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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- PSALMS 1-50--- ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
THE SECOND VISION.
Chapter 4-5 The Vision of Heaven - the Book with Seven Seals - and the Lamb.
The Vision Of Heaven.
4.1 ‘After these things I saw, and behold, a door opened in heaven. And the first voice which I heard, a voice as of a trumpet speaking with me, one saying, “Come up here and I will show you the things that must happen hereafter”.’
‘After these things I saw’ - This was the next thing John saw chronologically but that does not mean that it followed what was in the previous vision chronologically in time. That must always be decided by the context. The phrase demonstrates the beginning of a totally new vision, confirmed by the statement of his being once again ‘in Spirit’ (4.2). This vision begins the outworking of God’s purposes in history from John’s days onwards as is clear from what follows.
‘And behold a door opened in Heaven’. John realises that he is to be allowed to enter Heaven in vision (compare 2 Corinthians 12.4 where Paul also was carried up into Paradise).
‘And the first voice that I heard was one of a trumpet speaking to me, saying ‘Come up here and I will show you the things which must occur hereafter’. The description suggests that this is the same voice as he had heard in 1.10. But here there is no vision from the future. Having previously been carried forward to ‘the Lord’s day’ he is now back to his own day hearing the same Lord speaking to him and is to be allowed a vision of Heaven at the time of writing.
This raises the question as to how this relates to the first vision. The answer is that it is providing the context for what is to follow for the churches and for the world, leading up to His appearing in glory. His readers need to be aware of activities in Heaven, which will result in activities on earth, that will prepare for His coming. There is no suggestion that this vision is ‘on the Lord’s day’.
Some seek to relate it directly to the vision of the son of man coming with the clouds of Heaven into the presence of the ancient of days (Daniel 7), something fulfilled at the resurrection and ascension (Matthew 28.18; Acts 2.33; 7.55-56; Ephesians 1.20-21), as though it was the same event. But this must be considered extremely doubtful. While both are visions of Heaven and must therefore be expected to have certain similarities, there are no similarities as to the events that take place and the description of God is very different. Furthermore in Daniel 7 the son of man comes out of suffering and into the presence of God to receive a kingdom, while here He is already ‘in the midst of the throne’ (Revelation 5.6) and about to control the destiny of the world with the aim of bringing things to their final conclusion. This scene therefore comes later than that in Daniel 7. God wants His people to know that what is about to come on them is part of that process. We must therefore view it as a separate occasion.
‘The things which must be hereafter’, that is, after that point in time. The coming events are to follow the time of John’s vision on the Isle of Patmos, which resulted in the letters to the seven churches. These are events which will ‘shortly happen’ following the revelation to the seven churches, and will be introductory to His coming. It will be an encouragement to John and his readers in the times of trouble ahead to recognise that what they are experiencing is part of the preparations for the end.
4.2 ‘Immediately I was in Spirit and, behold, there was a throne set in Heaven, and one sitting on the throne.’
There is no suggestion this time that he is carried forward to the Lord’s day. Rather he is carried ‘upward’ into Heaven. And there he sees a throne set in Heaven. Whatever happens on earth, God is on His throne.
‘One sitting on the throne’. This is the description used throughout the book for God the Father (see 5.13; 6.16; 7.10). The Lord reigns! (1 Chronicles 16.31; Psalm 93.1; 96.10; 97.1; 99.1) That the throne was ‘set’ in Heaven does not mean set for a special purpose, for, unlike in Daniel, there is no suggestion that the other thrones are less than permanent. In a sense (from a literal point of view) the throne was set for all time
Throughout the Bible God is regularly depicted as being on a throne because He is sovereign over the universe. In 1 Kings 22.19 Micaiah declares, ‘I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of Heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left’. The point is that he does view the Lord in terms of a king on His throne with heavenly attendants.
Isaiah says, ‘I saw the Lord, sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. And above him stood the ‘seraphim’ ( probably meaning ‘those who burn up’, therefore purifiers - see verses 6-7); each one had six wings, with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet and with two he flew, and one cried to another and said, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6.2 on).’ Again the Lord is depicted as a king on His throne, this time with fewer heavenly attendants, but in this case they are within the Temple for a special purpose, the purifying and commissioning of Isaiah for His task ahead. (Revelation 4.7-8 seem to equate the seraphim with the cherubim, see later on those verses).
Ezekiel 1.4-28 depicts four living creatures, the cherubim, each in the likeness of a man, each with four faces and four wings, two of the wings connecting with those of the other living creatures and two covering their bodies. The four faces are those of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. Their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches, and they were accompanied by bright fire and lightning. (In 10.12 their whole body, and their backs and their hands and their wings, and the wheels, are full of eyes round about).
They were also accompanied by sets of wheels (called ‘the whirling wheels’ 10.13 - possibly with whirlwinds in mind) which went wherever the living creatures went. Over their heads as they flew, joined together by their wings, was the likeness of a firmament (beaten out plate), like the colour of awesome crystal, stretched out over their heads, which they were clearly bearing along. And above the firmament was the likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone, and on the likeness of the throne was ‘the likeness of the appearance of a man on it above, and I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire within it round about, from the appearance of his loins and upwards. And from the appearance of his loins and downward I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness round about him. As the appearance of the rainbow was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’. This whole description is clearly based on the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant in the Tabernacle, confirming that that was seen as the throne of the invisible God, and in Ezekiel it is seen as a moving chariot bearing the Lord around.
There the Lord is depicted as on a transportable throne, borne by the cherubim (10.1), with the aim of showing that He has deserted the Temple and is now with His people in the land of the Chaldeans.
Daniel says, ‘I watched until thrones were placed, and one who was ancient of days did sit, his clothing was white as snow and the hair of his head like pure wool. His throne was fiery flames and the wheels of it burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came out from before him, thousand thousands ministered to him and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The judgment was set and the books were opened’. Interestingly Daniel also sees God’s throne as transportable (wheels of burning fire). Note also that there were either two or a number of other thrones ‘placed’. The other may have been awaiting the coming of the son of man. This seems the most probable as no other reason for the plural thrones is given, whereas his enthronement is described, or they may possibly be for the more important members of His court who are seen as sitting in judgment (Daniel 7.9).
A throne is also assumed (and specifically mentioned in Hebrews 12.2) in such passages as Hebrews 1.3, where the Lord Jesus is sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (compare Mark 16.19; Luke 22.69; Acts 2.33-35; 7.56; Romans 8.34; Ephesians 1.20; Colossians 3.1; Hebrews 8.1; 10.12; 12.2; 1 Peter 3.22). The stress in these cases is that Jesus is sat down (or stands) at the right hand of God, i.e. takes His place with the Father, receiving supreme authority. He is His ‘right hand man’ (Psalm 80.17).
It is clear from all this that God is seen as having a throne wherever He wills in order to reveal His sovereignty and to carry out His purposes. He is always accompanied by heavenly attendants, although of varying descriptions. When limited to only one kind they are there to perform a particular service. When His purpose is to carry out judgment He is attended by a considerable host, some of whom are possibly enthroned, as with minor kings to a Great King on earth. The passages depicting Jesus as at the right hand of God may be thought to suggest a permanent throne, but what they in fact declare in picture form is God’s permanent sovereignty and Jesus’ participation in that sovereignty. So the throne set in Heaven follows this pattern.
However, although the vision that John sees may appear to be of what seems physical, it is really, as with the other visions, a way of revealing spiritual truth. Thus for example, when in 2 Kings 6.17 Elisha’s servant sees horses and chariots of fire, this does not mean that in Heaven there are permanently horses and chariots. Rather he is being shown in terms that relate to his own day the power of God to save and deliver from the hands of men. In the same way John is having spiritual reality brought home to him in a way he can understand and appreciate, and pass on to others. In fact there is no physical throne like an earthly throne in Heaven for God is not physical. He is Spirit (as we also will be in our resurrection bodies - 1 Corinthians 15.42-45). It is put in earthly terms for our benefit. What there really is we cannot begin to conceive
4.3 ‘And he who sat (on the throne) was to look on like a jasper stone (green) and a sardius (red), and there was a rainbow round about the throne, like an emerald (green) to look on.’
The rainbow ties in with Ezekiel 1.28, although there it is rainbow coloured. It may be seen as a reminder of God’s covenant made to Noah (Genesis 9.13-17) and thus that God remembers His covenants made with the world and His people. The stones were among those depicted in the High Priests breastplate, but only as two among many, and the same applies to these stones as adorning the foundations of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21.19-20). It would appear therefore that John’s main aim is to depict what he saw in terms which described it physically. Compare ‘amber’ in Ezekiel 1.27. John makes no attempt to depict the likeness of God. He avoids the descriptions in Ezekiel and Daniel. What he saw he considered to be indescribable.
4.4 ‘And round about the throne were twenty four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and on their heads crowns of gold.’
These thrones might tie in with Daniel’s description in Daniel 7, although Daniel only mentions them in passing. They are an indication that this is a particularly important occasion. All Heaven is participating in what is to happen. The description of ‘elders’ shows the respect in which these figures were held. Their authority is depicted by the fact that they alone sit on thrones. Compare 20.4 where thrones are given to those who sit in judgment. The elders are probably the ones referred to as ‘thrones’ in Colossians 1.16
In all ancient societies (e.g. Genesis 50.7; Numbers 22.7) older men were looked on as wise and to be respected. But the term elder was also an official one used of those who were given special overall authority, who were usually older men, but not necessarily so. In Exodus 24.1 Moses is assisted by seventy ‘elders’, and later every city had its own ruling body of ‘elders’. The influence of ‘the elders’ continued in the appointment of Saul and throughout the Monarchy, as representing the people (1 Sam 8.4 on; 2 Samuel 5.3; 1 Kings 8.1, 3; 1 Kings 20.7; 21.8; 2 Kings 10.1; 19.2; 23.1). Ezekiel had dealings with them in the captivity (Ezekiel 8.1; 14.1; 20.1). There were also ‘elders of the priests’ (Isaiah 37.2; Jeremiah 19.1).
In the time of Jesus ‘the elders’ were a respected group, separate from the priesthood and the Pharisees (Matthew 26.3), men of influence, heads of important lay families who were represented on the Sanhedrin, and who were seen as the people’s representatives (see Luke 19.47).
In the church the elders were a ruling body who looked after church affairs (Acts 11.30; 14.23; 15.2 and often; 1 Timothy 5.17; Titus 1.5; James 5.14; 1 Peter 5.1). Peter himself claims to be an elder (1 Peter 5.1) as does John (2 John 1; 3 John 1). Thus elders were figures of authority and maturity who ruled over affairs on behalf of others and represented the people, or the priests, or the church or whoever had selected them.
But who are these elders? They are figures of royal authority in Heaven, but they continually cast their crowns down before the throne showing their total submission to God (4.10). Thus they recognise the total rightness of His judgments and His position. They are clothed with white clothing emphasising their purity and righteousness. The crowns of gold on their heads represent their royal authority under God. They are the only beings who wear crowns in the presence of God.
The number twenty four links them with the courses of priesthood established by David under divine inspiration (1 Chronicles 24.3-5, 7-19 with 1 Chronicles 28.11-13, 19). That there were ‘elders of the priests’ is confirmed in Isaiah 37.2; Jeremiah 19.1 - where they are distinguished from the elders of the people. The fact that they have a priestly role is confirmed by the fact that they sing praise to God (they are the only ones described as singing) (5.9) and have golden bowls full of incense which are the prayers of God’s people (‘saints’ in the New Testament is the name given to God’s people as a whole. See Acts 9.13, 32, 41; 26.10; Romans 1.7; 8.27; 12.13; 15.25-26, 31; 16.2, 15; 1 Corinthians 1.2; 6.1-2; 14.33 and often throughout Paul’s letters; the regular introductions to Paul’s letters; Hebrews 6.10; 13.24).
