Chapter six of Revelation continues John's vision in the throne room of heaven. His eyes fix on the Lamb (Jesus Christ) as he opens the first of the seven seals that had sealed the scroll with writing on both sides (5:1 with 6:1). John then says, "I saw, and behold. . ." (6:2, Revised Standard Version). This expression, variously translated in English versions, is frequently used by John to introduce new visions (4:1; 6:5, 8; 7:9; 14:1; 19:11).
We should note that the scroll's contents are not here being revealed. Only the seals are being broken in chapter six. As each seal is opened, John sees one of the four horsemen riding away, then the souls under the altar, then the heavenly signs. But all seven seals must be removed before the scroll can be opened and "read." The seventh seal is not opened until 8:1. We are probably to understand that the scroll itself is not opened until the sounding of the seven trumpets.
The vision in general
The six seals include the four horsemen, the vision of the souls under the altar and certain cosmic disturbances. The seventh seal apparently is a "silence in heaven" that initiates "God's wrath" (6:17 with 8:1).
What do the seals represent? The first four seals can be seen as portraying problems such as war and famine that have always been with us. In a way, they show the self-defeating character of sin, which has characterized the world from its beginning. The seals, then, could represent a dramatic portrayal of the world's self-inflicted judgment upon itself. They represent the terrible effects of man's way, which works against the peace and abundance God has in mind for humanity.
Biblical scholar Robert D. Wall says of the seal visions: "God has given earth over to itself to engage in a global, civil war, preventing its inhabitants from attaining the very things that make for their peace and security (cf. Rom. 1:28-31). Together the horsemen take peace from the earth; these symbols of military strife call attention not only to a fallen creation, which now exists under the curse of God, but also to earth's need for God's shalom" (New International Biblical Commentary, "Revelation," p.110).
We should carefully note that the Lamb must open the seals and it is his servants, the four living creatures from God's throne, who beckon the riders and their horses to, "Come!" (6:1, 3, 5, 7). The horsemen must be given permission by the Lamb and God's agents before they can accomplish the evil they intend to do. This implies that it is God who is Lord of history and man's activities.
The first four seals of Revelation are the famous four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Each is riding a different colored steed — white, red, black and pale green (6:1-8). As we shall see, the horse colors take on specific symbolic meanings, such as red for war.
The imagery has counterparts in the Old Testament, this time in Zechariah 1:8-11 and 6:1-8. There, the horse colors don't seem to have any special significance. In Revelation they are central to the symbolic meaning of each horse. In Zechariah the horses, called the "four spirits of heaven," are sent out into the earth with no effect noted (1:11; 6:5-8). In Revelation the release of the horses brings disasters to the earth. In Zechariah the focus is on the horses but in Revelation the riders seem more important. Here the horses merely lend their color to the motif.
In Zechariah's vision the horses fan out across the earth. In some sense, they patrol the earth — perhaps as God's "eyes." Some commentators have noted that colors symbolizing the four winds — perhaps a way of saying the four corners or entire earth — were used in chariot races accompanying the official opening of an emperor's reign. That being so, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse would be telling us that the disasters and anguish they portray are worldwide.
First Seal: White Horse
The white horse is mounted by a rider who "had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer" (Rev. 6:2). Some have confused this image with the one in Revelation 19, also a rider on a white horse. A quick comparison of chapters 6 and 19 reveals the two riders have little in common except that they ride white horses.
The white horse rider in chapter 6 is bent on conquest. The intent of the rider in chapter 19 is to exact divine and just retribution for sin. This rider is called "Faithful and True" and he judges and makes war with justice (19:11). He is called "the Word of God" and his name is "King of kings and Lord of Lords" (19:13, 16). The rider on the white horse in Revelation 19 is unmistakably Jesus, the triumphant Messiah coming to rule the world.
Who, then, is the rider of the white horse in Revelation 6? He is accompanied by three other mounted horses. Their riders portray destruction and death. The white horse and its rider should be interpreted in a consistent manner. It would not make sense for this rider to represent the conquering Christ who restores peace to earth.
In the expanded symbolic universe of Revelation, perhaps the white horse rider of chapter 6 represents false messiahs who claim to represent Jesus. They conquer others "in his name," so to speak. We could say the image even refers to all saviors — religious or secular — who come in the name of peace and justice but bring war and tyranny.
