The Seven Seals
6 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.
When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.
When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”
When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Revelation 6 Commentary
by Hank Workman & Brad Boyles
With so much going on here in Revelation 6, it makes sense for us to combine our commentary under one section. Hank’s is designated with an “H” and Brad’s with a “B”.
H – There is a spot in Alaska where if you stooped down to a stream and placed something that would float, it would begin a journey of thousands of miles. Eventually, it would venture into Montana as the rapids grow. Depending on which side of the bank it was on, the placement in the stream itself would come to a dividing point. From that same stream, which has grown to a river, the floating object would float either toward the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean. This is called the continental divide.
B – Speaking of the Continental Divide, here is an interesting fact. I grew up in Berne, Indiana which sits directly on top of the continental divide. It runs through the park and the baseball diamonds. As a kid, when I was playing little league, my grandpa used to tell me that if I spit on the first base side, it would flow to the Great Lakes and if I spit on the third base side, it would flow to the Mississippi River! What does this have to do with Revelation 6?
H – Revelation 4 and Revelation 5 set the stage for the opening of the scroll with its sequence of seals, trumpets, and bowls here in Revelation 6. It holds the dramatic portrayal of God’s righteous judgment. For many Believers, this is the Continental Divide – meaning, from here on out there are different endings and thoughts as to how it all unfolds. And depending on which side of the bank you are on, this will determine what stream or river you lean toward.
We are about to move into the absolute wrath of God unleashed on the earth. It will be frightening and disturbing as God’s wrath is something fierce. But what also is seen here in Revelation 6 is His gracious love. Although the next several chapters are filled with horror, they are also a merciful warning.
We left off with a dramatic scene of the slaughtered Lamb of God being the only One worthy to open the seals. This said, simply consider the scrolls cannot be read until each and every seal has been broken. The ultimate content of the scrolls is found later. Consequently, as each is removed, we’re introduced to preliminary judgments representing forces to come. Demonic forces unleashed in this world. As the Lamb, Jesus Christ breaks each seal and triggers a series of events leading to His triumph.
The seven seals are the first of the three sevens – being that of the seven trumpets and also seven bowls. How these relate to one another are of differing opinions. Again, this is one of those Continental Divide moments of Revelation 6.
Some believe these are concurrent – meaning the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls run parallel to each other at the same time all ending at the same point. Some believe they are successive – meaning the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls follow one after another. And the third is they are both – meaning the arrangement of the seals, the trumpets, and bowls combine both elements of one after another and at the same time. Most scholars believe and contend that these are actually parallel passages describing the same events.
B – Symbolically, the seals of Revelation 6 represent the overlying theme of God’s judgment on evil. This is not only a prophecy but a practical teaching and encouragement to believers of every age. It reflects the character of God. He is good on His Word. No matter what “key” you use to unlock the interpretation of these seals, we can all agree that Jesus is the King of Kings with absolute authority over the entire Universe. He will vindicate His people and deliver a fatal blow to His enemies. This is something that should be celebrated by those covered in the blood of the Lamb.
H – A rider comes out on a white horse. We may think this isn’t so bad. Usually, white means something good or righteous.
He has a crown and also holds a bow while talking about victory. Some have contended this is Jesus – but that poses problems on several fronts as Jesus is the one breaking the seal. More importantly, we do read much later of the conquering Christ riding a white horse which looks completely different. No, there are some serious issues going on here.
This rider is posing as someone good when, in actuality, he’s not. Most believe he is an Antichrist or more accurately a false messiah or messiahs whom Daniel saw in chapter 9. Jesus Himself warned about this coming before the end in Matthew 24.
“Jesus told them, ‘Don’t let anyone mislead you for many will come in my name, claiming ‘I am the Messiah.’ They will deceive many.”Matthew 24:4-5
They will deceive many. The false messiahs (the Antichrists) are bent on deception and taking people away from God. Through this rider, deception itself is unleashed here.
B – Just as Hank has stated, there are typically two views of the white horse. I agree that the view that presents the white horse as Jesus or The Gospel going forth has many issues that make it unlikely. The Antichrist view makes much more sense here. Another possible view to consider is the white horse as a spirit of conquest and military power. In the OT, a bow symbolized military power.
