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the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Revelation 6

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-17



Revelation 6:1-17.

WITH the sixth chapter of the Apocalypse the main action of the book may be said properly to begin. Three sections of the seven into which it is divided have already passed under our notice. The fourth section, extending from chap. 6:1 to chap. 18:24, is intended to bring before us the struggle of the Church, the judgment of God upon her enemies, and her final victory. No detail of historical events in which these things are fulfilled need be looked for. We are to be directed rather to the sources whence the trials spring, and to the principles by which the victory is gained. At this point in the unfolding of the visions it is generally thought that there is a pause, an interval of quietness however brief, and a hush of expectation on the part both of the Seer himself and of all the heavenly witnesses of the wondrous drama. But there seems to be no foundation for such an impression in the text; and it is more in keeping alike with the language of this particular passage and with the general probabilities of the case to imagine that the "lightnings and voices and thunders," spoken of in Revelation 4:5 as proceeding out of the throne, continue to re-echo over the scene, filling the hearts of the spectators with that of awe which they are naturally fitted to awaken. We have to meet the Lord in judgment. We are to behold the Lamb as "the Lion of the tribe of Judah;" and when He so appears, "the mountains flow down at His presence."* (* Isaiah 64:1)

The Lamb then, who had, in the previous chapter, taken the book out of the hand of Him that sat upon the throne, is now to open it, part by part, seal by seal:

"And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, Come (Revelation 6:1)."

Particular attention ought to be paid to the fact that the true reading of the last clause of this verse is not, as in the Authorized Version, "Come and see," but simply, as in the Revised Version, Come. The call is not addressed to the Seer, but to the Lord Himself; and it is uttered by one of the four living creatures spoken of in Revelation 4:6, who are "in the midst of the throne and round about the throne," and who in Revelation 4:8 of the same chapter are the first to raise the song from which they never rest, saying, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord, God, the Almighty, which was and which is and which is to come." The word Come therefore embodies the longing of redeemed creation that the Lord, for the completion of whose work it waits, will take to Him His great power and reign. Not so much for the perfecting of its own happiness, or for deliverance from the various troubles by which it is as yet beset, and not so much for the manifestation of its Lord in His abounding mercy to His own, does the creation delivered from the bondage of corruption wait, as for the moment when Christ shall appear in awful majesty, King of kings and Lord of lords, when He shall banish for ever from the earth the sin by which it is polluted, and when He shall establish, from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, His glorious kingdom of righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.

This prospect is inseparably associated with the Second Coming of Him who is now concealed from our view; and therefore the cry of the whole waiting creation, whether animate or inanimate, to its Lord is Come. The cry, too, and that not only in the case of the first living creature, but (according to a rule of interpretation of which in this book we shall often have to make use) in the case of the three that follow, is uttered with a voice of thunder; and thunder is always an accompaniment and symbol of the Divine judgments.

No sooner is the cry heard than it is answered: -

"And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat thereon had a bow; and there was given unto him a crown and he came forth conquering, and to conquer (Revelation 6:2)."

Few figures of the Apocalypse have occasioned more trouble to interpreters than that contained in these words. On the one hand, the particulars seem unmistakably to point to the Lord Himself; but, on the other hand, if the first rider be the glorified Redeemer, it is difficult to establish that harmonious parallelism with the following riders which appears to be required by the well-ordered arrangement of the visions of this book. Yet it is clearly impossible to regard the first rider as merely a symbol of war, for the second rider would then convey the same lesson as the first; nor is there anything in the text to establish a distinction, frequently resorted to, by which the first rider is thought to denote foreign, and the second civil, war. Every attempt also to separate the white horse of this vision from that of the vision at Revelation 19:11 fails, and must fail. Probably it is enough to say that not one of the four riders is a person. Each is rather a cause, a manifestation of certain truths connected with the kingdom of Christ when that kingdom is seen to be, in its own nature, the judgment of the world. Even war, famine, and death and Hades, which follow, are not literally these things. They are simply used, as scourges of mankind, to give general expression to the judgments of God. Thus also under the first rider the cause rather than the person of Christ is introduced to us, in the earliest stage of its victorious progress, and with the promise of its future triumph. The various points of the description hardly need to be explained. The colour of the horse is white, for throughout these visions that colour is always the symbol of heavenly purity. The rider has a crown given him, a crown of royalty. He has in his hand a bow, the instrument of war by which he scatters his enemies like stubble.* Finally, he comes forth conquering and to conquer, for his victorious march knows no interruption, and at last leaves no foe unvanquished. In the first rider we have thus the cause of Christ in its essence, as that cause of light which, having already drawn to it the sons of light, has become darkness to the sons of darkness. By the opening of the first Seal we learn that this cause is in the world, that this kingdom is in the midst of us, and that they who oppose it shall be overwhelmed with defeat. (* Isaiah 41:2)

