CHAPTER 6: The Opening of the First Six Seals

Barclay notes that the origin of this vision is Zechariah 6:1-8. Zechariah also saw four horses, who were loosed upon the earth to deal out vengeance upon Babylon and Egypt, and nations that oppressed God's people. Although the details in John's vision aren't the same, he also sees the four horses as instruments of the avenging judgment of God. They represent forces of destruction and agents of wrath, and should not be identified with any particular historical figures,although John saw events of his own time as symbolic of the destruction to come.

It is highly debated whether these things under the first six seals referred to things that were already happening in John's time, which would continue into the near future, or only a prophetic pictue of future events, or some combination of the two. Many of the prophetic passages in the Bible have a dual fulfillment, referring to events both near and far away. Christians in John's day were already facing persecution and being martyred, as the Roman Empire rose to prominence, leading many scholars to believe that the first four seals especially refer to events associated with the Roman empire, while remaining a prohetic picture of the events that will occur during the great tribulation.

The 5th seal represents the martyrs, of which there were many during the times of the Roman Empire. The last two seals are indications of events occurring on the terrible day of God's wrath. Joel 2:10 specifically refers to the events mentioned in the 6th seal {i.e.--- earthquake, darkening of the sun, and stars falling from the sky} as things that will take place just before or on the terrible day of God's wrath. (see also Joel 2:31, Joel 3:15 and Mark 13:24-26).

The seventh seal revealed seven angels with trumpets, who unleash a series of disasters far worse than these of the seals, but not yet as dire as the vials (or bowls) yet to come. This leads some to the conclusion that Jesus will return after the sixth seal is opened, and the remaining faithful few will be raptured at that time, while the seventh seal is a vision of the great tribulation years. Others, as previously stated, feel that the church will already have been raptured before any of these events. Scholars have never been able to agree on just when the rapture of the church will occur in relation to the events described in the following chapters.

1: The Lamb opened the first seal, and John heard a noise like thunder, and saw the first living creature say, "Come." KJV (and others) have the creature saying "Come and see", but the earliest mss. just say "Come.". The creature was not inviting John to come and see; it was calling forth the first horse. This also applies to vs. 3, 5, and 7. Each of the four living creature announced one of the first four seals, each of which was a horse of a different color; many scholars claim the significance of that fact is that these events were taking place during John's lifetime, while those not announced by the four living creatures would be future events. In Zech. 6:2-5. there were also four horses, and those represented the four spirits (or winds) of heaven--- i.e. the destructive forces of God. The horses in this book are seen as the same sort of agents, wreaking destruction.

2: A white horse, whose rider carried a bow and wore a crown = This white horse represents conquest; a bow is carried by a warrior into battle, and is a symbol of military power and victory. Any time in the old testament that a military power is destroyed, it is said that their bows were destroyed (see Jer. 51:56, Hos. 1:5, Ps. 46:9, for examples). The crown indicates victory.

Some believe this represents Jesus Christ himself, as later on in ch. 19:11 there is another white horse, whose rider is plainly stated to be Jesus Christ. However, since this is a vision of what is about to befall the earth prior to the day of wrath, it is unlikely that this represents Jesus Christ. Also, the Greek word used here for "crown" is "stephanos" which means a victor's crown, while the word used in ch. 19 is "diadema", which is a crown of royalty.

Another theory holds that this conqueror represents the Roman empire, the world power under which Jesus began His earthly ministry; the next three horses would then represent things that occurred under their reign.

Yet another theory is that this horse represents the Antichrist, and the next three would be the destruction he causes to the world. There are also some that believe that this horse represents the gospel, it's spread and eventual conquest, and the next three horses represent the dire consequences of rejecting the gospel. The only point scholars agree on is that this horse represents the conquest of believers.

