God, the Avenger of His Children (Revelation 6)
Chapter 4 opened this vision with a picture of God on His throne and being worshipped by all creation. Chapter 5 introduced Jesus Christ as the one worthy redeemer, qualified to reveal the will of God and likewise being worshipped. The Holy Spirit is also represented as being with those who were pictured as being in the midst of the throne (Revelation 5:6). So we have all three persons of the Godhead, present in the throne room of God and receiving the worship, adoration, praise and honor of all the saved.
Something of significance to the first readers of Revelation is happening. Jesus receives the sealed book of God’s will from the right hand of the Father who sits on His throne. This book contains the totality of God’s will for mankind from the beginning to the end, however, of importance to John and His brethren living under the immediate circumstances of the persecution, the focus is on their immediate future and the future of the Lord’s church.
“And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, Come.”
The Lamb and the creatures represent the same thing they did in earlier parts of the vision. Once their identity is established in a vision, it remains consistent throughout. Jesus is opening the first seal. A seal in this usage represents something that is hidden from view. The breaking or loosing of the seals in figurative for revealing the contents therein. Jesus is starting to reveal the contents of the scroll and the creation is telling John to come.
“And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and he that sat thereon had a bow; and there was given unto him a crown: and he came forth conquering, and to conquer.”
Horses were always a war animal, especially when someone is pictured as seated on them with weapons of war in their possession. White is the symbol of purity and righteousness so this white horse is symbolic of something good. In the old testament prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ we read:
“From him shall come forth the corner-stone, from him the nail, from him the battle bow, from him every ruler together. And they shall be as mighty men, treading down (their enemies) in the mire of the streets in the battle; and they shall fight, because Jehovah is with them; and the riders on horses shall be confounded. And I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph, and I will bring them back; for I have mercy upon them; and they shall be as though I had not cast them off: for I am Jehovah their God, and I will hear them” (Zechariah 10:4-6).
The cornerstone and the house of Judah is representative of Jesus Christ. Earlier in John’s vision, the lamb was also called the lion of the tribe of Judah. We know that Jesus Christ descended from the patriarch Judah (Hebrews 7:14). We see in the prophecy of Zechariah the conflict, the battle, and the battle bow. Jesus is pictured in Revelation as riding a white horse, carrying a bow and conquering. The prophecy of Zechariah 10:4-6 is fulfilled in Jesus Christ and confirmed in Revelation 6:2. The loosing of the first seal was the coming of the Gospel, the perfect plan of redemption for mankind, the law of Christ.
The crown given to Jesus was the crown of a winner indicating victory in the conflict as He went forth conquering and to conquer. Jesus overcame the world and lived a sinless life. He delivered the New Covenant, the law of Christ while He was on earth and after being crucified, He arose, conquered death and ascended to Heaven where He reigns as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords at the right hand side of God the Father.
“And when he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, Come. And another (horse) came forth, a red horse: and to him that sat thereon it was given to take peace from the earth, and that they should slay one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.”
The persecutor of the church is introduced. He is pictured riding on a red horse. The color red was associated with bloodshed in the minds of the first century Christians so the red horse here is a symbol of bloody persecution. The rider on the red horse was given the power to wage war and would cause the inhabitants of earth to kill each other. Swords are used in battle to kill one’s opponents, thus we see more reference here to the shedding of blood. Jesus had come on the white horse and had delivered the way of righteousness and established His church. Close upon His heels came the rider on the red horse who would persecute the Christians in the Lord’s church.
This persecution was nothing new to the Christians. “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake” (Matthew 24:9). “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12). The churches had already been warned earlier that persecution was coming and who was the cause of it in Revelation 2:10, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
“And when he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, Come. And I saw, and behold, a black horse; and he that sat thereon had a balance in his hand. And I heard as it were a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, A measure of wheat for a shilling, and three measures of barley for a shilling; and the oil and the wine hurt thou not.“
The color black is representative of darkness and oppression. Darkness came over the earth when Jesus died on the cross. The life of the light of the world was being extinguished and left darkness in its path. There were a lot of trade guilds in the Roman empire. These trade guilds were similar to the labor unions of today. One had to be a member of the trade guild in order to work in that profession. These trade guilds were idolatrous and would offer worship to various pagan gods and in to the Roman Emperor as well. A trade guild that properly worshipped the Emperor was well favored by the Empire and was allowed to conduct business unmolested. This presented a serious problem for the Christians. They could not be a part of these trade guilds and participate in their idolatrous practices. Not being a member of these trade guilds meant the could not get good jobs which resulted in leaving them poverty stricken.
