Revelation 6:1-2. And — Being all attention to this wonderful scene; I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals — Of the book which he had taken from the hand of him that sat on the throne; and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder — Signifying the great importance of the event about to be disclosed; one of the four living creatures — That is, it seems, the first, which was like a lion, looking forward toward the east, toward Asia and Syria, where the prophecy had its principal accomplishment, and from whence Christ and his gospel came. Saying, Come and see — Pay particular attention to what is now to be exhibited. And I saw, and behold a white horse — The contents of this seal seem evidently to refer to the triumph of Christianity over Jewish and heathen opposition, by the labours of its first preachers. Therefore the person here represented is Jesus Christ, who had received a kingdom from the Father, which was to rule all nations, and concerning which it was foretold, that notwithstanding the efforts that would be made by earth and hell to oppose its progress, and even to destroy it, it should be preserved and prevail, so that at length all enemies to it should be subdued, and the kingdoms of this world should become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. The white colour of the horse, the bow which he had that sat on it, shooting arrows afar off, the crown given unto him, and his going forth conquering and to conquer — All these circumstances betoken victory, triumph, prosperity, enlargement of empire, and dominion over many people. And all these figurative representations of authority, government, success, and conquest, may be properly applied to the gospel and the kingdom of Christ, which was now beginning to spread far and wide, and would tend greatly to comfort the faithful in Christ Jesus, assuring them that, however the Jews on the one hand, or the heathen Roman empire on the other, opposed and persecuted them, yet they should see the punishment of their enemies, both Jews and heathen, and the cause of Christianity prevailing over both, in the proper and appointed time. These expressions, and this interpretation of them, are elucidated by the words of the psalmist, Psalms 45:3, &c: Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, and in thy majesty ride prosperously, because of truth, &c. Thine arrows are sharp, &c., whereby the people fall under thee. Thy throne, O God, is for ever, &c. The application of this prophecy to Christ is still further justified by Revelation 19:11, I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse. &c., a passage which all allow was intended of Christ; he only being worthy of being called, as he is there, Faithful and True, and THE WORD OF GOD. Thus, with great propriety to the order and design of this revelation, the dignity and power of Christ, and the protection and success of his gospel, are the first part of its prophecy for the consolation of his followers, which, it seems, is the chief end of the whole book.
Revelation 6:3-4. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature — Which was like an ox, and had his station toward the west; say, Come and see — As the former had done when the first seal was opened; and there went out another horse that was red — Seeming to betoken great slaughter and desolation by approaching wars: and to him that sat thereon was given to take peace from the earth — In the year 75, Vespasian had dedicated a temple to Peace: but after a time we hear no more of peace; all is full of war and bloodshed. According to Bishop Newton, this second period commences with Trajan, who came from the west, being a Spaniard by birth, and was the first foreigner who was elevated to the imperial throne. In his reign, and that of his successor, Adrian, there were horrid wars and slaughters, and especially between the rebellious Jews and Romans. Dion relates, that the Jews about Cyrene slew of the Romans and Greeks two hundred and twenty thousand men, with the most shocking circumstances of barbarity. In Egypt also, and in Cyprus, they committed the like barbarities, and there perished two hundred and forty thousand men more. But the Jews were subdued in their turn by the other generals and Lucius, sent against them by Trajan. Eusebius, writing of the same time, says, that the Jews, inflamed, as it were, by some violent and seditious spirit, in the first conflict gained a victory over the Gentiles, who, flying to Alexandria, took and killed the Jews in the city. The emperor sent Marius Turbo against them, with great forces by sea and land, who, in many battles, slew many myriads of the Jews. The emperor also, suspecting that they might make the like commotions in Mesopotamia, ordered Lucius Quietus to expel them out of the province, who, marching against them, slew a very great multitude of them there. Orosius, treating of the same time, says, that the Jews, with an incredible commotion, made wild, as it were, with rage, rose at once in different parts of the earth. For throughout all Libya they waged the fiercest wars against the inhabitants, and the country was almost desolated. Egypt also, Cyrene, and Thebais they disturbed with cruel seditions. But in Alexandria they were overcome in battle. In Mesopotamia also war was made upon the rebellious Jews by the command of the emperor. So that many thousands of them were destroyed with vast slaughter. They utterly destroyed Salamis, a city of Cyprus, having first murdered all the inhabitants. These things were transacted in the reign of Trajan; and in the reign of Adrian was their great rebellion, under their false Messiah Barchochab, and their final dispersion, after fifty of their strongest castles, and nine hundred and eighty-five of their best towns had been demolished, and after five hundred and eighty thousand men had been slain by the sword, besides an infinite number who had perished by famine and sickness, and other casualties; with great loss and slaughter too of the Romans, insomuch that the emperor forbore the usual salutations in his letters to the senate. Here was another illustrious triumph of Christ over his enemies; and the Jews and the Romans, both the persecutors of the Christians, were remarkably made the dreadful executioners of divine vengeance upon one another. The great sword and red horse are expressive emblems of this slaughtering and bloody period, and the proclamation for slaughter is fitly made by a creature like an ox, that is destined for slaughter. This period continued during the reigns of Trajan and his successors, by blood or adoption, about ninety-five years.
Revelation 6:5-6. And when he had opened the third seal I heard the third living creature — Which was like a man, and had his station in the south; say — As the two former had done; Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse — A fit emblem of mourning and distress; particularly a black famine, as the ancient poets termed it. And he that sat on him had a pair of balances, or scales, in his hand — Implying that men should eat their bread by weight, and drink their water by measure, or that there should be a great scarcity. For when there is great plenty men do not think it worth their while to weigh and measure what they eat and drink; but when there is a famine or scarcity they are obliged to do it. And I heard a voice — It seems from God himself; in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, A measure of wheat for a penny, &c. — As if he had said to the horseman, Hitherto shalt thou come, and no farther. Let there be a measure of wheat for a penny — This may seem, to an English reader, a description of great plenty, but it certainly intends the contrary. The word χοινιξ, chœnix, a Grecian measure, was only about equal to our quart, and was no more than was allowed to a slave for his daily food. And the Roman penny, the denarius, about 7½d. English, was the usual daily wages of a labourer: so that, if a man’s daily labour could earn no more than his daily bread, without other provision for himself and family, corn must needs bear a very high price. This must have been fulfilled when the Grecian measure and the Roman money were still in use, as also when that measure was the common measure, and this money the current coin. It was so in Egypt under Trajan. And three measures of barley for a penny — Either barley was, in common, far cheaper among the ancients than wheat, or the prophecy mentions this as something peculiar. And see thou hurt not the oil and the wine — Let there not be a scarcity of every thing. Let there be some provision left to supply the want of the rest. Lowman interprets this third seal of the scarcity in the time of the Antonines, from A.D. 138 to A.D. 193, and produces passages from Tertullian and the Roman historians, concerning the calamity the empire endured by scarcity in this period. But Bishop Newton supposes this third period commences with Septimius Severus, who was an emperor from the south, being a native of Africa; and was an enacter of just and equal laws, and very severe and implacable to offences; he would not suffer even petty larcenies to go unpunished; as neither would Alexander Severus in the same period, who was a most severe judge against thieves; and was so fond of the Christian maxim, Whatsoever you would not have done to you, do not you to another, that he commanded it to be engraven on the palace, and on the public buildings. These two emperors were also no less celebrated for the procuring of corn and oil, and other provisions; and for supplying the Romans with them, after they had experienced the want of them: thus repairing the neglects of former times, and correcting the abuses of former princes. The colour of the black horse befits the severity of their nature and their name, and the balances are the well-known emblem of justice, as well as an intimation of scarcity. And the proclamation for justice and judgment, and for the procuration of corn, oil, and wine, is fitly made by a creature like a man. This period continued during the reigns of the Septimian family, about forty-two years.
Revelation 6:7-8. And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature — Like an eagle, toward the north; say, Come and see — Receive a further discovery of the divine will. And I looked, and behold a pale horse — Suitable to pale death, his rider. By death, in the Hebrew, we are frequently to understand the pestilence. See Jeremiah 9:21; Jeremiah 18:21; and Sirach 39:29. And many other instances might be produced. And hell — Or hades, rather, representing the state of separate souls, followed with him. And power was given unto them — Namely, to death and hades. Or if we read, with Bengelius, αυτω, the expression is, Power was given to him, namely, to death; over the fourth part of the earth — That is, a very considerable part of the heathen Roman empire: to kill — By the several judgments of God here mentioned; with sword — That is, with war; with hunger — Or famine; with death — Or the pestilence; and with the beasts of the earth — These are called the four sore judgments of God, in the style of ancient prophecy. See Ezekiel 14:21; Ezekiel 33:27. The meaning is, That the sword and famine, which were judgments of the foregoing seals, are continued in this, and the pestilence is added to them. Accordingly, says Lowman, we find all these judgments in a very remarkable manner in this part of history, that is, in the reigns of Maximin, Decius, Gallus, Volusian, and Valerian, beginning after Severus, about the year 211, to A.D. 270. Thus also Bishop Newton; who observes, This period commences with Maximin, who was an emperor from the north, being born of barbarous parents in a village of Thrace. He was indeed a barbarian in all respects; an historian affirming that there was not a more cruel animal upon the earth. The history of his, and several succeeding reigns, is full of wars and murders, mutinies of soldiers, invasions of foreign armies, rebellions of subjects, and deaths of princes. There were more than twenty emperors in the space of fifty years, and all, or most of them, died in war, or were murdered by their own soldiers and subjects. Besides lawful emperors, there were, in the reign of Gallienus, thirty usurpers, who set up in different parts of the empire, and came all to violent and miserable ends. Here was sufficient employment for the sword; and such wars and devastations must necessarily produce a famine, and the famine is another distinguishing calamity of this period. In the reign of Gallus, the Scythians made such incursions, that not one nation, subject to the Romans, was left unwasted by them; and every unwalled town, and most of the walled cities, were taken by them. In the reign of Probus also there was a great famine throughout the world; and for want of victuals, the army mutinied and slew him. A usual consequence of famine is the pestilence, which is the third distinguishing calamity of this period. According to Zonaras, it arose from Ethiopia, while Gallus and Volusian were emperors, pervaded all the Roman provinces, and for fifteen years together incredibly exhausted them; and the learned Lipsius declares, that he never read of any greater plague, for the space of time that it lasted, or of land that it overspread. Zozimus also, speaking of the devastations of the Scythians before mentioned, further adds, that the pestilence, not less pernicious than war, destroyed whatever was left of human kind, and made such havoc as it had never done in former times. Many other historians, and other authors quoted by Bishop Newton, bear the same testimony; among whom Eutropius affirms, that the reign of Gallus and Volusian was remarkable only for the pestilence and diseases. And Trebellius Pollio attests, that in the reign of Gallienus the pestilence was so great, that five thousand men died in one day. Now when countries thus lie uncultivated, uninhabited, and unfrequented, the wild beasts usually multiply, and come into the towns to devour men, which is the fourth distinguishing calamity of this period. This would appear a probable consequence of the former calamities, if history had recorded nothing. But Julius Capitolinus, in his account of the younger Maximin, p. 150, informs us that five hundred wolves together entered into a city, which was deserted by its inhabitants, where this Maximin chanced to be. The colour of the pale horse, therefore, is very suitable to the mortality of this period; and the proclamation for death and destruction is fitly made by a creature like an eagle, that watches for carcasses. This period the bishop considers as continuing from Maximin to Dioclesian, about fifty years.
Revelation 6:9-10. The following seals have nothing extrinsical, like the proclamation of the living creatures, but they are sufficiently distinguished by their internal marks and characters. When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under, or at the foot of, the altar — Which was presented to my view; not the golden altar of incense, mentioned Revelation 9:13, but the altar of burnt-offering, spoken of also Revelation 8:5; Revelation 14:18; Revelation 16:7; the souls of them that were slain — Namely, newly slain as sacrifices, and offered to God; for the word of God — For believing and professing faith in it; and for the testimony — To the truth of the gospel; which they held — That is, courageously retained in the midst of all opposition. A proper description this of true Christians, who persevered in the faith and practice of the gospel, notwithstanding all the difficulties and sufferings of persecution. And they cried with a loud voice — As making an appeal to the injured justice of God. This cry did not begin now, but under the first Roman persecution. The Romans themselves had already avenged the martyrs slain by the Jews on the whole nation; saying, How long — They knew their blood would be avenged, but not immediately, as is now shown them; O Lord — The word ο δεσποτης properly signifies the master of a family; it is therefore beautifully used by these, who were peculiarly of the household of God. Holy and true — Both the holiness and truth of God require him to execute judgment and vengeance; dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them — Who, without remorse, have poured it out as water. This desire of theirs is pure, and suitable to the will of God. These martyrs are concerned for the praise of their Master, of his holiness and truth. And the praise is given him, Revelation 19:2, where the prayer of the martyrs is changed into a thanksgiving. But this sentence, How long, &c., is intended, not so much to express the desire of the martyrs that their cause should be vindicated, and their persecutors punished, as to signify that the cruelties exercised upon them were of so barbarous and atrocious a nature as to deserve and provoke the vengeance of God.