Thus, the two riders on white horses serve as theological bookends for Revelation. The messiah figure in Revelation 6 is a fraudulent copy of Jesus Christ, the true messiah. When the white horse rider of Revelation 6 goes out to conquer, havoc and death result. When the Messiah on the white horse of chapter 19 goes out to conquer, he ushers in peace and salvation.
As Revelation can be thought of as a tale of two cities — Babylon the Great and the New Jerusalem — it is also a tale of two systems. There is a false system represented by its messiahs who think they can bring peace through conquest (as did the Roman Empire). But only Christ can bring in lasting peace and eternal life in the kingdom of God.
The four elements in the description of the rider on the white horse in Revelation 6 bear this out. He rides a white horse, holds a bow, is given a crown and goes out "as a conqueror bent on conquest" (6:2).
White is said to be the color of victory. Apparently, many victorious warriors rode white horses as an emblem of their triumph. The symbol has persisted. In the old cowboy movies, the hero was dressed in light clothing and often rode a white horse.
The bow is also a symbol of war and conquest. Some see here a reference to the feared Parthians. They were well known for their archery skills in battle. "A 'Parthian shot' still means a final, devastating blow, to which there is no possible answer" (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, "The Revelation of John," volume 2, revised edition, p. 4).
The dreaded Parthians, on Rome's eastern flank, were an undefeated enemy. In a failed invasion, the Roman armies were defeated in A. D. 62 by the Parthian general Vologeses in the Tigris river valley. The disaster must still have been remembered in the days when Revelation was written. The churches in the Roman province of Asia (to whom the book was written) must have been quite aware of the Parthians as bowmen riding white horses. Such a horseman could serve as an immediate metaphor of military power and conquest.
However, Revelation's visions and content contain many dozens of allusions to the Old Testament. Here we also find the metaphor of the bow as a symbol of conquest (Psalm 46:9; Jeremiah 49:35; Ezekiel 39:3; Hosea 1:5).
The crown, which the rider of the white horse wears, is also a symbol of military conquest. The Greek word here is stephanos, which was the victor's wreath, not the diadema, which meant a royal crown.
Thus, the white horse and his rider symbolize the spirit of conquest and militarism. Their meaning would differ from the red horse who more specifically stands for warfare. As we know, there is more to conquest than war alone. Economic power, propaganda, the use of religion, diplomacy and political shrewdness are also part of successful conquest.
Second Seal: Red Horse
The second horse's meaning seems clear. It is a symbol of war, of slaughter and bloodshed. The red horse has a rider who takes "peace from the earth" and wields a "great sword." In his wake, people "kill one another" (6:4).
The Greek word usually translated "slay" has a more ferocious meaning. "Slaughter" or "butcher" would bring out its nuanced meaning more forcefully. The horse rider has a great or huge sword, indicating the extent of the carnage he creates.
Third Seal: Black Horse
This rider represents hunger and famine. We can see this from the symbols accompanying him. The horse he rides is black, a color that describes a famine-racked body.
The black horse has a rider with "a pair of scales in his hand" (6:5). A scale would be used to measure and carefully dole out food. It could refer to bread being rationed by weight in a famine, or grain being measured by volume. We see this being done in the Old Testament. In the siege of Jerusalem, the people would "eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair" (Ezekiel 4:16). God told the Israelites they would suffer famine if they sinned and they would be forced to "dole out the bread by weight" (Leviticus 26:26).
A voice accompanies the vision of the black horse and its rider. It announces: "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages." (6:6). The expression "a day's wages" is a translation of the Greek word denarius. The denarius was a Roman silver coin equal in value to the daily wage of a working man (Matthew 20:2).
Bible scholar Robert H. Mounce says the price of the wheat and barley as described in the vision appears to be ten to twelve times their normal cost in ancient times (The New International Commentary on the New Testament, "The Book of Revelation," p. 155). Revelation describes a condition where basic goods are sold at greatly inflated prices. Thus, the black horse rider depicts times of deep scarcity or famine but not of starvation.
The English word "quart" translates choinix. Apparently, a choinix of wheat was the daily ration of one adult. Thus, in the conditions pictured by Revelation 6 the normal income for a working-class family would buy enough food for only one person. The less costly barley would feed three people for one day's wages.
The voice also says, "Do not damage the oil and the wine!" (6:6). People are told to be careful not to harm precious foodstuffs. We should note that the warning sets limits to the destruction the black horse rider can cause.
Anciently, oil and wine were not luxuries. They were basic commodities or necessities of life. "Grain, new wine and oil" was a standard threesome describing the staples of life (Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; Hosea 2:8, 22; Haggai 1:11). Once again we see that the black horse describes dire want but not total famine.
There is an interesting case regarding the destruction of vineyards in Asia from emperor Domitian's reign that may have formed the background to this verse. During his reign a shortage of grain and surplus of wine upset the economic equilibrium of Rome.
Domitian first ruled that no new vineyard should be planted. Then, he commanded that half the vineyards in Asia be cut down. This created a near revolt because the vineyards were a major source of income to the people of Asia. Domitian was forced to reverse himself. In fact, he later prosecuted those who had allowed their vineyards to go out of cultivation because of the fall in wine prices.
Fourth Seal: Pale Horse
The pale horse has a rider called "Death," and "Hades was following close behind him" (6:8). The Greek word for "pale," chloros, elsewhere in Revelation describes the yellow-green of vegetation (8:7; 9:4). The word is the root for the English "chlorine." It is here used for the tell-tale and sickly look of death due to a virulent pestilence. The hue or tint in view here is probably to be understood as the color of a corpse — of death.
The rider is Death, and his companion is Hades or the grave — for Hades is the place of the dead. We should here picture death and Hades gathering up the victims of man's civilization — the casualties of war, starvation and plague.
Only Christ can unlock the dead from the grave and give them eternal life (1:18). Both Death and Hades will ultimately be thrown into the lake of fire (20:14). That is, they will be destroyed — swallowed up in the eternal life granted to their victims.
The four horsemen bring immense suffering to the human race. John writes: "They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth" (6:8). Once again we see that power is given to the horsemen. They can cause only the damage God allows. The evils they represent are not caused by God, of course. In his wisdom and patience God acts to fulfil his covenant purpose even in the midst of humanity's evil opposition.
There are some common elements between the four horsemen and God's judgments described in the Old Testament. God's "four dreadful Judgments" sent against Jerusalem — sword and famine and wild beasts and plague" — are similar to the effects of the four horsemen (Ezekiel 14:21). The combination of "sword, famine, and plague" is also found in various places in Jeremiah (14:12; 15:2; 21:7; 24:10; 29:17-18; 42:17; 43:11).
Fifth Seal: Souls Under the Altar
When the fifth seal is opened, John sees "the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained" (6:9). These are the faithful witnesses and overcomers, the church in its ideal state. They are a major interest of Revelation (1:9; 12:11, 17; 19:10; 20:4).
The word "testimony" here comes from the Greek martyria. It means "witness." Since Christians were often killed for being faithful witnesses of the testimony Christ had given them, they came to be called martyrs.
The fifth seal, then, has a much more narrow focus and interest. It describes the witnessing community, willing even to die for the truth of Jesus Christ. Jesus had left no doubt that the church would be hated, persecuted, and that some of its members might be martyred. The synoptic Gospels carefully preserve Jesus' warning about persecution (Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12-18).
Matthew wrote: "You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me" (24:9). John remembered Jesus' words as well: "A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God" (John 16:2).
In Revelation the glorified Christ simply emphasizes the warning he gave during his incarnation. The passages in Revelation that discuss the people of God, think of them collectively as a martyr church. For example, the Beast will have the power "to make war against the saints and to conquer them" (13:7). He "will attack them, and overpower and kill them" (11:7).
The overcoming of the saints in Revelation is a conquest that ultimately comes through their death. And this characteristic seems to represent the people of God as a group. In Revelation 20:4, says J. Ramsey Michaels, "Those who 'lived and reigned with the Christ for a thousand years' are described not simply as 'the church,' or as those who 'believed in Jesus,' but as 'the souls of those beheaded for the testimony of Jesus'" (Interpreting the Book of Revelation, p. 136).
Thus, the fifth seal pictures tribulation on the true people of God because of their religious convictions. For this reason John sees them represented as "souls" under the altar.
In the Old Testament sacrifices, most of the blood was poured out at the bottom or base of the altar (Leviticus 4:7). The life or soul of the animals — and of humans — was said to be in the blood (Leviticus 17:11). Paul used the idea of an offering to describe the persecution he suffered and his imminent martyrdom. Both were, he said, "like a drink offering" (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6). In that sense, Revelation sees Christians who suffer persecution or martyrdom as sweet sacrifices offered to God.