Then to make matters worse, the imperial cults in charge of enforcing emperor worship in the empire had the power to deny the right to participate in any kind of trade to anyone refusing to bow down and worship the emperor. The main imperial cult that was responsible for this was called the “Concilia”.
A balance was a simple set of scales used to evenly and fairly weigh out such things as silver, gold and food. They were constructed with a simple beam with a balancing point or fulcrum in the center. They worked by placing an object with a known weight on one side of a beam and when the food or other substance to be weighed was placed on the other side, the equal weights on both sides would cause the whole to balance. Balances were an emblem justice in Biblical times, (Job 31:6; Psalms 62:9; Proverbs 11:1) and today as well. Our justice system in the US today is represented by a blindfolded woman holding a set of balances on which truth is weighed out fairly. Balances were used to weigh out food in exchange for money and a shilling was about a days wages for a days work for someone in the lowest working class. The first century Christians, incapable of working the better jobs found themselves struggling just to earn money enough to feed their families.
Oil and wine were luxuries beyond necessary needs. The Christians who were forced to work the lowliest jobs were unable to buy such things, restricted to only that which would sustain their lives and barely enough of that. They couldn’t afford oil, wine or other luxuries and those who were represented by the the rider on the black horse held it out in front of them, taunting them with it.
The rider in the black horse with the balance in his hands had the power to tip the scales against the Christians thus causing poverty and hardship for them. In Jesus’ letters to the churches of Asia, one of the things stressed the most was the forbidding of participating in the riotous public feasts where the meat sacrificed to pagan gods was eaten. Hunger and poverty was a powerful means of persecution in the first century and we see this vividly portrayed in the rider on the black horse carrying the balances.
“And when he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, Come. And I saw, and behold, a pale horse: and he that sat upon him, his name was Death; and Hades followed with him. And there was given unto them authority over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with famine, and with death, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
The color of dead flesh is pale. The rider on this horse is picturesque of our modern day grim reaper. His name is death and he is populating the realm of the dead with the souls of men, especially the righteous. The Christians were put to death by swords, they were starved out and they were slaughtered in the Roman arenas by gladiators and wild beasts. History records that Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on the Christians and used them as scapegoats in an attempt to detract the blame from himself. The executions of Christians was intended to be a spectacle. Those professing faith were often sewn up inside the skins of wild animals and thrown into the arena where dogs tore them apart. Others were covered in flammable material and burned alive to light Nero’s gardens at night while he rode around in his chariot among them. Some fell by the sword, others were beheaded, still others were tortured to death. All in all, this was the most widespread and brutal persecution of Christians to date. And it wasn’t over when Nero died. The Christians still had to deal with the persecution under the reign of Domitian, which was worse yet.
The forth part of the earth is interesting. To those living in the first century, the number four was symbolic of the world in which we live. In Revelation 20:8, all of the people on earth are represented by the nations “in the four corners of the earth.” so it is probable that the fourth part of the earth could well be the whole world. The persecution under Nero was bad in Rome, but under Domitian, it escalated to the whole empire. Christianity became illegal and the imperial cults were dispatched across the realm to stamp out Christians wherever they could be found.
To be fair to the scholarship of more learned men than myself, I feel compelled to point out the fact that many hold to Revelation 6:7-8 to be a judgment of God on Rome in some fashion. I disagree with this view of the fourth seal. Those following along with this study should be well advised to seek out for themselves the history and the facts and make a determination for themselves. It is my belief that seal number four is representative of the Empire, (world), wide persecution of the saints under the rule of imperial Rome. The judgments upon Rome were yet to come after the souls of the martyrs cried out for justice as we will see in the loosing of the fifth seal.
