Six of Seven Seals Opened Revelation 6:1–17
Never in all history have men spoken so much of the end-times, yet been so shrouded in ignorance of God’s impending doomsday,” said Carl F. H. Henry. Be assured that those who study Revelation 6 and following will not be shrouded in ignorance of God’s impending judgment.
Revelation 5 ends with Christ holding the sealed scroll. This scroll contains Christ’s title deed to the earth by right of creation and redemption. The judgments mentioned in this scroll are divided into three groups: seals (6:1–17; 8:1), trumpets (8:7–9:21; 11:15), and bowls (16:1–19:21), with an interlude between each section.
Before examining the text, two important questions must be addressed. First, will the seals be fulfilled in the future or were they fulfilled in the past? There is no historic evidence pointing to a past fulfillment of these seals. Scripture indicates that they will be fulfilled in the third division of Revelation, called “the things which shall be hereafter” (1:19; cf. 4:1). Second, when in the future will the six seals be fulfilled? They will be fulfilled during the first half of Daniel’s 70th week, a seven-year period that begins with the Antichrist “confirm[ing] a covenant with many for one week” (Dan. 9:27).
These seals parallel the conflicts mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 24—false christs (v. 5; Rev. 6:12); war (vv. 6–7; Rev. 6:3–4); famine (v. 7; Rev. 6:5–6); death (vv. 7–9; Rev. 6:7–8); martyrdom (vv. 9–10; Rev. 6:9–11); and earthquakes (v. 7; Rev. 6:12)—and are called “the beginning of sorrows [birth pangs]” (Mt. 24:8). The seven seals are revealed chronologically, covering the entire judgment period concurrently. This is often illustrated by a telescope comprising three sections (the largest containing the two inner sections); that is, seven trumpets proceed from the seventh seal, and the seven bowls proceed from the seventh trumpet. Nothing is read from the scroll; with the opening of each seal John is given a vivid, symbolic description of literal events that will take place on the earth.
The Rider on the White Horse: Still viewing what is taking place in heaven, John watched the “Lamb” (Christ) open the first seal. Immediately the sound of “thunder” roared throughout heaven, as “one of the four living creatures [said], Come” (v. 1). Who did the living creature address? It cannot be Christ; He is the one opening the seal. It cannot be John; he is already present and viewing what is taking place before God’s throne. It must be the four horsemen who are summoned to “Come” (v. 1; cp. vv. 3, 5, 7).
John watched as a white horse appeared, and its rider was given “a bow; and a crown” (v. 2). Who is the rider and what does he represent? Answers have varied: a Roman emperor, the personification of judgment, victorious proclamation of the gospel, the triumph of militarism during the Tribulation, Christ, or the Antichrist. Most scholars believe the rider is either Christ or the Antichrist. But the rider cannot be Christ, according to other Scriptures. This rider is given a temporary victor’s “crown [stephanos]” (v. 2); whereas Christ is wearing “many crowns [diadems]” (19:12) as King at His Second Coming. Christ will carry a sword, not a bow, when He comes. Christ does not initiate war, but will end war at His coming. Lastly, Christ will appear at the end, not the beginning, of the Tribulation. This rider has the markings of a counterfeit (Antichrist) who arrives on the world stage at the beginning of the Tribulation. Carrying a bow (v. 2) without arrows suggests that he has already conquered (v. 2) by powerful means in the beginning of his rise to power. The Antichrist will be given a victor’s crown as world leader, but for only “forty and two months” (13:5).
The Rider on the Red Horse: When the second seal was opened, a red horse appeared, and “power was given to him that sat on it to take peace from the earth” (v. 4). The color red is symbolic of war and bloodshed. International conflict and internal civil war (Mt. 24:6–7) will take place during the first half of the Tribulation, for “they … kill one another” (v. 4). Although war will be waged worldwide during the first half of the Tribulation, Israel will not be involved because of protection provided by the Antichrist.
The Rider On the Black Horse: When the third seal was opened, a black horse appeared with its rider carrying “a pair of balances” (v. 5). This represents famine, which usually follows war (cp. Mt. 24:7b). The “balances” (scales) were used to weigh out the cost of food. “A measure [quart] of wheat for a denarius [16 cents, a day’s wage], and three measures of barley for a denarius” (v. 6). The cost of food for one day will be a day’s wage. The rider was instructed to “hurt not the oil [olive] and the wine” (v. 6), meaning that luxury items, affordable by the rich, will not be touched. In other words, the famine will affect the low and middle classes, but the rich will continue to enjoy their luxurious lifestyle.
The Rider on the Pale Horse: When the fourth seal was opened, “a pale [yellowish green] horse” appeared with “Death” (v. 8) as its rider. An awesome destruction of life will ensue in the first half of the Tribulation, when the rider is given power to kill a “fourth part of the earth … with sword [war] … hunger [famine] … death [plague], and with the beasts of the earth” (v. 8). The mention of “Hades follow[ing] with him” (v. 8) leaves no doubt that those who are slain will be unsaved people, who will be cast into hell until they stand before the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20:11–15). This is only the beginning of the Tribulation that is to come upon the earth.
When the Lamb “opened the fifth seal, [John] saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held” (v. 9). These are believers who received the Lord during the first half of the Tribulation (Mt. 24:9, 13–14) but were martyred for their confession and commitment to Christ (Rev. 7:14). They are pictured “under the altar” in God’s heavenly Temple without their resurrected bodies. Whether this “altar” is a reference to the brazen altar, the altar of incense (cp. 8:3; 9:13), or some other altar in heaven (11:1; 14:18; 16:7) is uncertain.
They cried, “How long, O Lord … dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (v. 10). The martyred saints recognize that it is God who will punish the wicked (cfi. Rom. 12:19; 2 Th. 1:8), but they want I to know when. They are not given an answer but are told to “rest yet for a little season” (v. 11). Vengeance will come upon the wicked after the martyrdom of their “fellow servants” and “brethren” is “fulfilled” (v. 11). During the interim, they are provided with “white robes” (v. 11), as a symbol of their salvation, righteousness, and victory. This verse sheds light on the believers’ state after death. Those in heaven are conscious, at rest, and aware of a future judgment upon their slayers. The white robes provided for these saints indicate that they will possess some type of intermediate bodies before they receive their resurrected bodies. There is a set number of believers appointed for martyrdom during the Tribulation. God has determined the time and manner of death for believers.
Some would argue that the first five seals are not speaking of God’s wrath upon man, but man’s wrath upon man. They reason that the word wrath is not mentioned until the sixth seal in relation to “the day of his [the Lord’s] wrath” (v. 17). Renald E. Showers provides evidence to the contrary: (1) Absence of the word wrath does not prove “that the first five seals will not involve God’s Day of the Lord wrath.” (2) All seven seals are part of a common pattern, purpose (function), and program in preparation for Christ to take possession of the earth. (3) Revelation portrays Christ as the judge and ruler of the world, exercising God’s wrath in all seven seals to destroy His foes and restore and rule over His theocratic kingdom on earth. (4) An examination of the first five seals provides specific evidence that they too will involve the wrath of God.
Heaven and Earth Convulse
When the Lamb opens the sixth seal, heaven and earth will begin to convulse. First, a “great earthquake” (v. 12) will be felt worldwide as volcanic eruptions cause a shift in the earth’s crust. This will be the first of a number of earthquakes experienced throughout the Tribulation (8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18). “Every mountain and island were moved out of their places” (v. 14). These earthquakes will not disappear until the seventh bowl judgment is poured out (16:20). Second, “the sun became black as sackcloth of hair” (v. 12), producing a terrifying darkness worldwide. Third, the cosmic disturbances taking place in heaven and on earth will cause the moon to appear red “like blood” (v. 12). Fourth, meteors will shower the earth like a fig tree dropping its fruit prematurely in a windstorm, when “the stars of heaven [fall] unto the earth” (v. 13). Fifth, “the heaven departed [ripped apart] as a scroll when it is rolled together” (v. 14). In other words, heaven will first be divided in the middle, then rolled up like a scroll in opposite directions. This is not the same departing of the heavens mentioned elsewhere in Revelation (20:11; 21:1).
People from every stratum of society, “kings … great men … rich men … chief captains … mighty men … every slave, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains” (v. 15) from the events manifested in the sixth seal. They will cry out in terror “to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne [God the Father], and from the wrath of the Lamb” (v. 16). All six seals will have a cumulative effect on these people, causing them to believe that “the great day of his [God’s] wrath is [has] come” (v. 17).
John is not saying that this is the great Day of the Lord wrath, but he has simply recorded the response of these people. Their evaluation is both right and wrong concerning the Day of the Lord wrath. They are right in believing that this is God’s wrath. The Greek verb elthan (“is [has] come,” v. 17) refers to a previous arrival of the wrath mentioned in the sixth seal, not something that is to be revealed in the future.. In other words, the people correctly recognize that what is happening in all six seals is God’s wrath upon mankind (cp. Isa. 2:10–22). In the broad sense, all six seals will involve the Day of the Lord wrath.
On the other hand, these people are wrong in assuming that this is “the great day of his [the Lord’s] wrath” (v. 17) predicted to come at the end of the Tribulation. They are wrong for the following reasons. First, the great Day of the Lord wrath will not take place until the seventh seal is opened, at which time the armies of the world will gather in Israel for Armageddon (16:12–16). Second, the cosmic disturbances related to the great Day of the Lord will take place during the pouring out of the bowl judgments. Third, in the time of the sixth seal, people will flee to the mountains to hide from God’s wrath, but in the great and terrible Day of the Lord, they will stand with the Antichrist in defiance against the Lord. This will take place at the end of the Tribulation. Thus, the sixth seal is connected with events taking place in the first half of the Tribulation.
Those in the Tribulation ask, “who shall be able to stand?” (v. 17). We know the answer: only those who have put their faith in Christ as Savior. Have you?