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The former chapter acquainted us with Christ's receiving of the sealed book; this with the opening of it seal by seal. Christ reveals unto St. John the deep counsels of God, which were hidden and secret: the only-begotten Son, that lay in the bosom of the Father, he hath revealed them; he only received authority, and he only was endued with ability to reveal them.
Note, 1. The preparation made for St. John's vision of the seals; he standing afar off with profound reverence, heard a voice like thunder proceeding out of the mouth of one of the four beasts, who performed the office of a public crier, saying, Come and see. It is dangerous searching into God's secrets, and prying into his hidden councils, until we have a call and commission, a command and invitation, from God himself so to do; thus had St. John here; one said unto him, Come near, and see.
Note, 2. The vision itself, I beheld a white horse, and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown, &c. By the white horse is generally understood the gospel, so called in regard of the divinity and spotless purity of its doctrine: the rider upon this horse is Christ, who rode swiftly in the ministry of the apostles, and other faithful teachers in the first ages of Christianity; and he rode with a bow in his hand, and a crown on his head: with a bow, that is, with threatenings and terrors denounced against his enemies before they were inflicted upon them, as the bow is first held in the hand, then the arrow prepared upon the string, and at last shot forth: and with a crown, denoting that royal state of kingly dignity and honour to which Christ, the Lamb that was slain, was now exalted; and thus he rode on conquering and to conquer, until he had consummated his victories, in a glorious triumph over his enemies, namely, in the conversion of some, and destruction of others; thus the opening of the first seal gave the church a very encouraging and comfortable prospect of the victories, successes and triumphs, of Christ, notwithstanding the rage, subtlety, and power, of all his enemies: Christ rode on with a bow in his hand, and with a crown on his head, conquering and to conquer, until his arrows were sharp in the hearts of his crucifiers; and will thus ride on till the people fall under him, and all his enemies become his footstool.
The second seal opened did represent to St. John's visionary view a red horse, of a bloody colour; denoting first the dreadful execution of God's wrath upon the Jews, embroiling the land with wars, divisions, bloodshed, unpeaceable tumults, killing and ruining one another, to which purpose he apprehended that he saw a sword in his hand that rode upon this horse, signifying the great slaughter which would be committed by the Jews upon one another.
Others, secondly, by this red horse understand the bloody Roman emperors, Nero, Trajan, &c., and the persecution which the primitive church underwent in their days. Eusebius relates, that so fierce was their rage against the poor Christians, that a man might see cities full of dead bodies, old and young, men and women, cast out naked, without any reverence of persons, or regard to sex.
From hence we may learn, What little reason the Christian church has to think strange of the fiery trial, as if some strange things happened unto them; when as we see all the rage and cruelty, all the blood and violence, which the Christian church has fallen under in the several ages of it, have been from the beginning revealed and prophetically foretold.
The third seal opened, sets forth the great calamity which should befall the church by famine, which some understand literally, others figuratively and mystically.
1. A literal famine in Judea, seems here to be prefigured by a person riding on a black horse, with a balance to weigh food in his hand: famine discolours, the face of men, and makes them look black, sad, and dismal; accordingly it is represented by a black horse; and the rider having a pair of scales in his hand to weigh corn by the pound, and not to measure it by the bushel, imports the great scarcity that there should be in bread; and St. John heard a voice saying, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny.
The Roman penny was the ordinary wages for a day's work to a labourer, so that the quantity of bread was but sufficient to keep persons alive for one day. Famine is a very sore and terrible judgment, it consumes a people by piecemeal: other judgments cut off suddenly, but this is a lingering and languishing death.
Lord! help us in the midst of our fulness, when we eat the fat, and drink the sweet, to remember how righteously thou mayst cut us short of our abused mercies. How is it that we have not long ago sinned away our plenty, who have so often sinned with our plenty?
2. Others understand the famine, here represented by the black horse, to be meant of a spiritual famine, a scarcity of the word of God, which fell out in the time of the ten persecutions, when the storm fell upon the bishops and most useful ministers in the church, when many bright and burning lamps were extinguished, others hid under a bushel: a dismal, gloomy day, when the church of God did eat her spiritual bread by weight, when all the spiritual food men could get to keep their souls alive from day to day could be but sufficient for that end.
The fourth seal opened represents a pale horse, (pestilence,) with death riding upon it; and hell, that is, the grave, followed it: denoting, say some, all the calamities of sword, pestilence, and famine, which Christ Mark 13 foretold should come upon the Jews, and cause an universal devastation of their city and nation, and as universal a destruction of their persons.