“And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of them that had been slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held”
In the vision of the opening of the fifth seal we see a picture of all the multiplied thousands of Christians who had been slain because of their faith. These are the Martyrs of Christ. These are the ones who sacrificed everything for the testimony of the word of God.
“Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when (men) shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12). “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:24).
“and they cried with a great voice, saying, How long, O Master, the holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And there was given them to each one a white robe; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little time, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, who should be killed even as they were, should have fulfilled (their course).”
The souls of those who had been slain wanted to know when justice would be served to their murderers. This indicates that those who are dead are conscious and aware of the circumstances around their death. The account of Lazarus and the rich man portrays the lost rich man as being in torment and begging for relief while Lazarus was being comforted in the company of Abraham.
They were pictured as being given white robes. As is often the case, the book of Revelation often explains itself: “And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, These that are arrayed in white robes, who are they, and whence came they? And I say unto him, My lord, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they that come of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The tribulation was the great persecution of the saints by the Roman Empire. And the white robes they wore were made spotless by the blood of Jesus. Obviously this is figurative, not to be taken literally. Blood would not wash anything white. The imagery here is of the sacrificial blood of Jesus washing away the blackness of sin from the redeemed. Clothing is the first thing one sees when they see someone. Sin can not be hidden from God, therefore the stains of sin are pictured as being out there in plain view, on their garments and not hidden beneath. Those who are clothed in white garments overcame, kept themselves pure and are clothed in righteousness. “But thou hast a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments: and they shall walk with me in white; for they are worthy. He that overcometh shall thus be arrayed in white garments; and I will in no wise blot his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels” (Revelation 3:4-5)
They were told to rest “until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, who should be killed even as they were, should have fulfilled (their course)”. The Christians who were killed were told that more would die before it was all over. This persecution had been going on for some time and it was going to continue for a while. God was not going to out and out destroy the Roman Empire in one blazing torrent of destruction. In the garden of Eden, God granted man the freewill choice to decide whether to obey or rebel and this choice has never been taken away. When someone really loves someone, they give them a choice. God has never forced mankind to follow Him and is longsuffering of rebellion. The Roman empire was enormous and it was populated with millions and millions of souls all of which were given plenty of opportunity to repent. God did not want any of them to be lost, not even the evil emperors who were slaughtering Christians. “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness; but is longsuffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). No one who died lost in the Roman empire will ever be able to say they didn’t get a fair chance to repent. “And the rest of mankind, who were not killed with these plagues, repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and the idols of gold, and of silver, and of brass, and of stone, and of wood; which can neither see, nor hear, nor walk: and they repented not of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts” (Revelation 9:20-21).
Of importance also is that while so many had been killed because of their faith, and that so many more were going to be killed, the Christian facing such tribulation has the promise from God that they will never be tempted beyond what they are able to withstand. Paul wrote, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as man can bear: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that ye may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). This is an important promise in that it teaches us that God knows individually what each of His children can endure and that Satan will not be permitted to force a child of God to sin against his or her ability to withstand. A way of escape is promised and to the faithful martyrs of Christ, this way of escape was mortal death. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalms 116:15).
“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 unto the earth, as a fig tree casteth her unripe figs when she is shaken of a great wind. ”
We are getting into a part of the Revelation now that would be dangerous to the Christians in the first century in the hands of their oppressors. This is the beginning of the judgment of the enemies of God and if they could understand what it meant, it would make life for the Christians all the more difficult. The Revelation would be rounded up and denied from circulation by the authorities. The imperial cults in charge of enforcing emperor worship would have immediately confiscated all traces of such a letter and would likely have immediately put to death anyone found possessing it. By now, the Christians reading it know that the key to understanding the message is the rest of the Bible. The first visions were easily associated with Jesus Christ and have become progressively more difficult as we get deeper into the letter. The faithful Christians reading it are easily taught in a progressive manner to look to the rest of scripture for the keys to unraveling the symbols and their meaning while those who have no knowledge whatsoever of Christ or of old testament scripture are left in utter bewilderment and confusion over it. They will not perceive any danger or threat to themselves, merely thinking the Christians who cherish this letter are merely a bunch of foolish idiots following after a confusing God who communicates in unintelligible ways.
The genius of God is so evident in how this letter is presented. The Revelation is given in such a way that only those familiar with the symbolism could understand it and at the same time pointing His faithful children into a study of His word for the things they don’t understand. God communicates to His afflicted saints while protecting them from their enemies and at the same time sends them through a journey of scripture unlike anything else could have. One can visualize the old grey headed Jewish Christians who had grown up under the old law setting with the younger ones studying this cherished message of hope from God by inspiration of John and combing through the old testament scriptures to show them what all these symbols meant. Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Jewish Christians had been dispersed all over the Roman Empire. There were plenty of people with the knowledge and ability to comprehend the Revelation and to teach those who could not how to understand it.
What’s the big picture so far? Laying aside the imagery of all the symbols and focusing on the activities, what is going on so far in the opening of the seals? The first seal was the coming of Jesus, the second seal represented the coming of the persecutor of the church, the third seal saw this persecution on a worldwide scale, the forth seal was the death of the saints by persecution, and the fifth seal was a picture of the slain crying out for the killing to end and for justice. Since this letter is addressed specifically to those living in the 1st century and with seven of their congregations having been addressed specifically and in consideration of the fact that the first sentence of the letter told them the events contained therein were going to “shortly come to pass“, we have no logical recourse but to conclude that this letter is in reference to their immediate situations and use that as the basis for how we understand it today and to make the appropriate applications to our lives as necessary.
The opening of the sixth seal brings the judgment of the persecutors of the church into view. The martyred saints had cried out for justice and were told to wait yet a “little time” and now in the opening of the sixth seal, we see God’s assurance to them that He will avenge their blood on those who inflicted their deaths and caused such hardship. By inspiration, John pictures a world in upheaval, with earthshaking natural events, the falling of earthly kings, the loss of the light of righteousness and the encroachment of darkness upon an evil oppressive people.
To illustrate this, inspiration draws heavily on old testament pictures and descriptions brought upon earlier heathen nations who had sought the destruction of God’s people. Isaiah used similar language to describe the downfall of Babylon, “Behold, the day of Jehovah cometh, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger; to make the land a desolation, and to destroy the sinners thereof out of it. For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light; the sun shall be darkened in its going forth, and the moon shall not cause its light to shine” (Isaiah 13:9-10). “She shall be visited of Jehovah of hosts with thunder, and with earthquake, and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire” (Isaiah 29:6). “I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering” (Isaiah 50:3).
The prophet Joel use these symbols to describe a future judgment against Israel in connection with the coming of the Messiah, “And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of Jehovah cometh” (Joel 2:30-31).
And in the new testament Jesus used this same symbolic language to foretell the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, “But immediately after the tribulation of those days 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).
Like many times before, the imagery of falling empires is pictured as the shaking of mountains, the falling of the stars, things turned to blood, loss of light, the encroachment of darkness, smoke, fire and desolation. This picture of the judgment of God coming on the Roman empire is nothing new in the minds of Christians familiar with similar events foretold in the old and new testament.
“And the heaven was removed as a scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.”
Here is more old testament imagery used to visualize the judgment of God bringing about the end of an empire. “And 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 fadeth from off the vine, and as a fading (leaf) from the fig-tree” (Isaiah 34:4). Mountains were symbols of permanence, strength and the foundations of the earth were going to be removed from their places. These are not literal mountains, but rather are used as a figure for the Roman Empire which seemed to be invincible and unconquerable in it’s power.
The islands represented to the 1st century people the outer reaches or most remote lands and far away possessions of a nation. At the fall of Tyre, God said the islands would shake, “Thus saith the Lord Jehovah to Tyre: shall not the isles shake at the sound of thy fall, when the wounded groan, when the slaughter is made in the midst of thee?” (Ezekiel 26:15) “Now shall the isles tremble in the day of thy fall; yea, the isles that are in the sea shall be dismayed at thy departure” (Ezekiel 26:18. The coming of judgment of God on the enemies of the Christians would shake the powers of the earth to their furthest reaches.
“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 that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:”
All the inhabitants of the earth from the slaves to the kings are stricken with terror as the judgment of God descends upon them. They will go anywhere to hide from the destruction associated with the fall of a great world power. There was always death and destruction and great fear when an empire was conquered. And this holds true today. Great world powers do not go quietly into oblivion. They are destroyed and the results are far reaching and devastating.
This is not a picture of the end times judgment as many today try and teach. These people have time to hide in the caves and the rocks of the mountains. There is not time to hide when Jesus returns for the final judgment. This return will be in the twinkling of an eye, (1 Corinthians 15:52), as a thief, in which day [singular] “in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). The judgment in view here is not the judgment of all creation, rather the judgment of the Roman empire.
“for the great day of their wrath is come; and who is able to stand?”
Jesus has opened the sixth seal which is the judgment of the enemies of all righteousness. Nothing can stop it, nothing can stand in the way. God is seated on His throne, in complete control and nothing can interfere or stand in the way of His judgments. The evil Roman Empire for all it’s vast wealth and power cannot hope to stand.
Who is able to stand? Nahum asked this same question as God’s judgment was about to fall on Nineveh. Once repented at the preaching of Jonah, but forsaking God and returning to her evil ways, she faced the same fate as the Roman Empire before the wrath of God.
“Jehovah is slow to anger, and great in power, and will by no means clear (the guilty): Jehovah hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebuketh the sea, and maketh it dry, and drieth up all the rivers: Bashan languisheth, and Carmel; and the flower of Lebanon languisheth. The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt; and the earth is upheaved at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein. Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken asunder by him.”
And I saw Jesus Christ, the lamb of God, the Lion of the tribe of Judah open the first of the book and the saved cried with a thunderous voice, “Come”. And I saw a vision of Jesus riding on a white horse with the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and He rode forth to conquer the enemies of righteousness and He prevailed.
And then I saw Jesus reveal the second part of the book and the creation around the throne said “Come”. And I saw a vision of someone riding on a bloody horse, who came to take peace from the earth and to compel mankind to slay one another. He was given great power to accomplish this from Satan.
And then Jesus revealed the third part of what is to come and I heard the voices of the creation around the throne say “Come”. Then I looked and saw a rider on a horse of darkness carrying a set of scales. And then I heard a voice coming out from those around the throne saying “A measure of wheat for a days wages and three measures of barley for the same. And don’t even bother with the oil and the wine because you can never afford it.”
And then Jesus, the Lamb of God revealed what was next and I again heard the voices of the creation say “Come”. When I looked I saw a rider on a pale ghostly horse and the rider’s name was death and the realm of the dead was filled in his wake. And he was given the freedom over all the four corners of the earth to slay mankind with swords, famine, wild beasts and other forms of killing.
And then the Lamb revealed the next part and I saw underneath His alter, all the souls of the righteous who were slain because of their faith to the testimony of Jesus. And they cried out in unison with a loud voice saying, “Oh Holy and True Father, how long before you judge our murderers and avenge our blood on their heads?” And each one of them was clothed in robes of righteousness and told that they must rest and be patient a while longer. For God’s righteous purpose is not yet fulfilled and many more of their faithful brethren will be slain and will join them before it’s done.
And then the lamb revealed the judgment of the enemies of the Christians. There were upheavals and the darkness on the earth was so thick, the sun could not shine through it. The moon shown only bloodshed and the leaders of the earth fell like green figs blown from their trees in a storm. The heavens revealed the coming judgment from God above and the unshakable powers and strongholds of the earth were moved out of their places to their furthest reaches.
And all the unbelieving kings of earth and all their princes and captains; everyone from the rich and powerful to the slaves will hide themselves wherever they can to try and escape. They will beg the mountains and the rocks to fall on them in order to hide themselves from the face of the wrath of God’s judgment. For their time of facing God’s wrath has come and who among them will be able to stand?