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And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals. The statement "I saw" means that when the Lamb opened one of the seals John saw the vision which is described in what follows.
As it were the noise of thunder. A deep, impressive, awe-inspiring sound.
Come and see. Attend closely to the vision.
And I saw, and behold, a white horse. Let the reader note particularly what John saw, and then remember that it is symbolical, and that instead of looking for a literal fulfillment, we are to ask the meaning of the symbols. There are several features of the vision that fix our attention: 1. The horse. 2. His white color. 3. The armed warrior. 4. His crown. 5. His bow. 6. His mission. It is certain that none of these features would have been named if they did not possess a significance. What do each of these symbols mean? I will consider them in order: (1) The horse. He was never used by the Jews or Orientals as a beast of burden. The ox and the ass were devoted to that office, and the horse was reserved for war. Whenever the horse is mentioned by the prophets it will be found in connection with war-like employments. That the horse is always associated with war can be seen by consulting Job 29:25; Psa 76:6; Pro 21:31; Jer 8:6; Eze 26:10. Hence this symbol points to a period of war, though it alone does not declare whether the conflict is carnal or spiritual, is triumphant or disastrous. (2) The white color. As there are three more horses in succession under the three following seals, each of different colors, the color must have a meaning. White must have a different significance from red, or black, or pale. What is indicated by the color of the first horse? White is the color of prosperity, of happiness, and triumph. Whenever a Roman General was given a triumph his chariot was drawn by milk white horses. In Rev. chapter 19, the Mighty Conqueror who wears many crowns is seen riding on a white horse. Commentators are agreed that the white horse signifies prosperous, victorious wars. (3) The rider. His significance is due to his arms, his crown, and the white horse he rides. It is enough to state here that he represents either some conqueror, or a conquering age. (4) The crown. "There was a crown given to him." This crown is not "the diadem" (diadema) but the "garland crown" (stephanos). The last was the crown given as a reward for victory in battle, for great achievements or for victory in games. The Hero of chapter 19 wears many diadems, kingly crowns, but this rider wears the garland crown, the stephanos. It is important to note this distinction. (5) The bow. He is armed with a usual weapon of war in that age. The bow may simply signify that the rider is a great, warlike figure, or there may be a special significance in the fact that he is armed with a bow instead of a sword or spear.
And there went out another horse that was red. The second living creature said, Come and see, and immediately the first vision is replaced by a second, or a startling character. There appears in the field of view a second horse, no longer white, but as red as blood. Upon the horse sat one with a great sword in his hand, to whom "was given power to take peace from the earth, and to make men that they should slay one another." The horse is the symbol of war, but the changed color indicates that the conditions of war are entirely changed. It is no longer triumphant war in the dominions of their enemies, while within all is peace, but the land is drenched in blood. During the period of the first seal the fertile provinces of the Roman Empire never saw the face of a hostile soldier, unless borne as a captive from the distant frontiers, where the Roman generals waged triumphant wars in the countries of their enemies. All was peace within. But now a period of internal war is indicated. The "earth" contemplated by John was the Roman earth, or empire. From it peace shall be taken away. Nor is it to be destroyed by foreign invaders. "They are to kill one another." In as plain language as symbolism can disclose, it is indicated that the next great feature of history is that the land shall be torn by civil war.
And I beheld, and lo a black horse, etc. Again there appear a horse and a rider. Again the color of the horse is changed, as well as the instrument held in the hand of the horseman. If the white and red colors, the bow and the great sword, had a significance, this must be true also of the black color and the balances. It has been found that the horse, whatever his color, is the symbol of war. The black horse makes it plain that the land is torn by calamitous war, and is filled with sorrow, mourning and despair. Black is the color of mourning. The prophet (Jer 14:2) says: "Because of the drought Judah mourneth, and the gates thereof languish; they are in deep mourning (lit. black) for the land." The balances used for weighing food are a symbol of scarcity and famine. "Bread by weight" always implies scarcity. See Lev 26:26; Eze 4:16-17. The prices named also signify the same. The measure was about a quart, and the penny about sixteen cents, which would make the wheat worth about $5 per bushel; or, if it be borne in mind that one dollar in that age would usually purchase as $5 now, the wheat would be about $25 per bushel in the modern currency. Oil and wine, though common foods, are entirely prohibited. An age of war, mourning, calamity and famine is certainly symbolized.
Behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was death. Again, for the fourth time John beholds a horse. It is still a time of war. The horse is now pale, the bloodless color of the dead. Upon him sits an undescribed figure, called by the apostle DEATH. Behind the dread destroyer follows Hades, the unseen world, swallowing up the dying mortals and hiding them from human vision. The means employed to destroy men are described. Death and Hades employ (1) the sword or war; (2) hunger, or famine; (3) death, or pestilence, for so is the word here used often to translated, and such is its meaning in this place; and finally (4) the destruction caused by the wild beasts of forests and field. The evident meaning of this symbolism is so plain that all can understand its application, and we need only ask if the facts correspond. Do we find the scarcity, want, hunger, and pestilence, indicated by the prophecy, during the latter portion of this period of civil commotion? Do we have an awful reign of Death in the forms signified by the seal?
I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God. These are clearly Christians who had suffered martyrdom. They had died "for the word of God." They were under the altar. Since the temple is typical of the church, the altar, the center of worship, points to the church and its worship. The brazen altar stood at the door of the tabernacle, and at the bottom of it all the blood of the offerings was poured (Lev 4:7). Their position probably points out that their own blood was poured out for Christ.
And they cried with a loud voice. Their cry denotes that the church had suffered long and severely, and they raise a cry for deliverance.
And white robes were given unto every one of them. The robes of justification and victory. They are assured that the day when "they will be avenged" will soon come, but that they must wait a little season. Others must be added to the number of the martyrs before the number is fulfilled. It is a time of persecution. The fifth seal is the seal of persecution, and it evidently marks some notable era in the history of the Church, when more fiercely than ever before it felt the intolerant hand of "them who dwelt upon the earth." The fulfillment is to be sought in a war of extermination waged against Christianity. Again we ask if, following the events already described, history records events that fulfill this prophecy?
There was a great earthquake. The symbol of political or moral agitation and upheaval.
The sun became black as sackcloth. The sun, moon, and stars are symbols of earthly dignitaries, great lights in the political or religious heavens. In the dream of Joseph, which so maddened his brethren, these terms are used in this meaning, as well as by the ancient prophets. In the East it was common to liken the king or emperor to the sun, and the stars as the symbols of princes or rulers. For the use of the term we refer the reader to Dan 8:10. The blackness of the sun and the bloody hue of the moon point out scenes of mourning and bloodshed among rulers and princes. The falling of the stars would indicate the downfall of those who had high places on the earth, or rather within the Roman Empire.
The heaven was removed as a scroll. The old religions, supposed to be of heavenly origin, pass away.
Every mountain and island were moved. Mountain and island are used to denote earthly rulers and kingdoms, the latter referring more especially to European provinces which are often called "the isles of the sea" in the Bible. From the period of Diocletian, the great persecutor, the title, "Your Eminence," or, in other words, "mountain," was bestowed upon princes. As a mountain stood above the plain, so the rulers of the earth were exalted.
And the kings of the earth, and the princes . . . hid themselves. This implies great terror among "them that dwell on the earth;" their belief that terrible judgments were impending from God; that the wrath of the Lamb was manifested, and their efforts to escape.
These files are public domain and are a derivative of an electronic edition that is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website.
Original work done by Ernie Stefanik. First published online in 1996 at The Restoration Movement Pages.
Johnson, Barton W. "Commentary on Revelation 6". "People's New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30