The twenty four elders continually worship God (4.10) and sing of what He has done for His people, who parallel on earth what these represent in Heaven (5.9-10). Thus they are a royal priesthood who in Heaven represent God’s people on earth. They wear crowns because they represent those who are a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2.9), those who will one day share the throne of Christ.
On earth Israel were intended to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19.6), indicating that they had a ministry to the nations to minister for them and seek to bring them to God. Apart from their sacrificial duties one of the responsibilities of the priests was to teach the Law (Leviticus 10.11; Ezra 7.10; Malachi 2.7). This task then became the church’s whom Peter declared to be a holy priesthood, and indeed a royal priesthood, who were to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ Jesus (1 Peter 2.5 , 9). Thus they too are a kingdom of priests (Revelation 1.6).
So while in the number ‘twenty four’ we may secondarily see a connection between the twenty four elders and the twelve tribes of Israel, headed by their patriarchs, combined with the twelve apostles (Revelation 21.12-14 - but notice that the two sets of twelve are distinguished there, not combined), it is not the main idea. The main stress is on the fact that the elders are a heavenly royal priesthood, although as with the church, they are interceding and worshipping priests, not sacrificing priests, for they recognise that the one sacrifice has been made once for all (Revelation 5.9). In that sense they represent the church of Christ and the saints of the Old Testament before God (for Old Testament ‘saints’ see 1 Samuel 2.9; 2 Chronicles 6.41; Psalm 16.3; 30.4 and often; Proverbs 2.8; Daniel 7.18-27; Matthew 27.52).
The popular view that they are the church is based on hope (and a doubtful text in AV), rather than exegesis. This is evident from the fact that:
But the elders are representatives of the church before God, and the fact that the highest beings in Heaven apart from the Godhead (the only ones to have thrones and crowns) are seen as acting on behalf of the church, and bringing them and their prayers to attention before God, was intended to act as an encouragement to the church on earth in the time of tribulation to come.
As each church has its angel who watches over it and represents it before the Father, as demonstrated by the angels of the seven churches (and as angels represent and watch over little children who believe in Christ - Matthew 18.10), so the church of Old and New Testament believers are watched over by the twenty four elders, whose specific task concerns the universal church. But they too are servants of God and must not therefore be venerated directly (Revelation 19.10; 22.9).
4.5a ‘And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and voices and thunders.’
This and similar descriptions are regularly used as a method of bringing out the awesome nature of revelations of God when God is about to act. They occurred when God first made His covenant with Israel, which contained the ten commandments, and they occur continually through Revelation as God acts in history (Revelation 8.5; 11.19; 16.18 compare Exodus 19.16; 20.18, where the voice is the voice of a trumpet). They signify the exclusiveness and untouchableness of God and the awesome nature of His activities (Hebrews 12.18-21).
4.5b ‘And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God.’
These are the seven angels of the Presence (see on 1.4). They are ‘before the throne’ showing that they are servants, and like ‘burning fire’, demonstrating their holiness (compare the cherubim in Ezekiel 1.13). Nothing is said of their activities for they are waiting for their appointed holy task, allocated to them by the Lamb, which will be revealed shortly. They are there ready and waiting to serve. Their linking with the lightnings and thunder and voices confirm that something awesome is about to happen.
4.6a ‘And before the throne as it were a glassy sea, like crystal.’
Compare the ‘firmament’ carried by the cherubim which bore the throne of God in Ezekiel 1.22 which also was of crystal. This sea is based on the molten sea in the Temple of Solomon (1 Kings 7.23-39; 2 Chronicles 4.2-10). There it was a large bronze sea of over 16,000 gallons capacity (nearly 73,000 litres) mounted on twelve bronze oxen, and was for the priests to wash in (2 Chronicles 4.6). While the water would be as clean as they could get it, it would be fairly murky (we tend to forget they had no pure water supply on hand), and was for the removal of ‘earthiness’.
Here it is replaced by crystal-like glass, which is a symbol of unearthiness, holiness and purity. The washing for priests, like all Old Testament washings, removed the earthiness that was preparatory to waiting on God for cleansing. (Every mention of washing with water in the Pentateuch is followed by the phrase ‘and shall not be clean until the evening’, thus it was preparatory not finally effective). Now in Heaven there is no more earthiness, all is pure, and therefore no sea for washing is required. Instead the crystal sea reflects the holiness and purity of God and of the redeemed. That is why the sea is now crystallised, a reminder of what is and what was.
The glassy sea is mentioned again in Revelation 15.2 where it is mingled with fire and those who have gained victory over the Beast gather there, holding harps of God, made pure through tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (7.14). At this point they sing ‘the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 31.30; 32.44), the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb’ which is based on a number of Old Testament scriptures including Deuteronomy 32.3-4, and stresses that He is true, righteous and uniquely holy. This is also what the sea symbolises.
4.6b-8 ‘And in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes before and behind. And the first creature was like a lion, the second creature like a calf, the third creature had a face as of a man, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them having six wings, are full of eyes round about and within. And they never rest day or night saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, which was and which is and which is to come.’
This is clearly a combination of the living creatures (cherubim) in Ezekiel 1 and 10 with the seraphim in Isaiah 6.
Full of eyes before and behind, without and within, reflects Ezekiel 1.18 and 10.12. The likenesses of lion, calf, man and eagle parallel man, lion, ox and eagle, although in Ezekiel each living creature had all four faces whereas here each has only one of the faces (the difference confirms that they are symbolic only). The six wings parallel Isaiah 6.2 (in Ezekiel they have four wings) and the cry of ‘holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty’ parallels the cry in Isaiah 6.3. They are thus cherubim and seraphim.
That these in some way represent creation is suggested by a number of factors.
Their history is significant. They first appear to guard the way to the tree of life after the fall of man (Genesis 3.24). This demonstrates their responsibility for protecting creation from permanent control by fallen man, and for the preservation of God’s holy purposes. Man can no longer enter the place where God reveals Himself.
They are then represented on the ark of the covenant where a golden cherub is at each end of the mercy seat which is upon the ark, and their wings cover the mercy seat, which is the throne of God. The cherubim are also represented on the curtains in the Tabernacle, and especially on the veil that guards the way from the holy place into the Holy of Holies (Exodus 26.1, 31-35). Again they are seen as preservers of God’s holiness, and the means of preventing men from unholy folly.
God speaks to Moses from above the mercy seat from between the cherubim (Numbers 7.89) and is in fact seen as ‘dwelling between the cherubim’ (1 Samuel 4.4; 2 Kings 19.15; 1 Chronicles 13.6). Solomon in his Temple also places two large cherubim in the Holy of Holies under which the ark will rest (2 Chronicles 3.10; 5.7).
The psalmists transfer the idea from the Tabernacle and speak of God Himself as in reality dwelling between the cherubim as the Shepherd of Israel and as the reigning Lord (Psalm 80.1; 99.1). In Psalm 99 this is directly connected with the holiness of God (v.3). In Isaiah 37.16 Hezekiah also prays to the God who dwells between the cherubim.
In Ezekiel 1 and 10 God is seen as travelling in a chariot which was made up of a throne placed on a firmament (flattened out surface) borne by four living creatures, or cherubim. Thus the cherubim are seen as the close attendants of God. But here we learn of their resemblances to the four living things in creation, the beasts, domestic animals, birds and man, suggesting their responsibilities for these.
In Isaiah 6 we read rather of the seraphim (burning ones) whose cry is holy, holy, holy, and who are purgers of sin through God’s method of provision. Revelation 4 links these with the cherubim. Thus once again we see the cherubim as concerned with the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. We note especially that both cherubim and seraphim use a pair of wings to cover themselves before a holy God (Isaiah 6.2; Ezekiel 1.11).
So the cherubim are constant companions of God in His service, preservers of God’s holiness, preventers of the approach of sin towards God, and purgers of sin (but only through sacrifice - they use the coals of the altar) in one who is allowed to see God. This is partially apparent here in Revelation 4. Here they cry ‘holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty’, and their whole concern is for ‘the one who was, and is and is to come’.
Here ‘the One Who was’ is the most prominent as coming first (compare 1.4, 8 where the concentration was on ‘the One Who is’). They watch over creation, as represented by four living creatures, lion, calf, eagle and man. Thus the heavenly living creatures are concerned with all earthly living creatures. They worship the Lamb (5.8) and say ‘Amen’ when the whole of creation praises Him (5.14) for they recognise He is their God, and the God of creation. The fact that they are covered with eyes may suggest that nothing is hidden from them in their service for God (compare Zechariah 4.10).
It need hardly be said that we are not to take the representations of the living creatures literally (any more than we are to take anything in this chapter literally for it is representing spiritual ideas by ‘earthly’ pictures). This is demonstrated both by the differing descriptions of the faces, and the differing number of wings, as compared with Old Testament representations. They represent ideas, not facts, the idea of God’s concern for the holiness of creation.
The living creatures ‘stand in the midst of the throne and around the throne’. Apart from the Lamb Who is in the midst of the throne they are the nearest to the One Who sits on the throne. They do not share the throne as the Lamb does, for their position is qualified by ‘around the throne’. The idea would appear to be that they are stationed, as it were, at each corner of the throne platform.
4.9-11 ‘And when the living creatures will give glory and honour and thanks to him who sits on the throne, to him who lives for ever and ever (unto the ages of the ages), the four and twenty elders will fall down before him who sits on the throne and will worship him who lives for ever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and our God, to receive the honour and the glory and the power, for you created all things, and because of your will they came into existence (‘they were’) and were created”.’
The living creatures, as the close servants of God, lead the praise. They continually give glory and honour and thanks to Him Who is seated on the throne, the One Who created all things, the One Who reigns. (The ‘continually’ comes from the use of the future tense, which here means ‘whenever they do it then ----’ , the writer’s way of rendering the Hebrew ‘imperfect’).
Then the elders make their reply. They, of course, are aware that the living creatures represent the whole of creation, and they cast their crowns before God and speak of God’s whole creation. All things came into existence through His will, He created them in accordance with His will. Thus is He worthy to receive the worship of all creation through the living creatures. It is the fact that He is the Lord of Creation that gives Him the right to do what is about to be done, the releasing of creation from its dreadful bondage (Romans 8.19-25). It came into being by His will, and it is His. Now He will restore it fully. (The song is fourfold as befits a song celebrating creation, compare 5.13).
Notice the stress on the fact that He is the One Who lives for ever and ever and that He is the One Who sits on the throne. From everlasting to everlasting He is God. As the living creatures had earlier said, He is the One Who was and Who is and Who is to come, the Almighty God. He is the One Who created all things, He is the One Who is sovereign over all things, He is the One Who will bring all things into subjection to Himself, and in recognition of this the elders fling their crowns at His feet in submission and worship Him, on behalf of His people whom they represent. This leads on to the next action.
5.1 ‘And I saw on the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the outside, close sealed with seven seals.’
The fact that the scroll is sealed demonstrates its great, official importance. The number of seals demonstrates the divine perfection and completeness of its contents. The number seven was seen worldwide as the number of divine perfection. It also demonstrates that it contains within itself the whole plan of God. It is complete in itself.
In the law of that time an important will or other official document had to be sealed by seven witnesses. It could then only be opened by an authorised person. The same is clearly true here. But its even greater importance lies in the fact that it was on the Sovereign God’s right hand. It clearly contains within it the will and purpose of God. Thus once it is opened His purpose will be carried out and His will will be done. But it is awaiting the proper time. The use of ‘on’ rather than ‘in’ suggests that it is lying there in His hand waiting for the One Who is worthy to take it.
The expressions used in this verse are partly taken from Isaiah 29.11; Ezekiel 2.9-10 and Daniel 8.26. In Isaiah there is a sealed book, sealed because the people have refused to listen to the prophets, and therefore prophecy will be withheld. It must await a future day. Now prophecy will be opened up and fulfilled. In Ezekiel 2.9-10 Ezekiel receives a scroll written within and without, as here, and ‘there was written in it lamentations and mournings and woe’. The scroll here is partly patterned on that scroll for its description and contents are similar. In Daniel 8.26 Daniel is told to ‘shut up the vision for it belongs to many days to come’. Now the vision will be revealed and come into action.
Here then we have a scroll, perfectly sealed, written within and without and full of lamentations and mournings and woe, which contains the vision of future days and is about to be opened up. It contains the fulfilment of prophecy. The coming of the Word made flesh has meant a new beginning.
5.2 ‘And I saw a strong angel proclaiming, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to break its seals?’
Surely there will be no problem. Here are the four living creatures who protect the throne of God and preserve His holiness, who go with Him wherever He goes and desire only to do His will. Here are the twenty four elders, crowned and seated on thrones, trusted by God with responsibility for His own redeemed people. Here are the seven angels of the Presence with responsibility for the whole earth, waiting to carry out the will of God. Surely one of them will be worthy to open the scroll?
5.3 ‘And no one in Heaven or earth or under the earth was able to open the book or read it.’
This is the great surprise. Having considered all the virtues, all the powers, all the authority of these heavenly beings they are found not to be able to open the scroll. And why is this? It is because it contains the future destiny of Heaven and earth, and only One Who has the right qualifications can fulfil that destiny, and with all their glory they do not have those specific qualifications.
5.4 ‘And I wept much because no one was found worthy to open the book or to read it.’
What tension John is under. He has seen things beyond the imaginations of men, and now he sees the book of the destiny of Heaven and earth, and it remains sealed because no one can open it. No wonder he breaks down and weeps.
5.5 ‘And one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion who is of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49.9-10), the Root of David (Isaiah 11.1), he has overcome so as to be able to open the book and break its seven seals”.’
The opening of the book requires someone very special. He must be the fulfilment of prophecy, the promised Messiah of the house of David, for, as Scripture has made clear, only through Him can God’s purposes be fulfilled. And He must be an overcomer. He must have faced every test on earth and have come through it, successful and unscathed. And there is only One such, and He is here for John to see.
The idea of the lion of the tribe of Judah comes from Genesis 49.9-10. The lion was the most splendid and awesome of beasts, the powerful hunter. It thus represented someone strong and powerful, before whom all were afraid. The root of David stresses someone directly descended from David, the prototype of the coming everlasting king.
5.6 ‘And I saw in the midst of the throne, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God who are sent out into all the earth.’
What a paradox. The great overcoming Lion turns out to be a slain Lamb. The victor turns out to be a bleeding victim. But the lesson is that it was only through His becoming a victim that He has become the victor. Only His death has made possible the fulfilment of the purposes of God.
Yet He is not only the slain Lamb, He is also the Lord of Creation. Under His personal control are seven great powers (horns), seven all-seeing powers (eyes). These are the seven chief angels who control all earthly activity. The horn in prophecy is ever the symbol of power, it is the means by which a beast exerts its authority and accomplishes his will. It regularly represents kings (e.g. Daniel 8.3, 5, 20, 21). Here it represents those who are greater than kings.
Reference to Jesus as the Lamb of God is only found in John’s writings (John 1.29, 36; and constantly in Revelation, but compare Acts 8.32; 1 Corinthians 5.7; 1 Peter 1.19 and Hebrews). In John He is the Passover lamb, slain as a sacrifice for sin (it was solemnly offered in the Temple showing it was seen as a sacrifice) and as a guarantee of safety from the wrath of God and of deliverance through His power (Exodus 12.1-36). But it is clear that He is also the suffering Servant who has sacrificed Himself for the sins of others, the lamb led to the slaughter of Isaiah 53.7, Who has taken away the sin of the world (John 1.29). It is through His sacrifice on the cross that the purposes of God can unfold.
5.7-10 ‘And he came and took the scroll out of the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints, and they sing a new song, saying “You are worthy to take the scroll and to break its seals, for you were slain and purchased for God with your blood those of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and you made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they are reigning (or shall reign) on the earth.’
The release of the scroll by the One on the throne demonstrated the authority and rightness of the Lion of Judah and Lamb of God for the task in hand. The Lamb is recognised as having the right and authority to open the scroll, for it is released into His care. Thus the One worthy to open the scroll had to be extremely powerful, and yet have been offered as a sacrifice on behalf of the world which the scroll will affect.
And at this the living creatures and the elders fall down and worship Him, and the elders, the representatives of the church on earth, break into singing holding each in their hands a harp and golden bowls full of incense which are the prayers of God’s people. Here we see their priestly function. They are represented as presenting men’s worship before God.
The idea of prayers as incense is taken from the words of the psalmist, ‘Let my prayer be set forth as incense before you, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice’ (Psalm 141.2 ). The golden bowls were those used in the Holy place and the Holy of Holies (e.g. Exodus 25.29; 1 Kings 7.50 contrast v.45) for the use of the priests. It is clearly the elders’ responsibility to gather the prayers of God’s people and pass them on to Him (compare Daniel 10.12-13). But there is no suggestion that we should pray to them, and John is later admonished for doing such a thing. The harp was associated with joy, thanksgiving and worship (1 Chronicles 25.1, 6; Psalm 71.22; 92.3; 149.3). The description ‘of every tribe and tongue and people and nation’ is an amplification of a phrase in Daniel 3.29.
‘They sing a new song’. Compare Isaiah 42.9-10 where singing a new song occurs because something new is about to happen. The presence and actions of the Lamb produce a different song from the elders than that of 4.11. It is a new song, the song of redemption. The one thing that has fitted the Lamb for His task is that He has bought for God, through the offering of Himself, people from every nation under Heaven. He has further made them a kingdom, and priests to God (i.e. a kingdom of priests: see on 1.5-6). They are His kingdom, and His priestly kingdom, given the task of making offerings of praise and thanksgiving (Hebrews 13.15; compare Psalm 107.22; 116.17) and of presenting God’s truth to all.
‘And they are reigning on the earth’. The manuscripts, which are somewhat lacking in Revelation, tend to favour the present tense, but some have the future tense. The present tense, which is most probable, and ties in with the fact that they are enjoying the present position as a kingdom of priests, (note that in 1 Peter 2.9 we are a royal priesthood), stresses that through Christ His people are already reigning, as described in Ephesians 1.20-21 with 2.6. Compare Romans 5.17, Colossians 3.1. They share with Christ His present reign.
If we prefer the future tense it really says the same. It says that because they are a kingdom of priests they will reign on earth in the forthcoming days. It is a statement of confident assurance in the wellbeing of God’s people. They will reign on earth, as one day they will be resurrected and reign with Christ over the universe (2 Timothy 2.12: Revelation 22.5).
5.11-14 ‘And I saw, and I heard a voice of many angels round about the throne and the living creatures and the elders, and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a great voice “Worthy is the Lamb who has been slain to receive the power, and riches, and wisdom, and might, and honour, and glory, and blessing”. And every created thing which is in the heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and on the sea, and all things that are in them heard I saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be the blessing, and the honour, and the glory, and the dominion, for ever and ever”. And the four living creatures said, “Amen”. And the elders fell down and worshipped.’
The number of angels parallels Daniel 7.10, but this is more an indication of John’s knowledge of Daniel than evidence that this is the same scene, for it is simply a way of declaring their number as being too large to count. In the court of God are angels without number.
These angels now add to the worship of the Lamb. Their cry is sevenfold, an indication of divine completeness, and in it they acknowledge His worthiness for what He is about to do, and what as a consequence He will receive. At His ascension He was seated at God’s right hand as the One Who was given all authority and power in Heaven and earth (Matthew 28.18; Acts 2.30-35; 1 Corinthians 15.25-26; Ephesians 1.20-21 compare Daniel 7.13-14). Now will begin the full realisation of that gift, until all is put under His feet. In a sense, of course, this process began at the ascension, but the emphasis here is that the churches must see the coming troubles as specifically part of that process. They can find strength from the fact that their tribulation is taking forward the purposes of God.
The fact that He will receive ‘riches’ is drawn to our attention by the fact that the word is omitted in a similar worship in 7.12. The riches He is to receive are spiritual riches (Luke 16.11) and include the ‘riches of the glory of His inheritance in God’s people’ (Ephesians 1.18).
Earth then gives its reply. This is, of course, in vision. And in that vision John sees every living thing on earth glorifying God and the Lamb. Nature does naturally what man will not do. The fourfold nature of their cry is an indication of the involvement of the whole earth for four is the number of earth. So Heaven and earth proclaim the worthiness of God and of the Lamb. And the living creatures say “Amen’ to creation’s worship, for they are the representatives in Heaven of that creation. And the elders fall down and worship, for they are the representatives of the people of God. The conjunction of the worshipping of the One on the throne with the worshipping of the Lamb is evidence of Christ’s full divinity.
Notice the way in which the praise and worship commences with the living creatures and the elders, moves on to the angels, on to the whole creation, then back to the living creatures and the elders.
Chapter 6 The Opening of the First Six Seals.
The next stage of John’s vision describes the opening of the seals by the Lamb, and it will soon be clear that the result is the outworking of world history. It is the beginning of the end! However we know that it will take two thousand years and more to come to completion. But that was not apparent then. The passage has many parallels with the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus in Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21, and is mainly based on that discourse except in more vivid style. We will therefore briefly consider those passages.
EXCURSUS: The Apocalyptic Discourse of Jesus (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21).
The background to this teaching was Jesus’ statement, given in reply to the disciples’ expressed admiration of Herod’s Temple, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down’ (Mark 13.2). This leads Peter, James, John and Andrew to ask Him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?’ (Mark 13.4 compare Luke 21.6-7).
Now consider the circumstances. They have just been told that the Temple they see before them, huge and magnificent and permanent, will be destroyed totally. No wonder their interest is stirred. Indeed they can hardly believe it could happen. That is what leads to their questions. All three writers mention this. It is apparent from this therefore that the writers saw the following discourse as mainly applying to the destruction of the Temple, which took place in 70 AD. Jesus was explaining His cryptic comment.
It is true that Matthew adds further ‘Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matthew 24.3). The fact that Mark and Luke did not see fit to include the last phrase is proof positive that their main thought was of the destruction of the Temple. (Enthusiasm for the ‘end times’ must not prevent careful exegesis)
So it is clear that in Jesus’ reply we will expect to have an indication of when the Temple of Herod will be totally destroyed, as it was in 70 AD. Note the clear distinction between ‘these things’ and ‘the sign of your coming and of the end of the age’. The idea of the Temple being destroyed has also taken their minds on to the promised Second Coming of Jesus and the expected ‘end of the age’ when God’s kingdom would be established, for they know that that will be preceded by momentous events. The distinction is important because Jesus will later state that ‘these things’ will occur within the lifetime of that generation (Matthew 24.34; Mark 13.30), while He will also state that He does not at that time know when His second coming will take place (Mark 13.32). Thus ‘these things’ does not refer to the second coming.
He then answers their questions by going on to depict a troubled world. False Messiahs will come, there will be wars and rumours of wars. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in many and various places. But these are just the beginning of the Messianic birth pains which will produce the end of the age (Matthew 24.57; Mark 13.5-8). And it must be stressed that they did all occur regularly in that first century AD, a time of constant warfare and many famines and earthquakes, (although not necessarily more so than in other centuries. The world is a troubled place).
He then describes the vilification that will be heaped on the disciples and their followers. They will be handed over to councils, beaten in synagogues, brought before governors and kings (Mark 13.9). Again all these things did happen, as described, for example, in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew adds ‘and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake’ (Matthew 24.9). Jesus then declares ‘And the good news must first be preached to all nations’ (Mark 13.10) (Matthew 24.14 - ‘in the whole world for a testimony unto all nations’).
This phrase ‘all nations’ is an interesting example of how prophecy can speak in a twofold way. Very few towards the end of the first century would have doubted that the Gospel had reached ‘all nations’ and that they had been ‘hated by all nations’, for they thought in terms of the surrounding nations and had no world view. Thus Paul could say to the Romans that their faith ‘is proclaimed throughout the whole world’ (Romans 1.8), and that their ‘obedience is come abroad to all men’ (16.19). Compare Acts 11.28 which speaks of a famine ‘over all the inhabited earth’ which ‘came about in the reign of Claudius’ (see also Acts 19.27; 24.5).
In that sense, which was certainly the sense in which His listeners would understand it, this prophecy was completely fulfilled. But we know today that there were many nations outside their purview and that its complete fulfilment awaited our own day and possibly beyond, thus we may see the words as having a deeper meaning, a double entendre.
Jesus goes on to describe further the tribulation that they must face, ‘they will deliver you up into tribulation and will kill you’ (Matthew 24.9). They will be delivered up even by their own families, being ‘hated of all men for My name’s sake’ (Mark 13.11-13). So the early church will face tribulation, - which of course they did.
Then He describes the fulfilment of the words that began the questioning, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD (Mark 13.14-20). The ‘abomination of desolation’ is a phrase taken from the book of Daniel (9.27; 11.31; 12.11). ‘Abomination’ refers to the ‘abomination’ of idolatry. This was fulfilled when the eagles of the Roman legions (to which sacrifices were offered) were brought into the ‘holy city’, and inevitably into the Temple itself, as battle raged and the Temple went up in flames, flames which were actually fanned by fanatical Jews in order to prevent further sacrilege.
The Jews looked on the Roman Eagles, often adorned with an image of the emperor, as graven images and idolatrous, and indeed many legionaries did offer sacrifices to their standards. The earlier history of intense resistance to the presence of the Roman Eagles demonstrated how intensely seriously this issue was viewed. Pontius Pilate, for example, ever insensitive, tried to introduce them into Jerusalem by stealth and only withdrew when there were mass protests. Such was the strong feeling that many bared their necks declaring their willingness to die to prevent it.
‘Let him who reads understand’ (v.14). This comment, put in by Mark, clearly indicates that he has the Romans in mind, for it is a hint to those in the know without being too blatant. The reference to ‘fleeing to the mountains’ was fulfilled when many Christians in the light of this passage left Jerusalem and took refuge elsewhere. We know that a good number fled to Pella, a Gentile city in Peraea, East of the Jordan, ‘by divine guidance’. (It is true that the divine guidance is said to be through church prophets, but we can reasonably assume that they had these words of Jesus in mind).
‘For those days shall be tribulation (Matthew puts it ‘then shall be great tribulation’ (Matthew 24.21)) such as there has not been the like from the beginning of the creation which God created, until now, and never shall be’ (Mark 13.19). The incredible story of the final days of the war which led to the destruction of the Temple is one of horrific proportions and, if it had not been recorded would be impossible to believe. Fellow Jews treating each other in abominable ways (for they were so unrestrained, fanatical and divided that they fought each other viciously, as well as the Romans, in a way that is difficult to comprehend, as they followed different ‘inspired’ leaders); wholesale crucifixions by the Romans; the ravages of famine during the siege and its consequences; widespread slaughter; all are chronicled by eyewitnesses. But we can be sure that even more dreadful things occurred which have never been revealed. It is an almost unbelievable story of suffering and misery.
Luke confirms this reading of events when he interprets the words of Jesus for his non-Jewish readers (Luke 21.20, 24). ‘The abomination of desolation’ becomes ‘Jerusalem encompassed with armies’. Then Luke 21.24, based on words of Jesus not recorded by Mark, shows that it is certainly this destruction of the Temple that is in Jesus’ mind, for he adds ‘there will be great distress on the land and wrath to this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword and will be led captive into all nations, and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled’. Thus their tribulation carries on through history,
‘Unless the Lord had shortened the days, no flesh would have been saved. But for the elect’s sake, whom he chose, he shortened the days’ (Mark 13.20). Even in the midst of these terrible events God did not overlook His people, and He held a restraining hand on events so that they would not reach beyond a certain point. This is confirmed by the fact that many of His people did survive those dreadful days.
These were all manifestations of human nature, and because both human nature and Nature itself are as they are, history would repeat itself again and again, false ‘Messiahs’ would continue to arise, wars would continue to abound, famines would be a regular occurrence, earthquakes would continue to happen and be seen to be messages of divine wrath, but unquestionably by 70 AD the disciples could confidently say ‘all these things have taken place’, included, be it noted at least the beginning of the ‘great tribulation’ on the Jews. We must not let some theoretical view of ‘the end times’ make us ignore this fact.
There are some who, in order to support their theories, try to distinguish what Luke said from the words in Matthew and Mark, as though the latter recorded only words spoken of the end times and Luke recorded different words and ignored the end times, but this is quite frankly incredible. All began by stressing that their questions related to the coming destruction of the Temple which they saw in front of them and which was mentioned by Jesus. Therefore we must see their words as primarily describing that destruction of the Temple. It is merely that Luke (or Jesus) interprets the apocalyptic language for readers who will find it difficult. It really is not possible to believe that both Matthew and Mark ignore the destruction of the Temple when that was a main theme of the opening questions, and that Luke so ignores words about the end times.
‘But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give her light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken’ (Mark 13.24-25), and until all this has happened the Son of Man will not come. This apocalyptic language is typical of the kind of phraseology used in ancient days to describe people’s reaction to cataclysmic world events, they began to see natural phenomena as giving signs. This is clear in Luke when he first summarises it ‘there shall be signs in sun and moon and stars’ and then explains it, ‘and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows, men fainting for fear and for expectation of the things which are coming on the world, for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken’ (Luke 21.25-26).
After the destruction of Jerusalem, during the final mopping up operations of the Roman army and the events that followed this is precisely how things would appear to the people of Judea. Everything was finished. Hope had gone. The world was on the point of collapse. The heavens were falling in. For this apocalyptic language we can compare Acts 2.19-21 where Peter sees the words of Joel as fulfilled in the death of Jesus and what follows. Otherwise he would have stopped the quotation at verse 18. The disciples had felt indeed as though the world itself was in process of collapse, and such feelings were often helped by eclipses of the sun and moon, meteors and ‘falling stars’. Peter was almost certainly deeply affected by the uncanny darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27.45; Mark 15.33).
We can see a number of examples of this in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 13 the prophet describes the desolation of Babylon. Babylon, that proud nation which desolated Judah and Israel will itself be desolated. For them it will be ‘the day of the Lord’ (13.9), the day when God acts in judgment (the phrase is not, be it noted, only used of the end times. Each nation may have its separate ‘day’ when God deals with them, although there is certainly a view in the prophets of a final ‘day of the Lord’ when God finalises His programme). He describes this further as ‘the stars of heaven and the constellations of it will not give their light, the sun will be darkened in his going forth and the moon will not cause her light to shine’. To the Babylonians, who saw sun, moon and stars as gods and goddesses this was especially relevant. The gods and goddesses will have failed them! Their help has been taken away from them.
Indeed it is apparent that the King of Babylon had been making similar great claims for himself, describing himself as the ‘day star, son of the morning’ and claiming divinity and access to the heavens, and even to be like the Most High (Isaiah 14.12-14 - there are no real grounds, only wishful thinking, for applying these verses to the Devil. We do so love to know about things that God has not been pleased to reveal to us. But these were the sort of claims being made by the King of Babylon, and therefore pagan myth). This is one star that will fall. So this vivid apocalyptic language describes natural events, possibly exacerbated by perceived heavenly signs as the astrologers scoured the heavens.
Yet even as he describes what is to happen to Babylon the prophet finally goes beyond the local event, for, probably unaware of the fact that it will be delayed, but certain that it is inevitable, he describes a future yet to come when Babylon will be totally destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrha, never to be inhabited again. In his heart God has shown him that this total destruction must finally be necessary for Babylon because of its evil past and its grandiose claims. And indeed Babylon is now a mass of ruins.
This movement from the current to the distant future is a feature of prophecy (and is also true to some extent of the apocalyptic discourses), as the prophets recognise that in the end God’s judgment must be final. They are not ‘foretelling’ events but declaring the inevitability of God’s judgment.
Again, when the prophet is announcing God’s judgment on Edom and ‘all the nations’ in chapter 34 he uses similar language. ‘All the nations’ means those round about Edom. He would hardly have selected out a small country like Edom if he had meant world powers! Here then he uses similar language to describe the dreadful events they will face. ‘All the host of heaven shall be dissolved and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll, and all their host shall fade away as the leaf fades from the vine, and as a fading leaf from a fig tree’ (34.4). In the end ‘the land will become burning pitch, it will not be quenched night or day, the smoke of it will go up for ever, from generation to generation it will lie waste, none shall pass through it for ever and ever’. Yet that this is not to be taken at face value is proved beyond doubt by the fact that it will then be a place for birds and wild beasts of many kinds who could not survive in burning pitch (34.11-17), which demonstrates that we must not take the language too literally. It is prophetic licence describing devastation.
Again, in Ezekiel 32, Ezekiel describes God’s judgment on Egypt at the hands of the Babylonians (verse 11). God says, ‘when I extinguish you I will cover the heaven and make the stars of it dark, I will cover the sun with a cloud and the moon will not give her light, all the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you and set darkness on your land’ (32.7-8). The ancients constantly sought in heavenly phenomena the course of life in this world. Thus Ezekiel’s message would be doubly effective.
And again, in Joel 2, God’s visitation on Zion is described as ‘the earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble, the sun and the moon are darkened and the stars withdraw their shining’ (2.10). So this kind of language is simply and vividly stating that there will be terrible events of one kind or another which will make it seem as though the world is about to end. In His discourse Jesus is thinking especially of the devastation of Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem and their dreadful after effects.
The above descriptions, which do not all refer to the end times, demonstrate that this kind of language must not be applied too literally. They refer to how men discern things in times of catastrophe (an invading army constantly burning fields and trees in abundance produce smoke in large quantities which itself distorts man’s view of the heavens), not to the actual destruction of the heavens. (This can be confirmed from many sources, for it is remarkable, in times of catastrophe, how many heavenly signs are spotted by astrologers. Yet heavenly signs are in fact occurring all the time for those with eyes to see them).
