The Seven Seals

Revelation 6:1-17; 8:1-5

There can be no mistake concerning the similarities between the Olivet Discourse (Mt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) and the seal judgments of Rev. 6 and 8. Note the following common themes that are addressed in both:

Wars – Mt. 24:6 / Rev. 6:2 (1st seal)

International strife – Mt. 24:7a / Rev. 6:3-4 (2nd seal)

Famines – Mt. 24:7 / Rev. 6:5-6 (3rd seal)

Pestilence –Lk. 21:11 / Rev. 6:7-8 (4th seal)

Persecution and martyrdom – Mt. 24:9 / Rev. 6:9-11 (5th seal)

Celestial phenomena – Mt. 24:29 / Rev. 6:12-17 (6th seal)

What conclusions do we draw from this? Some have argued this proves that the Olivet Discourse and the Seals of Revelation are describing the same period of time, often thought to be the “tribulation” immediately preceding the second advent of Christ. But I have argued elsewhere that the Olivet Discourse is actually concerned with events that the people of Jesus’ own “generation” would witness, i.e., events characteristic of the first century, specifically the period 33-70 A.D.

This leads to one possibility, that Revelation was written before the events of 70 A.D. and is a graphic description, in obviously figurative language, of the fall of the city and destruction of the Temple. I’m more inclined to believe that the solution is found elsewhere. My opinion is that the pattern of events that transpired in the period 33-70 A.D., leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, functions as a local, microcosmic foreshadowing of the global, macrocosmic events associated with the Parousia and the end of history. The period 33-70 A.D. provides its principles (though not necessarily in all particularities), a template against which we are to interpret the period 70-Parousia (i.e., the period from the destruction of the Temple to the time of the Second Coming).

Then, of course, the reason for the similarity in language may be much simpler than this. It may simply be that such phenomena as we read about in both Mt. 24 and Rev. 6 are characteristic of the inter-advent age in general. In other words, we need not posit a deliberate or conscious parallel between the events of 33-70 and those of 70-parousia. It just so happens that what transpires in one age is what we might expect to transpire in the other.

I believe that the first four seals of Rev. 6:1-8, i.e., the four horsemen and their respective activity, describe “the operation of the destructive forces that were unleashed immediately on the world as a result of Christ’s victorious suffering at the cross, his resurrection, and his ascent to a position of rule at his Father’s right hand” (Beale, 371). Thus, contrary to the futurist interpretation of the book, I do not believe these judgments are reserved exclusively for a period of “tribulation” just preceding the second coming of Christ. They most certainly do apply to that period, but no more than to the entire period that we call the inter-advent age. Wilcock explains:

“The terrifying events of the first four Seals, which those who have to live through them might imagine to be signs of Christ’s return and of the close of the age… are in fact the commonplaces of history. The four horsemen have been riding out over the earth from that day to this and will continue to do so” (75; emphasis mine).

Introduction to the Seal Judgments – 6:1

There is no mistaking the fact that these judgments proceed from Jesus Christ. Each seal is broken, and thus its judgment unleashed on the earth, by the “Lamb” (v. 1). Furthermore, each of the four horsemen is beckoned forth respectively by one of the four living creatures who surround the Lamb on his throne. Finally, “God’s voice is frequently compared with the sound of thunder (2 Sam. 22:14; Job 37:2-5; Pss. 18:13; 29:3-9; Isa. 29:6; 30:30-31; Jer. 25:30; Amos 1:2), a simile perhaps derived from the theophanic imagery of the Sinai tradition” (Aune, 2:393). The point is that these phenomena are not an accident of nature, nor did they originate with Satan. They are of divine origin and are designed both to punish unbelievers and to purify and refine the faith of God’s people.

The First Seal – 6:2

[Three OT passages sound remarkably similar to Rev. 6:1-8 and its portrayal of the four horsemen of judgment: Lev. 26:18-28, Zech. 6:1-8, and Ezek. 14:12-23. In each of these texts judgment similar to that in Rev. 6 is threatened against either Israel or its pagan neighbors.]