We should note that the scene in Revelation 6 picturing souls under the altar is not meant to explain what the state of the dead is. It is a metaphor for martyrdom. Revelation is describing, in a graphic and meaningful way, that the faithful have been killed for their convictions.
These souls under the altar are pictured as crying out, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (6:10).
Servants of God down through the ages have asked the same question (Isaiah 6:11; Jeremiah 47:6; Zechariah 1:12; Luke 18:1-8). David had asked precisely this question on a number of occasions (Psalm 13:1; 35:17; 74:9; 79:5; 80:4; 89:46). "My soul is in anguish," he cried out, "How long, O Lord, how long?" (Psalm 6:3). Habakkuk asked: "How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?" (1:2).
We could readily imagine how the church of John's day would have related to this question of "How long?" Jerusalem had fallen a generation earlier. (This assumes a date for the writing of Revelation as being around A.D. 96.) The early expectancy of Christ's return had not materialized. The church was suffering at least sporadic persecution from Jews and Roman authorities. Some Christians had been martyred, banished or had their property confiscated.
How should the church understand the persecution and martyrdom of its people (Revelation 2:2, 9; 3: 9, 13)? The fifth seal tells the church this persecution and martyrdom is not random or meaningless. It is a sweet sacrifice to God, who knows precisely what the church is suffering and enduring.
Perhaps some opponents or "believers" were scoffing about the Christian belief in Christ's return. John's church would have faced a situation not unlike Peter's a generation earlier. Some may have been asking, as in Peter's day: "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation" (2 Peter 3:3).
Peter had counseled patience. "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness," he said (verse 9). In the same way, Revelation's sixth seal counsels the church of the 90s A.D. to have patience — "to wait a little longer" (6:11).
The question of "How long?" is addressed to a sovereign, holy and true God (6:10). Sovereign Lord is a rendering of ho despotes. It described one who was a master of slaves. We are to understand that God has total power over the forces of the world. But he is not an unfeeling dictator or despot. God is a holy and true master. He is beyond evil and thoroughly trustful.
This God will vindicate the saints in the end over the "inhabitants of the earth" (6:10). This phrase appears several times in Revelation and refers to unrepentant humanity (3:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; 17:8, as well as 13:12; 14:6).
The world is human society that has been led astray by the devil or Satan (12:9). It lays under his spiritual sway and control (1 John 5:19). The world's people are "at home in the present world order, men of earthbound vision, trusting in earthly security, unable to look beyond the things that are seen and temporal," says G.B. Caird (Black's New Testament Commentaries, "A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, 2nd edition, p. 88).
On the other hand, faithful Christians admit that they are "aliens and strangers on earth" and desire "a better country — a heavenly one" (Hebrews 11:13, 16). They seek the kingdom of God and the New Jerusalem. In Revelation these saints cry out to God to avenge their blood or martyrdom (6:10).
Some have recoiled at this desire as being less than Christian. However, we should see this not so much as a wish for personal vengeance or revenge but as one for vindication. The martyrs are not out to avenge themselves against the specific people who did them harm. They want the cause for which they gave their lives to be vindicated. The martyrs desire Jesus Christ to return and bring his reward of salvation as well as his universal rule.
"It is not the individual perpetrators of the crime but the world's judgment which is in view. The real parallel to this passage is. . .the parable of the widow's cry for vengeance. . .with the lesson 'How much more will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night?' (Luke 18:1-8)" (G.R. Beasley-Murray, The New Century Bible Commentary, "Revelation," p. 136).
To vindicate the saints is by necessity to pass judgment on the world. If God is to pronounce the saints righteous, he must judge the persecutors to be what Revelation says they are. The sinning world must be sentenced in judgment. Says G. B. Caird: "The point at issue here is not the personal relations of the martyrs with their accusers, but the validity of their faith. They have gone to their death in the confidence that God's word. . .is the ultimate truth; but unless in the end tyranny and other forms of wickedness meet with retribution, that faith is an illusion" (Black's New Testament Commentaries, "A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine," 2nd edition, p. 85).
For this reason, the fifth seal pictures the "souls" as receiving white robes (6:11). In the book of Revelation white robes are symbols of blessedness and purity. We find a little later that the redeemed have white robes (7:11). They were white and clean having been washed in the justifying blood of the Lamb (7:14).