And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.”Hosea 1:5 ESV
for a destroyer has come upon her, upon Babylon; her warriors are taken; their bows are broken in pieces, for the LORD is a God of recompense; he will surely repay.Jeremiah 51:56 ESV
“Some consider the rider on the white horse to be the Messiah depicted as a conqueror (as at 19:11ff.) in the sense that his Gospel conquers the world. But this makes him only one rider among many; moreover, the rest of the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” bring judgment, not relief. Better to see this rider as bringing judgment in the form of war and conquest.”Jewish New Testament Commentary
H – The breaking of this seal brings forth slaughter and bloodshed as the rider on a blood-red horse gallops. With a sword in his hand, his mission is to remove peace. It seems that as he charges across the planet people turn their destructive instincts upon one another. This ushers in a period of war. Zechariah spoke of this in chapter 14 – again about the Day of the Lord.
“On that day they will be terrified, stricken by the Lord with great panic. They will fight their neighbors hand to hand.” -Zechariah 14:13
B – The fiery red horse is given a large sword with the authority to take peace from the earth. The red horse was clearly understood by the readers of John’s day. They would associate this with rebellion and civil disorder. Slaughter and bloodshed would naturally follow.
H – With the third seal, famine breaks out.
What is interesting to think about and realize is that not all suffer through this. Meaning, the wealthy, who can enjoy these luxuries of the staples of food will be able to eat. Now, it will cost them, but they’ll still eat. It will be the poor will not be able to even afford these necessities. I read somewhere that adding to this chaos, people will go into survival mode.
Meaning, that as the two previous horses are galloping, some will be so tuned to the first rider that they will neglect the needs of the people. And adding to the war breaking out, and the rider of the second horse, this survival mode will affect people as they will do anything to get something to eat. It’s a pretty dark time.
B – Some scholars contend that the “do not damage the oil and wine” is a reference to the sacrament and may indicate that believers will not suffer from the famine.
H – The breaking of the fourth seal brings a green horse signifying death or that of a rotting corpse. The Rider is the Grim Reaper and behind him is his companion Hades. These two bring about the death of ¼ of humankind. I read an interesting interpretation where the explanation of these two accompanying one another is that death is when our physical life ends and Hades is the continuing post-death existence.
More specifically, Hades, (which is the original Greek word used) is the place of departed spirits. This is typically regarded as the underworld. Simply put, death claims the body, and Hades stands right behind to claim the soul.
B – Pale is a vague translation, but it really just means a yellowish-green color which would represent a dead corpse. Death and Hades are given authority over ¼ of the earth and what follows is sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts. In its simplest terms, this final horse sums up the activity of the last three riders. War, famine, plagues, and wild beasts will be the natural consequences of the first white horse which comes out to conquer the earth.
If we dig deeper into the big picture, we discover that the first and second riders as well as all four of them (in verse 8) are given authority. The first rider is given a crown. The second is given a sword. All of them are given power over ¼ of the earth. So, when we think in these terms, it could be said that the white color of the first horse is a reminder that all of this is being done under the authority of the Lamb. Remember, none of this takes place without Jesus breaking the seals.
As difficult as it is, we should not be fearful or frightened because these horsemen are riding by the authority of Jesus to bring about the fullness of God’s plan. In fact, Jesus’ own words to His disciples regarding the end times mirror these destructive riders with fascinating parallels.
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. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.Matthew 24:6-8 ESV
As we look at the first four seals, it is important to place ourselves in one of the seven churches that received this letter. They would have undoubtedly been taken back by the overall description of fear, bloodshed, famine, and death. However, they also would have clinched their grip more tightly to the Lamb who has overcome knowing that He is the One who will release all power and authority over the physical world.
H – The connection between this seal and the previous four is simply the martyrdom for one’s faith, like war, famine, plague, death on a massive scale. Religious persecution has never ended and truly is not likely to end until the return of Jesus.
If anything, this tells us it’s going to get worse before it gets better. It is evident here that in God’s time He will pour out His full wrath on those who are unbelieving but strangely tells them to rest a little longer until that time comes. On some fronts this is obviously disturbing – for more persecution and death of His own children will take place. But Jesus Himself had spoken of persecution that was to take place before the end happened.
