31) is echoed by Jesus of activity which certainly commences in 1st century AD (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25-26).
Thus similar terminology is used of local historical events and of the end times. It is used of the attacks of Antiochus Epiphanes (2nd century BC) on other nations and their gods, and it is used of the fall of angels. It is used of historical judgments on Egypt, Edom, and Babylon, and it is used of the days of the early church. It thus has widespread reference. Its aim is usually to presage dreadful events on earth.
A clear example of this use of such language is found in Haggai 2:21-22. Here the prophet is referring to the establishment of the kingship of Zerubbabel (v. 23), and God says, ‘I will shake the heavens and the earth, and I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms, and I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and I will overthrow the chariots and those who ride in them, and the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the hand of his brother’.
Here again the shaking of heaven and earth refers to political events which in this case will establish the kingdom of Zerubbabel and result in the downfall of his enemies. (Of course it is easy to dismiss what the Bible actually says and airily say ‘Oh, this clearly refers to the end times’. But if Biblical texts are to be treated like that there is nothing further we can say. The Bible is on the side of the conservative interpreter and refers it to Zerubbabel). Compare also the description of the then approaching destruction of Jerusalem and exile in Jeremiah 4:23-31. There too the mountain trembled, the heavens became black, and the people hid in the mountains.
Our Lord Himself referred these images primarily to the events during and after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, when there were indeed convulsions for the peoples of that area. However, as demonstrated here in Revelation, the future as a whole was in view, and part of His discourse does seem to take in wider events, so that we can justifiably include reference to future times as history repeats itself. He knew that the fall of Jerusalem would lead on to wide political turmoil and He knew that ‘wars and desolations were determined to the end of time. And He did not know at that point the time of His coming. Thus He encompasses it all in this brief but vivid description. In a similar way Peter, having been through the trauma of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, applied Joel’s language to that period (Acts 2:19-21)).
What Did John Have in Mind in its Use in Revelation?
In view of what follows in the book it is safe to say that he certainly has in mind awesome political events. That is what his book is about. In the first place it refers to the power of Rome, its demands to worship for itself and its emperors, its persecution in terrible ways of God’s people, and its inevitable final destruction, when the world did seem to many to be collapsing. It is difficult for us to understand how men at the time did see the fall of Rome, which many had believed could never happen. (It is true that by then Rome had theoretically been ‘Christianised’ but it was hardly Christian).
But it also has in mind, as it makes clear, (although John probably saw the two as being together), the events which lead up to the Second Coming of Christ. At many times in history there have been unusually cataclysmic events, political and social upheaval, often seen as connected with signs in the heavens, and at those times the people of God have found comfort from this book, for it enable them to recognise that all was not out of control.
And such cataclysmic events will continue. Right until the end there will indeed be similar events as sections of the Old and New Testaments make clear. These too the Revelation prepares us for. For whenever the people of God are persecuted, the book comes into its own. Whether it be the power of Rome in the first centuries, the activities of invading hordes, the rise of Islam through the power of the sword, the political and religious machinations of popes, cardinals and kings and other tyrants in the middle ages or of future religious and political tyrants, the truth is the same. God will watch over His own, will bring the activities of tyrants and those who support them to a deserved end, and will finally bring all to a conclusion in triumph.
Furthermore, as we shall see through the book, it does have in mind the activities of heavenly powers as they affect events on earth. John reveals that while cataclysmic events are going on earth they are greatly affected by activities in the spiritual realm. World history, he tells us, has been greatly affected by the things that are not seen.
And the final result of these events as they occur will be, as described in Revelation 6:15-17, a terror struck world in the face of the wrath of God and of the Lamb as men realise they have to face God’s judgments. Whether it will also result in equally awesome events in nature, bringing the world to a vivid end, which may seem likely, will be revealed in the final day.
Thus at the end of chapter 6 we have reached the final moments of world history as the world becomes aware that Christ is coming to bring them into judgment.
End of Excursus.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Revelation 6". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany