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CALAMITIES ON THE OPENING OF SIX SEALS
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
THE first catastrophe, or overthrow of the Jewish persecuting power, is the subject of chaps. 6–11. Some take the subject in a more general way, as being the relation of Christianity to great universal evils.
Revelation 6:1 One.—ἑνός, the first of the living ones. Come and see.—Properly only the word “Come.” This cry is not to the seer, but to the riders, who immediately begin to appear. Some take the invitation as “addressed to the Lord Jesus. His creatures pray Him to come—and behold, instead of His coming immediately, there come these terrible precursors of His, so increasingly unlike Him.”
Revelation 6:2. White horse.—The rider is armed with a bow, and adorned with a victor’s crown. “This is an emblem of the gospel, which, through the instrumentality of preaching, is about to extend itself victoriously through the earth.” For visions of horses see Zechariah 1:8-11; Zechariah 6:1-8. There is symbolic significance in their colours. Here the colours of the four horses symbolise triumph, slaughter, mourning, and death. The meaning of the first is disputed. Simeox suggests that it symbolises the “spirit of conquest”; such as animates men like Alexander or Napoleon. Carpenter improves on this by suggesting the spirit of Christian victory. The horses used in Roman triumphs were white.
Revelation 6:4. Horse that was red.—The angel of war. “The seal puts in pictorial form the warning of Christ, that wars and rumours of wars would be heard of. Red is the symbol of blood to be shed.”
Revelation 6:5. A black horse.—“Whose rider holds a pair of balances in his hand, with which he measures out to men their daily portion of wheat and of barley: this is the angel of famine.” Black is the colour indicative of distress, misfortune, or mourning. It is a picture of “bad times.”
Revelation 6:8. Pale horse.—I.e. livid; lit. green, cadaverous. The emblem of contagions sickness or pestilence. Hell.—Is Hades, the shelter-place of the spirits of the dead. The “under-world.” The grave, conceived of as ready to devour those slain by the pestilence. Fourth part.—A mission in strict limitations. But pestilence is not here regarded as a single force; it is associated with war, famine, accidents, and inroads of wild beasts (Ezekiel 14:21). Possibly it represents the special calamities of what are called the Middle Ages.
Revelation 6:9. Fifth seal.—No horse is associated with this. It is the announcement of the last persecutions. A scene in the invisible world; the cry of the martyrs whose blood has been shed unjustly, and who demand the appearing of the Judge of the world. Altar.—Here first mentioned. In Old-Testament sacrifices, the blood of the victims was poured out at the foot of the altar. “This seal indicates that the mission of the Christian Church can only be carried out in suffering.” Souls.—This word usually means the mere principle of natural life, as distinguished from “spirit,” the immortal part of man. In Scripture it is often the simple equivalent of life.
Revelation 6:10. O Lord.—ὁ δεσπότης, our Sovereign, distinguished from κύριος. “It is a poetical description. The righteous blood shed does fall upon the world in retribution; the laws of God avenge themselves, though the victims do not live to behold the rewards of the ungodly.”
Revelation 6:11. White robes.—As sign of the Divine acceptance and favour. Rest.—There was need for checking the impatience of the age for our Lord’s immediate return.
Revelation 6:12. Earthquake.—Matthew 24:7. Actual natural calamity. The fear produced by earthquake, and its associated effects in nature, is poetically given in this and following verses. “All phenomena of this kind were anciently regarded with great terror, as being the evidences that God was angry, and was about to punish.” Blood.—Compare Joel 2:31.
Revelation 6:13. Stars.—Matthew 14:29. Fig tree.—Isaiah 34:4; but see Matthew 24:32. Untimely figs.—Those which form too late to ripen, and fall off when spring comes.
Revelation 6:14. Departed.—Better, “parted.” Moved.—By force of the earthquake.
Revelation 6:15. Dens … rocks.—Shelter-places sought in the senseless fright produced by the earthquake.
Revelation 6:16-17. Day of His wrath.—This was the fear, not the fact. This entire picture must be explained by the wild, unreasoning alarm occasioned by an unusually awful earthquake. In every great convulsion of nature, and in every great social convulsion, people rush at once to the idea that the day of judgment has come. But Christians ought not to yield to any such fears.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Revelation 6:1-17
The Chief Outward Woes of Human Society which will Bear on the Church.—Just as the individual Christian is left in the world to be disciplined by an ever-varying human experience, so is the Church left in the world, and made subject to the influence of calamities in the sphere of nature, persecutions at the hand of man, and disappointments and failures in the orderings of Divine Providence. The Apocalypse first presents the strain in which the Church is placed by its outward relations, and then the more severe and perilous strain through evils, and evil influences, within itself. (Compare Acts 20:29-30.) The more serious strain involved in the presence of an apostate section in the Church, or from a wildly time-serving spirit getting into the Church, is dealt with in the later chapters, under the heading of the seventh seal. The evils are variously represented as the work of Antichrist, the Beast, and the False Prophet; and the Apostate Church within the Church is the Babylon that must come into the overwhelming judgments of God. The first four of the seals are evidently alike in this, that they deal with the things that try the characters of men, and press heavily on human society. The first seal is the most difficult one to understand. Godet thinks the conqueror on the white horse represents the gospel, but that would not harmonise with the other seals. A peaceful conqueror, who covers distances with his bow, is clearly indicated; and the only such conqueror that can be conceived is commerce and colonisation. From one point of view this is a woe, for commerce has its side of financial calamities, and colonisation breaks up family and Church life. The second seal reveals the influence of war; the third the influence of famine, or scarcity; and the fourth the influence of contagious disease or pestilence. It will at once be felt that, in the history of the Christian Church, all these things have exerted disciplinary influence, but that no sort of chronological order need be assigned to them. The fifth seal introduces the actual persecutions to which the Church is subject from outside enemies, which often involve martyrdom. The point of the paragraph, Revelation 6:9-11, is not the vision of those who have been martyred, but the assurance that, in the time to come, their fellow-servants would be killed, even as they were. The sixth seal deals with the more terrible convulsions of nature—earthquakes, volcanoes, tempests, etc., and the more terrible portents—eclipses, etc.—which, in those days, filled men with overwhelming fears, and could not fail to influence even the Church of Christ. What St. John presents by his vision of the seals to the oppressed and persecuted Churches of Asia in his day is, that the various outward forms of strain will still be permitted to affect them. Sometimes the strain on faith and steadfastness will take one form and sometimes another. It may be financial distress, or war, or scarcity, or pestilence, or martyrdom, or disasters of nature. The Church life had to be maintained under every form of stress and temptation. And it is precisely to use these various seemingly evil influences for His sanctifying purposes that the Living Lord Jesus is now actually present in His Church, “walking among the seven golden candlesticks.”
M. Renan gives a vivid picture of the extraordinary natural calamities occurring at the time when the Apocalypse was written. “Never had the world been seized with such a trembling fit; the earth itself was a prey to the most terrible convulsions: the whole world was smitten with giddiness. The planet seemed shaken to its foundations, and to have no life left in it. The conflict of the legions (amongst themselves) was terrible; … famine was added to massacre; … misery was extreme. In the year 65 A.D., a horrible plague visited Rome. During the autumn there were counted thirty thousand deaths. The Campagna was desolated by typhoons and cyclones; … the order of nature seemed to be overturned; frightful tempests spread terror in all directions. But that which produced the greatest impression was the earthquakes. The globe was undergoing a convulsion analogous to that of the moral world; it was as if the earth and mankind were taken with fever simultaneously. Vesuvius was preparing for the terrible eruption of the year 79. Asia Minor was in a chronic earthquake. Its cities had to be continually re-built. The valley of the Lycus especially, with its Christian towns of Laodicea and Colossæ, was laid waste in the year 60.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Revelation 6:1. The Call to the Riders.—This invitation indicates that the events revealed are great and wonderful; it consoles the Church with the assurance that, however she may suffer, the voice of the gospels will survive—that all her sufferings will be for her own good and for Christ’s glory.—Wordsworth.
The Living Creatures.—The living creatures represent animate nature—that nature and creation of God which groans and travails in pain, waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God. These summon the emblems of war and pestilence to come on the scene, for these things must needs be, and through these lies the way for the final coming of God’s Christ, for whom Creation longs. They bid the pains and troubles come, because they recognise them as the precursors of Creation’s true King. Thus their voice has in it an undertone which sighs for the advent of the Prince of Peace, who is to come.—Bishop Boyd Carpenter.
Revelation 6:8. The Personification of Death.—“The personification of death, in the act of executing the Divine commands, is exhibited with great difference, both as to features and character, amongst different nations. Perhaps the most mean delineation is the common monkish one of a skeleton, with dart and hour-glass; while one of the most terrible is that of the Scandinavian poets, who represent him as mounted on horseback, riding with inconceivable rapidity in pursuit of his prey, meagre and wan, and the horse possessing the same character as his rider. Yet the passage cited from the Apocalypse is, in sublimity and terror, superior to the most energetic specimens of Runic poetry. The word translated pale (chloros) is peculiarly expressive in the original; it might be more adequately rendered “ghastly,” meaning that wan and exanimate hue exhibited in certain diseases.”—Mason Good.
Times of Public Sickness.—Some interpret this of the persecution under Decius and his successors, of the epidemic diseases, consequent upon famine, which prevailed so widely from A.D. 250 to 265, that half the population is said to have been destroyed by war, pestilence, and famine. After the death of Gallienus, the multiplication of wild beasts in various parts of the empire was ascribed to the guilt of the Christians.
Revelation 6:9. Martyr Ages.—The burden of this passage is, that there should be a fierce and sanguinary persecution of the Christians during this seal; that that persecution should be terminated by a temporary and judicial deliverance of the oppressed ones, in which should supervene another terrible persecution. The signal triumph of the cause of the martyrs over that of their cruel oppressors satisfies all the requirements of the passage.—Bishop Waldegrave.
Revelation 6:12. Natural Signs of Spiritual Events.—We are not to expect a literal fulfilment of the prophecies in this seal, which describe a great elemental convulsion. We are not to look for any terrific changes in the heavenly bodies before Christ’s Second Coming. These prophecies are spiritual, and to be understood spiritually.—Wordsworth.
Revelation 6:16-17. The Wrath of the Lamb.—The lamb is the most simply innocent of all animals. Historically, also, it had become a name for sacrifice. Under this twofold reason Christ is set forth as the Lamb. The lamb is but the complemental gentleness of God’s judicial vigour. A most paradoxical, jarring combination of words predicates wrath of the very lambhood of Christ. To some, even to speak of the wrath of God is an offence, though Scripture speaks of His wrath without compunction. But the term “wrath of the Lamb” not only violates a first principle of rhetoric, forbidding the conjunction of symbols that have no agreement of kind or quality, but also shocks our cherished conceptions of Christ as the suffering Victim or the all-merciful and beneficent Friend, in either way the Saviour of sinners. Who will ever speak of a lamb’s wrath? Scripture does. What shall we make of such a fact? Simply this, that while our particular age is at the point of apogee from all the more robust and vigorous conceptions of God in His relation to evil—while it makes nothing of God as a person or governing will, less, if possible, of sin as a wrong-doing by subject wills—we are still to believe in Christianity, and not in the new religion of nature. We must have the right to believe in the real Christ, and not that theologic Christ which has so long been praised, as it were, into weakness, by the showing that separates Him from all God’s decisive energies and fires of combustion, and puts Him over against them, to be only a pacifier of them by His suffering goodness. Our Christ must be the real King—Messiah—and no mere victim; He must govern, have His indignations, take the regal way in His salvation. His goodness must have fire and fibre enough to make it Divine. We take the principle without scruple, that if we can settle what is to be understood by the wrath of God we shall not only find the wrath in God, but as much more intensely revealed in the incarnate life and ministry of Christ as the love is, or the patience, or any other character of God. Since He is the Lamb, in other words, the most emphatic and appalling of all epithets will have its place—viz., the wrath of the Lamb. We want a better English word to express the Scriptural word ὀργή. We have wrath, anger, indignation, fury, vengeance, judgment, justice, and the like, but they are all more or less defective. Indignation is the most unexceptionable, but it is too prosy and weak to carry such a meaning with due effect. Wrath must be kept as a moral, not merely animal, passion, or it will connect associations of unregulated temper that are wholly unsuitable. We understand by wrath, as applied to God and to Christ, a certain principled heat of resentment towards evil-doing and evil-doers, such as arms the good to inflictions of pain or just retribution upon them. It is not the heat of revenge. It is that holy heat which kindles about order and law, and truth and light, going in, as it were, spontaneously to redress their wrongs, and chastise the injuries they have suffered. It is that, in every moral nature, which prepares it to be an essentially beneficent avenger. Is it, then, a fact that Christ, as the incarnate Word of God, embodies and reveals the wrath-principle of God, even as He does the patience, or love-principle, and as much more intensely? On this point we have many distinct evidences.
1. Christ cannot be a true manifestation of God when He comes in half the character of God, to act upon, or qualify, or pacify, the other half. If only God’s affectional nature is represented in Him, then He is but a half manifestation. If the purposes of God, the justice of God, the indignations of God, are not in Him—if anything is shut away, or let down, or covered over—then He is not in God’s proportions, and does not incarnate His character.
2. Christ can be the manifested wrath of God without being any the less tender in His feeling, or gentle in His patience. In the history of Jesus we see occasions in which He actually displays the judicial and the tender, most affectingly, together and in the very same scene, as in His denouncing and weeping over Jerusalem. Indeed, the tenderest, purest souls will, for just that reason, be hottest in the wrath-principle where any bitter wrong, or shameful crime, is committed. They take fire, and burn, because they feel.
3. God, without the wrath-principle, never was, and Christ never can be, a complete character. This element belongs inherently to every moral nature. God is no God without it; man is no man without it. It is this principled wrath, in one view, that gives staminal force and majesty to character.
4. It is a conceded principle of justice that wrong doers are to suffer just according to what they deserve. In Christianity God is not less just or more merciful, but He is more fitly and proportionately expressed.
5. One of the things most needed in the recovery of men to God is this very thing—a more decisive manifestation of the wrath-principle and justice of God. Intimidation is the first means of grace.
6. We can see for ourselves that the more impressive revelation of wrath, which appears to be wanted, is actually made in the person of Christ, as in His driving out the money-changers, and denouncing the hypocritical Pharisees.
7. Christ is appointed and publicly undertakes to maintain the wrath-principle officially, as the Judge of the world, even as He maintains the love-principle officially, as the Saviour of the world. He even declares that authority is given Him to execute judgment, because He is the Son of man. But the wrath-principle in Christ is only that judicial impulse that backs Him in the infliction of justice whenever justice requires to be inflicted. And it does not require to be inflicted always; it never ought, to be when there is anything better that is possible. Put it down, then, first of all, at the close of this great subject, that the New Testament gives us no new God, or better God, or less just God, than we had before. He is the I AM of all ages, the I AM that was, and is, and is to come; the same that was declared from the beginning—“The Lord God, gracious and merciful, forgiving iniquity, transgressions, and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty.”—H. Bushnell, D.D.
Revelation 6:17. Survivors of the Calamities.—The sixth seal does not give us a completed picture. We see the great and awe-inspiring movements which are heralds of the day of wrath. The whole world is stirred and startled at the tread of the approaching Christ, and then the vision melts away; we see no more, but we have seen enough to be sure that the close of the age is at hand. Yet we are anxious to know something of those who have been faithful, pure, and chivalrous witnesses for truth and right, for Christ and God. In that day, that awful day, the whole population of the world seems to be smitten with dismay; the trees, shaken with that terrible tempest, seem to be shedding all their fruit; the trembling of all created things seems to be about to shake down every building. Are all to go? Are none strong enough to survive? We heard that there were seven seals attached to the mystic book which the Lion of the tribe of Judah was opening; but this sixth seal presents us with the picture of universal desolation. What is there left for the seventh seal to tell us? The answer to these questions is given in the seventh chapter, which introduces scenes that may either be taken as dissolving views, presented in the course of the sixth seal, or as complementary visions. And those scenes show us in pictorial form that the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptation; that in the midst of the time of the shaking of all things, when all might, majesty, strength, and genius of men is laid low, and every mere earth-born kingdom is over-thrown, there is a kingdom which cannot be shaken.—Bishop Boyd Carpenter.
The Awful Character of Earthquakes.—One of the most terrible earthquakes on record happened at Lisbon, November 1st, 1755. The morning was fine, and there was no apparent indication of the coming destruction. About nine o’clock a low subterraneous rumbling was heard, which gradually increased, and culminated at last in a violent shock of earthquake, which levelled to the ground many of the principal buildings of the place. Three other shocks followed in rapid succession and continued the work of destruction. Scarcely had the ill-fated inhabitants begun to realise the enormity of the disaster which had come upon them when they were surprised by another visitation of a different, but not less destructive, character. The sea began to rush with great violence into the Tagus, which rose at once as much as forty feet above high-water mark. The water swept over a great part of the city, and many of the inhabitants fled from its approach to take refuge on a strong marble quay recently erected. They had collected there to the number of three thousand when the quay was suddenly hurled bottom upwards and every soul on it perished. A fife broke out in the city. And by the combined effect of these disasters sixty thousand persons are supposed to have perished.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Revelation 6". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent