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Revelation 6

Concerning the chronology of the seals…

While some of the events symbolized by the visions of the seven seals may be arranged chronologically in the order that the seals are opened, I do not believe that  all of the events symbolized by the seals can be thus arranged.  In other words, I do not believe that the events symbolized by the visions of one seal necessarily precede those symbolized by the visions of the next.[1] My reasons for this are in chapter seven.  For example, 7:3 describes the visions of the 6th seal.  In that verse, an angel tells four other angels that they are not to damage the earth until the 144,000 have been marked with the seal of God on their foreheads.  However, since these four angels are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (whose damaging effects are described in the first four seals) then this event (the marking of the 144,000) in the sixth seal must have happened before the events of the first four seals.  See also notes on 7:9-17, which describe how another vision in the sixth seal seems to symbolize events after those symbolized in the seventh seal.

v. 1: One by one, each of the four cherubim summons a horseman by commanding it to come forth.

v. 2: Concerning the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse…

I think all four of these horsemen should be considered destructive agents (though not evil ones).  There is no doubt that the last three horsemen are destructive; the red horse takes peace from the earth and causes people to slaughter one another; the black horse brings famine and desperation; the pale horse is death and has authority to kill with sword, famine, pestilence and wild animals.  Only the rider on the white horse is questionable since Christ himself is described as riding a white horse of victory in 19:11-13; however, in this context, the white horse is clearly part of a whole, and the other three parts of this whole are destructive; therefore, I think the white horse must also be destructive.

It seems very likely that John borrowed the imagery of the four horsemen from that of the four chariots in Zechariah 6:1-8.  The four chariots of Zechariah are “the four winds of heaven going out after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth [God]” (Zechariah 6:5).  Because the Horsemen seem to borrow their imagery from the four chariots, and because these chariots are the four winds, I am inclined to believe that these four horsemen and their horses are “the four winds of the earth” being held back by four angels “standing at the four corners of the earth” (7:1).  These four winds are destructive (7:1-3).

In a general sense, I believe this is what the Four Horsemen symbolize:

The White Horse: Violent conquest

The Red Horse: Impotent, self-destructive violence, like civil war.

The Black Horse: Famine, poverty, and economic desperation

The Pale Horse: Death[2]

Beyond this, however, I do not know what specific events in time these horsemen refer to.

Nevertheless, consider the following sequence of events:[3]

Before the cherubim summon the four horsemen (6:1-8), i.e., before God releases the four winds,[4] God puts his seal on the foreheads of all his people who are destined for martyrdom during the reign of Beast I (7:1-3, 14:1-5) and tells the martyrs already in heaven that their blood will be avenged (in other words, that “the great day of God the Almighty” will come[5]) after the proper number of Christians destined for martyrdom has been reached (6:9-11).    The number is 144,000 (7:4-8, 14:1-5).  Now the four horsemen (the four winds) are released.  I believe these four horsemen also correspond to the first four angels with trumpets (8:6-12) and the first four angels with bowls (16:1-8). After this, come the portents and omens that declare the (imminent?) arrival of “the great day of God the Almighty” (6:12-17).  Then, “the great day of God the Almighty” itself comes with “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (8:5, 11:19, 16:18).[6]

 Albrecht Dürer The Four Riders of the Apocalypse 

v. 6: Since this voice comes from the midst of the four cherubim, I suppose it is the voice of God himself, who is enthroned in their midst (4:6).

It is interesting that this horseman and the fourth are both limited in how much they may destroy.  The black horse must not damage the oil and wine, and the pale horse may only destroy ¼ of the earth.

v. 10: The layout and furniture of the earthly tabernacle and temple represented spiritual realities (Hebrews 8:5).  Thus, John recognizes elements of the tabernacle and temple in his vision of heaven.  The altar under which he sees these martyrs is a reference to the bronze altar, where sacrifices were made to God.  This altar stood outside the tabernacle (Leviticus 4:7) and temple (2nd Chronicles 6:12-13) and is distinct from the golden altar of incense (mentioned in 8:3), which stood within the tabernacle and temple.[7] These martyrs are under the altar, where the priest poured the blood of sacrifices (Leviticus 4:7).  I wonder if they are fresh from martyrdom.  I wonder this because, although they are in heaven when John first sees them, they have not yet received the reward of their martyrdom (the white robe).  Also, they still suffer from the pain of desiring vengeance, which God quickly soothes.  I believe they desire vengeance because John says they “cried out with a loud voice” asking, “'[H]ow long will it be before you…avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’”  The loud voice suggests a sense of emotional urgency beyond simple curiosity.  Also, while they do not explicitly ask God to avenge them, their question does imply that they would like for him to do so, and soon.  This desire for vengeance seems counter to the spirit of Christ, who asked God to forgive his tormentors and murderers (Luke 23:34), and indeed, one must concede that the desire for vengeance (in anyone but God himself) is not ideal.  Nevertheless, it is justifiable because it springs from our God-given sense of justice.  I believe they handle the pain of their unfulfilled desire as well as they can:  If they cannot mimic Christ, as Stephen does (Acts 7:60), and ask God to forgive their murderers, at least they acknowledge that vengeance is God’s (Romans 12:19) and leave the matter with him.