Moving back, then, to the apocalyptic discourse it is of all ‘these things’ described above that Jesus says they will happen within a generation. Not until then, an inevitable part of history, would the Son of Man return in His glory. But the timing of that return is deliberately not tied to any events, it occurs ‘after them’, for even Jesus, while on earth, did not know when it would be (Mark 13.32).
From a longer term point of view we can agree that 70 AD was not the end of history. What happened between the death of Jesus and 70 AD was a mirror of the future of the world before the second coming of Christ, and as we read His words we recognise that they held meanings deeper than are simply apparent for that period. This, in fact, is what the Book of Revelation will demonstrate.
But we must not put all the emphasis on what we read as happening in ‘the end days’, unless like the Apostles we see ‘the end days’ as commencing at the resurrection. The disciples believed they were in the end days, and they were right. They were the days that would result in the finalising of God’s purposes. But they just did not realise how long they would last.
(End of Excursus).
The Opening of the Seals.
6.1 onwards. The Lamb now begins to open the seals. The inevitability of history is revealed, for all is seen to be in God’s hands. He is in control of history. But this does not mean He causes it to be. It is man who chooses the way that he takes, with its inevitable results, but God in the end is the overruling force, using it for His greater purposes. The seals will follow the pattern laid down by our Lord. False Messiahs and false prophets, international wars, famine, pestilence, death, intense persecution of God’s people, earthquakes, signs in the heavens, all leading up to the Coming of Christ, and all to be experienced in these days in which his readers and we live.
The seals are opened one by one, but they are opened immediately. The events which they describe are parallel not consecutive. The false Messiahs, the great wars, the famines and pestilences, and massive slaughter (seals 1-4), together with the persecution of God’s people (seal 5) all occur contemporaneously. They present the march of world history. This has been especially the history of the world of the Near and Middle East. The sixth seal is also contemporaneous, showing a world in turmoil (see commentary), although in this case taking us on to the final judgment. In one sense it is the reply to the prayers of the fifth seal. Thus the seventh seal, which results in the blowing of the seven trumpets is also contemporaneous. These describe God’s particular judgments among the world’s self-inflicted misery.
6.1-8 ‘And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard one of the living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Go!”. And I saw and behold a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow, and a crown was given to him and he went out conquering and to conquer. And when he opened the second seal I heard the second living creature say, “Go!”. And another horse went out, a red horse, and it was given to him who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another, and a great sword was given to him. And when he opened the third seal I heard the third living creature say “Go!”. And I saw and behold a black horse, and the one who sat on it had a balance in his hand. And I heard as it were a voice among the four living creatures saying “A small measure (a choenix) of wheat for a day’s wages (a denarius), and three measures of barley for a day’s wages, and do not hurt the oil and the wine”. And when he opened the fourth seal I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say “Go!”. And I saw and behold a pale horse, and the Name of the one who sat on him was Death, and Hades followed with him. And authority was given to them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with death, and by the wild beast of the earth.’
It is significant that the four horses are under the control of the four living creatures. As representatives of the whole creation, and preservers of the holy nature of God, the living creatures show their concern for creation and for God’s holiness in this act. If creation is to be restored and God’s holiness established then the going forth of the horsemen is inevitable. And so as guardians of God’s throne they give their commands.
The translation ‘go’ is used as being more vivid, and because the four horsemen then ‘went’ (the same verb) to the earth to fulfil their destiny. It is not so much a command as a granting of permission. God does not make them ride, He allows them to ride.
The meaning of the horses is not really in doubt (in spite of many varied interpretations) when we compare Scripture with Scripture, for the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus began with (1). The rising of false prophets and Messiahs (Matthew 24.5, 11), (2). Wars and rumours of wars and international violence (3). Famines and (4). Earthquakes (Matthew 24.5-7). And the first three are paralleled here, with the earthquakes later (e.g. verse 12). Furthermore each of the four horsemen must surely be seen as being similar in intent, as they are all commanded by the four living creatures.
As the meaning of the last three is clear to see, they are bearers of tribulation and judgment, this must surely also apply to the first. Thus the white horse too must represent the same unless we have good reason to think the contrary. In line then with the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus we must see it as representing false Messiahs and prophets, antichrist rather than Christ, an attempt to ape the white horseman in Revelation 19.11. (Red and white horses are in parallel in Zechariah 1.8, although for another purpose, and black, red, white and bay chariot horses are mentioned in Zechariah 6.2-3 showing that they are seen as acting in parallel). To suggest that Christ Himself would be under the command of the living creatures must be considered extremely doubtful. He was sent by His Father.
THE WHITE HORSE - FALSE ‘MESSIAHS’ (6.2).
Many have gone out through history representing themselves as the chosen of God, and have brought death in their train. We do not need to identify a specific one as intended here, for the horseman represents all such. It represents the idea of antichrist, and of false claimants to divine authority, whether messiahs, emperors, kings, or prophets.
It may well have been seen by John in the first place to represent such emperors of Rome as claimed to be divine, but we must not limit the horse to Rome. Included are many small ‘Messiahs’ who sought to inspire people to rebel in the first century AD (most not recorded but we can be sure that some accepted the title in their petty insurgencies against Rome). Included is Bar Kokhba, ‘son of the Star’, a so-called Messiah (around 134 AD) accepted by prominent Rabbis, who persecuted Christians, and who would later bring such misery on the people of Judea. Included are all who represent themselves as specially chosen by God, or as divine, and go to war on that basis blinded by religious zeal or arrogance.
Religion is regularly made the excuse for rampant murder. The white horse is a warning to ‘go not after them’ (Luke 21.8), but its march is inevitable due to the nature of man. It will be noted that there is no stress on bloodshed with this horse (contrast the next horse). He goes out to spread his particular ‘truth’, the wholesale murder is secondary and not his main aim.
The bow in the hand of the rider shows him to be warlike but clearly distinguishes him from the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19.11-16. There is in fact not a single parallel apart from the white horse. This rider receives a single crown, while the rider in chapter 19 wears many diadems. This rider carries a bow, while the rider in chapter 19 has a sharp, two edged sword coming from His mouth.
But has the bow any meaning? In Psalm 120.4 lying lips and a deceitful tongue are likened to ‘the sharp arrows of the mighty’, an intriguing contrast with the sword of the Spirit of truth (Ephesians 6.17) and both the psalmist and Hosea speak of ‘the deceitful bow’ (Psalm 78.57; Hosea 7.16). Thus the bow, with which men are taken by surprise and brought down, is seen as a weapon of deceit. Indeed the bow in his hand may well have in mind the ‘fiery arrows’ of the Evil one (Ephesians 6.16). The white rider is out looking for people to strike down from a distance by stealth and deceit. While God deals directly, the Devil prefers subtlety. A bow was also carried in the hand of the mysterious Gog, who symbolised the forces of darkness (Ezekiel 39.3).
Furthermore the bow in the hand of the first rider, combined with the sword in the hand of the second, may have been gathered from Psalm 44.6, ‘For I will not trust in my bow, neither shall my sword save me’ demonstrating that the riders are the opposite of those who trust in God, for they clearly do trust in their bow and sword.
‘A crown was given to him’. Even these horsemen are in the end controlled by God. Unless God had given a crown to the rider on the white horse, he would have had none. Thus even the mighty Roman emperors receive their crown from God. (The use of the passive tense in this way to indicate the action of God parallels Jesus’ similar use of the passive tense e.g. in the Beatitudes. It was a characteristic of apocalyptic literature). It is this alone that enables him to go out ‘conquering and to conquer’ (‘overcoming and to overcome’ - a deliberate parody of the behaviour of true believers who in Revelation also ‘overcome’).
This last phrase suggests an excessive determination to conquer. The fact that the crown is specifically stated to have been given by God (Paul had stated that the powers that be were ‘ordained of God’ (Romans 13.1)), and the fact of his rapacity in conquering, may again point to ‘divine’ Roman emperors as very much in mind here, for it would demonstrate to the readers that whatever their claims their crown came from God - and Rome’s thirst for conquest was a byword.
Some would say that the bow prevents too close an identification, but the figure was not intended just to depict Roman emperors, but all false Messiahs, and as we have seen, the writer uses the bow mainly to prevent identification with Christ (Revelation 19.15) and to indicate his more stealthy, deceitful and distant type of approach. As Jesus warned us, many a false Messiah will ride forth in history before the end.
Some have suggested that the bow indicates Eastern origins e.g. the Parthians, but the conquering of the first horse is in contrast with the taking peace from the earth of the second horse. Had it been the Parthians in mind we would expect the descriptions to be reversed. The fact that it represents false Messiahs and the equivalent comes out in that:
THE RED HORSE - WAR AMONG NATIONS (6.3-4).
To the red horse, the colour of blood, it was given to take peace from the earth, and he ‘is given’ a great sword. This great sword is in contrast to the sword which came from the mouth of the Son of Man (1.16). That one was the powerful word which aimed to bring peace and true judgment, the intent of this one is to make war and take peace from the earth. Thus he makes war and causes nation to rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom (Matthew 24.6-7 and parallels). But once again, in the end it is God Who gave him the sword.
The sword is often seen as a symbol of judgment. In Ezekiel 38.21-22 God says ‘and I will call for a sword against him --- every man’s sword shall be against his brother’. This is linked in Ezekiel 38 with pestilence and blood, and great hailstones, fire and brimstone thus to some extent paralleling Revelation (Ezekiel 38.22 compare Revelation 7.7). Indeed the sword is seen as one of God’s sore judgments. ‘How much more when I send my four sore judgments upon Jerusalem, the sword, and famine, and the noisome beast and pestilence’ (Ezekiel 14.21). These four sore judgments are clearly in John’s mind. False prophets preceded them, the sword is here, the famine comes next, followed by sword, famine, pestilence and wild beasts with the pale horse. It is surely significant for the significance of the white horse that these judgments are preceded by ‘deceitful prophets’ (Ezekiel 14.9-10). But the evidence from Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse is final.
THE BLACK HORSE - FAMINE (6.5-6).
Famine is the second of God’s sore judgments (Ezekiel 14.21). In Lamentations those who suffered famine were described as ‘their visage is darker than blackness, they are not known in the streets, their skin cleaves to their bones, it is withered, it is become like a stick’ (Lamentations 4.8), and we are told ‘our skin is black like an oven because of the burning heat of famine’ (Lamentations 5.10). We can compare with this Jeremiah 14.2 where the people sit in black on the ground because of the dire famine. So blackness is associated with famine.
The measurements of the wheat and barley also indicate famine, for men measure their food like this when hard times stare them in the face (Ezekiel 14.10, 16, 17). In the time of the emperor Trajan a denarius would buy twenty times as much wheat as mentioned here, so that there is clearly a great shortage. But it is not quite starvation rations. So the black horse represents shortage and famine.
Yet the oil and wine is not to be hurt . Elsewhere we are told that the one who loves oil and wine will not be rich (Proverbs 21.17). This suggests that these items were seen more as luxury items. So it would seem that the idea is that the rich will not be inconvenienced. Only the poor will suffer. How true this has often been through history. But as Jesus stressed in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31), the rich will one day be called to account. So the black horse represents the many shortages and famines that will bring such misery to mankind, starting from the first century onwards. These too God allows in His purposes.
THE PALE HORSE - WHOLESALE DEATH (6.7-8).
This represents all four of God’s sore judgments as mentioned in Ezekiel 14. It sums up every form of death, which is why its rider’s name was DEATH, with HADES (the shadowy world of the grave) following with him, to collect the victims. Its pale colour is intended to show the pallor of death.
Death and the Grave are seen as co-partners elsewhere in Revelation (Revelation 1.18; 20.14). Compare Hosea 13.14 where the promise is made that men will be redeemed from the power of ‘death and the grave’. Thus they were regularly seen as together. Here they ride out to claim their victims, but the reader has the assurance that Jesus Christ holds the keys of death and the grave (1.18) and will one day destroy them (20.14).
‘A fourth part of the earth’. This stresses that, while considerable licence is given, there are reins upon the pale horse. He cannot go beyond the boundaries set by God. Judgment it may be, but it is tempered with mercy.
The word for ‘death’ is regularly used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) to translate the Hebrew word ‘deber’ which means destruction, plague, pestilence (1 Kings 8.37; Jeremiah 14.12). So, just as in the past pestilence was called The Black Death, we have a similar situation here.
Here then we have sword, famine, pestilence and wild beasts as in Ezekiel 14. Throughout history the world, beginning in the first century, has experienced devastating examples of all four which have carried off vast numbers of people.
The ‘sword’ mentioned here (rompheia - used in 1.16) is a different type from that in the second seal (macheira), possibly suggesting that there is an increase in warfare as different nations using different types of weapons enter the fray, but the words are used elsewhere interchangeably. The wild beasts would naturally arise in the areas depopulated by the earlier wars and famines, and they carry on the dreadful work. So the horsemen ride and the world suffers. But as God is here pointing out, they are precursors of the end, they are ‘the beginning of suffering’ (Matthew 24.28).
The Significance of the Four Horsemen.
In the words of Jesus the four horsemen are ‘the beginning of birth pains’ (Matthew 24.8). As the world sees religious fanaticism which results in men’s destruction, international warfare, famine and widespread pestilence, they can recognise that ‘the end’ is beginning. In the first century Christians men saw all four riding, and they have continued to ride to the present day, and they are riding today, and often they have raised questions as to whether God is aware of what is happening.
But this vision contains within it the encouragement that when these things happen it does not mean that the world is out of control, for they ride with God’s permission. He has allowed them, firstly because they are the inevitable consequence of men’s sinfulness, and secondly in order that through them men might be brought to consider eternal realities. Nothing makes men face more up to reality than prospective death and the grave.
It should be noted that these horsemen are riding at the same time. While one follows another, building up to the worst one of all, each continues to ride. The first century AD saw false Messiahs and prophets, war, famine and pestilence and earthquakes, continually side by side. They ride together through world history, a continual reminder of the end. The beginning of the third millennium has already demonstrated that they are riding as bloodthirstedly as ever, especially in the countries of the Bible.
The Opening of the Fifth Seal (6.9-11).
6.9-11 - ‘And when he opened the fifth seal I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, Oh Master (despotes), the holy and true, do you not judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?” And to each one was given a white robe, and they were told that they should rest yet for a little time until their fellow-servants also, and their brothers, who would be killed even as they were, should be fulfilled.’
After Jesus spoke of the coming Messiahs, the coming wars, the coming famines, the coming plagues and earthquakes, He spoke of those who would be delivered up to tribulation and would be killed for His sake (Matthew 24.9-14; Mark 13.9-13; Luke 21.12-19). Indeed, as Luke tells us, He says this will happen first, for they will happen ‘before all these things’ (Luke 21.12). And, as we know, they did happen from the very beginning.
That is why we see here, not a description of persecution following the riding of the four horsemen, but the results of previous persecution. Even before the horsemen have ridden the people of God have been attacked and persecuted, and have suffered tribulation and death right from the beginning in Acts and onwards. And this has been because they held to the word of God, and because they believed in it and fearlessly witnessed to it. In view of 19.13 we must see a double meaning in the Word of God. Not only do they suffer for the truth He brought them and their belief in God’s word, they also suffer for Him Who is the Word of God.
They are described as being ‘underneath the altar’. Underneath the altar was where the ashes and remains of sacrifices and offerings went, including the drink offerings. So these martyrs are seen as sacrifices and offerings, not propitiatory, for only Christ’s sacrifice was that, but offerings to God in praise and thanksgiving (Philippians 2.17; 2 Timothy 4.6 compare Romans 12.1 and see Colossians 1.24), for their deaths have brought great glory to God (compare the sufferings of Job in the book of Job, where Satan is discomforted by Job’s faithfulness and God is glorified).
The idea behind it is that their deaths have been worthwhile, and pleasing to Him because of the faith they demonstrated. So being underneath the altar is a special and privileged position. Yet we must also see in their sacrifice that ‘something extra’. Like Paul they have ‘filled up that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ’ (Colossians 1.24). Christ’s sufferings lacked nothing in their efficacy and sufficiency for atonement and forgiveness, but in the purpose of God the suffering of His people was also to be a part of the cost of bringing men to Himself. These martyrs are a part of that purpose.
Their description as ‘souls’ may not be especially significant for ‘souls’ often means ‘persons’ and they are depicted as speaking and receiving white clothes. On the other hand the resurrection of the dead has not yet taken place so they are clearly in that intermediate state about which the Bible tells us very little. They do not yet have their resurrection bodies. Compare here on Revelation 20.4. This does tend to confirm, along with Philippians 1.23, that that state is not one of total unconsciousness.
‘And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, Oh Master --?’. We must remember this is a symbolic vision conveying an idea. It is not suggesting that martyrs are full of desires for vengeance for themselves. They are not so much concerned about revenge as about the seeming delay in the purposes of God. They are concerned about the time that has passed since their martyrdom, with the purposes of God not seeming to come to fulfilment.
They knew that Jesus had promised that they would be speedily avenged (Luke 18.8). Then why the delay? How much longer must the people of God have to wait? When is coming the judgment of which Jesus spoke? When will come the day when God calls men to account? These questions were of some concern to the early church too, as 2 Peter 3.9 tells us, and this episode assures the living that God has not forgotten them. Their cry is probably intended to parallel the cry of Abel’s blood from the ground for God to act in justice (Genesis 4.10 compare Hebrews 12.24).
‘Oh Master’. The word is ‘despotes’ and is used of Jesus in 2 Peter 2.1 when describing men as ‘denying the Master who bought them’ and in Jude 1.4 of those who deny ‘our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ’. (It is used of God in Acts 4.24, and is sometimes used to translate ‘lord’ (adonai) in the Old Testament). It describes the Master of the world, not ‘the Master’ (‘teacher’ - didaskolos - a different word) of believers. So there is the thought here that those on whom the vengeance is to come have denied their Master, the One Who has rights over them, the Lord of Creation. It is a more austere word for Master than didaskolos.
‘The holy and true’. It is Jesus Christ Who has been called the holy and true in 3.7, which confirms He is in mind here. As holy He would not stand by when injustice was done. As true He would not forget His servants.
‘Do you not judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’. When Abel’s blood cried from the ground for judgment it came almost immediately. Why then does the Master of the world now delay? The vengeance they speak of is God’s vengeance not theirs, a constant theme in the Old Testament descriptions of the last days. Compare also Paul who speaks of, ‘the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels, in flaming fire rendering vengeance to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus’ (2 Thessalonians 1.7-8).
The fact that it is primarily God’s vengeance that is in mind and not theirs is shown by the fact that ‘judge’ comes first. These people are seeking for the great day of judgment to come so that God’s righteous will might be done. (Compare Psalm 7.6-10). They are concerned for justice, not personal vengeance. Like many on earth at the time they cannot understand why there has been such a long delay and nothing has happened. The language also has in mind Deuteronomy 32.43 where it is promised that He will avenge the blood of His servants and will render vengeance on His adversaries.
‘Those who dwell on the earth’ appears regularly in Revelation of those who are not on the side of God (3.10; 11.10; 13.8, 12, 14; 14.6; 17.8). It is similar to the use of ‘the world’ in the Gospels, they dwell in the world, they do not dwell in the Kingdom. They are not ‘strangers and pilgrims on the earth’ (Hebrews 11.13) looking for what is to come, but permanent residents with all their hopes pinned on the world.
‘And a white robe was given to each one’. The white robe is a symbol of heavenly beings (Matthew 28.3; Mark 16.5; John 20.12; Acts 1.10; Revelation 4.4; 15.6; 19.14). Thus this gift is a promise to them that ‘soon’ they will become ‘those who dwell in Heaven’ with the angels of God. This is why white robes were promised to overcomers (Revelation 3.4, 5, 18).
‘And it was said to them that they should rest yet for a little while until their fellow-servants also and their brothers who would be killed even as they were, should be fulfilled’. God has not overlooked His promises, but there is yet more to be endured, more to be accomplished. Thus they must enjoy their rest and wait patiently, for the resurrection and judgment will come in God’s good time.
‘A little while’ warns that God’s purposes have not yet reached the ultimate, further persecution is still to come and will come soon, more martyrs will be offered up until their number is complete. But when God says ‘a little while’ it can have large perspectives. A few thousand years is nothing to Him.
For this ‘rest’ compare Daniel 12.13 - ‘go your way until the end be, for you will rest and stand in your lot at the end of the days’. Paul also in 2 Thessalonians 1.7 connects the Christian’s coming ‘rest’ with the expectation of vengeance.
‘Until --’. This is hugely significant. It is what this whole passage has been leading up to. It is a warning to the people of God. It stresses the persecution yet to come. Many more will yet be called on to die for the name of Christ. But when it comes they must look on it as a fulfilment, and recognise it is within the purposes of God. It is not something to be feared but to be triumphed in. And God has told them beforehand that it will happen. Let them then be ready!
More details of the persecution to come will be given shortly. The truth is that the next two or three centuries would see persecution of the most awful kind, when periods of calm for the church would be followed by periods of intense persecution and tribulation, but it was to this book could they look for strength and courage in those times. Furthermore such persecution has been the lot of God’s people through the ages. We who live in countries where it rarely happens should not overlook the fact that in some countries it is a continual and dreadful reality.
‘Should be fulfilled’ or possibly, ‘should be filled up’ (the textual authorities are divided). There may be here the idea that there is a kind of roll of martyrs which has to be completed (similar to the book of life). It reminds us that the number of martyrs is not yet complete, and we too should be ready to suffer for Christ. God’s purposes are accomplished through suffering. Job did not understand it, we may not understand it, but as we remember the sufferings of Christ we know it is so. When churches through the ages have suffered persecution they could look to these words for comfort and encouragement. God even controls the number of martyrs.
Everything described above did occur in the first century AD. They were truly things that would ‘shortly come about’, and some of the coming dreadful persecution being described was only years away. But they have continued on through following centuries, for in God’s longsuffering He has given men time to respond to Him (2 Peter 3.9), and man’s own sinful nature makes them inevitable. That the final days of this age will also see their continuation is thus to be expected, for these things will continue to the end, ‘even to the end will be war, desolations are determined’ (Daniel 9.26).
The Opening of the Sixth Seal (6.12-17).
6.12-15 ‘And I saw when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the whole moon became as blood, and the stars of the heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when it is shaken by a great wind. And the heaven was removed as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and every island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the princes, and the chief captains, and the rich and the strong, and every bondman and every freeman, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains.’
The question to be decided here is how we are to approach the interpretation of this type of language. Are the events described here to be interpreted politically and apocalyptically as mainly events leading up to the Great Day, or are they to be seen as natural events describing that final great day itself? On a literal reading the latter may seem the case. But the language is apocalyptic, and cannot be taken literally. All the stars cannot fall to earth - the earth is not large enough, and if heaven was removed as a scroll how could the sun and moon still be there? Furthermore the prophets used similar language of events in their own day describing political upheaval (and thus not to be interpreted literally), possibly but not necessarily accompanied in some cases by signs in the heavens - see Appendix below. They used such language to give an impression of world shaking events. And stars falling from heaven are elsewhere used of angelic activity. Thus that may be the case here.
We should remember that throughout this chapter John is following the pattern of Jesus discourses in Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21. And at this point in His discourse Jesus used language like this, a use which we have argued above was describing the political upheaval around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. So John may be saying that great political tumult and great supernatural activity (revealed more fully later on, especially in the fifth and sixth trumpets) are to occur.
‘There was a great earthquake’. Jesus had forecast ‘and earthquakes’ (Matthew 24.7). A similar event happened at the resurrection of Christ (Matthew 28.2), and great earthquakes are forecast to take place through the ages (Luke 21.11), as are world-shaking events which could be described in such apocalyptic language with regard to sun, moon and stars. The Old Testament prophets spoke of them in similar language as happening in their day (see Appendix below). Such events are often seen as presaging awesome things to come. And men have regularly hid from them saying that God’s day has come. In one sense therefore the first part of the sixth seal could be seen as having taken place again and again. But the difference here is that we are to see all this as pointing forward to a climax, to the actual final occurrence when that Day does actually come. Here John is not describing only the potential, he is describing the actual.
An earthquake is mentioned in 8.5 when the trumpets are about to sound in John’s day. A great earthquake is also mentioned as occurring in Jerusalem (Revelation 11.13 compare ‘where also their Lord was crucified’ - 11.8) as a kind of pre-emptive strike as the last judgment commences, and finally one occurs among ‘the cities of the nations’ (16.19), the latter the greatest ever. They all signify God’s wrath.
. In 8.5 the earthquake preceded the seven trumpets and their great devastation and judgment, in 11.13 and 16.19 it is part of the great judgment day itself. Each introduces divine activity. Here it is seen as preceding the signs in the Heavens, which are either manifestations of that last judgment or apocalyptic pictures of the world’s turmoil which lead to that final judgment. Every earthquake is thus intended to be a reminder of the coming judgment of God, and the same applies here. This one is clearly to be seen as very severe, and as also preparing the way for divine activity. (The message is not diminished by the fact that we now know the main cause of earthquakes. It was God Who made the world that way).
The fact that ‘every mountain and every island were moved out of their places’ is a vivid eyewitness description of an earthquake. It demonstrates the greatness of the particular earthquake being described, so that John may well possibly have seen it as then causing the other natural phenomena. Its results would thus include the blackening out of the sun, the moon appearing like blood through the dust and debris thrown up, and the blotting out of the stars so that they appear to have fallen from heaven. It may then be seen as the last earthquake itself. (There is no mention of the vicinity in which the earthquake was to take place). Furthermore the description of falling stars may also suggest its connection with a meteor or asteroid, breaking up in its descent, appearing like falling stars (‘shooting stars’), with the other stars blacked out, and which could well cause a great earthquake and bring about the final devastation. This would be to interpret literally to a large extent.
On the other hand stars falling from Heaven regularly reflect angelic activity in Revelation. The phrase here almost exactly parallels that in 9.1 where it is clear an angel is in mind, and we can also compare 12.4. So it may be political turmoil that is in mind here combined with supernatural events, occurring through history and leading up to the final judgment (such events as are described later). (See Appendix below for a more detailed treatment of apocalyptic language).
Such events, of course, have happened throughout history in different parts of the world, from the first century onwards pointing forward to the final day. Thus each large earthquake has reminded men of the great judgment day that is coming and has turned the thoughts of many to the day of judgment. And each age has experienced tumultuous political events and spiritual attack that could be described in this fashion. But the description here is, in the last analysis, of the ultimate.
As we have said there is no indication where this earthquake actually takes place and whether it is universal. So in men’s minds it could equally have applied to any large scale earthquake that has taken place when terrified people indeed took refuge in caves and mountains (it does not say the kings of the whole earth), and where men’s hearts cried out in fear. Each was one more indicator in preparation for the coming of Christ, and indeed could have been seen, as far as the participants were concerned, as the last. John is not in the business of forecasting the future in detail as such. The purpose of Revelation is not so much to forecast events as to prepare God’s people for them. He is concerned to prepare them for what they and the world have to face. ‘There will be earthquakes’. But then one day the last great earthquake will occur. And then His day will come.
So we have to consider the real possibility that at least part of the phenomena described here, if not all, are to be interpreted mainly politically as describing apocalyptic events leading up to the final day. As a whole the description parallels the words of our Lord Himself in His apocalyptic discourse, ‘the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken’ (Matthew 24.29; Mark 13.24-25), which were not there directly connected with an earthquake, and which Luke explains for his Gentile readers as, ‘there will be signs in sun, and moon, and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity, for the roaring of the sea and the billows, men fainting for fear, and for expectation of things which are coming on the world, for the powers of the heaven shall be shaken’ and Jesus saw this as being fulfilled within a generation. Thus even the earthquake may also be mainly political rather than physical.
As we have seen earlier (beginning of chapter 6), such are the continual parallels between this chapter and Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse that dependence of this whole chapter on the words of our Lord cannot really be doubted, and Jesus Himself specifically said that the generation of His disciples would not pass away until all He described was accomplished, including signs similar to these. If we are to be honest we must not avoid the plain meaning of His words just to support our theories.
(Greek is a wonderful language in the hands of expositors, and the most obscure uses of words can be called on so as to make it fit into our theories. And we are all guilty of it. But we must beware of so treating the word of God. Jesus did describe all these things as happening as a build up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD within that generation, and happen they did. That was not describing some far future ‘day of the Lord’, it was describing current world events).
John, however, is not referring specifically to that time spoken of by Jesus. He is extending the significance of the words. These things will go on, he is saying. 70 AD was not the end. The Jews have been scattered among the Gentiles as Jesus foretold, enduring great tribulation and ‘wrath unto this people’ (Luke 21.23). And the world will yet experience tumult among the nations and the wrath of God just as they did in Old Testament days as described by the prophets and in the days of the destruction of Jerusalem. The very people to whom he was writing lived among those who had yet to experience more of it.
(To John, looking forward to the second coming, although aware that it may be delayed (John 21.22) the idea is that these events will take place within the gap between his writing and the second coming. He had no idea how long that gap might be although aware that it might be a long time - ‘a thousand years’ (Revelation 20.4).)
In the chapters to come we will learn more of such effects in sun, moon and stars, with stars falling from Heaven, and the powers of Heaven indeed being shaken. These will be revealed in the events following the opening of the seventh seal as happening throughout history. What happened to Jerusalem in 70 AD was a precursor to further terrible events for nations, which could all be described in these words. But all are but preparation for the final terrible end of the age events.
We have seen much of this in the opening of the first five seals. The first five seals began in John’s day and have continued on through history, resulting in false Messiahs, war, famine, wholesale death, persecution. Many a time portents must have been read in the heavens. But now the sixth seal, which illustrates to us men’s terror in the face of natural events and political tumult, describes the continuation of those events and brings us up to the final day of reckoning, the day of the wrath of the Lamb. It is an addition to the cataclysm of history when everything heads up to final climax, a situation for which there have been many rehearsals. Each age has at times thought that the time had come. Now it has come!
Up to this point in time the events of all the five seals have been continuing in parallel through history, and, as we shall indicate, in relative parallel with the first five trumpets and the first five bowls yet to be described. But what is happening through history in the opening of these five seals (and in the contemporaneous blowing of the trumpets and the emptying of the bowls) continues, and finalises, in the sixth seal, in the Day of the Wrath of God and of the Lamb. It is the sixth in each series, the sixth seal, the sixth trumpet and the sixth bowl, that introduces the closing events of the age. (In contrast the opening of the seventh seal will issue in the blowing of the trumpets which themselves also lead us up to this final day of reckoning, while the seventh trumpet and the seventh bowl themselves describe the final judgment).
6.15-17 ‘And the kings of the earth, and the princes, and the chief captains, and the rich, and the strong, and every bondman and freeman, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains. And they say to the mountains and to the rocks, “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 His wrath has come, and who shall be able to stand?”.’
Here we do have the culmination of world history. When the third horseman rode out the rich were not over-affected, but now all are involved. There is no hiding place. King and commoner, rich and poor, free man and slave, all are involved. It is the day of God. Earthquakes are great levellers, and men have often taken refuge in natural shelters when their own have been collapsing. But this one is perhaps the one beyond all earthquakes, the coming of the wrath of the Lamb.
This description is taken from Isaiah 2.20-21. There it speaks of the great and final Day of the Lord when the glory of His majesty is revealed, and men hurl away their idols and hide themselves from the wrath of God. It is thus the time of final reckoning.
All this parallels the words of Jesus which follow His similar description of activity in sun moon and stars. ‘Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn’ (Matthew 24.30). And it will be followed, as the remainder of Revelation makes clear, by ‘and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory, and he will send out his angels with a great sound of a trumpet and they will gather together his chosen ones from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other’ (Matthew 13.30-31). The difference here is that John is emphasising the negative side, (often, be it noted, stressed by Jesus) and that is that for those who are not of the chosen, that day is one of fear and terror, for it is the day when God’s anger against sin will reach its culmination. (He will describe the positive later).
Thus the ‘great day of Their wrath’ is the ultimate outworking of the final ‘day of the Lord’ (period of the Lord’s judgment) forecast in the Old Testament. This great wrath is mentioned at the time of the seventh trumpet, linked with the judgment day (Revelation 11.18), it is mentioned in 14.10, again linked with God’s final judgment and its consequences, it is mentioned in 14.19 of the angel putting in the sickle and reaping, which our Lord used as a description of the day of judgment, it is used of God’s final dealings with the nations and with ‘Babylon’ (Revelation 16.18-19), and it is used of the coming of Christ as judge (Revelation 19.15). The sixth seal therefore climaxes with the coming of the Judge to make known His final wrath against sin, the great day of His wrath.
Final note on the wrath of God.
We should, however, note that the Day of His wrath is not the beginning of the revelation of the wrath of God. The wrath of God has been revealed through history. It was already revealed in Paul’s day. ‘The wrath of god is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who by their unrighteousness hold down the truth’ (Romans 1.18). And that it will be made manifest in a restrained way through history the first five seals, trumpets and bowls demonstrate. The opening of the seven-sealed book is itself a manifestation of the wrath of God. So this final ‘Day of His wrath’ will certainly be preceded by manifestations of that wrath, and indeed is specifically stated of the seven plagues (15.1, 7; 16.1). This latter reminds us that we must not just read everything in Revelation as referring to the final ‘wrath of God’. Much of it reveals God’s continual wrath against sin throughout history. That is one message of Revelation, that God’s wrath is revealed constantly through history, although with restraint, while in the last day of judgment there will be no restraint. For the wrath of God is not just a final outburst against sin, it is the continual attitude of a holy God to the manifestation of sin. It is a reminder that God hates sin. And the only reason it is not full applied immediately is because of His merciful restraint (2 Peter 3.8-10).
End of note.
‘Who will be able to stand?’ We are given the answer in the next chapter.
Preliminary Note Concerning The Seventh Seal.
The events described in the seven seals occur in parallel with the other six seals, unfolding different aspects of what future history will produce. That the seventh seal that is yet to be opened does not follow on chronologically from the other six seals is clear first of all from the fact that the sixth seal has taken us right on to the second coming of Christ, to the day of His wrath, and the indication is that that is the day of judgment itself. The kings and people are in despair because there is no more time. That is certainly the impression that John intends to give.