There is considerable debate as to the identity of the first horseman. Some contend that it is symbolic of the successful power of the gospel gone out into all the earth. Others argue that the horseman is the antichrist while others say it is none other than Jesus himself. Those who see Jesus here appeal to the following three arguments.

(1) The text may be an allusion to Ps. 45:3-5 where we read of an Israelite king who defeats his enemies with bow and arrows. He is portrayed as riding forth victoriously “for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness” (45:4). According to Heb. 1:8, this psalm was messianic, pointing to Jesus.

(2) In Rev. 19:11-16, Jesus has crowns on his head and rides a white horse in the defeat of his enemies. However, I should point out that there are also dissimilarities: the rider in Rev. 6 carries a “bow” and wears a wreath (stephanos) of victory, while the rider in Rev. 19 has a sharp two-edged sword in his mouth and wears many diadems (diademata), symbols of sovereignty.

(3) In Rev. 14:14, Jesus is described sitting on a white cloud “having a golden crown on his head.” Elsewhere in Revelation Jesus is often said to “conquer” (nikao; cf. 3:21; 5:5; 17:14). Aside from this text, the color “white” is used 14x times in Revelation and always symbolizes righteousness or is associated with the holiness of God. Advocates of this view also point out that the white horseman, unlike the other three, is not explicitly said to be the means for judgment. “Conquering” could be interpreted positively.

Others contend that the first horseman is a Satanic parody of Jesus and must be interpreted as evil. Here are their four reasons.

(1) The language of “conquering” is also used in Revelation of the beast oppressing and persecuting the people of God (11:7; 13:7). In Revelation 13 we see that one of Satan’s primary tactics is to imitate Christ in appearance and activity.

(2) Beale points out that “the horsemen form a quartet to be distinguished literarily from the remaining three seals, like the first four trumpets and bowls with respect to the remaining trumpets and bowls. Since the first four trumpets and bowls represent parallel judgments, the same parallelism is probably present with the horsemen” (376). There are too many points of identity between the first horseman and the remaining three to make such a radical distinction between their natures. For example, each horseman is called forth by one of the four creatures, each horseman comes forth in response to that command, the color of each horse and the object carried by each rider point to the kind of woe that he brings, and the same statement of authorization (“was given to him”) is used of the first two of the four.

(3) It seems a bit odd that Christ would be both the one who opens the seal and the content of the seal itself. It would seem that the fourth horseman, identified as “death,” is a summary of the previous three. If so, then the first three must be evil. Aune argues slightly differently, suggesting that “the first cavalier [horseman] primarily represents warfare, and each of the three following cavaliers represents one of the stereotypical evils of war: sword, famine, and plague” (2:395).

(4) There is a possible parallel in 9:7 where we read of demonic agents of judgment that are like “horses prepared for battle” with “crowns” on their heads. The same clause of authorization (“was given to them”; 9:3,5) is used.

Although we can’t be dogmatic, it would appear that the first horseman is a Satanic parody of Jesus (19:11-16) sent forth by God (“it was given to him” is a typical way of referring to divine authorization in Revelation [see 6:11; 7:2; 8:2-3; 9:1,3,5; 11:2-3; 12:14; chp. 13; etc.]) to provoke war on the earth. There are also several OT texts in which “bow and arrows” are symbolic of divine chastisement (Deut. 32:42; Isa. 34:6; Hab. 3:9; Lam. 3:12-13; Ps. 7:13-14).

The Second Seal – 6:3-4

If the first rider introduces war into the earth, the remaining three delineate specific consequences of war (or, as Aune noted above, “stereotypical evils of war”). The second horseman has power to take peace from the earth so that people kill one another. This may also include persecution of Christians (cf. Mt. 10:34), for the word translated “slay” in the NASB is literally “slaughter” (sphazo) which is used consistently by John to describe the death of Jesus or the martyrdom of his followers (5:6,9,12; 6:9; 13:8; 18:24).

The Third Seal – 6:5-6

The third horseman is the agent for famine. In the ancient world “scales” were used to ration food for distribution during times of scarcity (cf. Lev. 26:26; 2 Kings 7:1; Ezek. 4:10,16).

A voice (surely that of Christ; note its origin) then issues a command that would indicate a limitation on the severity of the famine. Foods essential for life (“wheat” and “barley”) will still be available. A “denarius” was typically a day’s wage (cf. Mt. 20:2) in those days. A “quart of wheat” would be enough for one person for one day and “three quarts of barley” would last for three days. The prices mentioned here are anywhere from 8 to 16x the average for the Roman empire at that time. That the “oil” and “wine” (metonymy for olive trees and vines) are not affected also indicates a limitation on the intensity of the famine.

The Fourth Seal –6:7-8

Unlike the other horsemen, the fourth is given a name: “Death”. “Hades” (the abode of the dead) is said to follow after him.

This horseman is given authority from God to inflict death by four means: sword (war), famine, pestilence (lit. “death”, but commonly used with reference to pestilence), and wild beasts. Although severe, these judgments are limited in their scope, touching only ¼ of the earth. This preliminary, partial judgment of the earth is designed to prepare us for the final, consummate judgment that will come with the 7th in each of the three series of woes. Wilcock writes:

“The wiping out of a quarter of the human race sounds like a disaster of the first magnitude, until one realizes that nothing has been said to indicate that this is a single catastrophic event [emphasis mine]. After all, every man dies sooner or later, and what is probably meant here is that a sizeable proportion of those deaths are the unnecessary ones caused by war and famine and kindred evils” (72).

Revelation 6:1-17; 8:1-5

The Fifth Seal – 6:9-11

The fifth seal focuses on the oppression and martyrdom of God’s people. Unlike the first four seals, the fifth says nothing of an angelic decree of judgment or suffering but rather a human response to it.

There is theological significance in the fact that believers are portrayed as consciously alive and present in heaven following death on the earth. This is what we typically call the intermediate state (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1,8-10; Phil. 1:20-23). It betrays an ignorance of the nature of apocalyptic language to ask how John could “see” “souls”. Again, the revelatory medium here is symbolic and visionary, not photographic literalism.

These are probably NT saints insofar as the cause for their martyrdom is their bearing witness in word and deed to the revelation of God in Christ. “Testimony” in Revelation regularly refers to a message about or from Jesus. These may be those martyred under Nero in the 60’s, but not to the exclusion of others who have likewise died for their faith.

These “souls” are portrayed as under the “altar”. The altar in view is probably the golden altar of incense which stood near the holy of holies (cf. 8:3-5; 9:13). The blood from the Day of Atonement was poured upon it and incense was regularly burned there (Ex. 30:1-10; Lev. 4:7; Heb. 9:4).

Why are they “under” the altar? Beale contends that in Revelation the “altar” is virtually synonymous with God’s throne (cf. 8:3-4; 9:13; 20:4,6). Thus, the point is the protection and security afforded the saints from the sovereign Lord who rules heaven and earth. Portraying the saints under the altar “emphasizes the divine protection that has held sway over their ‘soul’ despite even their loss of physical life because of persecution” (392).

The fact that they “cry out with a loud voice” indicates their passion and depth of concern for justice. Those in the intermediate state are not “sleeping” or in a state of unconscious repose. They burn with desire for the purposes of God to be fulfilled on the earth and for righteousness and vindication of the truth. A similar cry for vengeance is found in Psalm 79:5-6 and may provide the background for John’s language: “How long, O Lord? Wilt Thou be angry forever? Will Thy jealousy burn like fire? Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations which do not know Thee, and upon the kingdoms which do not call upon Thy name.”

The restraint of God is due both to his longsuffering (granting extended opportunity to repent) and the fulfillment of his pre-ordained purpose. John’s language indicates that there is a specified number of God’s people who are destined to be martyred (the verb translated “should be completed” in v. 11 “can mean ‘to make something total or complete, to complete the number of’” (Aune, 2:412). Only when all have been killed in accordance with God’s plan will he act in judgment. Note well: (a) God has determined that many of his people should be killed at the hands of unbelievers; their deaths are neither an accident to them nor a surprise to God. (b) God has also determined to hold morally accountable those unbelievers who he knows will sin by persecuting his people. How does this passage inform our understanding of the sovereignty of God and its relationship to human accountability?

Two things occur in response to the martyrs: (1) They are given “white robes”, probably a symbol of their purity that was revealed in their willingness to endure death for the sake of the gospel. “The robes are not given as a reward for purity of faith but as a heavenly declaration of the saints’ purity or righteousness and as an annulment of the guilty verdict rendered against them by the world. Therefore, receiving the robes is an assurance to the petitioning saints that the unbelieving ‘earth-dwellers’ will be declared guilty and punished for persecuting them” (Beale, 394). (2) They are told to “rest for a little while longer,” that is, to be patient until God’s purposes fully unfold.

The Sixth Seal – 6:12-17

The answer to the petition of the “souls” in v. 10 is found in vv. 12-17. Thus, the judgment of the sixth seal must be associated with the final or consummate wrath that comes at the end of the age.

These verses and their vivid portrayal of disruptions in the heavens echo several OT texts: Isa. 13:10-13 (the defeat of Babylon); 24:1-6,19-23; 34:4 (the defeat of Edom); Ezek. 32:6-8 (the defeat of Egypt); Joel 2:10,30-31 (judgment on Israel itself); 3:15-16; Hab. 3:6-11 (the defeat of the Chaldeans and other enemies of Israel). In particular, compare Isaiah 34:4 and God’s judgment against historical Edom with Rev. 6:13-14a.

“and the powers of the heaven will melt, and the heaven will be rolled up like a scroll; and all the stars will fall . . . as leaves fall from a fig tree” (Isa. 34:4).

“and the stars of the heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind, and the heaven was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up” (Rev. 6:13-14a).

The point is this: all these celestials (heavenly) and terrestrial (earthly) phenomena are prophetic hyperbole for national catastrophe. God’s judgment of earthly unbelief and idolatry is described in terms of heavenly disasters.

In other words, such language was used to portray not what is going on in the heavens but what is happening on the earth. Natural disasters, political upheaval, turmoil among the nations, etc., are often described figuratively through the terminology of cosmic disturbances. The ongoing and unsettled, turbulent state of affairs among earthly world powers is portrayed symbolically by reference to incredible events in the heavens. In other words, astronomical phenomena are used to describe the upheaval of earthly dynasties as well as great moral and spiritual changes. As one author has put it: “In prophetic language, great commotions upon earth are often represented under the notion of commotions and changes in the heavens” (Clarke). When the sun and moon are darkened or the stars fall from heaven, the reference is to the disasters and distresses befalling nations on the earth.

Former Dallas Seminary professor John Martin acknowledges that the language is figurative:

“The statements in [Isaiah] 13:10 about the heavenly bodies (stars . . . sun . . . moon) no longer functioning may figuratively describe the total turnaround of the political structure of the Near East. The same would be true of the heavens trembling and the earth shaking (v. 13), figures of speech suggesting all-encompassing destruction” (“Isaiah,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 1059).

William Kimball summarizes:

“When Israel was judged, or when Babylon was subdued by the Medes, or when Idumea and Egypt were destroyed, it was not the literal sun, moon, and stars that were darkened. The literal stars of heaven did not fall from the skies, and the literal constellations were not dissolved or rolled up as a scroll. These figurative expressions were clearly presented in a purely symbolic manner to characterize the destruction befalling nations and earthly powers” (166).