I suppose one could interpret this question asked by the martyrs like one should interpret the cry for vengeance issued by the blood of Abel in Genesis 4:10; thus, it may be a metaphor rather than an actual call for vengeance by some of God’s creatures.  It is Revelation, after all, and a metaphor would not be out of place here; however, I do not believe this is the proper interpretation of this particular scene.  The fact that these martyrs are under the altar is a metaphor, but I believe we are to see the people themselves as martyrs (rather than as emblems of something else).  Being humans, these martyrs have wills and literally desire God to avenge the wrongs done to them.  The blood of Abel had no such will.

It is difficult (maybe impossible) to discover from the Bible what we will experience between death on earth and the resurrection of the dead on Judgment Day.[8] For instance, compare this passage with Christ’s parable, The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and Paul’s words in 1st Thessalonians 4:16-17.  The martyred Christians here in Revelation are described as being alive and conscious in heaven before “the great day of God the Almighty,” (Revelation 16:14) when, according to Paul, the dead Christians will be resurrected, rise to meet Christ “in the air,” and go with him to heaven  (1st Thessalonians 4:16-17).  I am not sure how to reconcile these passages with each other.  I suspect that Paul’s description is the literal one, whereas Christ’s and John’s are metaphorical.  Parables and apocalyptic literature are, by nature, metaphorical rather than literal, whereas Paul’s letters are more practical and straightforward.  If, however, Revelation is literal in this passage, it may mean that martyrs are especially honored by being allowed to enter heaven and be conscious immediately after death.  They do seem to be treated with particular respect in 14:3-5.  Anyway, whether Revelation is metaphorical or literal here, we are at least supposed to understand that, within the context of Revelation, these martyrs are alive and conscious in heaven before the final judgment on the great day of God the Almighty.

v. 11: Depending on the translation, one might conclude that there are two groups mentioned here: 1) “fellow servants,” and 2) “brothers and sisters.”  Nevertheless, I think there is only one group: the Christians who will be martyred under the reign of Beast I.  Their number is 144,000.[9]

v. 12: Five times in Revelation “an earthquake” (never “earthquakes”) is mentioned: here, in 8:5, 11:13, 11:19, and 16:18.  I have no doubt that 8:5, 11:19, and 16:18 refer to the same earthquake (because the wording of the verses is so similar), but I am not sure about the earthquake here and in 11:13.  These latter two references seem to be to another earthquake which signals the end of the second woe and the events of the sixth trumpet, whereas the other three references are to an earthquake associated with the third woe and the seventh trumpet.  I suppose they could all refer to the same earthquake: one that that simultaneously signals the end of the events or the second woe (the sixth trumpet) and the beginning of those of the third woe (the seventh trumpet).  See also Order of Events appendix.


[1]As it turns out, I do actually believe that the events of the first four seals are a unit and follow one another, but not all those of the last three do.  Even in these last three, however, there are some notable parallels between the events of the (not-necessarily-chronological) sixth and seventh seals and those of the (chronological) sixth and seventh trumpets and bowls.  Compare the following verses:  11:13 (the sixth trumpet) with 6:12 (the sixth seal), and 11:19 (the seventh trumpet) and 16:18 (the seventh bowl) with 8:5 (the seventh seal).

[2] Many commentaries claim that this horseman represents disease and pestilence, but there is no justification for limiting its meaning in this way.  This is the one horseman whose general interpretation is overtly given: “Its rider’s name was death” (6:8) and its means of bringing death include, but are not limited to, pestilence; it kills with “sword, famine, pestilence, and … wild animals of the earth” (6:8).

[3] See also note on 8:5.

[4] Notice that the narrative never says that these four winds are released, and yet the suggestion is clear that they will be released.  I think this means that we should look for their release under some other symbol than the four winds, i.e., under that of the four horsemen.  See also note on 7:1.

[5] For a discussion of this day, see notes at 20:4.

[6] See Order of Events appendix.

[7] See notes on Hebrews 9:4.

[8] For a discussion of this day see notes at 20:4.

[9] See 7:3 note.

8 Responses to “Revelation 6”

  1. […] by the visions of one seal necessarily precede those symbolized by the visions of the next.[1] My reasons for this are in chapter seven.  For example, 7:3 describes the visions of the […]

  2. […] by the visions of one seal necessarily precede those symbolized by the visions of the next.[1] My reasons for this are in chapter seven.  For example, 7:3 describes the visions of the […]

  3. […] from the golden altar of incense (mentioned in 8:3), which stood within the tabernacle and temple.[7] These martyrs are under the altar, where the priest poured the blood of sacrifices (Leviticus […]

  4. […] from the golden altar of incense (mentioned in 8:3), which stood within the tabernacle and temple.[7] These martyrs are under the altar, where the priest poured the blood of sacrifices (Leviticus […]

  5. […] See notes on 6:2 but also on […]

  6. […] See notes on 6:2 but also on […]

  7. […] See also 6:2 […]

  8. […] See also 6:2 […]

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