Revelation 6: The Seals

Revelation 6  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 12
With this chapter we pass from heaven to learn the commencement of the course of events that will take place on earth from the time of the rapture of the church until the appearing of Christ, and then through millennial days on to the eternal state.
Looking back over the centuries, since the introduction of Christianity, we see throughout the ages the unrepentant attitude of the Jews to Christ; the growing corruption of Christendom, and the increasing breakdown of government in the hands of the Gentiles. Also we see that, in the midst of the growing violence and corruption, God has had His true people who through the ages have had, at times, to face bitter persecution and suffering.
Furthermore, it is clear that throughout this day of grace, while God is over all and providentially deals in judgment with evil, on the one hand, and cares for His creatures and especially the household of faith, on the other hand, yet He has not publicly intervened in judgment on the wicked or for the deliverance of His suffering people. This, however, does not mean that God has been indifferent to evil, to the insults heaped upon Christ, or to the sufferings of His people, for, as we look on to the future, as revealed in the Revelation, we are permitted to see that the time is coming when God will directly intervene in judgment upon the wicked, whereby the holiness of God will be vindicated, the glory of Christ maintained, and the blessing of His people secured.
Men vainly dream of a new order, and are busy with their plans to end war and establish a world marked by peace and safety. But so far from the world improving by the efforts of men, we learn from these prophecies that the evils of the world will increase until all mere religious profession heads up in apostasy under Antichrist, and the government of the world become utterly corrupt under the rule of the beast energized by Satan.
In seeking to profit by this wonderful unfolding of the future it is of importance to recognize in reading Scripture that God does not record historical incidents, or unfold future events, in order to gratify mere idle curiosity. All that is recorded, whether in history or prophecy, has a moral end in view and is for our spiritual blessing, and is thus to have a practical effect upon our walk and ways. If God foretells the progress of evil and the judgments about to fall on men it should surely have the effect of keeping the believer in holy separation from a judgment-doomed world. If we are told of the way God will support and sustain His witnesses in the midst of these coming judgments, it is to give us greater confidence in God in the presence of any trials we may have to meet in seeking to be true to the Name of Christ. If He unfolds before us the blessedness of the heavenly city and the eternal state, is it not to lift our souls above the light afflictions of things seen and temporal, by engaging our affections with the things not seen and eternal?
From the fourth chapter to the eighteenth verse of chapter 11 we have unfolded to us the events that will take place on earth during the period between the coming of Christ for His saints, and His appearing with His saints. These events are presented in the opening of the book with the seven seals. In seeking to learn the meaning of the opening of these seals, let us remember that symbols are used to express great truths, or represent persons and events. We have to seek the meaning of the symbols used and beware of using them in a literal sense. If John sees a horse and a rider, this does not mean that a literal horse and rider will come forth in the future but that which they represent will come to pass.
In reference to these preliminary judgments it will be noticed that the opening of the first four seals is directly connected with the four living creatures, of whom there is no mention in the last three seals. As we have seen the living creatures would seem to set forth symbolically the exercise of God's governmental dealings in providential ways. This indicates that however terrible the judgments under the first four seals there will be nothing that indicates a directly miraculous intervention of God. Thus the judgments under the first four seals will not be unlike events that have happened many times in the history of the world, though, indeed, they may surpass in intensity anything that has yet taken place.
The judgments on earth that follow the opening of the seals will be the direct outcome of the intervention of heaven. It was when the Lamb in heaven opened one of the seals that John immediately heard the noise of thunder, and one of the four living creatures saying, “Come.” In response to this cry “a white horse” comes forth and judgment commences on earth. Men may think they are carrying out their own will, but God is behind all that men are doing and no one is behind God.
It is generally recognized that in the expression “Come and see” in the opening of the first four seals, the words “and see” are not in the original text. “Come and see” would imply a call to John, but it is hardly probable that a call to the apostle would be accompanied with thunder. The word “Come” would be a call to the horses and riders, and with this, thunder would be quite consistent.
It would appear from other scriptures that the horse is used to represent an imperial power used by the providence of God to carry out His purposes whether in judgment or blessing. In Zechariah 1:1010And the man that stood among the myrtle trees answered and said, These are they whom the Lord hath sent to walk to and fro through the earth. (Zechariah 1:10) the prophet is definitely told concerning the horses he saw in his vision that “These are they whom the LORD hath sent to walk to and fro through the earth.” When the Lord comes forth to reign the symbol of a white horse is used (Rev. 19:1111And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. (Revelation 19:11)). So it would seem whether it be in connection with the Lord, or others, the white horse is a symbol of the victorious progress of the rider. Here the rider has a bow, indicating, as it has been suggested, that, in contrast to a sword, he can make his power felt at a distance without personal combat and bloodshed. Moreover, he is allowed to carry all before him, for “he went forth conquering and to conquer.” The fact that “a crown was given to him” may indicate that he will not be an hereditary monarch but one like Napoleon, and other dictators, who rises from the masses.
This first seal would indicate that after the church period the first judgment that will overtake the world will be the uprising of some leader from the masses to whom a kingly position will be given, who will go forth on a campaign of aggression, and for a time march from victory to victory over surrounding nations with irresistible power.
With the opening of the second seal, John sees that a red horse comes forth and peace is taken from the earth. This surely indicates that the outcome of the victorious career of the rider on the first horse will be a general uprising of the nations leading to internecine warfare and bloodshed with the result that peace is taken from the earth.
When the third seal is opened John sees a black horse with a rider holding a pair of balances. This clearly indicates that universal warfare will be followed by famine in which the masses will be deprived of the necessities of life even if the rich are still able to obtain their luxuries.
On the opening of the fourth seal a pale horse comes forth with the name of death stamped upon the rider. This surely tells us that pestilence will follow famine.
Thus in a fourth part of the earth men will die by the sword, by famine, by pestilence, and by ravenous beasts of the earth.
It has been generally recognized that these first four judgments correspond to those which the Lord speaks of as “the beginning of sorrows.” When telling His disciples of the future judgments coming upon the prophetic earth, He speaks first of “wars and rumors of wars,” then of internecine warfare—nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; “thirdly, the Lord foretells famines, and finally pestilence (Matt. 24:6-86And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 7For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. 8All these are the beginning of sorrows. (Matthew 24:6‑8)).
While there is no specific judgment connected with the opening of the fifth seal, it prepares the way for a more terrible series of judgments under the remaining seals—judgments which no longer have simply a providential character but in which men are compelled to recognize the hand of God.
Two facts are made manifest by the opening of this seal. Firstly, we learn that during the period of the first four seals God will have His witnesses on earth who will bear testimony to the word of God and in consequence suffer martyrdom at the hands of “them that dwell on the earth.” This is a particular class who find their portion in this earth and would exclude all recognition of God and His Christ, and therefore are in deadly enmity to the witnesses to Christ. They are referred to again and again in the course of the Revelation (see Rev. 3:10; 11:10; 13:8, 12, 14; 14:6; 17:810Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. (Revelation 3:10)
10And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth. (Revelation 11:10)
8And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Revelation 13:8)
12And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed. (Revelation 13:12)
14And deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast; saying to them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast, which had the wound by a sword, and did live. (Revelation 13:14)
6And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, (Revelation 14:6)
8The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is. (Revelation 17:8)
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Secondly, we learn that the judgments that follow will be an answer to the cry of this martyred remnant to God to avenge their blood. Today the testimony of the church is heavenly, but, in the time of these judgments, the testimony of God's witnesses will be wholly concerned with the earth, and God's claims to the creation as the inheritance of Christ. Obviously such a witness will bring them into direct conflict with those “that dwell on the earth.” Opposed and suffering martyrdom they will rightly cry to God to avenge their blood, for the blessings of the coming Kingdom that they proclaim can only be reached through the judgment of the world. It is no part of the church's testimony to call for judgment as our blessings belong to heaven and are reached by the coming of Christ.
Their cry, “How long,” indicates that they know there is a limit to the persecution of God's people. “Under the altar” would seem to suggest as a symbol that these saints will be offered as an acceptable sacrifice to God as the first group of martyred saints after the church has gone. There are others to follow before the time of judgment is over, so they are told to wait yet for a season until the martyrdom of their brethren should be fulfilled. The white robes are the witness of their practical righteousness and thus of God's approval. They witnessed for God as the Holy and the True, and men opposed and martyred them, but God approved them and will avenge their blood.
With the opening of the sixth seal, the judgments will take a more terrible form, so that all from the highest to the lowest will be stricken with terror as they are compelled to see a destructive and overwhelming revolution wholly beyond anything experienced by men in the past history of the world. Earthquakes would indicate as a symbol the breaking up of all social, religious, and political order. The statements as to the sun, moon, and stars would symbolize the complete overthrow of all who exercise government from the highest to the lowest. The mountains and islands being removed out of their places set forth the break up of empires. So terrible will these convulsions in the world appear to men that they will be stricken in conscience as they see the hand of God at work, and so fear that the great day of His wrath is come. But, having rejected the testimony of God's witnesses they will say, “Who shall be able to stand?”