In chapter 6, the Lamb, Jesus, opened the seals one by one. He was the only one worthy to open the scroll. In everyday life, the contents of a sealed scroll would be available only after all the seals were open. However, we have here a vision. For dramatic effect, the plan of God, as contained in the scroll, is revealed as each seal is broken. Different elements of the plan are revealed as each seal is broken. The living creatures, as servants of God and the Lamb, participate in the action. Angels are involved in things that happen in the world, even though we are not aware of it. Our perspective is incomplete, limited by our finite, physical natures. The story of Job illustrates that.
We will see that 5:1-8:1 is structured like 8:2-11:19. Both have opening scenes introducing the origin of the judgments (5:1-14; 8:2-6). Then there are six judgments (6:1-17; 8:7-9:21). A dramatic interlude promises care for God’s people (7:1-17; 10:1-11:14). The seventh and climactic judgment follows the interlude (8:1; 11:15-19). (See Introduction: Structure.) The seven judgments move forward toward the Second Coming, which occurs in 6:12-17 and 11:15-19. The first four judgments out of the seven have an inner unity. 6:1-8 corresponds to the four living creatures of 4:6 and the four horsemen of Zech. 1:8. 8:7-12 concerns the four major regions of the world, namely dry land, sea, fresh water, and air/sky.
The opening of the seals will cover the time from the church age through the return of Christ. Jesus did not give us a calendar or tell us when the end would come. He told the disciples It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. (Acts 1:7) Instead he gives us a description of what it will be like in broad terms.
The first four seals go together. (This will also be true of the first four trumpets and bowls later in the book.) Each begins with a loud summons from one of the four living creatures to “come”. Responding to the summons are four horses of different colors. First we are told the color, then the rider is described and his significance explained.
The colors of the horses correspond to the colors of the chariot horses in Zechariah 6:1-8. The chariots symbolized spirits that brought judgment on the nations that oppressed Judah. Jesus expands the symbolism in Revelation by having the horses and riders bring judgment on the enemies of Christ and his church.
The fact that the seals are opened sequentially does not mean the judgments are sequential or in chronological order. Rather, all of them will occur during the time before Jesus returns. Some events of these types had already occurred by the time the book was written. There were big earthquakes in 60 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 and there was famine in 92. Clement, in 96 A.D., wrote of the sudden and repeated calamities and reverses that have befallen us.” (1 Clement 1.1)
The fifth seal will show us the reason for the judgments. It shows the souls of the martyrs crying out for justice. Their final vindication will not be immediate, but their prayers and cries are not ignored or forgotten.
The First Seal
When Jesus opened the first scroll, the four living creatures summoned a horse and rider. The horse was white. The rider had a bow and a crown. He conquered. The white horse signifies victory in conquest, as does the crown. Julius Caesar, for example, paraded through Rome in chariot drawn by white horses when he returned from war.
The church age is shown to be characterized by conquest. Certainly, the churches of Asia would see Roman conquest give way to Persian conquest. Interestingly, the Persians had mounted archers, horsemen with bows. The Ottomans would later impose Islamic rule on the area. Kingdoms will rise and fall.
Each of the riders is given power to do something. It is Jesus who gives them these powers. This is symbolized by the fact that the breaking of the seals by Jesus releases them to act.
These kings or countries who conquer may be evil rather than Godly, but Jesus reigns over them and uses them for his purposes. Their actions may cause Christians to suffer, but Jesus is sovereign over what appears to be a chaotic world. He uses events for both judicial and redemptive purposes.
The Second Seal
The second seal produced a bright red horse. God empowered its rider to take peace from earth. His sword represents people killing each other. Humanity in the church age has experienced many wars. Despite forming the United Nations and entering into treaties, we see war continually occurring. Right now the Middle East is engulfed in war. Terrorism has also become a major threat to peace.
Jesus said “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” (Matthew 24:6-8)
The Third Seal
This seal produced a black horse. The rider was given scales to represent weighing food to determine the price. A voice sets out the price for wheat and barley and says to protect the oil and wine. This represents famine. A denarius was about one day’s wages in the first century. A quart of wheat usually at that cost one eighth of a denarius. But with the famine, there is 800 percent inflation. Wheat becomes too expensive for the poor, so they must buy barley, a lower quality grain.
As terrible as this is, the judgment is limited. The oil and wine are spared. This will happen with other judgments as well. They are limited. They foreshadow the final judgment when God has total victory over all his enemies.
Rome itself would fall. Augustine thought it was the end of the world. But, it was only a foretaste of God’s ultimate victory.
The Fourth Seal
The fourth seal brought forth a pale horse bearing a rider named Death. Hades (the grave) followed. The Greek word for “pale” mens a pale green, as the pallor of a very ill person. They brought death to a fourth of the population of the earth, by war, famine, pestilence and wild beasts. Again the judgment is limited.
Katherine Anne Porter wrote a short novel called “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” about the influenza epidemic of 1918, using this imagery from Revelation.
There have been many events of history causing great deaths, from wars, to plagues and other events. Epidemics of sickness often break out during and after wars. Wild beasts come in where there are not enough people to keep them out.
The results of these four seals bear a resemblance to the curses God invoked on Israel for violation of the covenant. God called it his four disastrous acts of judgment. Read Ezekiel 14:12-21.
The Fifth Seal
The fifth seal begins differently, giving us an additional aspect to the judgments. The perspective shifts from earth to heaven. Here we see the souls of those slain for being Christians. (6:9) They are under the altar, for they have been sacrificed for God. They cried out for justice and vindication. (10) They asked God how long until you judge and avenge. They had to wait a little longer, though, until the number of martyrs became complete. In other words, Christ will not come to judge until the last martyr has died. As a matter of hope, they are given white robes symbolizing victory through purity and faithfulness and told to rest. Those who have died have rested from their labors.
The Sixth Seal
This seal shows Christ coming in judgment. In contrast to the fifth seal which showed the need to patiently wait for the end this seal shows that the end will certainly come.
Great cosmic distress is described in verses 12 through 14. There was a great earthquake. The sun becomes black and the moon read, the stars fall and the wind blew. This is all symbolism to show an earth shattering, very important event. The event is the return of Christ in judgment.
It is also Old Testament imagery. Joel 2:31 says the sun will be darkened and the moon turned to blood, stars falling and the sky rollup are in Isaiah 54:10, mountains and islands displaced are in Ezekiel 38:20.
The earthquake is a sign and symbol of God coming on earth. From Exodus 19:18, where Mount Sinai shook, through the Old Testament we see this symbol.
All of the people of earth from kings to slaves try to hide from him. These are those who have rebelled against God. In chapter 1, Jesus said “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so, Amen. (Rev. 1:7)
In Revelation 6, they would rather rocks fall on them and hide them from Jesus than to face his wrath. The great day of wrath has come. (16) Who can stand?
This language reflects the words of Nahum 1. Nahum wrote about God’s judgment on Nineveh. He wrote: who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.” Nahum 1:6.
This time the judgment is not limited to part of the earth of part of its people. The judgment affects all of the earth and all of the people who are opposed to God and his Son.