The interpretation now given of the first rider as one who rides forth to judgment on a sinful world is confirmed by what is said of the three that follow him. In them too we have judgment, and judgment only, while the three judgments spoken of - war, famine, and death - are precisely those with which the prophets in the Old Testament and the Saviour Himself in the New have familiarized our thoughts.* They are not to be literally understood. Like all else in the visions of St. John, they are used symbolically; and each of them expresses in a general form the calamities and woes, the misfortunes and sorrows, brought by sinful men upon themselves through rejection of their rightful King. (* Ezekiel 6:11; Matthew 24:6-8)

The second Seal is now broken, and the second rider follows: -

"And when He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, Come. And another horse came forth, a red horse: and to him that sat thereon it was given to take peace from the earth, and that they should slaughter one another: and there was given unto him a great sword (Revelation 6:3-4)."

The second horse is red, the colour of blood, for it is the horse of war: and slaughter follows it as its rider passes over the earth; that is, not over the earth in general, but over the ungodly. Two things in this vision are particularly worthy of notice. In the first place, the war spoken of is not between the righteous and the wicked, but among the wicked alone. The wicked slaughter one another. All persons engaged in these internecine conflicts have cast aside the offers of the Prince of peace; and, at enmity with Him who is the only true foundation of human brotherhood, they are also at enmity among themselves. Of the righteous nothing is yet said. We are left to infer that they are safe in their dwellings, in peaceable habitations, and in quiet resting-places.* By-and-by we shall learn that they are not only safe, but surrounded with joy and plenty In the second place, the original word translated "slay" both in the Authorized and Revised Versions deserves attention. It is a sacrificial term, the same as that found in Revelation 5:6, where we read of the "slaughtered Lamb;" and here therefore, as there, it ought to be rendered, not "slay," but "slaughter." The instant we so translate, the whole picture rises before our view in a light entirely different from that in which we commonly regard it. What judgment, nay what irony of judgment, is there in the ways of God when He visits sinners with the terrors of His wrath! The very fate which men shrink from accepting in the form of a blessing overtakes them in the form of a curse. They think to save their life, and they lose it. They seek to avoid that sacrifice of themselves which, made in Christ, lies at the root of the true accomplishment of human destiny; and they are constrained to substitute for it a sacrifice of an altogether different kind: they sacrifice, they slaughter, one another. (* Isaiah 32:18)

The third Seal is now broken, and the third rider follows: -

"And when He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, Come. And I saw, and behold a black horse; and he that sat thereon had a balance in his hand. And I heard as it were a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, A measure of wheat for a penny (or a silver penny), and three measures of barley for a penny; and the oil and the wine hurt thou not (Revelation 6:5-6)."

The third living creature cries as the two before it had done; and a third horse comes forth, the color of which is black, the color of gloom and mourning and lamentation. Nor can there be any doubt that this condition of things is produced by scarcity, for the figure of the balance and of measuring bread by weight is on different occasions employed in the Old Testament to express the idea of famine. Thus among the threatenings denounced upon Israel should it prove faithless to God’s covenant we read, "And when I have broken the staff of your bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall deliver you your bread again by weight: and ye shall eat, and not be satisfied."l And so also when Ezekiel would describe the miseries of the coming siege of Jerusalem he exclaims, "Moreover He said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat bread by weight, and with care; and they shall drink water by measure, and with astonishment: that they may want bread and water, and be astonied one with another, and consume away for their iniquity."2 To give out corn by weight instead of measure was thus an emblem of scarcity. The particulars of the scarcity here described are obscured to the English reader by the unfortunate translation, both in this passage and elsewhere, and in the Revised as well as the Authorized Version, of the Greek denarius by the English penny. That coin was of the value of fully eight-pence of our money, and was the recognized payment of a laborer’s full day’s work.3 In ordinary circumstances it was sufficient to purchase eight of the small "measures" now referred to, so that when it could buy one "measure" only, the quantity needed by a single man for his own daily food, it is implied that wheat had risen eight times in price, and that all that could be purchased by means of a whole day’s toil would suffice for no more than one individual’s sustenance, leaving nothing for his other wants and the wants of his family. No doubt three measures of barley could be purchased for the same sum, but barley was a coarser grain, and to be dependent upon it was in itself a proof that there was famine in the land. Again, as in the previous judgment, the words of the figure are not to be literally understood. What we have before us is not famine in its strict sense, but the judgment of God under the form of famine; and this second judgment is climactic to the first. Men say to themselves that they will live at peace with one another, and sow, and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat the fruit thereof. But in doing this they are mastered by the power of selfishness; the too eager pursuit of earthly interests defeats its end; and, under the influence of deeper and more mysterious laws than the mere political economist can discover, fields that might have been covered with golden harvests lie desolate and bare. (1 Leviticus 26:26; 2 Ezekiel 4:16-17; 3 Comp. Matthew 20:2)

Nothing has yet been said of the last clause of this judgment: The oil and the wine hurt thou not. The words are generally regarded as a limitation of the severity of the famine previously described, and as a promise that even in judging God will not execute all His wrath. The interpretation can hardly be accepted. Not only does it weaken the force of the threatening, but the meaning thus given to the figure is entirely out of place. Oil and wine were for the mansions of the rich not for the habitations of the poor, for the feast and not for the supply of the common wants of life. Nor would a sufferer from famine have found in them a substitute for bread. The meaning of the words therefore must be looked for in a wholly different direction. "Thou preparest a table before me," says the Psalmist, "in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over."1 This is the table the supply of which is now alluded to. It is prepared for the righteous in the midst of the struggles of the world, and in the presence of their enemies. Oil is there in abundance to anoint the heads of the happy guests, and their cups are so filled with plenty that they run over. In the words under consideration, accordingly, we have no limitation of the effects of famine. The "wine" and the "oil" alluded to express not so much what is simply required for life as the plenty and the joy of life; and, thus interpreted, they are a figure of the care with which God watches over His own people and supplies all their wants. While His judgments are abroad in the earth they are protected in the hollow of His hand. He has taken them into His banqueting house, and His banner over them is love. The world may be hungry, but they are fed. As the children of Israel had light in their dwellings while the land of Egypt lay in darkness, so while the world famishes the followers of Jesus have all and more than all that they require. They have "life, and that abundantly."2 Thus we learn the condition of the children of God during the trials spoken of in these visions. Under the second Seal we could only infer from the general analogy of this book that they were safe. Now we know that they are not only safe, but that they are enriched with every blessing. They have oil that makes the face of man to shine, and bread that strengthened his heart.3 (1 Psalms 23:5; 2 John 10:10; 3 Psalms 104:15)

The fourth Seal is now broken, and the fourth rider follows: -

"And when He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, Come. And I saw, and behold a pale horse: and he that sat upon him, his name was Death; and Hades followed with him. And there was given unto them authority over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with famine, and with death, and by the wild beasts of the earth (Revelation 6:7-8)."

The color of the fourth horse is pale; it has the livid color of a corpse, corresponding to its rider, whose name, Death, is in this case given. Hades followed with him, not after him, thus showing that a gloomy and dark region beyond the grave is his inseparable attendant, and that it too is an instrument of God’s wrath. In Revelation 1:18 these two dire companions had also been associated with one another; and it is important to notice the combination, as the fact will afterwards throw light upon one of the most difficult visions of the book. "Death" is not neutral death, that separation between soul and body which awaits every individual of the human family until the Saviour comes. It is death in the deeper meaning which it so often bears in Scripture, and especially in the writings of St John, - death as judgment. In like manner Hades is not the neutral grave where the rich and the poor meet together, where the wicked cease from troubling, and where the weary are at rest. It is the region occupied by those who have not found life in Christ; and, not less than death, it is judgment "Death" and "Hades" then are the culminating judgments of God upon the earth, that is, upon the wicked; and they execute their mission in a fourfold manner: by the sword, and famine, and death, and the wild beasts of the earth. The world, the symbolical number of which is four, instead of blessing such as submit themselves to its sway, turns round upon them with all the powers at its command and kills them. The wicked " are sunk down in the pit that they made: in the net which they hid is their own foot taken."* (* Psalms 9:15)

It is not easy to say why authority is given death and Hades over no more than the fourth part of the earth, when we might rather have expected that their dominion would be extended over the whole. The question may be asked whether it is possible so to understand the Seer as to connect a "fourth part" of the earth, not with all the instruments together, but with each separate instrument of judgment afterwards named - one fourth to be killed with the sword, a second with famine, a third with death, and a fourth by wild beasts. Should such an idea be regarded as untenable, the probability is that a fourth part is mentioned in order to make room for the climactic rise to a "third part" afterwards met under, the trumpet judgments.

The end of the first four Seals has now been reached, and at this point there is an obvious break in the hitherto harmonious progress of the visions. No fifth rider appears when the fifth Seal is broken, and we pass from the material into the spiritual from the visible into the invisible, world. That the transition is not accidental, but deliberately made, appears from this, that the very same principle of division marks the series of the trumpets at Revelation 9:1, and of the bowls at Revelation 16:10. We have thus the number seven divided into its two parts four and three, while in chaps. 2 and 3 we had it divided into three and four. The difference is easily accounted for, three being the number of God, or the Divine, and therefore taking precedence when we are concerned with the existence of the Church, four being the number of the world, and therefore coming first when judgment on the world is described. It is of more consequence, however, to note the fact than to explain it, for it helps in no small degree to illustrate that artificial structure of the Apocalypse which is so completely at variance with the supposition that it describes in its successive paragraphs the successive historical events of the Christian age.

Passing then into a different region of thought, the fifth Seal is now broken: -

"And when He opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of them that had been slaughtered for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: and they cried with a great voice, saying, How long, O Master, the holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And there was given them to each one a white robe; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little time, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, which should be killed even as they were, should be fulfilled (Revelation 6:9-11)."

The vision contained in these words is unquestionably a crucial one for the interpretation of the Apocalypse, and it will be necessary to dwell upon it for a little. The minor details may be easily disposed of. By the consent of all commentators of note, the altar referred to is the brazen altar of sacrifice, which stood in the outer court both of the Tabernacle and the Temple; the souls, or lives, seen under it are probably seen under the form of blood, for the blood was the life: and the law of Moses commanded that when animals were sacrificed the blood should be poured out "at the bottom of the altar of burnt-offering, which in before the tabernacle of the congregation;"* while the little time mentioned in Revelation 6:11 can mean nothing else than the interval between the moment when the souls were spoken to and that when the killing of their brethren should be brought to a close. (* Leviticus 4:7)

The main question to be answered is, Whom do these "souls" represent? Are they Christian martyrs, suffering perhaps at the hands of the Jews before the fall of Jerusalem, perhaps at the hands of the world to the end of time? Or are they the martyrs of the Old Testament dispensation, Jewish martyrs, who had lived and died in faith? Both suppositions have been entertained, though the former has been, and still is, that almost universally adopted. Yet there can be little doubt that the latter is correct, and that several important particulars of the passage demand its acceptance.

1. Let us observe how these martyrs are designated. They had been slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. But that is not the full expression of Christian testimony. As we read in many other passages of the book before us, Christians have "the testimony of Jesus."* The addition needed to bring out the Christian character of the testimony referred to is wanting here. No doubt the saints of old looked forward to the coming of the Christ; but the testimony "of Jesus" is the testimony pertaining to Him as a Saviour come, in all the glory of His person and in all the completeness of His work. It is a testimony embracing a full knowledge of the Messiah, and the inference is natural and legitimate that it is not ascribed to the souls under the altar, because they neither had nor could have possessed it. (*Comp. Revelation 1:2; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 11:7; Revelation 12:11; Revelation 12:17; Revelation 19:10)

2. The cry of these "souls" is worthy of notice, How long, O Master, the holy and the true, where the word "Master," applied also in Acts 4:24 and Judges 1:4* to God as distinguished from Christ, corresponds better to the spirit of the Old than of the New Testament dispensation. (*Margin of Revised Version)

3. The time at which the martyrs had been killed belongs not to the present or the future, but to the past. Like all the other Seals, the fifth is opened at the very beginning of the Christian era; and no sooner is it opened than the souls are seen. It is true that the Seer might be supposed to transport himself forward into the future, and, at some point of Christian history more or less distant, to console Christian martyrs who had already fallen with the assurance that they had only to wait a little time, until such as were to be their later companions in martyrdom should have shared their fate. But such a supposition is inconsistent with the fact that St. John in the Apocalypse always thinks of the Christian age as one hardly capable of being divided; while, as we shall immediately see more clearly, it would make it impossible to explain the consolation afforded by the bestowal of the white robe.

4. The altar under which the blood is seen may help to confirm this conclusion, for that blood is not preserved in the inner sanctuary, in that "heaven" which is the ideal home of all the disciples of Jesus: it lies beneath the altar of the outer court.

5. The main argument, however, in favor of the view now contended for, is to be found in the act by which these souls were comforted: And there was given them to each one a white robe. The white robe, then, they had not obtained before; and yet that robe belongs during his life on earth to every follower of Christ. Nothing is more frequently spoken of in these visions than the "white robe" of the redeemed, and it is obviously theirs from the first moment when they are united to their Lord. It is the robe of the priesthood, and at their very entrance upon true spiritual life they are priests in Him. It is the robe with which the faithful remnant in Sardis had been arrayed before they are introduced to us, for they had not "defiled" it; and the emphasis in the promise there given, "They shall walk with Me in white," appears to lie upon its first rather than its second clause.1 Again, the promise to everyone in that church that "overcometh" is that he " shall be arrayed in white garments;"2 and it is beyond dispute that the promises of the seven epistles belong to the victory of faith gained in this world, not less than to the perfected reward of victory in the world to come. In like manner the Laodicean church is exhorted to buy of her Lord "white garments" that she may be clothed, as well as "gold" that she may be enriched, and "eyesalve" that she may see3; and, as the two latter purchases refer to her present state, so also must the former. When, too, the Lord is united in marriage to His Church, it is said that "it was given unto her that she should array herself in fine linen, bright and pure;" and that fine linen is immediately explained to be "the righteous acts of the saints."4 (1 Revelation 3:4; 2 Revelation 3:5; 3 Revelation 3:18; 4 Revelation 19:8)

Putting all these passages together, we are distinctly taught that in the language of the Apocalypse the "white robe" denotes that perfect righteousness of Christ, both external and internal, which is bestowed upon the believer from the moment when he is by faith made one with Jesus. It is that more perfect justification of which St. Paul spoke at Antioch in Pisidia when he said to the Jews, "By Him every one that believeth is justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses."1 It had been longed for by the saints of the Old Testament, but had never been fully bestowed upon them until Jesus came. David had prayed for it: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow;"2 Isaiah had anticipated it when he looked forward to the acceptable year of the Lord: "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels;"3 and Ezekiel had celebrated it as the chief blessing of Gospel times: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. . . . And ye shall be My people, and I will be your God. I will also save you from all your uncleannesses."4 But while thus prayed for, anticipated, and greeted from afar, the fullness of blessing belonging to the New Testament had not been actually received under the Old. "He that is but little in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John."5 As we are taught in the Epistle to the Hebrews, even Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and all those heroes of faith who had subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens - even "these all, having had witness borne to them through their faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing concerning us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect."6 At death they were not made perfect. They passed rather into a holy rest where they waited until, like Abraham, who had "rejoiced that he should see Christ’s day," they "saw it and were glad."7 Then the "white robe" was given them. They were raised to the level of that Church which, now that Jesus had come, rejoiced in Him with "a joy unspeakable and glorified."8 (1 Acts 13:39; 2 Psalms 51:7; 3 Isaiah 61:10; 4 Ezekiel 36:25-29; 5 Matthew 11:11; 6 Hebrews 11:39-40; 7 John 8:56; 8 1 Peter 1:8 {R.V., margin})

These considerations appear sufficient to decide the point. The souls under the altar of the fifth Seal are the saints, not of Christianity, but of Judaism. It is true that all of them had not been literally "slaughtered." But it is a peculiarity of this book, of which further proof will be afforded as we proceed, that it regards all true followers of Christ as martyrs. Christ was Himself a Martyr; His disciples "follow" Him: they are martyrs. Christ’s Church is a martyr Church. She dies in her Master’s service, and for the world’s good.

One point more ought to be noticed before we leave this Seal. The language of these souls under the altar is apt to offend when they apparently cry for vengeance upon their murderers: How long dost Thou not avenge? Yet it is enough to say that so to interpret their cry is to do injustice to the whole spirit of this book Strictly speaking, in fact, they do not themselves cry. It is their blood that cries; it is the wrong done to them that demands reparation. In so far as they may be supposed to cry, they have in view, not their enemies as persons, but the evil that is in them, and that manifests itself through them. At first it may seem difficult to draw the distinction; but if we pause over the matter for a little, the difficulty will disappear. Never do we pity the sinner more, or feel for him with a keener sympathy, than when we are most indignant at sin and most earnest in prayer and effort for its destruction. The more anxious we are for the latter, the more must we compassionate the man who is enveloped in sin s fatal toils. When we long therefore for the hour at which sin shall be overtaken by the just judgment of God, we long only for the establishment of that righteous and holy kingdom which is inseparably bound up with the glory of God and the happiness of the world.

For this kingdom then the saints of the Old Testament, together with all their "brethren" under the New Testament, who like them are faithful unto death, now wait; and the opening of the sixth Seal tells us that it is at hand:

"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 unto the earth, as a fig tree casteth her unripe figs, when she is shaken of a great wind. And the heaven was removed as m scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and 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 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 that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of their wrath is come; and who is able to stand? (Revelation 6:12-17)."

The description is marked by almost unparalleled magnificence and sublimity, and any attempt to dwell upon details could only injure the general effect. The real question to be answered is, To what does it apply? Is it a picture of the destruction of Jerusalem or of the final Judgment? Or may it even represent every great calamity by which a sinful world is overtaken? In each of these senses, and in each of them with a certain degree of truth, has the passage been understood, Each is a part of the great thought which it embraces. The error of interpreters has consisted in confining the whole, or even the primary, sense to any one of them. The true reference of the passage appears to be to the Christian dispensation, especially on its side of judgment. That dispensation had often been spoken of by the prophets in a precisely similar way; and the whole description of these verses, alive with the rich glow of the Eastern imagination, is taken partly from their language, and partly from the language of our Lord in the more prophetic and impassioned moments of His life.

Thus it was that Joel had announced the purpose of God: "And I will show wonders in the heavens and the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come," and again, "The sun and the moon shall be darkened, and the stars shall withdraw their shining;"1 while, apart altogether from the immediately preceding and following words, which prove the interpretation above given to be correct, this announcement of Joel was declared by St. Peter on the day of Pentecost to apply to the introduction of that kingdom of Christ which, in the gift of tongues, was at that moment exhibited in power.2 In like manner we read in the prophet Haggai, "For thus saith the Lord of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations."3 While, again, without our needing to dwell on the connection in which the words occur, we find the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews applying the prophecy to the circumstances of those to whom he wrote at a time when they had heard the voice that speaketh from heaven, and had received the kingdom that cannot be moved.4 The prophet Malachi also, whose words have been interpreted for us by our Lord Himself, describes the day of Him whom the Baptist was to precede and to introduce as the day that "burneth as a furnace," as "the great and terrible day of the Lord."5 This aspect, too, of any great era in the history of a land or of a people had always been presented by the voice of prophecy in language from which the words before us are obviously taken. Thus it was that when Isaiah described the coming of a time at which the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow into it, he mentions, among its other characteristics, "And they shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of His majesty, when He ariseth to shake terribly the earth."6 When the same prophet details the burden of Babylon which he saw, he exclaims, "Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger to make the land a desolation, and to destroy the sinners thereof out of it. 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;"7 and again, when he widens his view from Babylon to a guilty world, "For the Lord hath indignation against all the nations, and fury against all their hosts. . . . And 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 falleth from off the vine, and as a fading fig from the fig tree."8 Many other passages of a similar kind might be quoted from the Old Testament; but, without quoting further from that source, it may be enough to call to mind that when our Lord delivered His discourse upon the last things He adopted a precisely similar strain: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun 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."9 (1 Joel 2:30-31; Joel 3:15; 2 Acts 2:16-21; 3 Haggai 2:6-7; 4 Hebrews 12:25-29; 5 Malachi 4:1; Malachi 4:5; Mark 9:11-13; 6 Isaiah 2:19; 7 Isaiah 13:9-10; 8 Isaiah 34:2; Isaiah 34:4; 9 Matthew 24:29)