T. Wright is surely correct in contending that “it is crass literalism, in view of the many prophetic passages in which this language denotes socio-political and military catastrophe, to insist that this time the words must refer to the physical collapse of the space-time world. This is simply the way regular Jewish imagery is able to refer to major socio-political events and bring out their full significance” (Victory, 361). Again, “the dramatic and (to us) bizarre language of much ‘apocalyptic’ writing is evidence, not of paranoia or a dualistic worldview, as is sometimes anachronistically suggested, but of a creative reuse of Israel’s scriptural, and particularly prophetic, heritage” (Victory, 513). In summary, Revelation 6:12-14 is stock-in-trade OT prophetic language for national disaster.

In 6:14 “mountains” and “islands” also suffer displacement. Is this physically literal, or is it another example of prophetic hyperbole? Probably the latter. “Mountains” are often symbolic of evil forces and/or earthly kingdoms (cf. Jer. 51:25-26; Zech. 4:7) and “islands” often represent Gentile nations or kings (Pss. 72:10; 97:1; Isa. 41:1; 45:16; 49:1,22; 51:5; 60:9; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 26:18; Zech. 2:11). It would appear that in Rev. 16:20 we find the same language again as a symbolic portrayal of the judgment of Babylon and the rebellious cities of the earth.

I should also point out, however, that “mountains” and “islands” here may be symbolic simply of the most stable features of the world, all of which are portrayed in the OT as being displaced, cast aside, shaken, moved, etc. as a result of the presence of the Lord and especially the manifestation of his judgments. See Judges 5:5; Pss. 18:7; 46:2-3; Isa. 5:25; 54:10; 64:1; Jer. 4:24; Ezek. 26:18; 38:20; Micah 1:4; Nahum 1:5; Hab. 1:6; Zech. 14:4. Few, if any, commentators would suggest that these OT texts describe literal or physical displacement or movement of mountains and islands. Why, then, would they insist on it here in Revelation?

The first three groups in Rev. 6:15 on whom the judgment falls (“kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders”) are identical to those mentioned in the LXX of Isa. 34:12 where the judgment of Edom is portrayed. The language of Rev. 6:15-16 in which the people of the earth seek refuge from God’s wrath in caves and mountains is taken from Isa. 2:10,18-21 and Hosea 10:8, all of which may yet be a further allusion to Gen. 3:9 where Adam and Eve are described as “hiding from the presence of the Lord.”

That the wrath of 6:17 is the final outpouring at the end of history is seen by comparing the language used here with that in 16:14 and 11:18.

Beale points out the interesting fact that six parts of the cosmos are described as destroyed in vv. 12-14: (1) earth, (2) sun, (3) moon, (4) stars, (5) heaven, (6) mountains and islands; and that six classes of humanity are judged: (1) kings, (2) great men, (3) commanders, (4) the rich, (5) the strong, and (6) “every slave and free man”. This, he suggests, “could also support the suggestion . . . that the judgment of the cosmos in vv. 12-14 is figurative for the judgment of sinners in vv. 15-17. The parallel sixfold pattern may emphasize the imperfection both inanimate and human creation and, hence, the necessity that both be judged” (403-04). Others would separate “mountains” from “islands” and “slave” from “free man” in order to provide seven of each, thereby symbolizing the universality or completeness of the disasters.

Thus, I conclude that the first five seals portray different aspects of the whole of church history, in particular what believers will suffer in a world overrun with unbelief and opposition to Christ, whereas the sixth seal (and eventually the seventh as well) describes the hour that will end it. What we have seen, therefore, in these seal judgments is “the succession of woes which will sweep to and fro across the world throughout the course of history, and which often cause men to wonder whether the forces of evil are not altogether out of control” (Wilcock, 76).

[Parenthetical Interlude – 7:1-17]

The Seventh Seal – 8:1-5

A few scholars have argued that there is no content to the seventh seal, as indicated by the reference to “silence” in 8:1. To them, the seventh seal appears empty. This has led some to posit that the seven trumpets themselves, and perhaps also the seven bowls, constitute the substance of the seventh seal. Before drawing this conclusion, however, we must discern the meaning of “silence”. Various options are available.