Revelation 6:11. And white robes were given unto every one of them — As a token of their justification, and favourable acceptance with God; of their victory and triumph over death, their joy and glory. And it was said unto them, that they should rest — That is, wait; yet for a little season — Though, in the mean time, their blood remained unrevenged; until their fellow-servants also, and their brethren, that should be killed for the defence of the gospel, as they had been, should be fulfilled — That is, should have finished their testimony; or till the number of the martyrs should be completed, according to the intention of Divine Providence, in letting persecutors go on a while, until they should have filled up the measure of their iniquities, when the martyrs should receive their full reward, as we shall see hereafter. Lowman observes here, very well, that “this representation seems much to favour the immediate happiness of departed saints, and hardly to consist with that uncomfortable opinion, the insensible state of departed souls, till after the resurrection.” There were other persecutions before, but this was by far the most considerable, the tenth and last general persecution, which was begun by Dioclesian, and continued by others, and lasted longer, and extended farther, and was sharper and more bloody, than any or all preceding; and therefore this was particularly predicted. Eusebius and Lactantius, who were two eye- witnesses, have written large accounts of it. Orosius asserts that this persecution was longer and more cruel than all the past; for it raged incessantly for ten years, by burning the churches, proscribing the innocent, and slaying the martyrs. Sulpicius Severus, too, describes it as the most bitter persecution, which for ten years together depopulated the people of God; at which time all the world almost was stained with the sacred blood of the martyrs, and was never more exhausted by any wars. So that this became a memorable era to the Christians, under the name of the era of Dioclesian, or, as it is otherwise called, the era of martyrs.
Revelation 6:12-17. And I beheld — Further in my vision; when he — The Lamb; had opened the sixth seal; and lo! there was a great earthquake — Greek, σεισμος μεγας εγενετο, there was a great concussion: for the expression comprehends the shaking of heaven as well as of the earth; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair — It lost its usual lustre, and looked black and dark, as in a total eclipse; and the moon became as blood — Instead of appearing with its usual brightness in the heavens, it appeared of a dusky-red colour, as blood. And the stars of heaven fell — They seemed to disappear out of their places in the heavens, and to fall down upon the earth, like meteors, or as blasted fruit is blown down from the trees upon the ground in a violent storm. And the heaven departed as a scroll, &c. — It was further represented to me in my vision as if the heavens were no longer spread over the earth, but rolled up together as a roll of parchment; and every mountain and every island — The most secure from the danger of earthquakes, were not only shaken, but quite overturned and destroyed; so as never to be restored again: and all this, says Lowman, “to signify, according to the expressions of ancient prophecy, such a downfall of the empire and power of heathen Rome, as should never be recovered; but the power of these idolatrous enemies of the Christian faith should cease and be no more, as the power of the Assyrians and Babylonians, the ancient enemies of God’s people, was destroyed and never recovered.” Thus the Prophet Joel describing, in the beautiful images of prophetic style, a famine to be occasioned by a great number of locusts, which were to devour the whole fruits of the earth, so expresses it, Joel 2:10; The earth shall quake before them, the heavens shall tremble, the sun and moon shall be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining. The Prophet Isaiah, prophesying of a great destruction of God’s enemies, for their opposition to his church, (which he calls the day of the Lord’s vengeance, and the year of recompenses for the controversy of Zion, Isaiah 34:8,) thus describes it, Revelation 6:4; And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll, and all their hosts shall fall down as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig-tree. The general meaning of which expressions is explained in the following verse; For my sword shall be bathed in heaven; behold it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my curse to judgment. In like manner, the same prophet thus expresses the judgments of God in the punishment of sinners, Isaiah 13:10; For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light; the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine. The meaning of which is thus explained in the next words, Revelation 6:11; I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible. The Prophet Ezekiel uses the same images to express the downfall of oppressive empires and power. Thus in the prophecy of the destruction of the empire of Egypt by the empire of Babylon, Ezekiel 32:7-8; And when I shall put thee out, I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light; all the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land, saith the Lord God. And Jeremiah, concerning the land of Judah, Jeremiah 4:23-24; I beheld the earth, and, lo! it was without form and void; and the heavens, and they had no light; I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled; and all the hills moved lightly. And thus our Saviour himself also speaks, concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, Matthew 24:29; 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. Now it is certain, says Bishop Newton, who interprets this prophecy in the same manner, that the fall of any of those cities and kingdoms was not of greater concern and consequence to the world, nor more deserving to be described in such pompous figures, than the fall of the pagan Roman empire, when the great lights of the heathen world, the sun, moon, and stars, the powers civil and ecclesiastical, were all eclipsed and obscured, the heathen emperors and Cesars were slain, the heathen priests and augurs were extirpated, the heathen officers and magistrates were removed, the temples demolished, and their revenues appropriated to better uses. It is customary with the prophets, after they have described a thing in the most symbolical and figurative diction, to represent the same again in plainer language; and the same method is observed here, Revelation 6:15-17 :