Highly coloured, therefore, as the language used under the sixth Seal may appear to us, to the Jew, animated by the spirit of the Old Testament, it was simply that in which he had been accustomed to express his expectation of any new dispensation of the Almighty, of any striking crisis in the history of the world. Whenever he thought of the Judge of all the earth as manifesting Himself in a greater than ordinary degree, and as manifesting Himself in that truth and righteousness which was the glorious distinction of His character, he took advantage of such figures as we have now before us. To the fall of Jerusalem therefore, to every great crisis in human history, and to the close of all, they may be fittingly applied. In the eloquent language of Dr. Vaughan, "These words are wonderful in all senses, not least in this sense: that they are manifold in their accomplishment. Wherever there is a little flock in a waste wilderness; wherever there is a Church in a world; wherever there is a power of unbelief, ungodliness, and violence, throwing itself upon Christ’s faith and Christ’s people and seeking to overbear, and to demolish, and to destroy; whether that power be the power of Jewish bigotry and fanaticism, as in the days of the first disciples; or of pagan Rome, with its idolatries and its cruelties, as in the days of St. John and of the Revelation; or of papal Rome, with its lying wonders and its antichristian assumptions, in ages later still; or of open and rampant atheism, as in the days of the first French Revolution; or of a subtler and more insidious infidelity, like that which is threatening now to deceive, if it were possible, the very elect; wherever and whatever this power may be - and it has had a thousand forms, and may be destined yet to assume a thousand more - then, in each successive century, the words of Christ to His first disciples adapt themselves afresh to the circumstances of His struggling servants; warn them of danger, exhort them to patience, arouse them to hope, assure them of victory; tell of a near end for the individual and for the generation; tell also of a far end, not for ever to be postponed, for time itself and for the world; predict a destruction which shall befall each enemy of the truth, and predict a destruction which shall befall the enemy himself whom each in turn has represented and served; explain the meaning of tribulation, show whence it comes, and point to its swallowing up in glory; reveal the moving hand above, and disclose, from behind the cloud which conceals it, the clear definite purpose and the un changing loving will. Thus understood, each separate downfall of evil becomes a prophecy of the next and of the last; and the partial fulfillment of our Lord’s words in the destruction of Jerusalem, or of St. John’s words in the downfall of idolatry and the dismemberment of Rome, becomes itself in turn a new warrant for the Church’s expectation of the Second Advent and of the day of judgment."* (*Lectures on the Revelation, p. 170)

While, however, the truth of these words may be allowed, it is still necessary to urge that the primary application of the language of the sixth Seal is to no one of such events in particular, but to something which includes them all. In other words, it applies to the Christian dispensation, viewed in its beginning, its progress, and its end, viewed in all those issues which it produces in the world, but especially on the side of judgment.

Nor ought such dark and terrible figures to startle us, as if they could not be suitably applied to a dispensation of mercy, of grace that we cannot fathom, of love that passeth knowledge. The Christian dispensation is not effeminacy. If it tells of abounding compassion for the sinner, it tells also of fire, and hail, and vapor of smoke for the sin. If it speaks at one time in a gentle voice, it speaks at another in a voice of thunder; and, when the latter is rightly listened to, the air is cleared as by the whirlwind.

Although, therefore, the language of the prophets and of this passage may at first sight appear to be marked by far too great a measure both of strength and of severity to make it applicable to the Gospel age, it is in reality neither too strong nor too severe. It is at variance only with the verdict of that superficial glance which is satisfied with looking at phenomena in their outward and temporary aspect, and which declines to penetrate into the heart of things. So long as man is content with such a spirit, he is naturally enough unstirred by any powerful emotion; and he can only say that words of prophetic fire are words of exaggeration and of false enthusiasm. But no sooner does he catch that spirit of the Bible which brings him into contact with eternal verities than his tone changes, He can no longer rest upon the surface. He can no longer dismiss the thought of mighty issues at stake around him with the reflection that "all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women on it only players." When from the shore he looks out upon the mass of waters stretching before him, he thinks not merely of the light waves rippling at his feet and losing themselves in the sand, but of the unfathomed depths of the ocean from which they come, and of those mysterious movements of it which they indicate. He sees sights, he hears sounds, which the common eye does not see, and the common ear does not hear. The slightest motion of the soil speaks to him of earthquakes; the handful of snow loosened from the mountain-side, of avalanches; the simplest utterance of awe, of a cry that the mountains and the hills are falling. The great does not become to him little; but the little becomes great. There is thus no exaggeration in the strength or even in the severity of prophetic figures. The prophet has passed from the world of shadows, flitting past him and disappearing, into the world of realities, Divine, unchangeable, and everlasting.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Revelation 6". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/revelation-6.html.
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