(1) Some see the “silence” as a temporary suspension of divine revelation (for what purpose is not stated). This silence may be indicative of mankind’s awestruck reverence in view of the revelation of God’s wrath and the imminence of the end. (2) Others think the silence is that of the heavenly hosts, i.e., angels as they stand witness to God’s redemptive purpose unfolding.

(3) Rissi and Swete in their commentaries suggest that this is an allusion to the silence that preceded creation and which now precedes the new creation. Perhaps this indicates God’s rest from the judgments that began with the first six seals. Again, however, this is speculative and lacks explicit biblical precedent.

(4) Others see it as no more than a dramatic pause in the narrative, preparatory to the introduction of the seven trumpets.

(5) Closer to the correct view is the fact that silence in the OT is often a prelude to some divine manifestation (Job 4:16; Zeph. 1:17; Zech. 2:13). Many, however, contend that the meaning of “silence” must be found in the OT where it often points to divine judgment. See, for example, Ps. 115:17; 31:17; Isa. 47:5; Ezek. 27:32; Amos 8:2-3; Lam. 2:10-11; 1 Sam. 2:9-10; Hab. 2:20 (cf. Isa. 23:2; 41:1-5). To be even more specific, perhaps the silence is an indication that God has heard the prayers of the martyrs for vengeance (Rev. 6:10) and is now prepared to respond. In this way the seventh seal is linked to 8:3-5 where “the silence is related to God’s heavenly temple and sacrificial altar, from which judgment emanates” (Beale, 447).

The imagery of the smoke of incense (see Ps. 141:1-2) rising before God (8:4) points to a positive answer to the martyr’s request. Indeed, 8:5 would constitute the actual historical execution of God’s verdict on behalf of his people. Bauckham even suggests that “the silence is that during which the angel burns the incense on the altar to accompany the prayers of the saints” (Climax, 70). Thus “at the climax of history, heaven is silent [figuratively speaking, of course] so that the prayers of the saints can be heard, and the final judgment occurs in response to them (v. 5)” (71). While the incense rises up to God, the fire of the altar is directed toward earth, the latter a metaphor anticipating the trumpet judgments that immediately follow in John’s vision. There is no need for 8:5 to elaborate on the essence or extent of that judgment, insofar as several subsequent texts will do that in great detail (see 11:14-19; 14:14-20; 16:17-21; 18:9-24; 19:19-21; 20:11-15). Be it also noted that “peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake” (8:5) are elsewhere found in texts that undeniably describe the final judgment of the unbelieving world (11:18; 16:18). It may even be that John envisions the trumpets and bowls themselves as part of the answer of God to the prayer of the martyrs.

There is no clear reason why the silence lasts only “for about half an hour” (8:1). The use of the word translated “as” or “about” indicates that John is giving us only an approximation of time. It could be slightly less than half an hour or slightly more. Often in Revelation the time reference “one hour” is used to refer to a sudden and swift crisis in the judgment of the unrepentant or ungodly (see 3:3,10; 11:13; 14:7,15; 18:10,17,19). There is no reason to believe that a literal 30 minutes is in view.

Some have seen the introduction of the trumpet judgments in 8:2 as problematic. If 8:3-5 refers to the content of the seventh seal, why does John insert reference to the seven trumpets in 8:2 and then pick up with their description in 8:6? Most likely the apparent awkwardness of John’s argument is “part of an interlocking literary transition, . . . a device that has parallels elsewhere in the book. The placement of v. 2 before vv. 3-5 allows vv. 2-5 to act as a parenthetical transition [or literary hinge, as it were] both concluding the seals and introducing the trumpets” (Beale, 454). The altar of 8:3 is probably the same as the altar of 6:10, especially if the link I have drawn between the prayer of 6:10 and its answer in 8:3-5 is accurate.

By: Sam Storms