And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bond-man and every free- man; — That is, Maximian, Galerius, Maximin, Maxentius, Licinius, &c., with all their adherents and followers, were so routed and dispersed, that they hid themselves in the dens, and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us and hide us — Expressions used, as in other prophets, (Isaiah 2:19; Isaiah 2:21; Hosea 10:8; Luke 23:30,) to denote the utmost terror and consternation; Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, &c. — This is therefore a triumph of Christ over his heathen enemies, and a triumph after a severe persecution; so that the time and all the circumstances, as well as the series and order of the prophecy, agree perfectly with this interpretation. Galerius, Maximin, and Licinius made even a public confession of their guilt, recalled their decrees and edicts against the Christians, and acknowledged the just judgments of God and of Christ in their destruction. The history of this extraordinary event is given more at large by Lowman, from whose account the following short extract is taken. A short time after the heavy persecution of Dioclesian, termed, in the prophecy, a little season, (Revelation 6:11,) a very great change took place in the heathen Roman empire, attended with great calamities on the persecutors of the Christians, even such as broke in pieces their oppressive power. Dioclesian and Maximian had been compelled by Galerius to resign the empire and retire to private life; but upon the death of Constantius, and the accession of his son Constantine to his part of the empire, Maxentius having got himself declared emperor at Rome, Galerius, to suppress this rebellion, persuaded Maximian to resume the empire, which he did; but in a short time had the mortification of being deposed; and soon after, having in vain attempted to take the life of Constantine, put an end to his own life. Galerius was smitten with a very loathsome and incurable distemper, attended with such insupportable torments, that he often endeavoured to kill himself, and caused some of his physicians to be put to death because their medicines had not been effectual to remove his disorder. At last, his wicked and cruel conduct toward the Christians being brought to his remembrance, as the cause of his sufferings, he immediately put an end to the persecution (that had been carried on against them) by a public edict, in which he particularly desired their prayers for his recovery. Soon after this public acknowledgment, however, in favour of Christianity, he died of his loathsome distemper. Constantine, who had become a great favourer of the Christians, marched against Maxentius, who opposed him with an army of one hundred and seventy thousand foot, and eighteen thousand horse; after a very fierce and bloody battle, Maxentius was defeated by Constantine, who, having upon this victory secured to himself the whole empire of the west, gave free liberty to Christians openly to profess their religion. But in the east, Maximian revoked the liberties which had been granted to the Christians, and made war against Licinius; being defeated, however, with great slaughter of his numerous army, he put many heathen priests and soothsayers to death as cheats. But not long after, when he was endeavouring to try the event of a second battle, he was seized with a violent distemper, attended with intolerable pains and torments all over his body; so that, after being wasted to a skeleton, and becoming quite blind, he at length died in rage and despair; confessing, upon his death-bed, that his torments were a just punishment upon him for his malicious and unprovoked proceedings against Christ and his religion.
Constantine and Licinius now remained sole emperors, the former in the west, and the latter in the east. Licinius having cruelly persecuted the Christians in his part of the empire, a war broke out between him and Constantine, in which Licinius was overcome, and forced to flee; and after renewing the war, and carrying it on with greater fury than before, he was again defeated in a general battle, in which it is said one hundred thousand men were slain. He also was taken prisoner, and though his life was then spared, yet upon new attempts against the life of Constantine, he was put to death, and with him ended all the heathen power of Rome. Thus, by great and frequent calamities, in which so many emperors had their share one after another, this wonderful change was wrought in the heathen Roman empire. So that their power to oppress and persecute the Christians fell, never to rise again; and, together with it, fell the pagan superstition and idolatry. “This part of history,” as Lowman observes, “is very proper to the general design of this whole revelation; to support the patience, and encourage the perseverance of the church, by such an instance of God’s power and faithfulness in the protection of the religion of Christ, and punishment of its enemies. We see in this period, during the persecution of heathen Rome, the church in a state of great trial and suffering, and yet preserved and protected, and finally obtaining a state of peace and safety, when all the power of its persecutors was totally destroyed by God’s overruling providence. Thus this history confirms the general truth of all the prophecies: and the particular predictions of each of them severally: — a strong encouragement to the patience and constancy of the true church.”
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Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Revelation 6". Joseph Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany