The opening of the seals in order, and what followed thereupon.
Anno Domini 96.
Revelation 6:1-2. And I saw, &c.— St. John had seen, in the former part of his vision, a representation of the majesty, glory, power, and supreme authority of God; and also the sealed book, in which were contained the orders of the divine Providence concerning the church and world, delivered to Christ the Lamb of God, to open and reveal it, for the encouragement of the church in patience and faithfulness; together with the adoration of the church on this solemn occasion. Now this revelation of Christ begins with a prophetic representation of the future state of the church and world, so far as the wisdom and goodnessof God thought fit to make it known for the consolation of his faithful people. This chapter contains the first grand period of prophesy, (divided into seven seals or lesser periods,) and the description of the state of the church under Heathen Rome, from the time of the date of the prophesy to about the year of Christ 323. See ch. Revelation 8:1. Each of the prophetical descriptions is in part some figurative or hieroglyphical picture and motto, or some representation in the style and figurative expressions of ancient prophesy, describing some particular dispensation of Providence, proper and peculiar to the several successive states of the church and empire, during the space or time contained in this period: In which therefore we may hope to find both a wise and kind intention, in making known these dispensations of Providence to the church, and an useful and profitable meaning of this first period of prophetic revelation. As the seals are opened in order, so the events follow in order too. The first seal or period is memorable for conquest, and was proclaimed by the first of the living creatures, who was like a lion, and had his station in the East. According to Lowman, the person represented, Revelation 6:2 is the Lord Jesus Christ, who had received a kingdom from the Father, which was to rule all nations. See ch. Revelation 19:11-12. Psalms 45:3; Psalms 45:17. But, according to Bishop Newton, this first period commences with Vespasian, who, from commanding in the East, was advanced to the empire; and Vespasian, for this reason, was regarded, both by Romans and foreigners, as "that great prince, who was to come out of the East, and obtain dominion over the world." They went forth to conquer: for they made an entire conquest of Judea, destroyed Jerusalem, and carried the Jews captive into all nations. As these prophesies were written a few years before the destruction of Jerusalem, they properly begin with some allusion to that memorable event; and a short allusion was sufficient, our Saviour himself having enlarged so much on all the particulars. The bow, the white horse, and the crown, are proper emblems of victory, triumph, and royalty; and the proclamation for conquest is fully made by a creature like alion. This period continued during the reigns of the Flavian family, and the short reign of Nerva, about twenty-eight years.
Revelation 6:3-4. And when he had opened the second seal,— The second seal or period is noted for war and slaughter; and was proclaimed by the second living creature, which was like an ox, and had his station in the West: and in the account hereof, Bishop Newton, Lowman, &c. nearly agree. The second period, says the former, commenced 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 the Romans. The Jews about Cyrene slew of the Romans and Greeks two hundred and twenty thousand men, with most shocking circumstances of barbarity; in Egypt and Cyprus two hundred and forty thousand more. But the Jews in their turn were subdued by Lucius and other generals sent against them by Trajan. These things were transacted in the reign of Trajan; andin 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 immense multitude who had perished by famine, 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 hisenemies; and the Jews and the Romans, both the persecutors of Christians, were remarkably made the executioners of divine vengeance upon one another. The great sword and the red horse, Revelation 6:4 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. See 2 Kings 3:23-24.
Revelation 6:5-6. When he had opened the third seal, &c.— The third seal or period is characterized by the strict execution of justice and judgment, and by the procuration of corn, oil, and wine; and was proclaimed by the third living creature, who was like a man, and had his station in the South. The measure of corn mentioned, Revelation 6:6 is, in the original, a choenix, which was a man's daily allowance as a penny was his daily wages; so that if his daily labour could earn no more than his daily bread, without other provision for himself or his family, corn must needs bear a very high price. But whatever may be the capacity of the choenix (which is difficult to be determined), yet such care, and such regulations, implyat least some scarcity; and scarcity obliges men to exactness in the price and measure of things. In short the intent of the prophesy is, that corn should be provided for the people; but it should be distributed in exact measure and proportion. This third period commences with Septimus Severus, who was an emperor from the South, being a native of Africa. He was an enacter of equal and just laws, and was very severe and implacable to offences; he never would grant a pardon even for petty larcenies, as neither would Alexander Severus in the same period. 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 a want of them. Of Septimus Severus it is said, that for the provision of corn, which he found very small, he so far consulted, that at his death he left a certain rate or allowance to the Roman people for seven years; and also of oil, as much as might supply, not only the uses of the city, but likewise of all Italy which might want it, for the space of five years. Of Alexander Severus it is also said, that he took such care in providing for the Roman people, that the corn which Heliogabalus had wasted, he replaced out of his own money; the oil also, which Septimus Severus had given to the people, and which Heliogabalus had lessened, he restored wholly as before. The colour of the black horse, Revelation 6:5, befits the severity of their nature and their name; 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, Revelation 6:6, is fitly made by a creature like a man. This period continued during the reigns of the Septimian family, about forty-two years. See Lamentations 5:10.
Revelation 6:7-8. And when he had opened, &c.— The fourth seal or period is distinguished by a concurrence of evils, war and famine, pestilence and wild beasts, and was proclaimed by the fourth living creature, which was like an eagle, and had his station in the north. These are the same four sore judgments with which Ezekiel, ch. Ezekiel 14:21 threatened Jerusalem, the sword, and the famine, and the noisome beast, and the pestilence: for, in the Oriental languages, the pestilence is emphatically styled death. These four were to destroy the fourth part of mankind; and the image is very poetical of death riding on a pale horse, and hell, or the grave, following with him, ready to swallow up the dead corpses. This period commences with Maximin, who was an emperor from the north, being born of barbarous parents in a village of Thrace. There was not a more cruel animal upon earth. The history of his and several succeeding reigns is full of wars and murders, mutinies of soldiers, rebellions of subjects, and deaths of princes. There were more than twenty emperors in the space of fifty years, all or most of whom died in war, or were murdered by their own soldiers or subjects. Besides lawful emperors, there were, in the time of Gallienus, thirty tyrants or usurpers, who came all of them to violent and miserable ends. Here was sufficient employment for thesword; and such wars and devastations must necessarily produce famine; and the famine is another distinguishing calamity of this period. In the reign of Gallus, the Syrians 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, which was the occasion of his armies mutinying and slaying him. The usual consequence of famine is the pestilence; and the pestilence is the third distinguishing calamityofthisperiod.Thispestilence,arising from Ethiopia, pervaded all the Roman provinces, and for fifteen years together incredibly exhausted them. It raged so furiously, that fivethousand men died in one day. When countries lie thus uncultivated, uninhabited, unfrequented, the wild beasts multiply, and come into the towns to devour men, which isthe fourth distinguishing calamity of this period; and we read that five hundred wolves entered into a city together, which was deserted by its inhabitants, where the younger Maximin happened to be. The colour of the pale horse 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, which watches for carcases. This period continued from Maximin to Dioclesian; about fifty years.
Revelation 6:9-11. When he had opened the fifth seal, &c.— This and the following seals have nothing extrinsical, like the proclamation of the living creatures, to determine from what quarter we should expect their completion; but they are sufficiently distinguished by their internal marks and characters. The fifth seal or period is remarkable for a dreadful persecution of Christians, who are represented, Revelation 6:9 lying under the altar (for the scene is still in the tabernacle or temple) as sacrifices newly slain, and offered unto God. The word of God and the testimony which they held, is a description of faithful Christians, who persevered unto death in the Christian faith and worship, notwithstanding all the difficulties of persecution. See ch. Revelation 20:4. They cry aloud Revelation 6:10 for the Lord to judge and avenge their cause; that is, the cruelties exercised upon them were of so barbarous and atrocious a nature as to deserve and provoke the vengeance of the Lord. White robes are given to every one of them, Revelation 6:11 as a token of the triumph which they had gained over death and all its terrors; and they are exhorted to rest for a season, till the number of martyrs should be completed, when they shall receive their full reward. This representation is a strong proof, among a multitude of others, of the immediate happiness of departed saints, and cannot consist with the dangerous, as well as uncomfortable opinion, of 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 all the preceding; and therefore this was particularly predicted: so that this became a memorable aera to the Christians under the name of "The aera of Dioclesian;" or, as it is otherwise called, "The aera of martyrs."
Under thy altar, &c.— This bears an allusion (as we said in the preceding note) to the temple service. In the temple was the altar for victims, at the foot of which was poured the blood of the sacrifices, which blood, being deposited within sight of the sanctuary, was supposed to put God, as it were, in mind of the sacrifice offered to him. Much more did the souls, that is, the spirits of the martyrs, placed in the sight of Christ promote the same great end; and as the blood of Abel called for vengeance, so did the spirits or souls of the martyrs.
Revelation 6:12-17. I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, &c.— The sixth seal or period produces mighty changes and revolutions, which, according to the prophetic style, are expressed by great commotions in the earth, and in the heavens. The very same images, the very same expressions are used by the other prophets concerning the mutations and alterations of religions and governments; and why may they not therefore, with equal propriety and fitness, be applied to one of the greatest and most memorable revolutions that ever was in the world,—the subversion of the Heathen religion, and establishment of the Christian, which was begun by Constantine the Great, and completed by his successors? The series of the prophesy requires this application, and all the phrases and expressions will easily admit it. And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, (Revelation 6:12.) and lo, there was a great earthquake, or rather a great concussion, ( σεισμος ); for the word comprehends the shaking of the heavens as well as of the earth. The same phrase is used, Haggai 2:6; Haggai 2:21 concerning the first coming of Christ; and this shaking, as the apostle says, Hebrews 12:27 signifieth the removing of those things which are shaken; and so the prophet Haggai explains it. And where was ever a greater concussion, or removal, than when Christianity was advanced to the throne of Paganism, and idolatry gave placetothetruereligion? Then follow the particular effects of this general concussion, Revelation 6:12-14. Isaiah speaks much in the same manner concerning Babylon and Idumea, ch. Isaiah 13:10 and Isaiah 34:4.; and Jeremiah concerning the land of Judah, ch. Jeremiah 4:23-24; and Ezekiel concerning Egypt, ch. Ezekiel 32:17.; and Joel concerning Jerusalem, ch. Joel 2:10; Joel 2:31.; and our Saviour himself also concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, Matthew 24:29. Now, it is certain, that the fall of any of these cities or kingdoms was not of greater concern and consequence to the world, nor more deserving to be described in such sublime 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 Caesars were slain, the Heathen priests and augurs were extirpated, the Heathen officers and magistrates were removed, and their temples were demolished. It is customary with the prophets, after they have described a thingin 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, &c. that is, Maximin, Galerius, Maxentius, Licinius, &c. with all their adherents and followers, were so routed and dispersed, that they hid themselves in dens, &c. expressions used, as in other prophets, (Isaiah 19:21. Hosea 10:8. Luke 23:30.) to denote the utmost terror and consternation. 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 prophesy, 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 in their own destruction. The reader, desirous to enter more fully into the meaning of this wonderful chapter, will do well to consult the cotemporary historians; as it is impossible, in the compass of notes like these, to mark out all the particulars which well deserve observation. Mr. Burton observes upon this chapter, that "as commentators have been differently affected by reading the account of the apocalyptical visions, so they have struck out applications of various events to them. The very doubts of those, much better qualified to judge of these things than I dare presume to be, are sufficient to impose a silence upon me with regard to the application of particular events. Time, the grand revealer of all secrets, must unravel the deep mystery of these wonders. We have as yet but a dawn of those important truths, to lead us on from strength to strength; we must at present, like the wondering Israelites, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord: in the mean time, it becomes us to seek after him, if haply we may find him. The general plan of the Revelation is evidently marked out to us as a solid foundation; and some strong outlines already appear, though at a distance from us, to shew that a beautiful and well-proportioned superstructure is now opening to our view, whose Builder and Maker is God. As far as reason will justify our application, and we derive our knowledge from the holy scripture, that pure fountain of all human knowledge, our conduct is safe and commendable; but we no sooner lose sight of that, than we become vain in our imaginations, and our foolish heart is darkened. The seven seals, in this chapter, seem tohave the apocalyptical number seven for a ground-work, from which to calculate the rise of their several events, and of their completions. But I am inclinable to think, that both the sixth and seventh seals are yet to be opened; since, from the apocalyptical descriptions given in this chapter, they seem to be reserved for those dreadful events which are to be revealed in the very last day, and which exceed our past experiences as much as they do the strength of our imagination."—We will conclude our notes on this chapter with Mr. Lowman's remark, "that this part of historyis very proper to the general design of the 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 Christian religion, and punishment of its enemies. We see in this period, during the persecution of Heathen Rome, the church in a state of trial and suffering, yet preserved and protected, and finally obtaining a state of peace and safety, when all the power of their persecutors was totally destroyed by God's over-ruling providence. Thus this history verifies the general truth of all the prophecies, and the particular predictions of each of them severally:—astrongencouragement to the patience and constancy of the true church!"
Inferences.—To whatever event the seals may refer, it is certain, that the representations here made are very awful, and very instructive. Let us consider ourselves as invited to come up and see, and let us observe the memorable spectacle with attention. Let the view of the white horse, and his rider, who went forth conquering and to conquer, lead us to reflect on the peaceful purposes of our blessed Saviour's appearance, and the rapidity of his conquests; and engage us frequently to pray for the further prosperity of his kingdom, that kingdom of righteousness, love, and happiness. When we think of the terrible effects of war, of famine, and of pestilence, represented by the three following hordes, and their riders here mentioned, let it excite our thankfulness, that not one of this dreadful triumvirate is comparatively sent forth against us in our land, though our national crimes have indeed deserved that they should invade us with united terrors; that peace should be entirely taken from our land, that our bread and water should be received by weight and measure, and that the dead should lie unburied in our streets, the food of the fowls of heaven, and the beasts of the earth: nor can any thing more justly excite our gratitude and thankfulness, than that the terrors and the guilt of sanguinary persecution are not to be found in the midst of us. The history of its horrors and ravages in other nations, and in other ages, may sometimes be an exercise of our faith; and we may be ready to cry out with the souls under the altar, How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt thou not avenge the blood of thy saints upon the earth? But let us wait with patience; let us not form a hasty and inconsiderate judgment. The dead, who die in the Lord, and those who have been persecuted to death for his sake, and in his cause, are incomparably more happy than those who are the happiest among the living. The white robes, and golden crowns, with which they are adorned, are an abundant compensation, not only for every lighter suffering, but even for the slow fire, and the rack, those most dreadful instruments of torture. And though their malicious and implacable enemies may bitterly insult over them for a while, yet the triumphing of the wicked is for a short time, their guilty spirits will soon be summoned before the great Avenger of blood; and the day is coming when they shall be publicly brought forth, to suffer the utmost demands of his justice; even that day, when all the figurative descriptions here used shall be fully answered, in their literal meaning; when the sun shall indeed be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood; when the volume of heaven shall be rolled up as a scroll, and its stars shall fall from their orbs. It is no wonder, that ungodly sinners fly from this alarming and tremendous scene with wild consternation and confusion; no wonder, that they rend the very heavens with their cries, and call upon the mountains to fall upon them, and the rocks to cover them: for O! what were the sudden and irresistible crush of a rock, or a mountain, when compared with the weight of the wrath of the Lamb, and with the fire and brimstone of this second death. O! that by the expectation of this awful day, men of all ranks and conditions may be influenced to make their application to him, while he yet appears in the displays of his grace and mercy; to kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and they perish from the way, even when his wrath is only beginning to be kindled. (Psalms 2:12.)
REFLECTIONS.—1st, The six first seals contain the events relative to the church under the Heathen emperors, till, in the reign of Constantine, Paganism was utterly subverted, about the year 323.