Note here, 1. How death is represented as sitting upon a pale horse; by a horse, for his strength, there is no resisting of him; for his swiftness, it is always posting towards us; for his office and use, which is to cut off, and carry away; and by a pale horse, for its ghastliness. Death has a grim and ghastly countenance, that strikes terror into all hearts, and paleness into all faces.
Note, 2. As terrible as death was, it must and did receive power before it could destroy and kill: I beheld a pale horse, and he that sat on him was death, and hell followed with him: and power was given to them.
Learn thence, That all the executioners of God's wrath and vengeance, sword, pestilence, and famine, death of all kinds, do act by commission, yea, they all come forth with limited commission; power was given to them.
Others conceive, that by this pale horse the persecution of the primitive church was represented under the Pagan emperors, who made her face look pale like death, by the loss of a vast quantity of blood and spirits, when the church was mowed down like a meadow, and sprang as fast.
Here we have the fifth seal opened; under which Christ represents to St. John the condition of those precious souls of the holy martyrs who died for the testimony of Christ, by the bloody hands of tyrants; the design whereof is to support and encourage all that were to come after in the same bloody path.
Observe here, 1. The vision which St. John saw, namely, the souls of the martyrs.
But how could they be seen?
Ans. Not by the external senses, being immaterial substances, but in spirit they were seen by him; he had a spiritual representation of them made to his mind.
Observe, 2. The place where he saw them, under the altar; that is, lying at the foot of the altar, as sacrifices slain, and presented unto God.
Where note, That however men look upon the death of the martyrs, yet in God's account they die as sacrifices: and their blood is no other than a drink-offering poured out to God, which he highly prizeth, and graciously accepteth.
Observe, 3. The cause of their sufferings and death described, it was for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held; as one of the martyrs in the Marian days held up his Bible at the stake, saying, "This is that hath brought me hither."
They die not as malefactors, but as martyrs, giving a threefold testimony of the truth, a lip-testimony, a life-testimony, and a death or blood-testimony: they held the profession of their faith faster than they held their own lives.
Observe, 4. What St. John heard, a loud cry, saying, How long?
Note, 1. That souls can speak audibly, to the ears of men;
Note, 2. That they have sense of sufferings when they are in glory: it doth not imply that souls there are in a restless state, or that they want true satisfaction and repose when they are out of the body; much less,
3. doth this cry suppose that they carried with them to heaven any angry resentments, or revengeful dispositions, towards their murderers: but this cry supposes in them a vehement zeal for the glory of God, a flagrant desire that God would clear their innocency, and make known his justice among men, that he would abolish the kingdom of Satan, and consummate the kingdom of Christ, making all his enemies to become his footstool; so that they pray for what Christ waits in glory, Hebrews 10:13 all the revenge here desired was only a vindication of God's holiness and truth, which he himself had promised.
Observe, 5. The gracious answer which God gave to the cry of these gracious souls, in which he speaks satisfaction to them these two ways,
1. By somewhat given them for the present,
2. By somewhat promised them hereafter.
First, white robes were given at present to every one of them, that is, large measures of heavenly glory, as the reward of their sufferings and services, beyond other saints; as if God had said, "Though the time be not yet come to satisfy your desires in the final ruin of Satan's kingdom, yet it shall by well with you in the mean time, you shall walk with me in white, and enjoy my glory in heaven."
Secondly, That is not all, but the very things they cry for shall be given them after a little season, for God had more to call unto sufferings besides them, and they having conquered shall be crowned together; as if God had said, "You my faithful witnesses, wait a little while until your brethren be got through the Red sea of suffering as well as you, and then you shall see the feet of Christ upon the necks of all his enemies, and justice shall fully avenge the precious innocent blood of all the saints, which in all ages has been shed for the testimony of the gospel, from Abel the martyr to the last sufferer: Rest, for a little season, until your fellow-servants also, and your brethren, shall be killed as you were."
Now from the whole learn these lessons of instruction.
Learn, 1. That the souls of men perish not with their bodies, but do certainly outlive them, and subsist in a state of separation from them; the bodies of these martyrs were destroyed by divers sorts of torments, but their souls were out of the reach of danger, they were in safety under the altar, and in glory, clothed with their white robes, when their bodies were either turned to ashes, or torn to pieces by wild beasts; we shall not cease to be, when we cease to breathe; our souls do not vanish with our breath.
Learn, 2. That as the soul is alive in a state of separation from the body, so it is awake also, and doth not sleep with the body.
Mark, These souls cried with a loud voice; then they were not asleep, though their bodies were alseep in the dust; the opinion of the soul's sleeping with the body, until the resurrection, is a wicked dream; it is granted that the organical acts of the soul, that is, such acts as do depend upon the members of the body, must cease when the body ceases; but we find when we are asleep, that our soul can act of itself, without the assistance of the body; the soul grieves and rejoices, hopes and fears, chooses and refuses, therefore the soul is not only alive, but awake also, in its state of separation from the body.
Learn, 3. That there are not only praises, but prayers in heaven, and that for justice to be inflicted upon persecutors here on earth. O the miserable condition of bloody persecutors! when heaven and earth both pray against them.
Learn, 4. That there is no sin committed upon earth, which doth more loudly call for vengeance from God in heaven, and which he will more certainly and severely punish, than persecuting and wronging of his saints and servants.
Learn, 5. That one reason why the suffering servants of God are not presently delivered from their persecutions, is this, because more of their brethren must suffer besides them, before their persecutions are ripe and ready for signal vengeance.
Learn lastly, That the souls of God's martyrs shall by under the altar in heaven clothed in white, enjoying divine glory, before the fatal day of final vengeance come upon the persecuting world; for though the patience of God suffers long, yet the holiness of God cannot permit that innocency should always suffer, and violence with persecution go unpunished, but in the mean time they shall put on their crown and their robes.
A threefold interpretation is given relating to this sixth seal, and the opening of it.
1. Some apply it altogether to the Jews, and that their destruction in Judea and at Jerusalem was so dismal, that it was represented to St. John as the darkening of the sun, and the moon looking like blood, and the stars falling, such calamities impending as if heaven and earth were dissolving: doubtless at and before the destruction of Jerusalem there was a confluence of such calamities, so dismal, and so dreadful, as can very difficultly be represented or described.
2. Others apply it to the overthrow of Paganism, and the destruction of the Heathen emperors; the fall of Paganism, by means of Constantines's conversion to the Christian faith, was the most terrible judgment that ever fell upon the devil's kingdom: and accordingly, by the earth's quaking, the sun's becoming black, the moon's becoming blood, and the stars falling from heaven to earth, is to be understood the great changes that were made in the Roman empire, by overturning the whole Pagan state, and making Christianity the religion of the greatest part of the world; so that the sense of the foregoing expression is metaphorical, and signifies a great and general alteration of the face of affairs, as if the world was to be another thing.
But, 3. There are that interpret all this of the great and horrible confusion of the Christian world under Antichrist, when Christ the Sun of righteousness began to be obscured, that is, his doctrine concerning his offices and benefits darkened; the moon or church turned into blood; the stars or pastors fallen from heavenly offices; the scriptures, like the heavens rolled up, forbidden to be read; the mountains, kings and princes, in jeopardy; and the islands brought under Antichrist's yoke and tyranny.
Lastly, Some apply all this to the last dissolution of the world, and the final judgment of the great day; according to what follows in the three next verses.
Observe here, That if this was meant of the Jews at the destruction of Jerusalem, it was exceeding dreadful, and bespake all sorts of men, from the highest to the lowest, to be under a most dreadful consternation, when they saw an inevitable vengeance coming upon them for crucifying Christ, and persecuting his members, which made them run into rocks, and call upon mountains to hide them: if it be applied to the judgment of the great day, it shows the justice of Christ in forcing those to call upon the mountains to hide them, who by persecution had driven his members to hide themselves in mountains, dens, and caves, of the earth: any sort of hope will be then in vain; neither greatness nor numbers will save any from misery and terror, when that day of vengeance is come.
Learn hence, That wicked men, how numerous, how powerful and strong soever, shall fall before the wrath and indignation of Christ; if when Christ appears like an angry Lamb the greatest in the world fall before him, what will they then do when Christ shall put on the fierceness and severity of a roaring lion? Mitissima sententia quae a mitussima judice denuntiatur. If the wrath of the Lamb cannot be borne, if the unbelieving kings and potentates of the earth shall be cast down at the sight of Christ, where shall the wicked and the sinner appear? If the wrath of a king be as the roaring lion, what will the wrath of God, an angry God, be?
Let us now be cast down at the sight of sin, and we shall not be cast down hereafter at the sight of God; but when others, at his appearance, cry to the rocks to cover them, and to the mountains to fall upon them, such as have seen sin to their abasement and humiliation, shall see a Saviour to their joyful satisfaction, and spend an eternity in the rapturous contemplation and ravishing fruition of him. Amen.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Revelation 6". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29