Part 4. The 7 seals (6:1—7:17)
4.1. First 4 seals: the 4 horsemen (6:1-8)
4.2. 5th seal: cry of the martyrs (6:9-11)
4.3. 6th seal: the great earthquake (6:12-17)
† The scroll is not actually open until all 7 seals are removed. So the content of the scroll begins with chapter 8 and the sounding of the 7 trumpets. The seals divide into 2 groups of four and three (a pattern that is continued in the trumpets and the bowls). They represent forces of God operating in judgment in the last days. The 4 horsemen are identified differently as:  “war and its attendant evils”—the war, strife, famine, and pestilence;  conquest, bloodshed, scarcity and death;  Christ, war (social evil), famine (ecological evil), and sickness (biological evil);  imperialism, communism, oil crisis, waves of plagues causing widespread deaths. Their release brings disasters to the earth.
† PICTURE: In the centre of the gigantic court of heaven, the Lamb starts opening the seals covering the scroll containing the destiny of the world. Events happen while the seals are opened. Four horsemen on horses of different colours appear. Each horseman causes widespread troubles on the earth below. On the opening of the 5th seal, loud voices of martyrs plead to God for justice. On the opening of the 6th seal, the first large scale disaster strikes the earth.
6:1 One of the living creatures calls out with a voice like thunder “Come!” commanding the first horseman to ride forth.
6:2 The first horseman rides on a white horse. He has a bow and a crown, as a conqueror bent on conquest. His possible identity: [a] Irenaeus (2nd century) identifies the rider with Christ and the white horse with the victorious progress of the gospel. The reason is that the white horse and rider in Rev 19 is Christ. However, a comparison of the two shows little in common. Also the phrase “there was given” is normally referred in Revelation to the divine permission granted to evil powers to carry out their wicked work. [b] He symbolizes the spirit of conquest and militarism. In the OT, the bow was a symbol of military power. The crown is a symbol of victory. [c] He symbolizes imperialism (of the 19th and early 20th century) which is characterized by conquest and victory. In addition, it often represents itself as conquest for a righteous cause, therefore in white.
6:3-4 The second horseman rides on a red horse. He is given a large sword and the power to take peace from the earth, allowing people to slay one another. His possible identity: [a] The red colour symbolizes slaughter and bloodshed. If the first seal suggested invasion from without, the second seal may refer to internal strife (dividing the citizens of a community among themselves). His mission is to remove peace from the earth and allow people to turn their destructive instincts upon one another (Zec 14:13). [b] He symbolizes communism (of the early to mid-20th century) which is characterized by conflicts and internal strife (such as internal purging in China) and large number of deaths (large sword). In addition, it often is represented with red colour.
6:5-6 The third horseman is on a black horse. He is given a pair of scales. One of the living creatures announces famine prices for wheat and barley, and warns against hurting the oil and wine. (Since the roots of the olive and vine go deeper, they would not be affected by a limited drought that would destroy the grain.) His possible identity: [a] The balance indicates a time of scarcity when the basic commodities of life are measured out at greated inflated prices. The denarious was a Roman silver coin equivalent to the daily wage of a working man. For a day’s work a man could buy only enough wheat for himself or the less nutritious barley for three. The price appears to be 10-12 times what it should have been. [b] He symbolizes the oil crisis (in the 1970s) when the shortage of oil vastly increased the price of oil and consequently everything else. The ever-increasing price of oil still causes economic crisis. In addition, the colour black fits the colour of oil.
6:7-8 The fourth horseman rides on a grey horse, the colour of a corpse. The rider is called Death, and following behind is his inseparable companion Hades. His possible identity: [a] He symbolizes disasters that cause large number of deaths. The 4 specific ways in which one quarter of mankind are killed are sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague (Eze 14:21). [b] He symbolizes worldwide disasters in the 20th to the 21st centuries. Large scale wars have occurred in the past century and continue even now (Middle East, central Africa, South America, Southeast Asia). Famine occurs frequently in many countries, such as Sudan, Ethiopia, North Korea, even in China during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. Plagues occur periodically, such as SARS and bird flue. One of the fast spreading and still untreatable plague is AIDS. Wide animals may symbolize uncontrolled people without reason, such as terrorists.
The fourth seal affects “a fourth of the earth” and the trumpets destroy a third (8:7,8,10,12), and the bowls destroy completely. This shows the increasing intensity of the 3 cycles of judgment.
6:9 The fifth seal reveals an altar in heaven (probably near God’s throne) under which are the souls of the faithful martyrs. In OT ritual sacrifice, the blood of the bullock was poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering (Lev 4:7; Ex 29:12). This blood contained the life, or soul, of the flesh (Lev 17:11). The untimely deaths of the martyrs on earth are from God’s perspective a sacrifice on the altar of heaven. Now their souls are kept in safety near the throne of glory.
Their death was for God’s Word and for testimony of their faith. Jesus teaches that to be a disciple, a man must “take up his cross” (Mt 10:38; 16:24) meaning not only that he must bear the burden of persecution but also that he must be willing to die in martyrdom.
6:10 It appears that the plea for vindication is a marked contrast to the prayer of the first martyr Stephen (Ac 7:60). The idea of divine vindication is common throughout the OT (Ps 79:10). The main difference is between revenge and retribution. As God is totally separate from all evil, and therefore will not act in revenge which comes out of bitterness. However, God will repay and punish the wicked for their actions. It is a hunger for righteousness and the victory of truth. God will vindicate the martyrs as a retribution.
The term “inhabitants of the earth” in Revelation is a designation for the human race in hostility to God (3:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8,12; 17:2; 17:8).
6:11 White robes are symbols of blessedness and purity. Some believe these are spiritual or glorified bodies that are given to the martyrs ahead of time as a token of special honour.
The martyrs are told to wait a little longer until their number is completed. There are other martyrs who will be killed before the end. God governs the world according to a predetermined time schedule. “Until their number is completed” is another way of saying that “until God’s appointed time has arrived.” It does not mean that God decided on a random number and that He will wait for the completion of this number.
6:12 The sixth seal is a response to the question of the martyrs. The beginning of the great cosmic disturbance is the answer that their deaths will certainly be vindicated.
The earthquake was a regular feature of divine visitation (Ex 19:18; Isa 2:19). The sun turns black like rough cloth made from the hair of a black goat; such cloth was worn in times of mourning. The moon turns red probably as a result of whatever in the atmosphere that caused the sun to be darkened.
6:13 The stars of heaven are pictured as falling to the earth. These may be comets. It is one of the signs that immediately precede the coming of the Son of man (Mt 13:25-26).
6:14 The sky will recede like an unrolled papyrus scroll, should the hand holding the scroll open is lifted, would roll quickly back. Every mountain and island was displaced. The scene is sufficient to drive people in terror to hide.
6:15 The day of the Lord will be a day of terror for the unrighteous. No one can escape God’s judgment. “Who can stand when He appears?...for He will be like a refiner’s fire?” (Mal 3:2; also Isa 13:7-8; Joel 2:11). At God’s judgment, there is no differences between people from different ranks. No money or power can save people from God’s wrath. The 7 groups stress the idea of completeness.
6:16 The people of earth are so terrified that they flee to the mountains and cry for death rather than standing before the judgment of God and the wrath of the Lamb. Better death by a crushing avalanche than face God. For the non-unbeliever, the terror of death is not only for the darkness of the unknown fate but also for the awareness of the coming judgment.
6:17 The wrath of God is a common theme in NT teaching. It is both a present reality (Ro 1:18) and an eschatological event (Rev 19:15). It is not God’s personal vindictiveness. It is rather the response of God’s holiness to persistent and impenitent wickedness which we see everyday and everywhere in the world.
† Today, in western democratic and free contries, we see frequent attempts by secular people to expel God from the public square. On the other hand, in Muslim and communist countries, we see Christians persecuted and killed. Many Christians ask the same question that the martyrs asked, “How long?” We need to pray that Christ will come back soon but at the same time, we need to accept that God has His own optimal timing and He controls human destiny.
† It is possible that some of the events activated by the breaking of the seals are already under way today. We need to feel the urgency of spreading the gospel and serving God in these last days.