This 12th reflection in our journey through Revelation displays the vibrant apocalyptic genre of this prophetic letter. A recording of this post is available on Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel, as part of the Revelation Series. Follow the link below.
The middle section of Revelation we now enter (chapters 6-16) contains three sets of seven judgments each:
- the opening of the seven seals (chapters 6-8a),
- interluded with a roll call of the Lamb’s Army (chapter 7)
- the blowing of the seven trumpets (chapters 8b-11),
- interluded with a description of the Lamb’s temple and two witnesses (chapter 10)
- and the seven signs of warning (section 12-14)
- the pouring out of the seven bowls (chapters 15-16).
These judgments that proceed from the throne room of God, as the Lamb opens his scroll, are acts of God’s redemption of creation, “reconciling all things to himself… by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:20)
How do you read it?
There are various interpretations of Revelation, and especially of this middle section.
These judgments are generally interpreted in four ways: Preterists see all fulfilled before either the 1st or the 4th century. Historicists believe these are being performed throughout history. Idealists do not read Revelation literally, but see all as symbolic of the struggle between good and evil. Futurists await the chronological fulfilment of these events (Ch 4-22), which they believe will result in a crisis period leading up to Christ’s second coming.
I believe that these three sets are not limited to events of the past or events in the future, but are indicative of crises that occur in every generation. I believe these three sets of seven are not to be read as a chronological prediction, but rather as three different perspectives on the many crises the world and the church face throughout history (from there the many repetitions in these chapters). Remember, this prophecy was written as encouragement and exhortation to seven real congregations who experienced much of these crises in their own time.
The four horsemen of the apocalypse
In keeping with the nature of the apocalyptic genre, all three sets of judgments draw richly from Old Testament literature. The opening of the seven seals starts with the unleashing of the Four Horsemen of Zechariah (1:7-14; 6:1-7) who would unleash “four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast!” (Ezekiel 14:21; compare Deuteronomy 32:23-25).
It is important to note that these acts of judgment proceed from the decrees of the scroll, as the Lamb unrolls God’s redemptive plans for the creation, bringing all other kingdoms into subjection to his reign (compare Colossians 1:15-20). The judgments are initiated by Christ; the horsemen are subservient to Christ, instrumental in his reign.
With each of the first four seals being opened, one of the four living creatures around the throne cry out “Come!” (6:1, 3, 5, 7). As discussed in a previous post, these four living creatures represent the fullness of creation (compare 4:6b-8) – and these four judgments are directed to creation. Their calling “come!” draw John’s attention to the impending judgments but in the scope of Revelation the cry to “come!” is a cry for Jesus’ return (1:7; 22:17, 20). Even as these four horsemen are coming, so too, Christ is coming through the unpacking of these seals, one by one.
The first seal unleashes the first rider on “a white horse” armed with “a bow”, empowered with a victor’s “crown” and commissioned “to conquer.” (6:2) The first judgment unleashed upon the earth is of conquest – victory through subjection in warfare. To the early readers of John’s letter this archer on a white horse would remind them of the Parthians, “the only mounted archers in the first century; white horses were their trademark” (Boring 1989:122). These dreaded horseback archers were an immediate threat to the seven churches on the eastern border of the Roman empire.
The focus here is on the unleashing of military conquest, forceful subjection of kingdoms and people groups to a foreign ruler. Jesus’ teaching on the end times in Matthew 24 mirrors Revelation 6. “And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” (Matthew 24:6-7). The call to the church is to not fear – the Lamb is sovereign over this and has given him this “crown”, and his victory in conquest. All authority, all dominion belongs to the Lamb (5:11; compare Matthew 28:19-20).
The second seal’s opening unleashes “a bright red horse”, and its rider “was given a great sword… permitted to take peace from the earth… people will slay one another” (6:3-4). This is war. Where the first seal unleashes conquest (nation against nation), this second seal unleashes civil revolt (domestic warfare). Here Jesus’ warnings that “brother would betray brother to death” has reference (Mark 13:12). For the first readers, this was a common occurrence, as emperors were frequently murdered by their usurpers who would rise to claim the throne. In 68-69 Rome had four emperors as a usurper would kill the ruler to take his place; Domitian, ruling during John’s writing, had 12 ex-consuls executed for treason, alongside two of his own cousins!
Again we must note that the Sovereign Christ gives this horseman “a great sword” and “permits” him to do warfare – to bring about his redemptive purposes.
With the third seal, Christ unleashes “a black horse” whose rider had a pair of measuring scales in his hand, decreeing a time of scarcity resulting in outrageously high food prices: “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius…” This decree implied poverty, hunger, starvation. Jesus warned that “there will be famines and earthquakes in various places…” (Matthew 24:7). With the underdeveloped agricultural and trade fair of John’s day, scarcity and famine were common occurrences, as food production and transport were more vulnerable to weather, pests and raiders (refer Acts 11:27).
Note the restriction in the command “…and do not harm the oil and wine!” Wine and oil were/ are luxury items, reserved for the rich of their day, and seem to be untouched by the scarcity sent out over the earth. This may allude to social inequality, where the poor become more miserable, and the rich become affluent – a phenomenon we read about throughout the Bible, and of which we are painfully aware of in our day. Alternatively, this reference may be part of the sovereign limitation by God on this judgment – as we will see progressive suffering in the visions of the seven trumpets and the seven bowls. Regardless of the meaning, note the sovereignty of Christ over food production and distribution.
With the opening of the fourth seal, death was unleashed on a pale horse (6:8) – the colour of a corpse. This rider is followed by Hades and together they unleash destruction to a fourth of the earth “with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (6:8; compare Deuteronomy 32:23-25 and Ezekiel 14:12-23).
Note again that Christ is the one who gives this permission to strike a fourth of the earth. In the seven trumpets, there is permission to strike a third of the land, and in the Seven bowls, there is the threat of complete destruction.
Where is the church during these troubled times?
Futurists believe that the church will be spared these judgments, as we will be secretly “raptured” to heaven before these ordeals. (I will write about the popular, contemporary view of the rapture in another post).
But the opening of the fifth seal reveals the opposite (6:9-11). John’s attention is drawn to the martyrs in heaven who had been killed for their witness of Christ. These cry out “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” They are honoured with “white robes” and “told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” The church is still on earth, enduring the suffering of the four horsemen along with the rest of the world – in addition to the suffering implied by this seal: persecution for the sake of Christ and his Gospel.
It is helpful to look again at the parallel text of Ezekiel 14. The chapter states that these judgments of “sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, [and death]” are brought about by the Lord to correct rebellion and idolatry. It explicitly states that God’s righteous people shall not be removed from these troubles but will be preserved during these seasons of judgments: “even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God” (14:21). Just like Daniel’s friends were not spared from the fire, but were preserved within the fire, the church also has the company and grace of One “like the Son of God” in their fiery trial, protecting and comforting them (refer to Daniel 3:25.)
The prayers for vengeance form the martyrs (6:10) is answered in the opening of the sixth seal as the sun becomes black, the moon like blood, stars fall, the earth shakes, mountains erupt, and islands sink into the sea (6:12-14). This is a paraphrase of Jesus’ prophecy of the last days when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken” (Mark 13:24-25; compare Matthew 24:29; Luke 21:25-26). John sees how this cosmic collapse brings universal panic to “everyone” – rulers to laypeople, rich to poor, warriors to the weak – causing a hiding away in caves in awe-filled fear of God’s coming day of judgment.
The chapter ends with the question of this awe-filled crowd: “Who can stand” before God in this day of his wrath? That question is answered in chapter seven when The Lamb’s Army roll is called. The seventh seal is opened in 8:1 – there was “silence in heaven for about half an hour”, and then the seven trumpets are blown.
Bringing it home
There are currently 69 countries at war, and 832 Militias-guerrillas and terrorist-separatist-anarchic groups involved in the civil war around the world today. In 2019, 409 natural disasters were recorded. In 2018 37.9 million people were living with aids in the world (www.hiv.gov). Today more than 1.934 million people have been infected with the Covid-19 virus in a short span of 4 months, causing a pandemic of fear resulting in the lock-down of nearly a third of the world, toppling economies worldwide. These judgments on the creation and the nations are not some future events – it is the reality on every continent, in every generation. The Lamb is right now opening the seals that unleash judgments on the world, bringing nations to the realization that mankind is limited and answerable to a Sovereign Ruler. These temporal judgments are acts of mercy – allowing people to turn to God in repentance.
Where do this leave believers like me and you? Do we sit back and wait for “The End?” like defeatist or pacifists? No, our call is to witness the benevolent and just reign of God in a harsh world. We, the church, are a taste of things to come. We are a light in the darkness, a city of refuge in a violent world. We are an ark where sinners may run into to escape the flood of judgment to come.
Our call to witness is both in proclamation and demonstration of what the King and his Kingdom is like. In the words of Leslie Newbigin: the church is a sign pointing to the kingdom; a foretaste of what that kingdom will be like; and an agent that labours with Christ and the Spirit to bring about His kingdom on earth. That is what the Lord’s Army is doing, until the day of his great and final judgment.
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