So the seventh seal is rather describing what will occur at the same time as the events in the other six seals progress. The events in all seven seals go on together up to the end of the age. Thus the seventh seal will further illuminate what is happening during the period described in the six seals, and will clearly demonstrate their extension beyond 70 AD. For what Revelation, and the opening of the seven seals, is unfolding, is the whole of what was written in the sealed book in one great panorama. What occurs in the following chapters thus occurs during the periods described in the other seals, and will illuminate further what is meant by the apocalyptic imagery of the sixth seal. .
EXCURSUS ON THE MEANING OF APOCALYPTIC LANGUAGE.
When reading these apocalyptic descriptions we must learn to ask ourselves genuinely what the words spoken would mean to the readers of the time, for that is what they also meant to the writer. Language which is patently used with a high degree of symbolism must not be taken too literally. This is very much the situation here. This is apocalyptic language, language which vividly symbolises dramatic events, but what does it intrinsically mean?
In these circumstances it is vital to compare Scripture with Scripture, for what better authority is there then that? And fortunately for us, if we are willing to see it, Scripture itself provides us with a solution.
In the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus outlined above both Matthew and Mark use descriptions very similar to these in Revelation. As we have seen, however, Luke puts it somewhat differently. He starts (but in abbreviated form) with ‘the sun, moon and stars’, for he wishes to be faithful to the original idea, and he finishes with ‘for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken’ (21.26; compare Matthew 24.29; Mark 13.25), which demonstrates that he is referring to the same part of the discourse, but he realises that the language may lead his more prosaic readers astray. So in between he interprets the apocalyptic language.
Whether we take this as his explanation or as the explanation of Jesus does not affect the issue, either way we learn that the apocalyptic language of darkened sun, unlit moon and falling stars refer to ‘distress of nations in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows, men fainting for fear and for expectation of things that are coming on the world’ (21.25-26). The language is still somewhat picturesque and metaphorical, but solidly down to earth. He is pointing out that the extravagant metaphors refer to political and social, as well as heavenly, upheaval and man’s consequent panic and fear. And it should be noted that John confirms that interpretation here, for he goes on to describe just such situations.
In fact most of the apocalyptic language he uses here is directly borrowed so let us look at:
The Background to and Sources of the Apocalyptic Imagery.
‘There was a great earthquake. And the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the whole moon became as blood, and the stars of the heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when it is shaken by a great wind. And the heaven was removed as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places’. The description of the sun as black as sackcloth comes from a combination of Isaiah 50.3, ‘I clothe the heavens with blackness and I make sackcloth their covering’ with ‘the sun will be darkened in her going forth’ (Isaiah 13.10), ‘the sun and the moon will be darkened’ (Joel 2.10), ‘the sun shall be turned into darkness (Joel 2.28), and ‘I will cover the sun with a cloud’ (Ezekiel 32.7). See also ‘the sun shall be darkened’ ( Matthew 24.29; Mark 13.24).
‘The whole moon became as blood’ comes from ‘the moon (will be turned) into blood’ (Joel 2.28), compare ‘the moon will not cause her light to shine’ (Isaiah 13.10), ‘the moon will not give her light’ (Ezekiel 32.7; Matthew 24.29; Mark 13.24). Indeed the moon turning into blood is a description regularly used through history of natural phenomena such as eclipses which can make the moon appear red. Both these phenomena can be the result of natural causes, and both are constantly linked with political unrest and social upheaval, both in the Bible and in other literature. When men are in fear they see even the heavens as affected by their difficulties.
‘The stars of heaven fell to the earth’ can be compared with ‘I saw a star from heaven fallen to the earth (Revelation 9.1), ‘and his tail draws the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth’ referring to the fall of angels (Revelation 12.4) and (of the little horn) ‘it waxed great even to the host of heaven, and some of the host and of the stars it cast down to the ground and trampled on them’ (Daniel 8.10) spoken of Antiochus Epiphanes attacking the gods of other nations.
For mention of the stars as a whole we have, ‘the stars of heaven and the constellations of it will not give their light’ (Isaiah 13.10), ‘I will cover the heaven and make the stars of it dark --- all the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you and set darkness on your land’ (Ezekiel 32.8), ‘the stars withdraw their shining’ (Joel 2.10), and ‘the stars shall fall from heaven’ (Matthew 24.29; Mark 13.24). Here in Revelation the fall of the angels is almost certainly in mind (Revelation 8.8; 8.10; 9.1; 10.4 with 9), with the consequent effects on earth.
For ‘the heaven removed as a scroll’ and ‘as a fig tree casts its unripe figs’ see ‘all the host of heaven shall be dissolved and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll, and all their host shall fade away as the leaf fades from the vine, and as a fading leaf from a fig tree’ (Isaiah 34.4). This latter specifically refers to God’s judgment on Edom and their neighbours, so that it was not seen as literally happening, and did not refer to the end times. It was metaphorical for the devastation they would suffer.
The apocalyptic language in Ezekiel 32 (especially compare verses 7 and 8 with 9 and 10) has specifically in mind the downfall of Pharaoh and of Egypt at the hands of the Babylonians, including the surrounding nations. It is then followed by a description of the fate of other nations. There is nothing to indicate that it is specifically related to ‘the day of the Lord’ or to a period called ‘the end times’. These nations did suffer these fates historically and we must hesitate before we assume that fulfilment in history is so irrelevant that we must push everything into the context of the ‘end times’.
Isaiah 13 - 14 (see 13.10, 13) refers to the downfall of Babylon, and while the language is extravagant it is specifically said to be related to the Medes (13.17) which was historically correct, but in this case there is a movement on to later times for in 13.19-22 the prophet ‘sees’ beyond the times in which he lives to the final destruction of Babylon, when it will be destroyed to rise no more, which would occur a few hundred years later. From its earliest history (Genesis 11.9) Babylon was a symbol greater than itself, (like Rome later), and therefore its final doom was to be total. In the end the prophet knew that this was what must happen. What he did not know was when or how.
Isaiah 34 (see verse 4) refers to the downfall of Edom and ‘all the nations’ i.e. the nations around Edom who have troubled Israel, specifically the people of His ‘curse’, assigned to destruction (34.5) as is evidenced by the fact that the rest of ‘the nations’ do not take part but are called in to witness the event - 34.1. While it refers to the day of the Lord’s vengeance it is revenge on Edom for their behaviour towards Israel (34.8). It is not said to be in the end times, nor is there any reason for suggesting that it is (except to those who quite unreasonably put ALL prophecy in the last days).
Although he goes on to describe its punishment in apocalyptic terms, ‘its streams will be turned into pitch, and its dust into brimstone, and its land shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day, its smoke shall rise for ever, from generation to generation it shall lie waste, none shall pass through it for ever and ever’, yet that this is not to be taken too literally even here is evidenced by the abundant wild life which will then occupy it (34.11-15) which demonstrates quite clearly that we are not to take the language literally. It is the language of apocalyptic judgment. Like the language about Babylon it contains within it the recognition that all man’s rebellion can finally only end in total destruction. In that sense only it indirectly applies to the end times.
The latter part of Joel 2 is a different case. It is specifically referring to the end times, for it refers to the final restoration of God’s people. But as we have seen Peter applies the words to his own day (Acts 2.19-21) (which of course he describes as ‘the last days’ (Acts 2.17); ‘the end of the times’ (1 Peter 1.20); compare Hebrews 1.1-2). And Joel’s apocalyptic language (2.30-31) is echoed by Jesus of activity which certainly commences in 1st century AD (Matthew 24.29; Mark 13.24-25; Luke 21.25-26).
Thus similar terminology is used of local historical events and of the end times. It is used of the attacks of Antiochus Epiphanes (2nd century BC) on other nations and their gods, and it is used of the fall of angels. It is used of historical judgments on Egypt, Edom, and Babylon, and it is used of the days of the early church. It thus has widespread reference. Its aim is usually to presage dreadful events on earth.
A clear example of this use of such language is found in Haggai 2.21-22. Here the prophet is referring to the establishment of the kingship of Zerubbabel (v.23), and God says, ‘I will shake the heavens and the earth, and I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms, and I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and I will overthrow the chariots and those who ride in them, and the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the hand of his brother’.
Here again the shaking of heaven and earth refers to political events which in this case will establish the kingdom of Zerubbabel and result in the downfall of his enemies. (Of course it is easy to dismiss what the Bible actually says and airily say ‘Oh, this clearly refers to the end times’. But if Biblical texts are to be treated like that there is nothing further we can say. The Bible is on the side of the conservative interpreter and refers it to Zerubbabel). Compare also the description of the then approaching destruction of Jerusalem and exile in Jeremiah 4.23-31. There too the mountain trembled, the heavens became black, and the people hid in the mountains.
Our Lord Himself referred these images primarily to the events during and after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, when there were indeed convulsions for the peoples of that area. However, as demonstrated here in Revelation, the future as a whole was in view, and part of His discourse does seem to take in wider events, so that we can justifiably include reference to future times as history repeats itself. He knew that the fall of Jerusalem would lead on to wide political turmoil and He knew that ‘wars and desolations were determined to the end of time. And He did not know at that point the time of His coming. Thus He encompasses it all in this brief but vivid description. In a similar way Peter, having been through the trauma of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, applied Joel’s language to that period (Acts 2.19-21)).
What Did John Have in Mind in its Use in Revelation?
In view of what follows in the book it is safe to say that he certainly has in mind awesome political events. That is what his book is about. In the first place it refers to the power of Rome, its demands to worship for itself and its emperors, its persecution in terrible ways of God’s people, and its inevitable final destruction, when the world did seem to many to be collapsing. It is difficult for us to understand how men at the time did see the fall of Rome, which many had believed could never happen. (It is true that by then Rome had theoretically been ‘Christianised’ but it was hardly Christian).
But it also has in mind, as it makes clear, (although John probably saw the two as being together), the events which lead up to the Second Coming of Christ. At many times in history there have been unusually cataclysmic events, political and social upheaval, often seen as connected with signs in the heavens, and at those times the people of God have found comfort from this book, for it enable them to recognise that all was not out of control.
And such cataclysmic events will continue. Right until the end there will indeed be similar events as sections of the Old and New Testaments make clear. These too the Revelation prepares us for. For whenever the people of God are persecuted, the book comes into its own. Whether it be the power of Rome in the first centuries, the activities of invading hordes, the rise of Islam through the power of the sword, the political and religious machinations of popes, cardinals and kings and other tyrants in the middle ages or of future religious and political tyrants, the truth is the same. God will watch over His own, will bring the activities of tyrants and those who support them to a deserved end, and will finally bring all to a conclusion in triumph.
Furthermore, as we shall see through the book, it does have in mind the activities of heavenly powers as they affect events on earth. John reveals that while cataclysmic events are going on earth they are greatly affected by activities in the spiritual realm. World history, he tells us, has been greatly affected by the things that are not seen.
And the final result of these events as they occur will be, as described in 6.15-17, a terror struck world in the face of the wrath of God and of the Lamb as men realise they have to face God’s judgments. Whether it will also result in equally awesome events in nature, bringing the world to a vivid end, which may seem likely, will be revealed in the final day.
Thus at the end of chapter 6 we have reached the final moments of world history as the world becomes aware that Christ is coming to bring them into judgment.
End of Excursus.
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