On the Lamb's opening the first seal, one of the living creatures, with a voice loud as the thunder, summoned the apostle's attention, and bade him come and see the vision. When, lo! a white horse appeared, and one sat thereon, carrying a bow, and a crown on his head; and he went forth conquering and to conquer. This, in a spiritual sense, represents the ministration of the gospel, which brings joy, and peace, and triumph to the soul, of which the white horse may be considered as an emblem. The bow of Jesus, like that of Jonathan, returns not empty: the arrows of the gospel, through the power of the Spirit, become effectual to subdue the souls of sinners: his crown may denote his victories and dignity: he must prevail: and, in spite of all opposition, his gospel shall go on conquering and to conquer; till in the hearts of his faithful servants every corruption is subdued; till throughout the world his truth is diffused; and to the latest ages he will continue his conquests, till the kingdoms of the earth shall become the kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ. Hasten, O Lord, that happy day!
2nd, The second seal being opened, he has a summons repeated from the second living creature, to come and see. And behold, another horse which was red; and one armed with a sword sat thereon, to whom power was given to take peace from the earth. And this seems to prefigure the bloody wars which, during the reigns of Trajan and Adrian, consumed innumerable multitudes of Jews and Romans, the common persecutors of Christianity. Note; (1.) Persecutors of God's people shall have blood given them to drink. (2.) The Lord can set his enemies at variance among themselves, and make often one wicked nation to be the scourge of his vengeance upon another.
3rdly, The third seal opens, and another summons bids him come and see; when, lo! a black horse, the emblem of famine, appeared, and one with a pair of balances sat on him; when one of the beasts cried, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine. The famine would fall chiefly on the poor, who, for the price of a whole day's labour, could but just procure bread for their subsistence. Note; When one judgment is not effectual to lead sinners to repentance, a second follows at its heels.
4thly, The fourth seal being opened, the fourth living creature bids him come and see: when, behold, a pale horse; death sat thereon, and the grave attended him to devour the corpses of the fallen; or hell, to receive their souls. By war, by famine, by pestilence, and the beasts of the earth, permission is given them to slay even the fourth part of the earth: and history informs us of the dreadful desolations which wasted the Roman empire, from the reign of Maximin to Dioclesian, in righteous vengeance for their bloody persecutions of the Christians. Note; (1.) Death marches as a conqueror through the earth; and, when attended with hell at his feet, is indeed the king of terrors. (2.) God's quiver is never exhausted; and, when he contends, he must prevail.
5thly, On opening the fifth seal a new scene is disclosed. The souls of the martyrs, who had been slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held, appear at the altar of incense; and they unite in their fervent supplications, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not display these perfections, and judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? In answer to their prayer, and in token of their acceptance, white robes, the emblems of righteousness and honour, were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, patiently expecting their final triumphs over all their foes, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled; and then a period should be put to the bloody persecutions of the Pagan emperors, by the accession of Constantine, about the year 323. Note; (1.) The blood of martyrs, and the sufferings of the persecuted, cry for vengeance to a holy God, and it will surely come upon the heads of their enemies. (2.) The time for the exercise of faith and patience is a little season; but the glory which shall follow, will be eternal.
6thly, On opening the sixth seal, a dreadful earthquake seemed to threaten universal destruction. The luminaries of heaven grew dark as sackcloth; the stars dropped from their spheres, as when the storm shakes down the untimely figs; the heaven itself departed as a scroll; every island and mountain fled affrighted; and universal consternation seized all ranks and degrees, from the king upon the throne to the meanest slave, who sought for shelter in dens and caves, and in their horror wished to be for ever covered under the rocks and mountains, from the face of him that sat upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for now by woeful experience they felt his terrible vengeance, which they could neither fly from nor resist.
This vision seems to represent the utter and irrecoverable overthrow of Heathenism, when that wonderful revolution was brought about in the empire, and, under Constantine, idolatry was abolished, the idols of Paganism destroyed, and all those who had before been the inveterate enemies of the Christian name, covered with confusion.
And what is here presented in vision, will be most emphatically verified in the great day of the perdition of ungodly men; when, trembling before the intolerable wrath of an offended Judge, in vain the mountains and rocks will be invoked to fall on the sinner's guilty head: naked and defenceless, he must be exposed to all the furious blasts of vengeance, and sink down into everlasting burnings, under black unfathomable despair! Lord, gather not my soul with sinners!
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Revelation 6". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany