Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.
When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.
When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”
When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe 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.
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Understanding And Applying the Text
The Lamb, that is, Christ breaks the seals on the scroll. This was the scroll taken from the right hand of God. And it is only the Lamb who was worthy to break the seals. There were seven seals. This chapter covers the breaking of the first six seals.
This chapter has a lot of popular mythology surrounding it. Here we read about the four horsemen. of the apocalypses. A lot of mythology exists around this image. Writers have used the image to frighten and to mock.
But if we look back into history we see a time in the late 60’s A.D. where the imagery fits like a glove. John’s apocalypses predicted this so well should encourage us. It confirms God is in control.
Dispensationalists understand the four horsemen coming to earth to judge humanity. They see it only as a future event. They refer to it as the beginning of the great tribulation. They either ignore or are ignorant of history.
To what could these images refer? If we only look forward, we can read almost anything into the text. And many have. In fact, I hesitated to study Revelation for that reason. I feared all the silliness and bad theology I learned as a dispensationalist.
If we look at history we see what God has done. We see how has God fulfilled His promises. These things He said would happen soon. And they did. They came soon. Christ predicted with amazing accuracy. This should be something we use in apologetics. It should not be something we have to explain away.
Chris broke the first seal. The first creature commands, “Come!” Out comes a rider on a white horse. The rider had a bow. And was given a crown. A bow was a weapon of distance. The archer could stand far off. The rider was given a crown.
This describes the opening of the Jewish War to a tee. The war started under Nero’s reign in A.D. 66. Vespasian was the commanding general. The war began in Galilee, a good distance from Jerusalem. Thus the representation of the bow, a distance weapon. The senate sent Vespasian to Israel to conquer the Jews and put down a Jewish rebellion. He was brutal in his conquest. And the Senate called him back to Rome and crowned Cesar. He turned the conquest over to his son Titus.
Christ broke the second seal. The second creature commanded, “Come!” Out came a rider on the bright red horse. The rider was permitted to take peace from the earth.
This symbol is also clear if we look back into history. War has begun. The white horse is now red. The color of blood. The bow is now a sword. The war came to Jerusalem. And the destruction was great. There was no peace on the earth.
James Stuart Russel notes in his book The Parousia “the earth” is not a reference to the whole earth. Rather it is a reference to the land of Palestine. Both Strong’s and Thayer’s Greek dictionaries support this idea. This is not a reference to the whole earth. It is a reference to the land of Palestine.
John went on to say, “so that people should slay one another.” As the Romans advanced on Jerusalem the Jews turned on each other. There was both a civil war and a foreign war.
Christ broke the third seal. The third creature commanded, “Come!” A rider on a black horse appears. This rider is holding a pair of scales. John hears a voice from the midst of the four creature saying a quart of wheat would cost a day’s wage. And three quarts of low-quality grain would cost a day’s wage.
This is common biblical imagery for famine. This predicted a great famine. Josephus recorded the vast and devastating fame. This famine as a result of the war. The Romans were brutal. The Nazis had nothing on them.
But the comment about the oil and wine seems strange. That does not seem to fit the prediction of a great famine. Josephus records the historical record on that as well.
Josephus records the actions of a partisan named John of Gischala. He terrorized the people in the last days of Jerusalem. John of Gischala took the sacred vessels from the temple. He then committed another act of sacrilege.
“Accordingly, drawing the sacred wine and oil, which the priests kept for pouring on the burnt-offerings, and which was deposited in the inner temple, he distributed them among his adherents, who consumed without horror more than a hin in anointing themselves and drinking. And here I cannot refrain from expressing what my feelings suggest. I am of opinion that had the Romans deferred the punishment of these wretches, either the earth would have opened and swallowed up the city, or it would have been swept away by a deluge, or have shared the thunderbolt of the land of Sodom. For it produced a generation far more ungodly than those who were thus visited; for through the desperate madness of these men the whole nation was involved in their ruin.”
This serves to explain the use of the word translated “do no harm.” The Greek word is adikeō. It means to be unjust or do wrong. This could be morally, socially, or physically. Another translation could be, “See you do not deal unjustly with the oil and the wine.” John’s act was unjust in the sense of wanton waste.
Christ broke the fourth seal and the fourth creature commands, ”Come!” Out comes a pale horse. The rider’s name was Death. Hades was following him. This rider was given the authority to over a fourth of the land. He had the authority to kill. He could kill with sword, famine, pestilence, or wild animals.
These were the same horrors as before. This time intensified. Death and Hades follow the horrors and war and famine. We recoil at the acts of the Nazis. As we should. But the brutality of Vespasian and his son Titus was incomparable. I refer you to The War of the Jews by Josephus. So you can get a sense of what happened.
Christ broke the fifth seal. Those martyred for Christ 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?” God gave them a white robe and told to be patient. They needed to wait a little longer. There were more martyrs to join them.
The scene changes from war, famine, and carnage to the temple of God. The martyrs Jerusalem killed were crying out. They appealed to God’s justice.
But why are they crying out? Was not God reigning his judgment on the land? If God had reigned His judgment the cry of the martyrs makes no sense.
Other than the first rider the text does not mention the rider as active. The first rider was conquering. The remaining riders had the power and authority. But they had not yet begun dispensing God’s vengeance. In other words, the Jewish war had begun by not yet consummated when the martyrs cried out.
The imagery is one of a king preparing for battle. In ancient warfare, kings would prepare for battle by lining up their troops. The same is true today. Generals positions their troops in preparation for a coming battle. God was setting the stage for the coming battles.
The martyrs cry out “How long…” God’s answered they were to wait a little longer. If the four horsemen were on earth reigning judgment that question was irrelevant. The horsemen were ready for battle. They had taken their place. They were ready but the battle had not begun.
With Christ’s breaking the sixth seal came catastrophic events. “There was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”
The sun, moon, and stars are often used to refer to governing authorities. This is a common literary form in the Bible. It often talks about the removal or diminishing of governing authorities this way. In this passage, we see these authorities shaken by the presence of God. The apocalyptic reference to earthquakes meant that God was intervening. God was acting in judgment to remove established authorities. He was replacing them with His authority.