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Six Seals Revelation 6


Revelation 6-18 deals with a seven-year period called "the tribulation" (Matt 24:21; Rev 7:14).2 This section makes up almost two-thirds of the book of Revelation. This should cause us to stop and ask, "Is Revelation relevant? If so, why should we spend time studying the tribulation period when we believe (or hope and pray) that we will be raptured prior to this time?"3

Studying the tribulation serves several important purposes: (1) The tribulation should scare the living daylights out of us. God's holiness, as expressed through His justice and wrath, should overwhelm us. It should spark a newfound appreciation for His love and grace. (2) The tribulation should also sober us. It should lead us to take our lives more seriously and to live them according to eternal values. As a result, we will not put so much attachment upon the things of this earth, once we see what will become of them. We will also live more thoughtfully for eternity, finding our source and satisfaction in God. (3) The tribulation should compel us to go out into our world as ambassadors for Jesus Christ, delivering people from the wrath to come.4 Believe me when I say that no human being will want to go through this time. If all of these terrifying events don't cause us to tell others about Jesus Christ, what will?

1.  Jesus will sovereignly judge this world (6:1-8). The first four seals seem to belong together (6:1-8). (1) They are introduced by one of the four living creatures (6:1, 3, 5, 7). (2) Each seal is preceded with a call to "Come." (3) Each seal contains the image of a horse and rider (6:2, 4, 5, 8).5 (4) In each of the seals there is a progression of meaning given for each of the four seals: conquering, making war, famine, and death. (5) Each of these seals is opened by the Lamb, Jesus Christ. (6) Each seal is given its authority by Christ ("and to him was granted..."). John sees the whole process of judgment under the control of God. The conqueror has only what Almighty God allows him to have. God is completely sovereign so His people do not need to be dismayed.6 The fifth and sixth seals seem to be distinct (6:9-11, 12-17) and the seventh seal introduces the trumpet judgments (8:1).7

◊  The First Seal (6:1-2): "Then I saw8 when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, 'Come.' I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer." John was an eyewitness of this revelation that came to him as action scenes in a film rather than as words from the pages of a book. When the Lamb broke the first of the seven seals on the scroll that He had taken from God, one of the four creatures (cf. Rev 4:6-7) called out with a voice of thunder. The "voice of thunder" is symbolic of judgment, as a coming storm. It is a voice of terror, majesty, and judgment! The command given is, "Come." This was probably an invitation to the first horseman rather than to John or to Christ. The angel gave this command four times (6:1, 3, 5, 7), and each time a horseman on a horse came forth. In 6:2, a rider came riding on a white horse with a bow and a crown for the purpose of conquering.

This verse does not say who rides this "white horse."9 However, it is most likely the coming Antichrist (Dan 9:26-27; 1 Thess 5:3).10 This rider represents a conquering power that no one can resist (cf. Matt 24:3-6). This person has the semblance of Christ but he is not Christ (cf. Rev 19:11-19). He comes as a deceiver.11

The horse was considered a war machine in biblical times.12 "White" symbolizes righteousness and holiness.13 The bow, mentioned without reference to arrows, does not intimate, as many suggest, that the rider is engaged in "peaceful conquest" by diplomacy and without bloodshed. For it is common in the Scriptures for the bow, as a symbol of hunting or of warfare, to be mentioned alone and still to symbolize violent conquest (e.g., Isa 41:2). This is analogous to frequent references in Western America to riders going forth with rifles, without mention of bullets. The bullets-and likewise the arrows-are assumed.14 He also has a "crown."15 Evidently, God gave him this crown.16 The sovereign God is the only One who can give rulers authority to rule (cf. Rom 13:1). This crown represents his world dictatorship.

At this point, I should mention that although the Antichrist's reign includes war, it also includes peace. Peace is a buzzword today. Many of the world's greatest thinkers speak of the need of a one-world government-a new world order. The Antichrist will camp on this and make "peace" his campaign message. Of course the world will buy in, which will allow him to be enthroned on earth as a "god" and political leader.

◊  The second seal (6:3-4): When the Lamb broke the second seal on the scroll John heard the second living creature order the second horseman forward. The red horse probably symbolizes bloodshed and war. The rider of this horse removes "peace from the earth." Further, he was to cause men to "slay [lit. slaughter] one another." The "great sword" represents authority to slay people.18 It does not denote international warfare but revolution in which people turn on one another.19 The result is anarchy, riot, and civil war. In light of the terrorism, bombings, and civil war taking place around the world, we need little imagination to think of what will be happening on an even larger scale.

It has always been so throughout history. From 1496 B.C. to A.D. 1861, the world knew 3,130 years of war and 227 years of peace. In the last 400 years European nations have signed more than 8,000 peace treaties. In the 20th century 8.5 million died in World War I, and 22 million died in World War II. The Vietnam conflict cost the U.S. 47,000 of our young men and maimed another 100,000 for life. What our text tells us is that in the years just prior to the second coming of Christ, God is going to give civilization over to war (cf. Rom 1:24, 26, 28).20

◊  The third seal (6:5-6): A black horse followed, symbolizing the ravage of war, namely famine. Black is the color of frightfulness and mourning. This third horseman carries in his hand a pair of scales that symbolize his work. These scales in the hand of the horseman are not the kind used by Weight Watchers, but rather is the kind of used to measure out grain. This implies that food will have to be weighed out and rationed with care.21 As is generally true, scarcity and famine follow war.22

Probably the wars that the ungodly rulers under Antichrist's leadership begin will reduce the food supply greatly. These rulers will control it strictly with consequent suffering for many people (cf. Luke 21:11). The price of wheat and barley will be very high. A quart of wheat would provide one meal but it would cost a denarius, a whole day's wages. "Do not damage the oil and the wine" means "do not tamper with," reflecting the strict control over prices that ungodly rulers, under Antichrist's leadership, will have at this time. The poor would have little money left over for oil, for fuel and health needs, and for wine to drink (cf. Ezek 4:16-17). An inescapable outcome of war is starvation. Worldwide inflation destroys the world economy. Worldwide famine causes great shortages and inflation. Panic in the market causes people to stampede the marketplace to sell their stock. A worldwide depression will make people panic over bread-and-butter issues.23 The causes of the famine were not extremely severe, since they killed the wheat and barley, but not the vines and olive trees whose roots go deeper. As the tribulation grows worse, the rich as well as the poor will suffer, but at this early stage the poor will suffer more than the rich.

The fact that the voice announcing the prices comes from the living creatures that are in the middle of and around God's throne (Rev 4:6) suggests that God has something to do with price lists. When we watch prices go up and down, and when we hear the weather reports and crop reports, and when we listen to the latest stock prices and economic indicators, we never think of anything divine connected with them. How wrong we are!

The thought is that there will be an abundance of such things as expensive foodstuffs, toiletries, beauty aids and conditioners ("oil"), and liquor ("wine"), but a scarcity for the poor of essential foodstuffs. We take food in our cupboards for granted. We let the waitress take potential leftovers away. We toss out half-eaten apples. In America, we have forgotten the old "waste not, want not" homily. We throw enough food in our garbage cans to feed a family of six, for a day, in India. Our dogs have a diet higher in protein than most of the people in the world.24

◊  The fourth seal (6:7-8): "When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, 'Come.' I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth." The Lamb broke the fourth seal, and the fourth living creature called the fourth horseman out. John next saw an ashen horse the color of a human corpse. The Greek term for "ashen" (chloros) is the one from which we get our English word chlorine. It denotes a yellowish-green color as of a human corpse.25 Presumably, Antichrist, the cause of this death, is the rider since his name is "Death." Following on his heels is "Hades" which is the destination of the souls that do not know Christ as Savior (cf. Luke 16:23).26 Perhaps John saw hades following death as a man on foot follows a mounted warrior grimly gathering in his victims, or as a hearse follows a horse.27 The mention of hades following with him leaves no doubt that those who are slain will be unsaved people who will be cast into hell until they stand before the great white throne judgment (Rev 20:11-15). As John has already announced (Rev 1:18), Jesus holds the keys to death and hades. As horrible as they are, their power is limited to what Christ permits; they too were "given" their authority.

God gives these enemies authority to take one-fourth of the world's population. This is approximately 1.5 billion. This is more than the population of China and the United States combined. This is the greatest destruction of human life recorded in history. This evidently is the total number that will die as a result of all the catastrophes predicted so far. The causes of death will be slaughter (the second rider), hunger (the third rider), pestilence or plague, and wild beasts. These catastrophes are war, the resulting famine, and disease. Attacks by wild animals will also contribute to the death rate.28 When we compare these predicates with Ezekiel 14:21 (cf. 1 Kgs 8:33-39; 1 Chron 21:12), we realize that this is a listing of covenantal curses instituted when the people of Israel fall into idolatry.

2.  Jesus will righteously avenge His people (6:9-11). Earlier, John had seen a throne room in heaven (Rev 4-5), but now he sees a temple.29 In this temple, there is an altar. This altar was evidently an altar of sacrifice rather than an incense altar (cf. Rev 5:8; 8:3-5; 14:17-18). Under this altar were the souls of people who had died for their faith in God and their faithfulness to Him during the first four seals period just described (6:3-8; i.e., in the tribulation so far; cf. Matt 24:9, 13-14; Luke 21:11).30 Perhaps the idea is that the lives of these martyrs were sacrifices to God.31 These faithful believers had been slain for their faith. John did not see their resurrected bodies because God had not yet resurrected them (see Rev 20:4).32 John sees these martyrs very much alive. Men may destroy our bodies, but they cannot kill the soul or the person who indwells the body, the house for the person. At death, the soul of the person goes to be with the Lord (Phil 1:21-22; 2 Cor 5:6-8). The body "sleeps" but the soul of the person is conscious, awake. These believers were "slain." This was a sacrificial term used for the slaughtering of animals for sacrifice. The emphasis seems to be on the fact they were not just killed, but slaughtered.

◊  The fifth Seal (6:9-10):  Jesus now opens the fifth seal and John sees, "underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained." These martyrs "cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'How long, O Lord,33 holy and true,34 will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'"35

In 6:11, John states, "there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest36 for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also." In 6:10, John saw these martyrs calling out to their heavenly Master (Gk. despotes) to punish their murderers. "Master" implies divine might, majesty, power, and authority, and it stresses the absolute power of God. How much longer did they have to wait for God to avenge them? (cf. Ps 79:10; 94:3; Hab 1:2). "Those who dwell on the earth" is almost a technical expression in Revelation describing unbelievers who are hostile to God.37 Contrast the prayers of Jesus (Luke 23:24) and Stephen (Acts 7:60) in which they asked God to be merciful to their murderers. The difference is that the time of God's longsuffering has now ended and He has begun to pour out His wrath on sinners. Their prayers for revenge upon their enemies are viewed as the fifth judgment against the earth-dwellers. This is not a cry for revenge, but for God's justice and righteousness to prevail on earth against the sin and the atrocities of man, in rebellion to God (Rom 12:19). As in the disciples' prayer, "Your kingdom come," they are praying for the second coming which ushers in God's righteous and just reign on earth.

Each martyr received a long, white robe. Although many white-clothed beings appear in Revelation, the only ones specifically said to have a white "robe"38 are the tribulation martyrs. They had been faithful and had suffered martyrdom for their fidelity to Christ (cf. Rev 3:5; 7:9, 14). God told these martyrs to be patient. More people would experience martyrdom before it would be God's time for Jesus Christ to return to the earth and judge their living adversaries.

Apparently, religious persecution breaks out in the land of Israel. We would expect when the abomination of desolation occurs, there will be faithful messianic Jewish believers who will resist his pretensions. John sees the results of this persecution by the Man of Sin in Revelation 6:9. God will avenge the death of Christian martyrs at the right time and will give them special honor (Ps 116:15). In the meantime, we must pray for those who will be martyred.