B – When the fifth seal is broken, we are told there are martyrs under the throne of God crying out to Him. “How long?” they ask. From this point alone we can conclude that the horsemen are merely birth pains. God has not yet initiated His plan to eradicate evil, otherwise, why would the martyrs cry out to Him for justice? But, we live with the understanding that it is coming one day, and that is important for us.
If we look at the original audience reading this letter, we can begin to understand that God’s primary concern for His bride during those uncertain times was that their faith does not crumble under the turbulent pressure of temptation and evil, and that message is timeless. If the idea of Revelation scares you a little bit, that’s good. That means you take God seriously and you understand how resolute He is about justice. But also remember, He paid a heavy price for your soul. He will not leave you or forsake you in your pain and in your suffering. The one breaking the seals is the One who also willingly broke His body.
Again, this book is symbolic in nature. It’s not just about the end times. Every day we will battle the forces of evil. Every day we will be tempted to bow our knee to the Great Babylon of this world. Be careful not to assume that just because we are not in the very end of days that these verses don’t apply. The message is the same yesterday, today, and for eternity.
H – This seal seems to be in a completely different category than the others. There are some unparalleled cosmic disturbances here: A great earthquake, the sun darkening, mood turning red, stars falling, the sky peeling back like a scroll. For John, this day clearly belongs to both the Lord and the Lamb.
And these events bring about sheer terror on the people as they fled for safety and begged essentially for death. But what is strangely missing here – these people are unrepentant. Even in the midst of such horror, they would rather hide from Him in fear like Adam and Eve, rather than run to Him in faith. It truly speaks volumes that judgment by itself does not change the human heart.
B – Though many try to explain these signs literally (blood moons, the sun turning black, earthquakes) and tie them to all kinds of current events, the reality is that the early churches would have understood these in the same way they understood other apocalyptic literature. Earthquakes of that time represented a divine visitation. In Exodus, when God came down to Mt. Sinai, “the whole mountain trembled greatly.”
Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.Exodus 19:18 ESV
But this particular divine visitation is coupled with the horror of God’s wrath.
Why, when I came, was there no man; why, when I called, was there no one to answer? Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver? Behold, by my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a desert; their fish stink for lack of water and die of thirst. 3 I clothe the heavens with blackness and make sackcloth their covering.”Isaiah 50:2-3 ESV
In ancient times, it was common when in mourning to fashion sackcloth made from the hair of a black goat. Knowing this adds another layer to the already vivid depiction of the sun turning black. In Joel, this imagery is used to describe a time when God’s Spirit will come to earth. He writes of a horrible time when the sun turns black and the moon turns red.
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. 30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.
31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.Joel 2:28-32 ESV
The symbolism was meant to indicate the end. Whether or not these events will literally take place at the end of the world we do not know with certainty. The more important concept is the authority of these events. Jesus is the one pulling all the strings. He acts with absolute authority.
Kings will be driven to untouched levels of fear but will not repent. The reason kings are used here is because the text is showing us that the strongest and most capable humans who normally would have nothing to fear will be driven to prefer death over the coming judgment. The security of the mighty will be shattered. Their comforts will be stripped away. In fact, in Revelation 9 the people are so bent on following their own will that the demonic plague and extreme heat will not even drive them to repentance.
H – Reading Revelation 6, it would be easy to focus on all this wrath and be completely put off. But let’s go back to what was stated earlier.
This warning found here Revelation 6 of what is to come is all about love. Yes, God’s wrath is something He’s serious about. Deadly serious. And we see from this last seal opening that the Lamb’s wrath is included in all of this. But God’s love was so far-reaching to us when He could have condemned and ended the rebellion of all humankind. He sent His Son Jesus into the world to save it instead.
Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world but to save it. Jesus willingly gave up His life for us so that we could have life in Him – be made right with God. God so loved the world (the rebellious, cantankerous, self-absorbed world) that He gave His only Son. And whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.
The seals found in heaven are the warnings of God – and they are about absolute love. He desires none would perish. He strongly longs for us to repent of our ways and follow Him. The Son and Spirit right now are pleading for this at the throne of God.