The Opening of the Seals
The vision of chapter five continues. The Lamb, who is worthy, possesses the scroll with seven seals and in chapter six the seals are broken. The contents of the scroll are divided into two groups, the first is a group of four and the second is a group of three. The first set contains the four-horsemen of the Apocalypse. These horsemen are among most recognized symbols in the book of Revelation and are widely interpreted in a variety of ways. Most likely they represent God’s judgment, and the imagery is closely related to the vision in Zechariah Ch.1:8 -17 and 6:1- 8. In Revelation each judgment corresponds with the rider, and they symbolize conquest, violence, economic hardship, and death. In Zechariah the riders patrol the earth and in Revelation they release disaster on the earth. Professor Craig Koester writes, “These were genuine threats for people in the first century and they have remained threats for people in subsequent centuries, which is why attempts to predict the onset of the end-times on the basis of these visions have consistently failed. The dangers that they depict cannot be confined to any one period: waves of conquest, outbreaks of violence, and periods of economic hardship have occurred repeatedly in human history, and death finally comes to all.”
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The four horsemen of Revelation are meant to crush the misconception that people can find true sanctuary in national wealth, security, and physical health. This vision shows a promise that God will not permit injustice, insecurity, and sickness to continue forever.
Vs 1: The Lamb (Jesus) is the one who is worthy to open the scroll and to bring about the conclusion of human history. Upon opening the first seal one of the four creatures around the throne of God calls out to the first of four riders of the apocalypse. The call to “Come” is intended for the horsemen, but some translations may read “come and see” and this is interpreted by those who believe the invitation to come is for John.
Vs 2: First rider – Rides a white horse with a bow and a crown. Some interpret this rider as Jesus since the rider in chapter 19 is on a white horse and is described as Jesus. However, the rider of chapter 6 and the rider of chapter 19 have little in common with the exception that both are riding a white horse. The rider in this chapter carries a bow and wears a crown (a victor’s wreath) and the rider in chapter 19 wears many crowns and carries a sharp sword. The rider of chapter 6 is a conqueror, and the rider of chapter 19 is in the context of righteous reckoning or judgment.
The more prominent and common interpretation of this rider identifies him as a military conqueror. In the OT the bow often symbolizes military power. There has been some speculation that this rider represents a feared invasion from beyond the boundaries of the Roman empire. Some compare them to the Parthians as they were the most renown archers of ancient times and they were known for riding white horses. In A.D. 62 Vologeses (the king of Parthia) defeated the Roman army which caused the West to fear an all-out invasion of Parthia. Thus, the white horse and its rider most likely refers to military conquest of some sort in general.
Vs 3 – 4: Second seal contains a red (some versions read fiery red) horse and a rider who is given a great sword and is given permission to take peace from the earth and slay one another. Red corresponds with the mission of the rider which is to bring carnage and slaughter. According to theologian Robert Mounce, “His mission is to remove peace from the earth and allow people to turn their destructive instincts upon one another… The mission of the red horse would be quickly understood in John’s Day, well acquainted as it was with rebellion and civil disorder. In a single year, A.D. 68–69, Rome had been ruled by four different emperors. It is also reported that in the thirty-year period prior to the reign of Herod the Great (67–37 B.C.), more than one hundred thousand insurgents died in revolutions and rebellions in Palestine alone. Anarchy and bloodshed are harbingers of the end.”
Vs 5 – 6: Third seal unleashes a black horse and a rider holding a pair of scales. A voice amid the living creatures announces prices of scarcity or famine. These common items, wheat, and barley will sell at inflated prices.
Denarius = A Roman silver coin equivalent to a day’s wages. One must work a full day in order to pay for barely wheat or barley for himself. The price will be inflated 10 to 12 times what it should be.
The rider on the black horse commonly symbolizes famine. Famine was common in ancient times especially after warfare as invading armies would pillage cities and live off the lands they conquered.
“Don’t waste the olive oil and wine!”: There are varying interpretations of this declaration.
Vs 7 – 8: Fourth seal reveals a pale horse and its rider’s name was Death and the grave/hades followed him. Death’s utensils include violence that people execute by the sword, famines that break out, and sickness and pandemics that rob people of health and life. Death will be brought on by the four disastrous acts of Ezekiel 14:21: sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence/plague.
Mounce sums up the meaning behind the actual Four horsemen of the Apocalypse and their deeds as, “Reviewing the various interpretations assigned to the Four Horsemen tends to rob the contemporary reader of the dramatic nature of the vision itself. It is good to place oneself back in one of the seven churches and listen to the visions as they are being read. Instead of discussing the probable significance of each of the four colored horses those first listeners would undoubtedly have recoiled in terror as war, bloodshed, famine, and death galloped furiously across the stage of their imagination. Visions at best are to be experienced rather than analyzed. Those who approach Revelation with a sympathetic imagination are most apt to understand its true meaning.”
The Martyred Saints
Vs 9 – 11: This is the second division of the seals. The first division unveils the four horsemen as they are released to ride forth, so now the scene changes.
Fifth Seal – The opening of this seal reveals an altar and under the altar are the souls of those who were martyred for their faith or trust in Jesus Christ. They ask the question we all ask when faced with injustice, “How long?” The answer seems to be, things are going to get worse before they get better. In God’s time He will pour out his wrath
The altar most likely refers to both the altar of burnt offerings (sacrifice) and the altar of incense (prayer) which is a culmination of both.
In OT sacrifices the blood of the animal was poured out at the base of the altar of the burnt offering. It was believed that the blood contained life, or souls, of the flesh. The martyrs under the altar signified their premature deaths on earth. It may also suggest that the altar is the place where the martyrs receive safety.
These faithful individuals gave their lives for the glory of God. They ascended to heaven through suffering and death. This shows to us there is no guarantee that our lives will be any different. Christians are promised eternal life for their faith in Jesus Christ, but we are not promised protection from pain, suffering, and death. I hear people often say that they wish that Jesus would just take them away from troubled times to escape difficulty, suffering, pain, and even piddly inconveniences. Contrary to popular thought and teaching God is not concerned with our modern comforts and easy living. If anything, Jesus promised the opposite in life. As believers we should expect persecution, suffering, and tribulation in this life.
Vs 10: “How long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” This is not a request of revenge from a personal perspective, but out of concern for the reputation or glory of God. The martyrs do not have the attitude of many who relish in knowing that one day that those who reject Jesus will be punished in eternal hellfire. It is not based in vindictiveness, unlike early Christian author Tertullian who writes of how he will laugh and exult at the last judgment as he sees the proud monarchs groaning and weeping in the lowest abyss of darkness, and the magistrates liquifying in fiercer flames than ever kindled against Christians.
Vs 11: Each martyr is given a white robe. Some interpret this to mean spiritual or glorified bodies. However, in Revelation white robes are often symbols of blessedness and purity.
There are still others who will be joining them as the persecution continues.
The Great Earthquake
Vs 12 - 14: The opening of the sixth seal brings about an earthquake. Theologian Robert Mounce writes, “With the opening of the sixth seal the great cosmic disturbances which are to herald the last days begin.” The early readers most likely would not take this to be a literal earthquake, because they were part of an established tradition that goes back to the OT as the prophetic portrayal of the day of the Lord. The earthquake was traditionally taken as a divine visitation of the Lord is at hand. We see this over and over in the OT When God ascended Mt. Sinai, it was accompanied by an earthquake. Both Isaiah and Haggai, speak of the earth shaking and people wanting to hide in caves from the terror that was about to come.
The sun becomes dark as black cloth or some translate as hair cloth, which is a something worn for mourning, the moon becomes like blood, possibly an eclipse of the moon, and the stars fall from heaven like a fig tree sheds its winter fruit. The falling stars meant one thing to the ancient reader; judgement was coming.
The question arises, are these six seals literal or figurative. Some, biblical literalists, would say, yes these are literal happenings that will occur in the future at a pre-determined time. Others agree these are symbols of God’s ongoing and historical judgment over the influencers and adherents of evil of which are against God’s justice, goodness, and support those who embrace these evil injustices.
Vs 15 - 17: Once again, the interpretation of verses 15 - 17 does not necessarily point to a literal view, yet whatever is depicted whether literally or metaphorically it will instill fear and terror in the world. Leaders, military leaders, and the most powerful people in the world would rather die than face the wrath of the Lamb.
There are seven groups of individuals pointed out. It will affect all humanity. Seven is number of completeness and universality.
The wrath of God is a major theme throughout the NT. It is not personal revenge or vindication. It is not an impersonal retribution that will work itself out over history. It is the response of God’s holiness and unrepentant sin.
In this vision we see the Lamb who appeared to be slain is worthy to take the scroll and break the seals. There is great hope and great terror with what follows in this vision. Professor Koester writes, “What humanity sees in this vision is partially correct. The death of the Lamb confronted the dominion of sin and evil with the power of divine love (1:5–6). Those who oppose the Lamb will experience his coming as a threat. What they do not see is that the Lamb who threatens the current order can also redeem those of every tribe, people, nation, and language” As chapter six concludes, one could be left with a sense of despair and hopelessness. Why? Because the chapter concludes with the question, “who is able to stand/survive?”. One could conclude hopelessness and despair in this question because one would think the answer is nobody can survive. However, we will see in the next chapter that this is not the answer. Some will stand before God and the Lamb. There is hope. But those cannot stand in their own power and prestige they can only stand by the grace of God.
The vision of Revelation six should denote God’s holiness, justice, and grace. In the vision the horsemen represent great upheaval and shows the believer that we cannot trust the temporal power of humanity, government, and economics for our security. God alone can provide hope and security. We see that God will not take backseat to the imperial worship of false gods and practices. He alone is worthy of worship.
There are people who read Revelation from a perspective of God’s divine retribution and punishment on a disobedient people but fail to see Revelation is about redemption. God has a plan of redemption for humanity through Jesus Christ. Sure, there are instances throughout Revelation where God executes judgment on a system that is violently against him, but through it all as we continue to read, we will see that grace is extended and the Lamb, Jesus Christ, is victorious through his work on the cross of Calvary, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. He will return, and when he does it will be as the victorious King of all creation.
 Craig R. Koester, Revelation and the End of All Things, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 85.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 143.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 145–146.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 150.
 Craig R. Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, ed. John J. Collins, vol. 38A, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2014), 413.
Jeff has been in ministry for well over two decades. He currently serves as Campus Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Southside Campus in Bradenton, Florida.
Jeff Has authored an Advent Devotional (The Advent of Jesus) and a devotional on the book of James (James: Where Faith and Life Meet). Both are available on Amazon.
He is married to Carrie and they have four children, Micaiah, Gabe, Simon, and Berea.
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