3.  Jesus will radically alter His creation - the sixth seal (6:12-17). In 6:12-17, the scene shifts back to earth as Jesus opens the sixth seal. In 6:12-14, John tells us that the earth will be affected by six cosmic catastrophes. In these three verses, God shakes the universe like a rag doll. As a result, the entire world will know that there is a God. They will also know that His divine wrath is unleashed against their rebellion.39 The first catastrophe that Jesus brings is a "great earthquake"40 that will rock the whole world (cf. Luke 21:11).41 In 6:14, John writes, "every mountain and island were moved out of their places."42 This is frightening! Then the sun will become "black as sackcloth made of hair." "Sackcloth" was a very rough cloth made from the hair of a black goat and worn in times of mourning and despair (cf. Rev 11:3).43 The blackening or darkening of the sun as a sign, speaks of God's judgment and the withdrawal of His longsuffering.44 It shows this will be a time of great despair for man. What causes this darkening? We are not told; we can only speculate. Perhaps it is caused by the ash, dust, and debris which will fill the sky when the earth begins to quake (6:14). This will undoubtedly cause volcanic eruptions which will make Mount St. Helens look like a hiccup by comparison. When there is a large volcanic eruption, the sun becomes darkened by the substances in the air.

Not only will the sun become black, John tells us "the whole moon became like blood."45 As a sign, this speaks of the loss of life. How eerie this all will be, to look up at night and see a blood-red moon. Evidently, through the atmospheric changes brought about by the shaking of the earth and the heavens, particles or substances will be in the air which will cause the moon to take on a red cast.

John also says that the stars will be affected. The word "star" (aster) is used of any heavenly body seen at night (i.e., stars, planets, asteroids, meteors, etc.).46 These are not stars as we often use the word, which are huge and often dwarf the earth in size. These are likely meteorites, which are small by comparison to the earth.47 John compares them to unripe figs falling to earth from a fig tree when shaken by a great wind.

In 6:14, the sky will appear to split and roll back in two opposite directions (cf. Isa 34:4).48 The universe will seem to be coming apart. Apparently, the opening of the sky will give earth-dwellers a window-like look into heaven where they see the Lord God and the Lamb. Apparently, this lasts for at least one full revolution of the earth so all the world sees this (cf. Rev 6:15).49

In 6:15, John provides seven classes of society to stress the universal scope of this judgment. He then tells us that they "hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and the wrath50 of the Lamb for the great day of their wrath51 has come, and who is able to stand?'" (6:15b-17). These verses are truly tragic. In the midst of unbelievable suffering, mankind does not pray to God for protection from His wrath.52 Instead, they cry out to the rocks and the mountains. The inhabitants of the earth will recognize for the first time the source of their trouble,53 yet they still refuse to respond to God's wrath. God's wrath is one of His eternal attributes, the perfect complement to His love. The wrath of God is His necessary and just response to evil (Ps 7:11). God's wrath is presently being revealed against unbelievers by letting them go their way and face the consequences of their behavior (Rom 1:18-32). However, when the great day of God's wrath occurs, He will be far more active in the execution of His anger.

At this point, the world poses this question: "As a Christian, aren't you supposed to be teaching that God is a God of love rather than a God of condemnation?" The inference is somehow you are being unloving by reminding people of God's holiness and intolerance of sin. Suppose I tell my daughter, Jena, that if she sticks her finger into an electrical outlet she will die. Am I being judgmental or loving? Warning people of inevitable consequences of sin is the most loving thing we can do, especially if it leads them to make the right choice.54

I acknowledge that it is not pleasant to read about the carrying out of God's judgment on the world. There are many questions surrounding God's activity and His purpose in all this. It all seems so terrible.55 Why would God do these things, which cause such misery and pain? There are several reasons but three should suffice: (1) God wants to bring people to repentance. (2) God wants to demonstrate His patience. (3) God wants to establish His justice.

Some lessons and applications may be drawn from this study: (1) Our passage teaches the absolute sovereignty of God. The four riders are given their authority from heaven. Everything they do is directed and limited by Almighty God and the Lamb. God's people have nothing to fear from Antichrist, for the Lamb is their Lord. (2) The four seals demonstrate the self-defeating character of sin. Antichrist shows us in a graphic way the spirit of self-aggrandizement that is one of the fruits of sin. All God needs to do is let events take their course and sinners will inevitably be punished. (3) Christ's work includes not only redemption but also judgment. Those who will not embrace the Lamb as redeemer, and share with Him the inheritance of the kingdom of God, will themselves be embraced by death and hades and dwell in the kingdom of the dead. (4) In this passage Almighty God reveals what this vain, proud, and guilty world is coming to. Our civilization shall one day expire under the Antichrist. The immediate future, therefore, holds not peace but judgment.