The Opening of the Six Seals (6:1-17)

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When the Lamb opened the first one of the seven seals, one of the living beings (evidently the one having a lion’s face; compare 4:7), called out with a voice like thunder, “Come!” John then saw a white horse appear on the scene, but he provided no description of the rider. He only mentioned the rider’s having a bow and being given a “crown” (stéphanos, the common designation for a crown of victory). The rider rode forth as a conqueror to conquer. (6:1, 2)

In 19:11-16, white horses are associated with warfare conducted in the cause of righteousness or justice, and the one on the white horse in the leading position is identified as the Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords. This provides a basis for linking the white horse (6:2) with war waged in righteousness.

In the case of the other horses that appear on the scene after the opening of the next three seals, the riders are not personages and portray developments on the earth. Consistent with the imagery of the other riders, the rider on the white horse need not be identified as Christ but could depict the triumphs he would be effecting through his devoted disciples on earth. While on earth, Jesus Christ told his disciples that the glad tidings or gospel would be proclaimed to all nations and that they were to make disciples, teaching them to heed everything he had commanded them. (Matthew 28:19, 20; Mark 13:10) In Matthew 24:14, this good news is associated with the “kingdom,” indicating that its focus is on proclaiming Christ as the promised Messiah, the one to whom “all authority” in heaven and on earth had been granted. (For the content of the “glad tidings,” see Acts 2:22-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 8:30-35; 10:34-43; 13:17-41.) It should also be noted that no divinely granted authority exists for introducing elements that first-century believers would have perceived as going beyond the glad tidings they had accepted. [Compare Acts 26:12-19; Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10.])

The apostle Paul described the advancement of Christ’s cause in terms of warfare. In his second letter to the Corinthians (10:3, 4, NAB), he wrote: “Although we are in the flesh, we do not battle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our battle are not of flesh but are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses. We destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.” (Also see Ephesians 6:11-17.)

Against the background provided by other passages in the Scriptures, the conquests of the rider on the white horse may appropriately be regarded as the triumphant advance of the “good news” despite all the distressing developments earth’s inhabitants would be experiencing until Christ’s return in glory. Nothing would stop the victorious advance of the glad tidings, as people from all nations would continue to be “delivered from the power of darkness” and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. (Colossians 1:13)

Upon the opening of the second seal, the living being with the face of a bull (4:7) called out, “Come!” The fiery red color of the horse that then appeared on the scene suggested bloodshed. Its rider was empowered to rob earth’s inhabitants of peace, and the large sword he was given portended that they would be slaughtering one another on a horrendous scale. (6:3, 4; compare Matthew 24:6, 7; Mark 13:7, 8; Luke 21:9, 10.)

The devastation brought about by warfare results in disrupting agricultural operations and produces serious shortages of food. Appropriately, the opening of the third seal is followed by a portrayal of this consequence of war. Upon the opening of this seal, the living being with the face of a man (4:7) cried out, “Come!” The black color of the horse may have been suggestive of the blackening effect on the countenance of persons suffering from lack of food. (Compare Lamentations 4:8, 9.) The rider held a pair of scales. Based on the announcement that John next heard, the scales seemingly indicated food supplies would be limited and available for extremely high prices. He heard a voice that appeared to come from the midst of the living beings, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not ruin the olive oil and the wine.” In the first century, a denarius amounted to a whole day’s wage. Though barley, viewed as the inferior grain, cost less than wheat, a denarius for three quarts would still be exorbitant. The command not to ruin the olive oil and the wine is probably best understood to be a directive not to draw too heavily on the limited supply and thus avoid exhausting it too quickly. (6:5, 6; compare Matthew 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11.)

Subsequent to the opening of the fourth seal, the living being with the face of a flying eagle (4:7) called out, “Come!” John then saw a horse of a sickly greenish color, and its rider was named “Death.” Hades, the realm of the dead, followed with him. John, however, said nothing about the visual representation of Hades in relation to the rider named “Death.” A considerable portion of earth’s inhabitants (one quarter) are revealed to be affected by the ravages of war (the sword) and the aftermath of famine and death-dealing disease. With the devastation of formerly inhabited areas, beasts of prey can pose a threat to humans, and this is also mentioned as one of the means “Death” claims victims. (6:7, 8; compare Deuteronomy 7:22; 2 Kings 17:26; Ezekiel 5:17; Luke 21:11.)

The opening of the fifth seal revealed the suffering that befell many of Christ’s loyal disciples. (Compare Matthew 24:9; Mark 13:9-11; Luke 21:12-17.) Underneath the altar, John saw the “souls” of those who had been executed because of the “word of God” and their testimony, evidently meaning that they had faithfully told others about their faith in the living God and the role of his Son in effecting liberation from sin. John did not say how he recognized them to be slain souls, but he did describe the sound of their cry as being “great,” suggesting that many had been slaughtered. Their lifeblood had been unjustly spilled, and their appeal for the execution of divine justice rested on God’s being holy (not countenancing wrong) and true (dependable respecting his promise to act justly). (Compare Luke 18:7, 8; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10.) They cried out, “Until when, O Sovereign, holy and true, will you not judge and avenge our blood on earth’s inhabitants?” In response to their cry, each one received a white robe. Seemingly with reference to the execution of divine vengeance, they were to “rest” or wait a little while longer. During this period of waiting more of their fellow slaves and brothers would be executed as they had been, completing the number of those who would be killed. The bestowal of the white robe may signify that those depicted as receiving such, the dead in Christ, would be resurrected to heavenly glory. (Compare 1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 4:15, 16) The words of Revelation suggest that, during the brief period remaining before Jesus Christ manifests himself in glory to execute judgment upon the ungodly and deliver all of his followers then living, a number of them would be executed for proving true to him and his Father. (6:9-11)

The opening of the sixth seal opened up to John’s vision a vivid portrayal of the upheavals portending the execution of divine vengeance. His description parallels the words of the ancient Hebrew prophets. A great earthquake shook the land. (Compare Isaiah 13:13; Haggai 2:6.) The sun looked black like sackcloth of hair (probably black goat’s hair) and the color of the moon like blood. (Compare Isaiah 50:3; Ezekiel 32:7, 8; Joel 2:31.) From the celestial dome, stars appeared to fall on the land like fruit from a fig tree shaken by a fierce wind. To John, “heaven” or the celestial dome would have resembled a scroll that touched the land. Like a scroll that is rolled up, the vault of heaven may have split at the horizon and then disappeared. (Compare Isaiah 34:4.) All mountains and islands moved from their respective places. Terror befell persons in all stations of life as they sought shelter in caves and mountain crags. Desperately they wished to escape the wrath of God and of the Lamb, preferring to have mountains and crags fall over them to avoid experiencing the dire consequences. (Compare Isaiah 2:10-21; Hosea 10:8.) The question that John heard from those seeking to escape was, “Who can stand?” (6:12-17) Yes, who would be able to survive the great day of the wrath of God and the Lamb? (Compare Matthew 24:29-31; Mark 13:24-27; Luke 21:25-28 for the similarity in language and note who will escape.) Developments depicted in the next scene answer this question.

Note: According to the reading of 6:1, 3, 5 and 7 in fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and a number of later manuscripts, the “come” appears to be directed to John, being followed by “and see.” There is considerable manuscript evidence, however, for “come” without the addition, suggesting that this imperative is a directive for the horses and their mounts to appear.