The Seven Seals
“You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9,10.
Chapter 6 unfolds the opening of the seals on the book that was in the hand of the One sitting on the throne. As the seals are broken there follows apocalyptic events. There is a cluster of four horsemen (6:1-8), followed by the fifth and sixth seals (6:9-17). The opening of the seventh seal does not occur until chapter 8 (8:1).
Four Horses and Their Riders
Zechariah 6:1-8 uses the imagery of colored horses to describe the work of “four spirits” who explore the world. Isaiah 63:11-13 indicates that a horse could be a symbol for God’s people. Zechariah 10:3 also relates the image of the horse to God’s people. Viewed in this way, the four horses represent God’s church in different stages. In addition, princes are depicted in Scripture as riding on horses, perhaps suggesting that the leadership of God’s people is brought to view (Ecclesiastes 10:7; Esther 6:6-11).
White horse and rider (6:1-2): The image conveyed by the white horse, the bow and crown are symbols of a conqueror. In John’s day, Roman generals would ride a white horse to celebrate victory (see also Romans 19:11-12). The imagery has roots in the OT (Habakkuk 3:8-13; Psalms 45:4-5; Isaiah 41:2). The crown the rider wears is a stephanos, the victor’s wreath as opposed to the diadem, a king’s crown. In Revelation’s portrayal of the great controversy, Christ wears diadems, as does Satan and his associate the sea-beast.
Prophetically, this represents the onward growth of the church and parallels the symbol of the church of Ephesus. However, it is important to recognize that the church today is to be continually conquering. This victory is based on Christ’s overcoming through His sacrificial death.
Red horse and rider (6:3-4): This represents a picture of war and strife. As people resist the spread of the gospel, turmoil is the result (Matthew 10:21-22, 34-36). Red is the color of the dragon (12:3) and the harlot (17:4). Rejecting the peace the gospel brings, people place themselves under the control of the dragon and reap the result.
Prophetically, the second horse parallels the church of Smyrna and the time of persecution the church experienced. An alternative interpretation sees this horse as representing the period of time when the church became a persecuting power and corresponds to the time of the church of Pergamum.
Black horse and rider (6:5-6): The color black is representative of the darkness that comes as a result of the absence of the gospel. The balances and the high prices for the commodities represent a time of scarcity. This would point to a spiritual famine, a shortage of God’s word (see Amos 8:11-13). However, the protection of the oil (Matthew 25:1-10) and the wine (1 Corinthians 11:25) point to the fact that while the word might be obscured, the Holy Spirit is still making salvation available.
Prophetically, this parallels the time of the church of Pergamum, when compromise began to come into the church, and the word of God began to be obscured.
Pale horse and riders (6:7-8): Here there are two riders, Death and Hades. According to 1:18, as terrible as these two are, they are under the control of Christ. While they are fearful enemies, they have been defeated. The opening of this seal reveals an intensification of what has gone before. The pestilence and death come from a famine for the word of God. Here is a representation of the church in a state of deep spiritual apostasy.
Prophetically, the symbol represents the church era of the Middle Ages, also representative of the church of Thyatira.
The first four seals represent events depicted on earth; the last three describe events in heaven.
The Altar and the Cataclysmic Signs
The cry from the altar (6:9-11): As this seal is opened, the first of eight references to the altar is mentioned (8:3 (2x), 5; 9:13; 11:1; 14:18; 16:7). The quarterly sees this altar as the copper altar on which the sacrifices were made (Leviticus 4:7, 18, 25). However, the proximity to God’s throne indicates that this should be seen as the altar of incense, on the horns of which blood was placed. The imagery is of a slain witness for God, crying out for vengeance. Their cry “How long O Lord, holy and true, will you refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth,” raises an important question.
They are longing for justice and an answer to the inherent question of God’s faithfulness. Why has He not acted, or responded on behalf of His suffering people? Since He is sovereign, why is He allowing evil to continue and apparently triumph? The implication raised is, there is a fault in His character and rule. Questions are voiced about the means that God uses to govern. It is important to note that this plea does not focus on the unjust use of authority and control. Rather, the question calls for more activity on God’s part, not less. While Satan’s accusations are designed to undermine God’s rule and call into question His authority, from a heavenly perspective there is an abundance of freedom and surprising absence of enforced sovereign rule (see Luke 18:3-8).
The martyrs are not expressing a cry for vengeance, but a plea that injustice be corrected. The call is based on a strong tradition within the OT (Genesis 4:10; Psalms 6:3; 13:2; 74:10; 79:1-10; Isaiah 6:1; Jeremiah 47:6; Daniel 8:13; 12:6-7) wherein God’s people cry out for justice. The image of the blood crying out reflects the death of the first martyr (Genesis 4:9).
Prophetically this represents a time that God’s people have experienced persecution, before the beginning of the heavenly judgment. This would point to the events under the 1260-day prophecy.
Cataclysmic Signs (6:12-17):
As the sixth seal is opened, a series of phenomena are unleashed that are cosmic in scope. They include a great earthquake, the darkening of the sun, the moon turning color, and the stars falling. These signs lead to the second coming of Christ. These signs are used in the OT to usher in the Day of the Lord (Joel 2:30-31; Amos 8:8-9; Isaiah 13:10, 13; see also Matthew 24:29). The picture of the unrepentant running into caves and longing to be hid from the presence of God and Christ reminds the reader of the experience of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8; see also Isaiah 2:19-21). The passage ends with the important question: “Who is able to stand?” (See Malachi 3:2; Isaiah 54:10).
Seventh-day Adventists have seen a connection between this passage and Matthew 24:29. Jesus describes a period of tribulation followed by heavenly signs that precede His coming. These events are important for their magnitude and their location, as well as their timing, that occurred before the beginning of the judgment hour message in 1844.
The Lisbon earthquake of Nov. 1, 1755. It is listed as one of the greatest earthquakes in history. It extended over a tract of at least four millions of square miles. Its impact was felt on the continents of Europe, Africa, and America.
The Dark Day of May 19, 1780. It was observed in an area where a revival in the interest of the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation was about to take place. Students of these prophecies recognized it as a fulfillment of this passage. As well as the sun being darkened, the moon had a blood-red appearance when it rose.
“In some places, the darkness was so great, that persons could not see to read common print in the open air, for several hours together. - Samuel Williams - An Account of a Very Uncommon Darkness in the States of New England, May 19, 1780, Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences: 1783 Vol. 1, pp. 234, 235.
"The 19th of May, 1780, was a remarkable dark day. Candles were lighted in many houses; the birds were silent and disappeared, and the fowls retired to roost. The legislature of Connecticut was then in session at Hartford. A very general opinion prevailed, that the Day of Judgment was at hand. The House of Representatives, being unable to transact their business, adjourned. A proposal to adjourn the Council was under consideration. When the opinion of Colonel [Abraham] Davenport was asked, he answered, 'I am against an adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of adjournment: if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought." Timothy Dwight, quoted in Connecticut Historical Collections, compiled by John Warner Barber (2nd ed.; New Haven: Durrie & Peck and J.W. Barber, 1836), p. 403.
The Leonid star shower of Nov. 13, 1833. This is a recurring star shower, but it was particularly intense in that year. It attracted widespread attention, and seemed to many to have prophetic significance.
"The morning of November 13th, 1833, was rendered memorable by an exhibition of the phenomenon called SHOOTING STARS, which was probably more extensive and magnificent than any similar one hitherto recorded...
"Probably no celestial phenomenon has ever occurred in this country, since its first settlement, which was viewed with so much admiration and delight by one class of spectators, or with so much astonishment and fear by another class....” Denison Olmsted, "Observations on the Meteors of November 13th, 1833, " The American Journal of Science and the Arts, 25 (Jan 1834), p. 363.
"For nearly four hours the sky was literally ablaze.... [Careful scientific accounts indicate that] more than a billion shooting stars appeared over the United States and Canada alone." Peter M. Millman, "The Falling of the Stars," The Telescope, 7 (May-June, 1940), 57.
The scene ends with the unrepentant fleeing from the presence of God and Christ. Who will be ready to meet them? The answer is given in the next chapter.