3-4: The second seal revealed a red horse, whose rider had power to make war, and to kill, and who had a large sword in his hand = Again, depending on which theory you hold to regarding the first horse, this red horse may represent the Roman army or the Antichrist, or even a cosequence of rejecting the gospel. Whatever theory you choose, this horse obviously symbolizes war and destruction, and includes the persecution and martyring of Christians.
5-6: The third seal revealed a black horse, whose rider carried a pair of scales in his hand, and a voice was heard saying "A measure of wheat for a penny, three measures of barley for a penny, and see that you don't hurt the oil and the wine." This black horse represents famine, a natural result of war; the scales indicate that food will be doled out measure by measure.
A penny (the Roman denarius) was considered to be the usual day's wages (see Matt. 20:2); and a measure was one person's daily portion. Ordinarily, a man could purchase 15-20 measures for a penny, according to Halley. However, during this time of famine, a working man could feed only himself, not his family. That the oil and wine not be harmed seems to indicate that luxuries for the privileged few would not be affected by this famine, while the price of wheat and barley for the poor would be inflated to ten times it's usual cost.
7-8: The fourth seal revealed a pale horse, whose rider was plainly identified as Death, the natural result of war and famine. Each of these seals are a natural result of the seal before it, indicating a continual progress, not events all occurring at once.
Hades (i.e.--hell, or the grave) travelled behind this horseman, and he was given power to kill by the sword (violence and war), and by famine, disease, and wild animals, a fourth of the world, leading many to believe this is a reference to the Roman emperors who threw Christians to wild animals for entertainment. However, the population of wild animals would increase greatly following any prolonged war, famine, and disease, when people would be dying in much larger numbers than usual. It seems this rider has come along to finish up what has been started by the previous ones.

Halley notes that if the first horse represents the conquest of the gospel, then the next three, {war, famine, and death} represent the bitter consequences of rejecting the gospel. If the white horse in the first seal symbolizes the Antichrist, then the others must refer to his destructive capabilities. If the first seal indicates the conquest of the Roman empire, then the others must refer to events during that time, also, such as the empire's 100 year long civil war, (200-300 A.D.), when it lost more than half of it's total population, and the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperors, from Nero in 64 A.D. to Diocletian in 305 A.D.

These may be prophetic hints of either the Roman persecutions, or the papal persecutions of the middle ages, when the popes of the Catholic church tortured and murdered more Christians than all the Roman emperors combined, or both. However, it is also most assuredly a picture of the tribulation period of the last days. History repeats itself, and will continue to do so until the end; there is war, famine, and death in various parts of the world today, as well as Christians suffering persecution. Therefore, although this vision speaks to each generation with events they can relate to, either from their own time frame or from a historical perspective, it always serves as a grim reminder of the terrible events that will occur during the great tribulation.

9-11: Fifth seal = souls of the martyrs crying out for God to avenge them; they knew that His justice would avenge their deaths, and bring their reward. They were not asking God for revenge, but for His justice. This refers to those who became martyrs prior to the great tribulation. They were told that they would have to wait until the others who would be martyrs have been killed also, referring to those who will die during the tribulation. The Jews believed that God has a pre-ordained time plan, and that the final judgment will not occur until a pre-determined number of righteous people are martyred for God's cause. Under the altar = In the OT ritual, the blood of the slaughtered animal was poured out under the altar. (see Ex. 29:12, and Lev. 4:7). They were given white robes, symbolizing purity and righteousness. They did not have to await the judgment, they have already been declared righteous.

12-17: Sixth seal = great earthquake; sun turned black and moon turned blood- red; stars fell from the sky; the sky rolled back like a scroll, and every mountain and island was removed from it's place. This indicates tremendous upheaval and great chaos, the beginning of the end. (see also Joel 2:31; Joel 3:15-16; and Mark 13:24-26).

Many scholars believe this earthquake represents Constantine the Great's conversion to Christianity, and the civil, political, and religious upheaval it caused. In fact, it was Constantine's conversion that started the break-up and eventual destruction of the mighty empire that had tried for so long to destroy Christianity. The sun, representing the government of the Roman empire, would be blackened; the moon, representing the church of the roman empire, would be turned red, like blood, which was probably a reference to all the innocent blood shed caused by that church.

Likewise, the stars falling from the sky would represent all the pagan gods and godesses worshipped by that Roman church. All the kings and princes, and all of the rich and powerful men of the day, who had supported the pagan religion, hid from the one on the throne, which was Constantine himself, and from the wrath of the Lamb, which is Christ Jesus. They knew the devastation they were facing was a result of God's wrath.

Many believe this passage refers to the Battle of Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil. However, that does not seem to be the case. This book seems to go in pretty much chronological order, and the battle of Armageddon doesn't take place until chapter 16. This passage appears to be a prophetic picture of the events to occur at that time, when the seventh vial is poured out upon the earth. (see Rev. 16:16-20)

References used in this study:

  • NIV Study Bible; Zondervan Press
  • The Revelation of John, volume 2; Wm. Barclay
  • Halley's Bible Handbook; H.H. Halley
  • Clarke's Commentary On The Bible; abridged by Ralph Earle

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