Sixth Seal: Cosmic Signs
When the sixth seal was opened, John saw awesome cosmic disturbances. There was a great earthquake, the sun turned black, the moon became blood red, stars fell to earth, the sky folded up like a scroll, mountains and islands moved (6:12-14).
The contents of the first five seals had been described in similar words in the "little apocalypses" of Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. The cosmic catastrophes described by the sixth seal were also mentioned by Jesus in this same discourse. "Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened," said Jesus, "and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken" (Matthew 24:29).
The similarities between Matthew 24:29 and Revelation 6:12-14 are obvious. Leon Morris says, "The importance of this is that John's picture of a ruined universe was not some strange new teaching for his readers. It was a 'restatement of beliefs already held on supreme authority. What the faithful Witness at one time had said on earth, He now repeats from heaven'" (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, "Revelation," revised edition, p. 107).
More than this, what Jesus had said in the synoptic Gospels was closely reminiscent of the Old Testament. The prophet Joel had spoken these words in God's name: "I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord" (2:30-31). This was typical prophetic language to describe God's judgment, the end of the world's kingdoms and the inauguration of the kingdom of God (Haggai 2:6; Isaiah 13:10; 34:4; Jeremiah 4:23-28).
In the Old Testament earthquakes were also regular features of divine visitation. When God descended on Mount Sinai, "the whole mountain trembled violently" (Exodus 19:18). Isaiah prophesied of a time when the Lord would "shake the earth" (Isaiah 2:19). In Haggai, the Lord says: "In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land" (2:6).
This language had been picked up in Jewish writings of the intertestamental period and had become typical of apocalyptic tracts. In apocalyptic literature the "end of the world" was described by cosmic disturbances of various kinds (1 Enoch 80:4ff; Sibylline Oracles 3:801-802; 4 Ezra 5:4-5; Assumption of Moses 10.5).
Thus, for the members of the seven churches of Asia, the meaning of the seals would have been quite well understood. William Barclay says: "Strange as John's pictures may seem to us, there is not a single detail which is not in the pictures of the end time in the Old Testament and in the books written between the Testaments" (The Daily Study Bible Series, "The Revelation of John," volume 2, revised edition, p.15).
It would have been evident to the church of John's day that the opening of the sixth seal was meant to be a precursor of God's judgment against human-directed civilization. It was, in the words of Robert H. Mounce, the "grim announcement that the end of the world was at hand" (The New International Commentary on the New Testament, "The Book of Revelation, p. 161). The end of the world, of course, is to be understood within the context of the new beginning and the new creation that God brings about.
John described the human reaction to these terrifying cosmic distresses. People hid in caves and tried to seclude themselves from God and Christ (6:15). This language, too, is reflected in the Old Testament. Isaiah had written: "Men will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from dread of the Lord and the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to shake the earth" (2:19).
But the heavenly disruption merely presages a greater terror. It is God's "wrath." People cry out to the rocks and mountains: "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come" (6:16-17).
The "wrath of the Lamb" is an unusual expression — used only once. But we should note that this is something the terrified people call the calamities they experience. They do not see the Lamb of God as the one who gave his life for human sin or God as the one who sent his Son to die (John 3:16-17). The inhabitants of the world still see God only as a vengeful being.
The "wrath of God," of course, is a basic theme of the Bible. Revelation tells us much about it (6:17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19; 19:15). It is another way of describing the "day of the Lord." The prophet Joel described it as "dreadful" (2:11). Zephaniah said it was "a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness" (1:14).
The wrath of God isn't spiteful hate or personal vindictiveness. It is God's holy response to unrepented sin that is the cause of the misery and suffering humans bring upon themselves.
The fearful people of earth living during this time of judgment — from kings to slaves — ask a legitimate question: "Who can stand?" (Revelation 6:17). The question is actually a quote from Malachi 3:2: "Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?" J. Ramsey Michaels has pointed out a possible connection between the question at the end of chapter six — "Who can stand?" — and the vision of the secure church in chapter seven. This chapter describes various groups who are "standing" (Interpreting the Book of Revelation, p. 56).
Four angels stand at the four corners of the earth (Revelation 7:1). Later, angels stand around the throne (7:11). A great multitude of the saved stands before the throne of God (7:9). Thus, those with God — the angelic hosts and the saved — are the only ones who can "stand" or remain safe when God's wrath strikes.