Revelation: The Culmination of Scripture – 15 (“The Scroll and the Lamb – 01”)
· Covenantal Curse: To understand Rev.6, one must understand something of the concept of the Biblical covenantal curse. The Godhead made a covenant with Israel, and had promised blessing upon obedience, and cursing upon disobedience. These blessings and curses are well stated in Lev.26 and Deut.27-28.
In Deut.27, the tribes of Israel were divided: half was sent to stand on Mount Gerizim, and half on Mount Ebal. These tribes then had to call out the curses for disobedience to the covenant to each other, across the valley, as a reminder of just how seriously God took his covenant with them.
We know from the Old Testament that the Jews continually broke their covenant with God. They were judged time and time again for their disobedience, and they usually learned their lesson for a short while. During the ministry of Jesus Christ, He made it very clear that the Israelites had broken the covenant with God for the last time, and that God had thus withdrawn His covenant with them to establish a new covenant with another people ~ “Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” (Matt.21:42-44). We therefore see, that many of the judgements recorded in Revelation are the fulfilment of the covenantal cursing in the Old Testament. Jesus Christ was about to institute a new covenant with a new people, and He must first remove the old covenant, which was done in the destruction of the temple and the holy city in 70 A.D. ~ “He does away with the first in order to establish the second” (Hebr.10:9b).
• The Seals- and Trumpet Judgments: Another point we should consider before we turn to the opening of the seals, is the way in which the seal and trumpet judgments are arranged, for they clearly parallel each other. Each of these series of judgments begins with an opening scene explaining the judgments to come. In Revelation 5:1-14, the opening scene has to do with the worthiness of the Lamb to open the scroll, while in Revelation 8:2-5 the scene preceding the trumpet judgments has to do with the seven angels who respond to the prayers of the saints.
There are seven seals and seven trumpets, indicating that when these judgments are complete, God’s wrath will have come to its end, having been poured out against the earth and its inhabitants in all of its fury. When both the seal and trumpet judgments begin, six separate cycles of judgment unfold, followed by a dramatic interlude in which God’s care for his people is reaffirmed, before the seventh and final judgment begins. In both cases the cycle of seven judgments bring us to Christ’s return and to the end of the age – the perfection and fullness symbolised by the number seven.
Therefore, while not predicting a specific war, or a specific famine, or a specific earthquake, or specific events in Israel, in these cycles of judgment Revelation depicts all future wars, all future famine and plague, and all the upheavals of the earth as judgments of God pointing to a final judgment yet to come.
As Christians, who view these matters through the eyes of faith, we should not be alarmed when such events occur, in fact, we should expect them. These things remind us that creation has been corrupted by sin and that the world groans under our feet until the day of redemption. But one day, Christ will return to remove the curse and renew the heavens and the earth. For there is no solution to human suffering and the tumult of the nations except for God’s direct and final intervention in the person of His Son, the very thing to which all of these signs and cycles of judgment point us.
2. SCRIPTURE READING:
Rev.6:1-17 ~ “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!” 2 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. 3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 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. 5 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. 6 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!” 7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 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. 9 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. 10 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?” 11 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. 12 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, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 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, 16 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, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
3. THE FIRST SEAL (vss.1-2):
The Lamb is now central in this series of visions, and for the opening of the first four seals the action follows a set pattern. After the Lamb opens a seal, one of the four living creatures, shouts ~ “Come!” and a horseman comes thundering out of heaven. The fifth seal reveals God’s martyrs (Afrikaans: “martelare”), awaiting their final redemption, and the sixth seal shows the end of the age as the dreaded day of the Lord arrives. The seventh seal is opened (8:1) after a brief interlude (Afrikaans: “tussenpose”).
The imagery used in this vision that John received, though used in a different way, is adapted from the angelic horsemen sent by God to patrol the earth in Zech.1:8-11 and 6:1-8.
John has a prime view of what is happening – the Lamb (i.e. Jesus Christ) is opening the scroll (vs.1), but before He can do that, He has to open the seven wax seals that sealed this scroll. The moment the Lamb opened the first seal, the four living creatures say with a voice like a thunder, “Come.” John is told to come and see those things contained under each seal, and to write about it in a book, and send it to the seven churches of Asia Minor. This apocalypse (the complete and final destruction of the earth) was to warn these churches of impending danger.
With each of the first four seals there is a horse and rider, though with each seal something different is represented (vs.2). The horse, again and again in structure, is a symbol of strength and an animal of war and battle. There is a remarkable picture of this in Job 39:19-25 ~ “Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with a mane? 20Do you make him leap like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrifying. 21He paws in the valley and exults in his strength; he goes out to meet the weapons. 22He laughs at fear and is not dismayed; he does not turn back from the sword. 23Upon him rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin. 24With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground; he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet. 25When the trumpet sounds, he says ‘Aha!’ He smells the battle from afar, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”
When the Lamb opens the first seal, John sees a white horse (vs.2a) and its rider goes out to conquer with a bow in his hand and a crown on his head (vs.2b). With the bow he strikes far and wide. Having a crown, this victory is sure and his reward secure. The victory is already secured on the basis of God’s foreordination. Because this rider is riding on a white horse many people conclude that the rider must be Christ. But this cannot be, because one rider cannot be a literal person, whilst the other three are mere personifications. Christ will be returning to the earth as a conqueror not at the beginning of the Tribulation but at the end of the Tribulation. Also, the riders on the other horses obviously relate to destruction and judgment which precede the second coming of Christ by some period of time.
A better interpretation therefore, is that the conqueror mentioned here is the future world ruler, sometimes referred to as Antichrist, though Revelation does not use this term. He is probably the same person as the ruler of the people mentioned in Daniel 9:26 ~ “And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed.” This ruler has a bow without an arrow, indicating that the world government which he establishes is accomplished without warfare. The future world government begins with a time of peace but is soon followed by destruction ~ “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thes.5:3). In general, the seals, trumpets, and bowls of divine wrath signal the terrible judgments of God on the world at the end of the Age, climaxing in the second coming of Christ.
We must also remember that this rider on the white horse has a crown on his head. The word for crown in Revelation 6:2 is “stephanos,” which means “the victor’s crown,” but the crown that Jesus Christ wears in Rev.19:12, is “diadema,” “the kingly crown.” Antichrist, could never wear the “diadem,” because it belongs only to the Son of God. This then is another proof that this first rider on the white horse, is not Christ.
4. THE SECOND SEAL (vss.3-4):
With the breaking of the second seal (vs.3), John is again commanded, and this time by the second of the beings, to come; it is therefore presupposed, that after the vision of the first seal had ended, and the first image of a horseman had vanished, he had again withdrawn, and taken his original place.
A red horse now appears with a rider empowered to take peace from the earth. In contrast with the first rider who has a bow without an arrow this second rider carried a large sword. This again was a picture of political power with the rider as the world ruler.
As already mentioned, the Antichrist’s conquest begins in peace, but soon he exchanges the empty bow for a sword (vs.4). The colour red is often associated with terror and death: e.g. the red dragon (Rev. 12:3), the red beast (Rev. 17:3). It is a picture of widespread and terrible bloodshed, as we see in vs.4 ~ “so that people should slay one another.” This also reminds us of Mark.13:7-8 ~ “And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.” War has been a part of man’s experience since Cain killed Abel, so this image would speak to believers in every age, reminding them that God is ultimately in control, even though He is not responsible for the lawless deeds of men and nations.
This rider is also given a crown (a symbol of political power) by God to execute His judgments.
5. THE THIRD SEAL (vss.5-6):
Again, after Christ opened the third seal (vs.5), the living creature told John to come forward and look. John sees a black horse with a pair of scales in his hands. The colour black is often connected with famine and therefore, the black colour of the horse speaks of famine and death. A pair of scales are also the symbol of scarcity of provisions, when e.g. bread will be sold by weight.
The black horse conveys a message of distress, the beginning of terror in the approaching calamity. It is parallel with Joel 2:5-6 and 2:30-32, with the picture of anguish and terror is seen, and where famine is rampant. Daniel was told of the great dissolution (Afrikaans: “onbinding”) in Dan.12:1 and Christ confirms the statement of Daniel in Matt.24:15 ~ “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand).”
During this time of tribulation, which will be a time of famine and death, bread will be sold for a denarius (vs.6). A denarius, the coin mentioned here in the Greek text, was a day’s wage earned by a common labourer and that was about 17 cents per day, which was seen as good pay for a day’s work. In almost every case where the word occurs in the New Testament it is connected with the idea of a liberal or large amount. But, if you have to pay a full day’s salary for a bread, such a worker would not have been able to afford to feed his family. The result would have been widespread hunger and starvation. This reminds us of the prophecy in Ez.4:16-17 ~ “Moreover, he said to me, “Son of man, behold, I will break the supply of bread in Jerusalem. They shall eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and they shall drink water by measure and in dismay. I will do this that they may lack bread and water, and look at one another in dismay, and rot away because of their punishment.”
The reference to the olive oil and the wine is an indication of the fact that the necessities (wheat and barley) are sold for exorbitant prices, but luxury items (oil and wine) are unaffected. This may point to the role greed can play in intensifying the effects of a famine.
6. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION:
Taken as a whole, chapter 6 is one of the most important and pivotal chapters in the entire book. It describes the first six seals (the white horse; the red horse; a black horse; a pale horse; the martyred souls and an earthquake with the transformation of the heavens) and also introduces the seventh seal (the 144,000) which consists of and introduces the seven trumpets and the seven bowls of the wrath of God in chapters 8–9; 16.
The contents of chapter 6 should put to rest the false teachings that God, being a God of love, could not judge a wicked world. It also raises the important question contained in the closing words of vs.17 ~ “Who can stand?” Only those who have availed themselves of the grace of God before the time of judgment will be able to stand when God deals with the earth in this final period of great distress. On the other hand, and this could easily be seen as the key verse of chapter 6, also found in vs.17, namely that those who reject grace now will not repent when judgment comes. And then it will be too late for them!
Having heard John’s words, we as believers know how the redemptive-historical drama will turn out. Christ, not the Beast, wins in the end! Therefore, when we are persecuted by the state, when we are hated because we are followers of Christ, when the earth shakes beneath our feet, when war comes, this is not a sign that God is indifferent to us and unable to help. This points us ahead to the fact that one day, God will bring all things into submission to Christ. In fact, these successive judgments are rehearsals of the final judgment yet to come.
Let us not forget that since God has poured out his wrath upon His own dear Son, when Jesus suffered for our sins on Calvary’s cross, we need never fear that final judgment yet to come, that terrible day to which the seven-seal judgment point us. For wars and rumours of wars, earthquake, famine and pestilence are the signs that all is not right in the world and that “one day” Jesus Christ himself will return to raise the dead, judge the world and make all things new. Only then will there be peace on earth, and only then will creation no longer groan under our feet!
Together with John in the second last verse of the Bible, we can also cry out ~ “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev.22:20).